This is Part – III of Dr. Kamath’s series on Heretics, Rebels and Revolutionaries. Read Part II here. Dr. Kamath’s article on The Great Nastik Revolt is part of his previous series on The Truth About The Bhagavad Gita, and can be found here.
Brahmins Claim To Control Cosmos!
By 6th century B. C., the Brahmanic pretentions reached such ridiculous heights that Brahmins claimed to control the entire cosmos. This was based on the following logic: Vedic Gods controlled the Universe; Yajnas compelled gods to fulfill man’s desires; Brahmins composed Mantras (magical incantations) uttered at Yajnas to delude gods; and therefore Brahmins controlled the Universe. Believing this, Kshatriyas sacrificed grain, ghee and animals to compel the gods to grant them their wishes (power, wealth and heaven, BG: 2:43). The Brahmins extracted hefty fees from kings for performing increasingly exacting and complicated Yajnas. Naturally, ostentatious desire-driven Yajnas (Kamya Karma) became the hallmark of an aristocratic Brahmanic Dharma of post-Vedic India.
Revolt Brews Across The Gangetic Plain
In opposition to the burgeoning nexus between the Brahmins and Kshatriyas, a comprehensive revolt arose against Brahmanic pretentions, the likes of which India has not seen since. In comparison to this, the atheistic movement we witness in India today appears infinitely anaemic. The post-Vedic India around 600 B. C. was positively vibrant. As Will Durant put it:
“When Buddha grew to manhood he found the halls, streets, the very woods of northern India ringing with philosophic disputation, mostly of an atheistic and materialistic trend… A large class of traveling Sophists -the Paribbajaka, or Wanderers- spent the better part of every year in passing from locality to locality, seeking pupils, or antagonists, in philosophy. Some of them taught logic as the art of proving anything… others demonstrated the non-existence of God and the inexpediency of virtue. Large audiences gathered to hear such lectures and debates; great halls were built to accommodate them; and sometimes princes offered rewards for those who should emerge victorious from these intellectual jousts. It was an age of amazingly free thought, and of a thousand experiments in philosophy.”
As A. L. Basham put it:
“The intellectual life of India in the 7th and 6th centuries B. C. was as vigorous and pullulating as the jungle after rains.”
Seven Great Thinkers Of Ancient India
It is from this intellectually fertile soil that a number of heterodox or Nastik (non-believing) philosophies came up in opposition to the increasingly decadent and orthodox Brahmanism and their ingenious doctrines of the Gunas of Prakriti, Law of Karma, Varna Dharma, Yajnas, supremacy of Brahmin class and infallibility of the Vedas. Seven charismatic protagonists of heterodox philosophies made their impact on the minds of ancient Indians: Gosala Makkaliputta, Poorana Kshyapa, Ajita Keshakambalin, Sanjaya Belattiputra, Pakuda Katyayana, Vardhamana Mahavira, and Siddhartha Gautama. As we go along, we will study how these seven great men influenced India and how Brahmanism dealt with them. This article will briefly deal with one of these seven thought leaders and the basic tenets of the sect of Aajivika, which he led.
Gosala Makkaliputta: Man Of Destiny
Gosala was so named because he was born in a cowshed where his parents had taken refuge during a thunderstorm. His father, Makkali by name, was a professional beggar. Gosala became an ascetic when he grew up and befriended Mahaveera, the founder of Jainism. After six years of friendship, they quarreled and parted ways. Gosala did not dispute the existence of soul or the theory of its transmigration. In fact, Gosala came up with the bizarre theory that the soul wanders through 84,00,000 great aeons (Mahakalpa) before the sorrow attached to it finally ends. He claimed that one’s condition in this life or next is already determined and nothing could change it for better or worse. This meant neither Free Will nor Morality had a place in this belief system. He called this unalterable Karma as Niyati, which is commonly known in English as Destiny or Fate; and in Urdu as Naseeb or Kismet.
