Gośāla Maskarīputra, Founder of Ājīvika Sect, Dies Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Gośāla Maskarīputra founded a religious and philosophical sect of radical determinists, during the same era when the Jain and Buddhist religions were being established.

Summary of Event

The story of the death of Gośāla Maskarīputra (also known as Gośāla Mankhaliputta, Markali, and Goshala Maskariputra) is recorded in the Bhagavati Sūtra (c. fourth century c.e.; Sudharma Svami’s Bhagavati Sutra 1973), a text of the Jain religion written probably about eight hundred years after Gośāla died. Because the tale was recorded so long after the event and because the Jains regarded the Ājīvika sect founded by Gośāla as a heresy, many of its details should therefore be regarded with a great deal of skepticism. Vardhamāna Gośāla Maskarīputra

The historical period of Gośāla’s life and death was a time of great social and religious change in India. About a century before Gośāla’s time, kingdoms and republics began to rise in India, replacing the earlier tribal organization of society. The emergence of stable, organized political institutions was accompanied by increasing trade and commerce. Social change led to philosophical and religious questions about the nature of life and the place of humanity in the universe. The old Vedantic faith of India, which would develop into the religious tradition that eventually became known as Hinduism, was unsatisfying to many people. New religious teachings began to offer fresh answers. One of these teachings, Buddhism, spread from India through much of Asia and became a major world faith. Another, Jainism, continues to exist today as a minority religion in India. The Ājīvika faith was a third teaching that survived for about a thousand years after its founder but eventually disappeared or was dissolved into Hinduism. There are references to the Ājīvikas and to Gośāla Maskarīputra in the texts of both the Buddhists and the Jains, but the Jain writings give the most attention to the sect. This is apparently because of the close connections between the Jains and the Ājīvikas during the early years of the two teachings.

In the Jain version of Gośāla’s end, the founder of the Ājīvikas died as a result of a conflict with Vardhamāna, the great teacher of the Jain faith. According to the Bhagavati Sūtra, the two religious leaders had been companions earlier in their lives. This Sanskrit language text tells us that Vardhamāna was living in a shed at the village of Nalanda when Gośāla went to the Jain sage and begged to be allowed to become Vardhamāna’s disciple. After several rejections, Gośāla was accepted, and the two holy men wandered together for six years. During their wanderings and adventures together, Gośāla was impressed by Vardhamāna’s magical powers and wanted to acquire these kinds of powers for himself. After observing Vardhamāna’s ascetic practices, Gośāla sat down by a lake facing the sun, with his hands raised above his head. He remained in this position for six months, eating only a handful of beans every three days. At the end of this period, Gośāla is said to have acquired the magical powers he desired. Afterward, the two parted ways, becoming rival teachers.

Gośāla apparently lived for another sixteen years after acquiring his powers, establishing his headquarters in a pottery shop in the town of Savatthi. His teachings attracted a number of disciples among the seekers of his age. The disciples who gathered around him at Savatthi were the first of the Ājīvika communities that were to spread and persist long after his death. The meaning of the term ājīvika is unclear, but many scholars believe that it can be translated as “one who follows the ascetic way.”

Toward the end of his life, in the account given by the Bhagavati Sutra, Gośāla was visited at Savatthi by six holy men known as the disacaras. This is apparently a reference to a conference or council held at Savatthi by Gośāla and his major disciples. The Ājīvika doctrines seem to have been discussed and refined at this conference, and it probably began the process of assembling the Ājīvika scriptures from earlier writings. These scriptures have been lost in the centuries since the disappearance of the Ājīvika religion, but selections from them have survived as disapproving quotations in Buddhist and Jain texts.

Gośāla is supposed to have visited Vardhamāna not long after the meeting with the six holy men. The Ājīvika sage was angry because the Jain leader had talked about Gośāla’s lowly birth and about shameful incidents during the time the two were together. Gośāla threatened Vardhamāna with magic, but Vardhamāna simply answered that the magic would only affect Gośāla himself, who would soon be stricken with fever and die.

Gośāla made his way back to his shed and fell into the foretold fever. During his sickness, he is said to have proclaimed some of the last doctrines of his religion. He then gave instructions for an elaborate funeral, during which his followers would proclaim the death of the last tīrthaṅkara, or ford-maker. Before dying, though, Gośāla repented and announced that he was a fraud and that Vardhamāna was the true ford-maker. The Ājīvika leader told his followers to tie a rope around his foot and to drag his body through the streets of Savatthi, praising Vardhamāna. The followers, though, only drew a map of Savatthi on the floor of the pottery shop and, after dragging the body over the map, held funeral celebrations according to the original instructions before cremating the body.

The tale of Gośāla’s repentance and death-bed conversion should be regarded with skepticism because it is the Jain version. Still, it does indicate that the Jains and the Ājīvikas had once been closely connected, possibly even members of the same sect, and that there was some bitterness when the two went their separate ways.

Both the Ājīvikas and Jains held that humankind had been visited by twenty-three tīrthaṅkaras who brought sacred truth. However, the Jains maintained that the twenty-fourth and last tīrthaṅkara was their sage, Vardhamāna, while the Ājīvikas believed that Gośāla was the twenty-fourth tīrthaṅkara. The Jains believed that the human spirit had to struggle for salvation from the material world and that the spirit could conquer the material world by practicing nonviolence and by renouncing the passions and the bodily senses. By contrast, the Ājīvikas believed that nothing existed except the material world, which was locked into an unbreakable chain of cause and effect. The basic principle of Gośāla’s teaching was the concept of niyata, which is translated as “order” or “fate.” In his view, the universe was a system of interconnected forces in which every event happened by necessity. Gośāla accepted the common Indian idea of the rebirth of souls. However, although other Indian religions hold that rebirth is influenced by good or bad actions, Gośāla maintained that all sin and virtue had no effect. One’s past, present, and future births and all other events were simply the working out of a completely determined destiny. It was not simply that one’s will could change nothing. Free will itself was an illusion. Every individual was destined to go through a chain of births before ultimately ending in extinction. Faced with this utter powerlessness, the Ājīvikas believed that all one could do was to follow a life of simplicity and renunciation.

Significance

Communities of Ājīvika believers continued to exist in India for about a thousand years after Gośāla’s death. Although the Ājīvikas diappeared by about the fourteenth or fifteenth century, many scholars believe that they left influences on some of the Hindu sects of southern India. Gośāla Maskarīputra therefore left a heritage that occupies a notable, although minor, place in the religious history of India.

The life and death of Gośāla Maskarīputra are also significant for any study of the intellectual history of a critical period in ancient India. Gośāla’s teachings illustrate the variety of philosophical and religious perspectives that flourished when Buddhism and Jainism appeared. His thorough determinism, his materialism, and his rejection of the idea of free will contrast sharply with the gods and rituals of India’s earlier religious beliefs. These teachings of Gośāla also have much in common with many modern scientific world views.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Basham, A. L. History and Doctrines of the Ājīvikas: A Vanished Indian Religon. 1951. Reprint. New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass, 1981. An essential work on the Ājīvikas that contains an extensive discussion of the Buddhist and Jain versions of the life of Gośāla.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Charoborti, Haripada. Asceticism in Ancient India: In Brahmanical, Buddhist, Jaina, and Ājīvika Societies (From the Earliest Times to the Period of Sankaracharya). Columbia, Mo.: South Asian Books, 1993. A useful work on the religious communities of ancient India and one of the few that devotes substantial attention to the Ājīvikas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dundas, Paul. The Jains. New York: Routledge, 2002. An excellent book on the history and practice of Jainism.
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