While all of us are familiar with the murals and temple complexes of Ajanta and Ellora, did you know that there are as many as 1200 rock-cut cave shrines found across India with more than 800 of them in the Western Ghats alone. Kanheri, Bhaja, Karle, Bhedse, Junnar, Undavalli, Udayagiri…the list is long. While most of these are Buddhist shrines built along old and important trade routes, there is one older than all the rest, dedicated to a forgotten sect. To visit it you have to go to Gaya.
The Barabar Caves, around 24 km north of Gaya, in Bihar, is all that remains of the lost Ajivika sect. Traced back to 5th century BCE, the Ajivikas once competed with Buddhism and Jainism for influence, only to lose out and get wiped off. Today everything including the texts of this faith have been lost.
The Barabar cave complex is one place where you can get a peep into their history. These are a set of 7 rock-cut caves, dating back to the 3rd century BCE, situated on the twin hills of Barabar (4 caves) and Nagarjuni (3 caves). Oral folklore through centuries has assigned them names familiar from the epics, such as ‘Lomas Rishi cave’ ‘Sudama cave’ and ‘Vishwamitra cave’, but these names have no historical antecedents.
Carved out of granite, each of these caves features two chambers each, with a highly polished surface. There are no sculptures or embellishments present in any of these caves. The oldest of these caves is the so-called ‘Lomas Rishi cave’ which is also considered a landmark in the architectural history of India. It is here where you will find the first known use of the ‘Chaitya arch’ in stone which would be later replicated in caves across India, including Ajanta, and Kanheri.
The fact that these caves date back to the Mauryan times, is known from the still clear inscriptions found in these caves. The inscription in the Sudama cave, tells us that the four caves on Barabar hill were assigned by King Ashoka to Ajivika monks in the year 261 BCE. A later inscription, on the Nagarjuni hill, is of Dasaratha Maurya, the grandson of King Ashoka, which tells us that the Ajivikas continued to enjoy imperial Mauryan patronage for long. It states -
So who were these Ajivikas, who enjoyed such imperial patronage? The most comprehensive study of the subject is by SOAS Historian AL Basham in his book ‘History and doctrines of the Ajivikas, a vanished Indian religion’. This religion probably emerged, in the Indo-Gangetic plains, 2500 years ago. These were extraordinary times. Not only was the region experiencing a great wave of urbanization, but there was also a great intellectual ferment taking place, which gave birth to Buddhism, Jainism and the Ajivika faith. The social turmoil as independent states became hierarchical monarchies, threw up a new wave of thinkers who came to represent the ‘Sramana’ tradition of wandering mendicants, who rejected conventional Vedic beliefs and travelled from place to place preaching their own philosophies.
Many great religious traditions grew out of it which were termed as ‘nastika darsana’ or ‘heterodox philosophies’, as they did not believe in the Vedas. Some like Buddhism and Jainism transformed into thriving religions, while others perished. The Ajivika was one such religious tradition.
The founder of the Ajivika faith was a preacher named Makkhali Gosala, a contemporary of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism and Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankara of the Jains. A companion of Mahavira, with whom he had a spectacular fallout, Makkhali Gosala went his own path. Gosala also had his own rivalry with the Buddhists, as he frequently appears in Buddhist texts, as one of the ‘six heretics’, who are unable to solve philosophical problems, before Buddha comes in and saves the day.
Ironically, since all the Ajivika texts have been lost, we only know of them and their beliefs from the Buddhist and Jain sources, which don't paint a very positive picture of this rival sect. It’s no surprise then that the Ajivikas have been portrayed as ‘Charlatans’ and their beliefs trashed. We do know that they were fatalistic, and their central tenet was of ‘Niyati’ or Fate. They believed that there was no free will and everything that has happened, is happening and will happen is entirely preordained and nothing could change it.
This fatalistic belief system had many takers at its time. It even travelled to Sri Lanka, where as per Mahavamsha, the chronicle of Sinhala kings, King Pandukabhaya built a ‘House of Ajivakas’ (Ajivakanam Gruham) at the capital, Anuradhapura.
Such was the popularity of the Ajivika faith, that by the 1st century BCE the Ajivikas were considered a serious threat to Buddhism.
Ajivikas thrived under the patronage of the Nanda and Mauryan kings but saw a spectacular fall after that. In fact, by 5th century CE, the Ajivikas were completely wiped out in North India, though we don’t know exactly why. However, it did thrive in the South far longer. The great Tamil epics. Silpattakam refers to the flourishing Ajivika community in Madurai, while Manimekalai speaks of the great Ajivika teachers at Vanji (Tirukarur near Kochi), the capital of the Chera kingdom.
After the Avijikas faded off, the Barabar caves were occupied by Buddhist, Jains and Hindus. Today, these caves are a popular tourist spot for visitors to Gaya. But most are unaware, that what they are looking at as they gaze at these caves, is the last vestiges of a lost religion.
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