Six heretics: all-embracing net of views

Dazu Rock Carvings depicting the heretical teachers: Purana Kassapa, Makkhali Gosala, Sanjaya Belatthiputta, Ajita Kesakambali and Pakudha Kaccayana.

The first Sutta of the Digha Nikaya is the Brahmajala Sutta which states that there were 62 kinds of the wrong view concerning the nature of the soul. There were several religious teachers surrounded by their followers practising different modes of living. They were called wandering mendicants or paribrajakas. Among them, there were six acclaimed religious teachers the six sectarian teachers.

The six sectarian teachers were contemporaries of the Buddha. In the Fruits of the Religious Life (Samannaphala Sutta) the Buddha assesses their heretical doctrines, mainly on the basis of their denial of the doctrine of karma. The text, Sumannaphala Sutta is the second discourse of the Digha Nikaya of the Pali Canon. It relates how Ajatasatru, the king of Magadha went to meet the six sectarian teachers to question them on the benefits of the religious life. Being unsatisfied with their answers, he ultimately paid a visit to the Buddha. Ajatasatru was delighted and pleased at the Buddha's responses. In this discourse, the Buddha questioned Ajatasatru about the six sectarian teachers, their responses and, their doctrines. The Buddha's responses included an account of the religious life that culminated in Nibbana.

Actions without consequents

The six sectarian teachers: Purana Kassapa, Makkhali Gosala, Ajita Kesakambala, Pakuda Kaccayana, Sanjaya Bellatthiputta and Nigantha Nataputta were very respected and honoured teachers who were the leaders of their doctrines and they had many followers.

Purana Kassapa held the view that good and bad actions have no consequences for the agent. His doctrine was called akiriya vada. He was a nihilist. He did not advocate a religious life and did not believe in karma. The Buddha completely objected Purana Kassapa's doctrine although he was an elderly experienced teacher.

Makkhali Gosala was a determinist, who declared that a person's destiny was determined by fate. He was the founder of the Ajivaka sect. He too was a nihilist.

Ajita Kesakambala held the view that there was no such thing as good and evil, and that the individual was annihilated at death. In some texts, he has been described as a believer in rebirth. His name means 'Ajita of the hair blanket' due to his habit of wearing an uncomfortable and evil-smelling blanket of human hair. He was a materialist as well as a nihilist.

Pakudha Kaccayana espoused a nihilist doctrine of fatalistic pluralism, according to which human beings are a compound of elemental substances which disperse at death. Pakudha taught a doctrine of seven eternal and unchangeable principles, consisting of four elements plus, pleasure, pain and the soul (atman).

According to him, these principles act without aim or conscious direction, for example, if the head is split with a sharp sword there is no guilt because all that has happened is that certain atoms have been rearranged. His teachings deny the reality of moral choice (akiriya-vada), and for his reason was condemned by the Buddha.

Sanjaya Belatthiputta has been described as an 'eel wriggler' because he refused to take a firm stand on any issue. He was a sceptic. It has been said that he happened to be the teacher of Sariputta and Mahamaudgalyna before they abandoned him and followed the Buddha.

Nigantha Nataputta or Mahavira was the Jain leader. He accepted the doctrine of moral retribution (kiriya vada) that there are consequences to moral acts. He advocated a religious life of physical discipline and self-mortification. He believed in an eternal soul (jiva). The Jains follow a strict code of conduct and strictly follow the principle of non-violence (ahimsa) scrupulously, even respecting the life of insects. Jainism is still prevalent and there are Jain temples in India.

Makkhali Gosala had been a companion of the Jain leader, Mahavira (Nigantha Nataputta) for six years before they parted after a disagreement. The Ajivakas of Makkhali and the Jains of Mahavira were similar in their religious practices. Both sects practised extreme austerity involving nakedness, penances and ordeals. While the Ajivakas disbelieved in karmic phenomenon the Jains accepted karma.

The Ajivakas denied the existence of the free will. Makkhali compared the course of human life to a ball of string which when thrown down, rolls along unwinding in a preordained course until it reaches its end. The Ajivakas were an important religious sect during the Buddha's time and remained so for several hundred years. After this, they declined, and by the late medieval or the early modern times had disappeared altogether or, perhaps reabsorbed into Jains or the south Indian devotional cults in which Makkhali enjoyed an ephemeral deification.

Wandering mendicants

Some Jains and the Ajivakas, as well as some followers of the other religious sects, have been given the common name 'parivarajikas' or 'the wandering religious mendicants. The wondering teachers even included women and they used to go everywhere in India. They conducted discourses and there were places set apart for the people to meet them to clarify their doubts over religious matters.

A sample of their views is given in the Brahmajala Sutta. Many followers of these teachers and the paribrajikas themselves became converts to Buddhism. For instance, Sariputta and Moggallana were earlier followers of Sanjaya Bellattiputta and Kundalakesi has been a wandering mendicant who argued with Sariputta before being converted to Buddhism. The three Jatila brothers (Uruvel Kasyapa, Nadi Kasyapa and Gaya Kasyapa) were three parivarajikas who preached to one thousand followers. These three together with their followers became Buddhists.

Akiriya-vada is the doctrine that states that there are no consequences to moral acts. Out of the six sectarian teachers, only Nigantha Nathaputta disbelieved in akiriya-vada. The teaching of akiriya-vada is contrary to the belief in Kamma.

The Buddha condemned the sectarian teachers who propagated akiriya-vada. The Buddha's teachings belong to the category of kiriya-vada doctrine. The kiriya-vada doctrine states that there are consequences to moral acts. This doctrine involves a belief of Kamma.

Fruits of Kamma

The Buddhist theory of Kamma is different from the other non-Buddhist theories. According to the Jain theory, one could not develop morally and spiritually without undergoing all the consequences of one's previous evil Kamma. For evading these evil effects the Jains indulged in severe ascetic practices.

The Ajivaka theory asserts that all present actions and experiences are strictly determined by the previous Kamma. Kamma according to Buddhist, while being not deterministic is only one among many factors which condition the nature of the individual's experiences of pleasure and pain. There are physical laws (utu-niyama), and spiritual laws (dhamma-niyama) responsible for different situations in life.

Kamma, it would appear, could operate separately in a psychosomatic manner or co-operation with the other factors. All beings have volitions (Kamma) as their own, their inheritances, and their congenital cause.

Their kinsman, their refuge. It is Kamma that differentiates beings into low and high states (Majjhima Nikaya, Culakammavibanga Sutta). 

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