Teachers & Sects Contemporary of the Buddha

In India, at the time that the ascetic Gautama set out on his quest for Truth, there were many that were no longer content with the perfunctory rituals of Brahmanic religion. There were ascetics in northwestern India who tried to extend beyond the Vedic scriptures and as a consequence the Upaniṣads developed out of this movement with a new emphasis on renunciation and transcendental knowledge. Northeastern India, however, was even less influenced by the Aryans who had developed the main tenets and practices of the Vedic religion and this became the breeding ground of many unorthodox sects.

Eternalistic Theories (sassata vāda):

• Pakudha Kaccāyana, held the view that there were seven eternal elements i.e. apodhātu (element of cohesion - fluidity), tejodhatu (element of heat - fire), vāyodhatu (element of mobility - wind), paṭhavidhātu (element of earth), sukha (pleasures), dukkha (pain), and jiva (soul). These elements are neither created nor molded. They are immutable. Hence a person cannot be killed. If a person is pierced with a sword it only passes through the interspace of the elements forming the body. At death the body is dissolved into the seven eternal elements.

• Makkhali Gosala, founder of the Ājivaka sect, which emphasized a law of fate, posited the theory called ‘saṃsāravisuddhi’ i.e. that all beings are subject to a fixed series of existences (saṃsāra), ranging from the lowest to the highest. He believed that saṃsāra was a cycle of reanimation, a process by which all beings had to pass until thoroughly purified and freed from suffering when the cycle completed. Like unraveling a ball of thread, saṃsara has a fixed terminus when the process is completely played out. Also, this process of purification cannot be altered; good or bad deeds have no effect on ones destiny.

• Jainism, founded by Mahavira, has often been misunderstood as similar to Buddhism because it advocates the principles of ahiṃsā ‘nonviolence’ and the absence of belief in a creator god. Jain metaphysics, however, is vastly different, its cosmology dividing into two ultimate and independent categories of 1) soul or living substance (jīva), which permeates the natural forces of wind and fire as well as living organisms such as plants, animals, and human beings, and 2) non-soul, or inanimate factors (ajīva), which includes space, time and matter.

The most important tenet of Jain doctrine is that of karma, which contrasts differently to the traditional Vedic or even contemporary Buddhist conception of the principle; in Jainism it is regarded as a substance that is subtle and invisible, although material, which flows into and impedes the jīva, causing the entanglement of life to the process of transmigration. This ‘inflow’ of karmic-matter can be stopped by many lives of penance and discipline, resulting in the final moksha ‘liberation’ the ultimate goal. Souls are divided into those that have attained perfection and those still in bondage.

• A pre-Sāṃkhya sect (a sect founded by Kapila) had already been established in the region, which taught that the individual soul was limitless (na antavā – without limit) on the one hand, and of an all-pervasive substantial matter on the other.

Annihilationist Theories (uccheda vāda):

• Ajita Kesakambali, held a nihilistic view. He taught that there is no life after death, that man consists of four elements and when he dies that these elements return to their respective origin, at which time he is completely annihilated. Consequently, because nothing remains after death, there is no purpose in trying to cultivate merit through good deeds to others, sacrifices or filial piety.

• Still others presented an amoral view. Purana Kassapa taught inaction; that because nothing survived death, that merit or demerit had no lasting consequence. These schools were known as Akiriyavādin, which completely disregarded morality, a consequence of these teachings led to a hedonic lifestyle (kāmasukhallikanuyoga).
While some annihilationists denied the existence of the soul (ātman), still others claimed that even if it did exist it was temporary and if not annihilated at the terminus of this world, then in the world of sense (kāma-loka), or the world of form (rūpa-loka), or in one of the formless states (arupā-loka). And although they allowed for the dualism of a mutually-exclusive body and soul, they insisted that although the soul may continue after the death of the body, that eventually it would be completely destroyed.