A class of naked ascetics, Vin.i.291 followers of Makkhali Gosāla, regarded, from the Buddhist point of view, as the worst of sophists. Numerous references to the Ājīvakas are to be found in the Pitakas, only a few of them being at all complimentary. Thus in the Mahā Saccaka Sutta MN.i.238 they are spoken of as going about naked, flouting life’s decencies and licking their hands after meals.

It is stated in the Tevijja Vacchagotta Sutta MN.i.483 that far from any Ājīvaka having put an end to sorrow, the Buddha could recall only one Ājīvaka during ninety-nine kappas who had even gone to heaven, and that one too had preached a doctrine of kamma and the after-consequences of actions. Elsewhere MN.i.524 they are spoken of as children of a childless mother. They extol themselves and disparage others and yet they have produced only three shining lights: Nanda Vaccha, Kisa Saṅkicca, Makkhali Gosāla. A fourth leader, Paṇḍuputta, of wagon-building stock, is mentioned in the Anaṅgaṇa Sutta MN.i.31 ; there is also the well-known Upaka.

There is no doubt that the Ājīvaka were highly esteemed and had large followings of disciples.SN.i.68 SN.iv.398 They had eminent followers such as high court officials. Vin.ii.166 Vin.iv.71

The doctrines held by the Ājīvaka are mentioned in several places, but the best known account is in the Sāmaññaphala Sutta where they are attributed to Makkhali Gosāla by name DN.i.53–54 MN.i.516f. He maintained that there is no cause or reason for either depravity or purity among beings. There is no such thing as intrinsic strength, or energy or human might or endeavour. All creatures, all beings, everything that has life, all are devoid of power, strength and energy; all are under the compulsion of the individual nature to which they are linked by destiny; it is solely by virtue of their birth in the six environments (chalabhijātiyo) that they experience their pleasure or pain. The universe is divided into various classes of beings, of occupations and methods of production. There are eighty-four hundred thousand periods during which both fools and wise alike, wandering in transmigration, shall at last make an end of pain. The pleasures and pain, measured out as it were with a measure, cannot be altered in the course of transmigration; there can be neither increase nor decrease thereof, neither excess nor deficiency.

The fundamental point in their teaching seems, therefore, to have been “saṃsāra-suddhi,” purification through transmigration, which probably meant that all beings, all lives, all existent things, all living substances attain and must attain, perfection in course of time.