Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Lost Religion of Bharat

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When we look at our past we think that in the old times people always blindly believed in the existence of God and it is only in the modern times, due to the influence of western scientific thought that people have started doubting the existence of God. However, this is far from the truth. People have doubted the existence of God at all times. Bharat has a long tradition of Nastik religions, Jainism is an example of such a tradition, which survives even now. So as we dive into the details of different Bharat iya philosophical schools, let us start with such heterodox traditions. In Bharat ‘s philosophy we have 5 major heterodox philosophies which are Nastik by nature. 

Historical Background

The founder of Ajivika philosophy was Makkali Gosala, although some say that he was just a leader of the Ajivika sect while the founder of this philosophy is unknown. According to our current knowledge, we associate the name Makkhali Gosala with this philosophy. He was the contemporary of Gautam Buddha and Mahavira. Jain texts mention that Makkali Gosala was a disciple of Mahavira for 6 years after which they parted ways and Gosala founded his own sect.

During the early period of Jain and Buddhist traditions, Ajivika philosophy was their major rival. Ajivika philosophy reached its zenith in terms of popularity during the period of Mauryan Emperor Bindusara who was the father of Emperor Asoka. After Asoka embraced Buddhism Ajivika philosophy declined in popularity, although it was able to survive for the next 1600 years in the southern states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, finally coming to an end in the 14th century AD.

Now keep in mind that as of now, we have no direct texts of the Ajivika philosophy to refer to. The original texts of Ajivika philosophy might have existed in the past but are now lost, and we know about their principles only through the criticism of this philosophy in the texts of other Indian traditions. Therefore, we must judge this philosophy very carefully because the information we have about it comes from biased sources that were already against this philosophy. With that said let us now dive onto what this philosophy taught.

What we know about Ajivikas

Both Jain and Buddhist texts mention that Ajivika philosophy was based on the concept of Niyati. If you understand Hindi then you know that Niyati means fate. Ajivika philosophy therefore believed in absolute determinism of one’s fate. In other words, cosmic principles predetermine everything that happens in this universe and manifest it. Whatever has happened in the past and whatever is going to happen in the future is all prewritten and determines our destiny.

This belief in determinism has a significant influence on Indian thought even today. As an example there is a popular saying in Bharat, “Jaako rakhe saaiyan maar sake na koi” it comes from directly from this deterministic thought of the Ajivikas. Where it is said that if someone is destined not to die then nobody can kill that person. In other words one’s destiny is predetermined. This belief in absolute determinism definitely helped Ajivikas to cope with stress of daily life however it also caused Ajivikas to end up in a fatalistic territory.

Fatalism

Let us first see how Ajivikas came to the conclusion of absolute determinism. Ajivikas as such did not believe in the existence of an all-powerful God. Instead they believed in the theory of Atoms, which was quite similar to the Hindu orthodox Nyaya-Vaisheshika philosophy that we will be discussing in the future. According to Ajivika atomic theory, atoms make up everything in this universe, including our soul. NOTE: This is very important; while other Indian philosophies also believed in the existence of atoms, they did not believe that the soul is made up of any substance or material. Ajivikas believed that even our soul has a material form.

Ajivikas claimed that the quality of everything comes out through the organisation of these atoms. The cosmic forces of this universe predetermine the nature of these atoms and the way they organize themselves. The Ajivikas also believed that every change that happens in this universe occurs through the rearranging of these atoms under the influence of the cosmic forces. Ajivikas argued that since the cosmic forces of this universe predetermine all the changes happening in this universe, they predetermine all changes.

Since atoms make up our soul and predetermined behavior, living beings cannot have free will. Now, the problem lies in this: if we do not have free will, then we cannot hold ourselves responsible for our actions, and thus there is no Karma. If there is no Karma then there is no benefit of good behaviour and no penalty for bad behaviour. As you can see this puts Ajivika philosophy in direct conflict with appropriate ethics of a well-functioning society.

A Note of Caution

Now here I should insert a note of caution. As mentioned previously everything that we know about the Ajivikas is through the critique of their philosophy by other traditions and therefore we should be very cautious in judging them. If we were to take Ajivika philosophy, as others mention it, then we can see that an Ajivika must be nihilistic.

Since an Ajivika does not believe in the karmic law, he will seek as much pleasure as he could and will see no point in living an ascetic life. Historical records mention that on the contrary Ajivikas lived a simple ascetic life. This is a clear indication that we do not have a full picture of Ajivika philosophy. Historical records mention that Ajivikas did have their own scriptures at some time in Bharat, but they have now lost all of those. We will only be able to learn the true nature of their philosophy if by chance we are able to rediscover their scriptures.

We can decipher the true nature of Ajivika philosophy from its name, which literally means livelihood. Considering that Ajivikas lived a simple life and believed in absolute fate, it seems that Ajivikas proposed to live a simple life just for the sake of living and accepting one’s fate without any qualms, instead of worrying about some vague goals such as moksha or nirvana. In Bharat ‘s modern times, when Jainism and Buddhism are well-established religions with Mahavira and Buddha now given the status of Gods, it seems rather difficult for us to humanize them and see them as struggling leaders fighting for the supremacy of their own sects. Thinking about lost sects such as Ajivika to a certain extent helps us in developing that perspective and therefore makes us more open minded.

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