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Makkhali Gosāla

One of the six heretical teachers contemporaneous with the Buddha. He held ¹ that there is no cause, either ultimate or remote, for the depravity of beings or for their rectitude. The attainment of any given condition or character does not depend either on one’s own acts, nor on the acts of another, nor on human effort. There is no such thing as power or energy, human strength or human vigour. All beings (sattā), all lives (pānā), all existent things (bhūtā), all living substances (jīvā),² are bent this way and that by their fate, by the necessary conditions of the class to which they belong, by their individual nature; it is according to their position in one or other of the six classes (abhijāti) that they experience ease or pain. There are fourteen hundred thousands of principle genera or species (pamukhayoniyo), again six thousand others and again six hundred. There are five hundred kinds of kamma — there are sixty-two paths (or modes of conduct), sixty-two periods, six classes among men, eight stages of a prophet’s existence (aṭṭhapurisabhūmi),³ forty-nine hundred kinds of occupation, forty-nine hundred Naked Ascetics (Ājīvaka), forty-nine hundred Wanderers (Paribbājaka), forty-nine hundred Nāga abodes (or species), two thousand sentient existences (vīse indriyasate), three thousand infernal states, thirty-six celestial, mundane or passionate grades (rajodhātuyo), seven classes of animate beings (saññigabbhā), or beings with the capacity of generating by means of separate sexes, seven of inanimate production (asaññigabbhā), seven of production by grafting (nigaṇṭhagabbhā), seven grades of gods, men, devils, great lakes, precipices, dreams.

There are eighty-four thousand periods during which both fools and wise alike, wandering in transmigration, shall at last make an end of pain. This cannot be done by virtue, or penance, or righteousness. Ease and pain, measured out as it were with a measure, cannot be altered in the course of transmigration (saṃsāra); there can be neither increase nor decrease thereof — both fools and wise alike, wandering in transmigration, exactly for the allotted term, shall then, and then only, make an end of pain.

Makkhali’s views as given in the Buddhist books are difficult to understand, the Commentators themselves finding it a hopeless task. He seems to have believed in infinite gradations of existence; in his view, each individual thing has eternal existence, if not individually, at least in type. He evidently had definite conceptions of numerous grades of beings, celestial, infernal and mundane, as also of the infinity of time and the recurrent cycles of existence. He seems to have conceived the world as a system in which everything has a place and a function assigned to it, a system in which chance has no place and which admits of no other cause whatever, of the depravity or purity of beings, but that which is implied in the word Fate or Destiny (niyati). All types of things and all species of beings, however, are individually capable of transformation that is of elevation or degradation in type. His theory of purification through transmigration (saṃsārasuddhi) probably meant perfection through transformation (parinatā) — transformation which implies not only the process of constant change, but also a fixed orderly mode of progression and retrogression. All things must, in course of time, attain perfection (for a discussion on Makkhali and his doctrines see Barua: Pre-buddhistic Indian Philosophy, 297 ff). Makkhali’s followers are known as the Ājīvakā (q.v.)

According to the books, the Buddha considered Makkhali as the most dangerous of the heretical teachers: “I know not of any other single person fraught with such loss to many folk, such discomfort, such sorrow to gods and men, as Makkhali, the infatuate (A.i.33). The Buddha also considered his view the meanest — just as the hair-blanket is reckoned the meanest of all woven garments, even so, of all the teachings of recluses, that of Makkhali is the meanest (A.i.286). Buddhaghosa (DA.i.166 f) draws particular distinction between the moral effect of Makkhali’s doctrine on the one hand and that of the doctrines of Pūraṇa Kassapa and Ajita on the other. Purāṇa, by his theory of the passivity of the soul, denied action; Ajita, by his Annihilationist theory denied retribution; whereas Makkhali, by his doctrine of fate or non-causation, denied both action and its result.

Very little is known of the name and the life of Makkhali. The Buddhist records call him Makkhali Gosāla. Buddhaghosa explains (DA.i.143 f; MA.i.422) that he was once employed as a servant; one day, while carrying an oil-pot along a muddy road, he slipped and fell through carelessness, although warned thus by his master: “Mā khali,” (stumble not) — hence his name. When he found that the oil pot was broken, he fled; his master chased him and caught him by his garment, but he left it and ran along naked. He was; called Gosāla, because he was born in a cow-shed. According to Jaina records (e.g. Uvāsaga-dasāo, p.1), he is called Gosāla Maṅkhaliputta; he was born at Saravana near Sāvatthi, his father’s name being Maṅkhali and his mother’s Bhaddā. His father was a Maṅkha — i.e., a dealer in pictures — and Gosāla followed this profession until he became a monk.

The philosopher’s true name (Barua, op.cit., 298) seems to have been Maskarin, the Jaina Prakrit form of which is Maṅkhali and the Pāḷi form Makkhali. “Maskarin” is explained by Pāṇinī (VI.i.154) as “one who carries a bamboo staff” (maskara). A Maskarin is also known as Ekadandin. According to Patañjali (Mahābhāsya iii.96), the name indicates a School of Wanderers who were called Maskarins, not so much because they carried a bamboo staff as because they denied the freedom of the will. The Maskarins were thus fatalists or determinists.

¹ D.i.53 f. Makkhali, his views, and his followers are also referred to at M.i.231, 238, 483, 516 f; S.i.66, 68; iii.211; iv.398; A.i.33 f., 286; iii.276, 384; also J.i.493, 509; S.iii.69 ascribes the first portion of the account of Makkhali’s views (as given in D.i.53) — that there is no cause, no reason for depravity or purity — to Pūraṇa Kassapa. A.i.286 apparently confounds Makkhali with Ajita Kesakambala, and A.iii.383 f. represents Pūraṇa Kassapa as though he were a disciple of Makkhali.

² Buddhaghosa (DA.i.160 ff.) gives details of these four classes showing how they are meant to include all that has life on this earth, from men down to plants. However, the explanation is very confused and makes the terms by no means mutually exclusive.

³ Buddhaghosa gives them as infancy, playtime, trial time, erect time, learning time, ascetic time, prophet time, and prostrate time, with (very necessary) comments on each.