Obviously this theory was developed to counter the Brahmanic claim that one could change one’s Karma for the better, by means of Yajna (‘good works’), or by doing his Varna-designated duty; and incur bad Karma by refusing to toe the Brahmanic line. Likewise, his theory denied the Upanishadic claim that one could erase one’s Karma by means of Nishkama Karma. Anagarika Dharmapala (1928) sums up Aajivika philosophy in Gosala’s own words as translated from Buddhist text Samannaphala suttanta:
“There is, 0 King, no cause either ultimate or remote, for the depravity of beings; they become depraved without reason and without cause. There is no cause, either proximate or remote, for the rectitude of beings; they become pure without reason and without cause. The attainment of any given condition, of any character, does not depend either on one’s own acts, or on the acts of another, or on human effort. There is no such thing as power or energy, or human strength or human vigor. All animals, all creatures, all beings, all souls, are without force and power and energy of their own. They are bent this way and that by their fate, by the necessary conditions of the class to which they belong, by their individual nature (Svabhava): and it is according to their position in one or other of the six classes that they experience ease or pain.
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. Though the wise should hope: by this virtue or this performance of duty, or this penance, or this righteousness will one make the karma that is not yet mature, mature; though the fool should hope, by the same means, to get gradually rid of karma that has matured neither of them can do it. The ease and pain, measured out as it were, with a measure, cannot be altered in the course of transmigration; there can he neither increase nor decrease thereof, neither excess nor deficiency. Just as when a ball of string is cast forth it will spread out just as far, and no farther, that it can unwind, just or both fools and wise alike, wandering, in transmigration exactly for the allotted term, shall then, and only then, make an end of pain.”
Gosala’s critics branded his philosophy as Aajivika. The exact meaning of this term is not known. The word Aajiva meant mode of one’s livelihood, or profession, such as householder, monk, etc. However, scholars think that Gosala’s opponents used this term, at least in the beginning, to stigmatize him as a ‘professional’ beggar. This is like branding an activist for social justice as Socialist, or worse, a Communist. More likely the title stems from Gosala’s preoccupation with the six classes -Aajiva: Black (hunters, criminals, evildoers), Blue (Buddhist Bhikkus), Red (scantily dressed Jain monks), Yellow (naked adherents of mendicants), White (Aajivika adherents), Supreme White (Leaders of Aajivika sect). In the 4th century B. C. Ashoka’s father Bindusara became a great patron of Aajivika sect. Ashoka, his children and even his grandchildren patronized this sect.
Brahmanism Offers An Alternative To Destiny
Brahmanism neutralized Aajivika’s idea of unalterable Destiny by incorporating it into the Brahmanic Gita (c. 250 B. C.) as evidenced by prince Krishna’s declaration in Arjuna Vishada. He tells a reluctant Arjuna who is worried about incurring bad Karmaphalam by killing his cousins:
BG: 18:60: Bound by your own Karma born of your Svabhava (Guna), that which from delusion you wish not to do, even that you shall do helplessly against your own will!”
By means of this shloka and several others (BG: 3:5, 27, 33) Brahmanic doctrines of the Gunas and Karma took over the role of Destiny. What Krishna tells Arjuna is that he has no Free Will to change his Destiny and his concern about the Morality of war has no relevance whatsoever. In other words, Arjuna’s Destiny is already written and there is not one thing he can do to alter it. Thus convinced, Arjuna surrenders to his Fate and resigns himself to fighting. Note here how the Brahmanic poet carefully replaces the term Guna with Svabhava.
Upanishadists countered Aajivika as well as Brahmanic claims and reinstated Free Will and Morality in the Upanishadic Gita (c. 200 B. C.). Guru Krishna says:
18:63: Thus I have (in my capacity as Upanishadic Guru) declared to you this wisdom (Knowledge of Atman/Brahman and Yoga), which is more profound than all profundities (Brahmanic doctrines of the Gunas and Karma, and Aajivika doctrine of Niyati). Reflect upon it fully and act as you choose.
What guru Krishna tells Arjuna in this Upanishadic shloka is that there is no force out there, which binds him to action other than his Free Will. He should reflect upon the advice given to him and do what is morally right. This advice is exactly opposite of Brahmanic and Aajivika advice.
Later on even Bhagavatas (c. 100 B. C.) altered the concept of one’s Destiny by telling people that man is mere puppet and all his actions are caused by the Lord residing in his heart. In other words, man has no Free Will whatsoever:
BG: 18:61: The Lord dwells in the hearts of all beings. And by his Maya (illusion) all beings revolve as though mounted on a machine.
By means of this shloka, God takes over Destiny’s place. Lord Krishna tells Arjuna that he is a mere puppet in the hands of God:
BG: 11:32-33: I am the mighty world-destroying Time now engaged in wiping out the world. Even without you the warriors arrayed in hostile armies shall not live. You therefore arise and obtain fame. Conquer the enemies and enjoy the unrivalled kingdom. By Me have they been verily slain already. You be merely an outward cause, O Savyasachin!
