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Tile with Ajivaka (?) Ascetics

Red terracotta

4th century

“Tile with Ajivaka (?) Ascetics,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art no. M.82.152.


One practice that has been important in all the Indian religions is asceticism. Asceticism is the practice of self-denial of bodily needs. Ascetics may fast (go without food), wear simple clothing or no clothing at all, remain in one position for hours, and refuse to own property, comb or cut their hair, or live in a regular house. Ascetics believe that denying the body makes the spirit (the connection to God or the gods) stronger. Many spiritual leaders, called gurus, practice asceticism to become enlightened. Followers believe that gurus who practice asceticism are very holy and special. Some of the most extreme Indian ascetics during the Maurya Empire were the Ajivikas, who wanted to challenge the existing Brahmanical order, the domination of priests in Indian society. A person who was not a Brahman could gain religious authority and admiration of followers by practicing asceticism. What are the elements of asceticism that you see depicted in this tile?

The significance of this source lies in two points: that there were many religions in India during the Maurya Empire, and that asceticism was and is an important practice in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism (although it’s not to be taken to extremes), as well as in Christianity and Islam. One of the most significant aspects of Ajivika practices is the refusal to establish difference between groups in society, or what has often been referred to “caste.” For Ajivikas, no one group of people is superior to another. Buddhists also de-emphasize the importance of differences based on birth. Practices of asceticism seen on the tile are nakedness, extreme fasting, and long and disheveled hair. In the Maurya period, Hindus, Brahmans, Buddhists, and Jains all criticized the Ajivikas, because they were seen as rivals who questioned all established beliefs and rituals.