By Swami Harshananda
Ājīvakas literally means ‘life-longers,’ ‘mendicants’.
The ājīvakas (sometimes misspelt as ājīvikas also) are a group of ascetics mentioned in the edicts of Aśoka pillars. This seems to be an ancient order. Nanda vatsa, Kṛśa-Sāṅkṛtyāyana and Maṅkhalī-putta or Maskarin Gośāla are the three great teachers from whom this sect originated and got stabilized.
Historians believe that Gośāla was a younger contemporary of Mahāvira, the last of Jaina Tīrthaṅkaras. Jain texts like the Uvāsa-gadasāo graphically describes that conflict between them triggered off by the desertion of Saddāla-putta of the Ājīvaka sect who went over to the Nirgrantha sect of Māhāvīra.
Information regarding the doctrines of this sect is not widely known. They practiced severe austerities and were probably followers of Hathayoga and occultism. Inscriptions of Aśoka mention about their possibility of living in the caves. Due to which they have been dedicated to the cave-dwellings in the Barabar hills of Bihar.
Ghurye feels that the sect had a group of followers that were house-holders.
Except for some references in Buddhist works like the Dīgha Nikāya, there is practically no literature left about their philosophy.
Whatever might have been their philosophy, they once commanded respect and influence in the society and were rivals of the Jain ascetics.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore