India has been a land of ascetics and asceticism since millennia. The ājīvakas (sometimes misspelt as ājīvikas also) a group of such ascetics mentioned in the edicts of Aśoka pillars seem to be an ancient order of some standing.
According to their tradition Nanda-vatsa, Kṛśa-Sāṅkṛtyāyana and Maṅkhalī-putta or Maskarin Gośāla are the three great teachers from whom the sect originated and got stabilised. Historians believe that Gośāla was a younger contemporary of Mahāvīra, the last of Jaina Tīrthaṅkaras. Jaina texts like the Uvāsagadasāo graphically describe the conflict between them triggered off by the desertion of Saddāla-putta of the Ājīvaka sect who went over to the Nirgrantha sect of Māhāvīra.
Not much is known of the doctrines of this sect. They practised severe auste-rities and were probably followers of Haṭhayoga and occultism. That they might have lived in caves is suggested by the inscriptions of Aśoka mentioning the dedications of cave-dwellings for their use in the Barabar hills of Bihar. They might have practised nudity.
Ghurye feels that the sect had a house-holder section also (G. S. Ghurye, Indian Sādhus, Bombay, Popular Prakashan, 1953, p. 36).
Except for some references in Buddhist works like the Dīgha Nikāya, there is practically no literature left about their philosophy. They were probably fatalists, agnostics or even atheists.
Whatever might have been their philosophy, they once commanded respect and influence in the society and were rivals of the Jaina ascetics.
Practice of unsocial customs, perhaps cost them their popularity.