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Personalities of the Buddhist Suttas



Adapted from PTS, Dictionary of Pāḷi Proper Names,
by Permission of the Pāḷi Text Society

One of the six heretical teachers contemporaneous with the Buddha.

He held[1] that there is no cause, either ultimate or remote, for the depravity of beings or for their rectitude.
The attainment of any given condition or character does not depend either on one's own acts, nor on the acts of another, nor on human effort.
There is no such thing as power or energy or human strength or human vigor.
All beings (sattā), all lives (pāṇā), all existent things (bhūtā), all living substances (jīvā), are bent this way and that by their fate,
by the necessary conditions of the class to which they belong,
by their individual nature;
it is according to their position in one or other of the six classes (abhijāti) that they experience ease or pain.
There are fourteen hundred thousands of principle genera or species (pamukhayoniyo),
again six thousand others
and again six hundred.
There are five hundred kinds of kamma
— there are sixty-two paths (or modes of conduct),
sixty-two periods,
six classes among men,
eight stages of a prophet's existence (aṭṭapurisabhūmi),
forty-nine hundred kinds of occupation,
forty-nine hundred Ājīvakas, forty-nine hundred Wandereres (Paribbājakā),
forty-nine hundred Naga abodes (or species),
two thousand sentient existences (vīse indriyasate),
three thousand infernal states,
thirty-six celestial mundane or passionate grades (rajodhātuyo),
seven classes of animate beings (saññigabbhā),
or beings with the capacity of generating by means of separate sexes,
seven of inanimate production (asaññigabbhā),
seven of production by grafting (nigaṇṭhgabbhā),
seven grades of gods, men, devils, great lakes, precipices, dreams.
There are eighty-four thousand periods during which both fools and wise alike,
wandering in transmigration,
shall at last make an end of pain.

This cannot be done by virtue, or penance, or righteousness.

Ease and pain, measured out as it were with a measure, cannot be altered in the course of transmigration (saṅsāra);
there can be neither increase nor decrease thereof
— both fools and wise alike,
wandering in transmigration,
exactly for the allotted term,
shall then, and then only,
make an end of pain.

Makkhali's views as given in the Buddhist books are difficult to understand, the Commentators themselves finding it a hopeless task.
He seems to have believed in infinite gradations of existence; in his view, each individual thing has eternal existence, if not individually, at least in type.
He evidently had definite conceptions of numerous grades of beings, celestial, infernal and mundane, as also of the infinity of time and the recurrent cycles of existence.
He seems to have conceived the world as a system in which everything has a place and a function assigned to it, a system in which chance has no place and which admits of no other cause whatever, of the depravity or purity of beings, but that which is implied in the word Fate or Destiny (niyati).
All types of things and all species of beings, however, are individually capable of transformation, that is of elevation or degradation in type.
His theory of purification through transmigration (saṅsārasuddhi) probably meant perfection through transformation (pariṇatā) — transformation which implies not only the process of constant change, but also a fixed orderly mode of progression and retrogression. All things must, in course of time, attain perfection.
Makkhali's followers are know as the Ājīvakas.[2]

According to the books, the Buddha considered Makkhali as the most dangerous of the heretical teachers:

"I know not of any other single person fraught with such loss to many folk, such discomfort, such sorrow to devas and men, as Makkhali, the infatuate."
  — AN 1 319

The Buddha also considered his view the meanest —

"just as the hair blanket is reckoned the meanest of all woven garments, even so, of all the teachings of recluses, that of Makkhali is the meanest."
  — AN 3 135

Buddhaghosa draws particular distinction between the moral effect of Makkhali's doctrine on the one hand and that of the doctrines of Purana Kassapa and Ajita on the other. Purana, by his theory of the passivity of the soul, denied action; Ajita, by his annihilationistic theory denied retribution; whereas Makkhali, by his doctrine of fate or non-causation, denied both action and its result.

Very little is know of the name and the life of Makkhali. The Buddhist records call him Makkhali-Gosala. Buddhaghosa explains that he was once employed as a servant; one day, while carrying an oil pot along a muddy road, he slipped and fell through carelessness, although warned thus by his master: "Ma khali," (stumble not) — hence his name. When he found that the oil-pot was broken, he fled; his master chased him and caught him by his garment, but he left it and ran along naked. He was called Gosala, because he was born in a cow-shed. According to Jaina records (See, e.g., Uvasaga-dassao,p.1.) he is called Gosala Mankhaliputta; he was born at Saravana near Savatthi, his father's name being Mankhali and his mother's Bhadda. His father was a Mankha — i.e., a dealer in pictures — and Gosala followed this profession until he became a monk.

The philosopher's true name seems to have been Maskarin, the Jaina-Prakrit form of which is Mankhali and the Pāḷi form Makkhali. "Maskarin" is explained by Panini as "one who carries a bamboo staff" (mascara). A Maskarin is also known as Ekadandin. According to Patanjali, the name indicates a School of Wanderers who were called Maskarins, not so much because they carried a bamboo staff as because they denied the freedom of the will. The Maskarins were thus fatalists or determinists.

Students of Buddhism will recognize a follower of Makkhali in Upaka, the first human being to come across the Buddha after his enlightenment. The Buddha gave him opportunity to talk Dhamma, but he failed to recognize it as such and "took another path" wandering off shaking his head. There are several other encounters with the Ajivakas, or Naked Ascetics throughout the Suttas.


[1] D. i. 53 f. Makkhali, his views and his followers are also referred to at M. i. 231, 238, 483, 516 f.; S. i. 66, 68; iii. 211; iv. 398; A. i. 33 f., 286; iii. 276, 384; also J. i. 493, 509; S. iii. 69 ascribes the first portion ofthe account of Makkhali's views (as given in D. i. 53) — that there is no cause, no reason for depravity or purity — to Pūraṇa Kassapa. A. i. 286 apparently confounds Makkhali with Ajita Kesakambala, and A. iii. 383 f. represents Pūuaṇa Kassapa as though he were a disciple of Makkhali.

[2] For a discussion on Makkhali and his doctrines see Barus: Pre-buddhistic Indian Philosophy, 297ff.