In other words, the Fate of Arjuna’s enemies has already been sealed. Furthermore, one could completely cancel out one’s Destiny and attain Moksha -liberation from all Karma/Destiny and consequent Samsara, by surrendering to Lord Krishna (BG: 18:62, 65-66). With such blanket assurance by so many sages, why would one need to follow the Aajivika sect?
Over the centuries, however, the idea of Destiny took deep roots in Eastern/Mid- Eastern cultures, even outside the religious sphere. Even among highly God-oriented Hindus, it is common to say, “Whatever is written on one’s skull (Kapala) cannot be changed.” Or, “I will do whatever I must do, and the rest is Destiny.” Muslims often say, “Kismet Ka Khel” (play of Destiny), or “Naseeb (Destiny) cannot be changed”. Some replace Kismet with Allah as in, “Insha Allah” (God willing). In other words, they mean man has no control over whatever was destined to happen. The ‘Inevitability of Destiny’ has given a lot of people the courage to do potentially dangerous things, or face trials and tribulations in life with resignation. For example, I have heard countless Westerners as well as Indians who explained why they were not afraid to fly or do other potentially dangerous things. They would say, “Well, when my time comes, I will go. There is no point in worrying about it.” Accidental good and bad events make sense when Destiny is brought into the picture. For example, a woman living in Canada wants to move to the U. S. to be closer to her older sister. Her husband (doctor) applies for a job to over a hundred hospitals across the vast land of the U. S. After much waiting, he gets just one offer from a hospital, which just happens to be close to where her sister lives. Naturally, this fortuitous event is attributed to Destiny.
The feeling of total helplessness in the face of inexorable Destiny and resignation to one’s Fate has a way of bringing a total peace of mind to some stressed-out people who are trapped in bad life-situations, such as terminal illness. At the same time, however, such a resigned attitude could lead to disasters. For example, a pilot might resign himself to his Fate and not take appropriate action at the critical moment to avert a plane crash, or parents might not initiate proper treatment for their sick child, thinking it was the child’s Destiny to be sick.
The role of belief in Destiny in Eastern cultures is illustrated in an episode in David Lean’s masterpiece movie Lawrence of Arabia. Those of you who have watched this great movie might remember the incident in which Lawrence, a rationalist British officer, decides to go in search of an Arab by the name of Ghaseem who had drifted away from the Aqaba-bound expeditionary party in the great Nefud desert. Ali, the Arab leader of the group, angrily objects to his foolhardiness saying Ghaseem’s Fate -death in the desert- was already written, and nothing could change it, and going in search of him could mean the end of the expedition. Lawrence scoffs at Ali’s superstition and goes in search of Ghaseem. He recovers half-dead Ghaseem in the burning desert and returns to the camp with him to a hero’s welcome. Moving his forefinger over his own forehead rationalist Lawrence tells an admiring Ali, “Nothing is written!”
That night a gunshot is heard in the camp. When they investigate what happened, they found out that an Arab of one tribe had murdered a member of another tribe in cold blood to settle an old score. To avoid further intertribal bloodshed, and save the expedition, tribe-less Lawrence, offers to dispense justice by executing the murderer. When he points his gun at the shackled murderer to execute him, guess who that man was? It was Ghaseem. Lawrence asks Ghaseem if, indeed, he was guilty as charged. An anguished Ghaseem affirms. A disgusted Lawrence executes him and throws the gun away. Auda Abu Thayee, the leader of the tribe of the murdered Arab taunts Lawrence, “So, it was written, then!”
The Business Of Destiny
There is also a business to Destiny. Our curiosity to know our Destiny has created a multibillion-rupee business in India. Brahmanic astrologers in India fleece naïve people, claiming to predict their Destiny by looking at their horoscope. At the same time they disingenuously recommend various rituals, which, according to them, could favorably alter Destiny! The result is everyday millions of deluded people sheepishly perform mindless rituals in thousands of temple-casino complexes all over India, hoping to change their Destiny for the better. And, the temple Mafia comprising of Trustees and Priests, are more than happy to fleece them.
(To be continued…)
Dr. Prabhakar Kamath, is a psychiatrist currently practicing in the U.S. He is the author of Servants, Not Masters: A Guide for Consumer Activists in India (1987) and Is Your Balloon About Pop?: Owner’s Manual for the Stressed Mind.