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Hinayana and mahayana Buddhism

Updated on March 18, 2016



Buddhacarita Shailabimbaramaya Dodanduva


The Lord Buddhacarita

Famous poet Ashvaghosha who composed Buddhacarita, a biography of the Buddha, also lived in the court of Kanishka. During this period\, books and records of Buddhism began to be written in Sanskrit.

Buddhism underwent several changes during this period. The religion was formally divided into two sects – the Hinayana and the Mahayana. Earlier, the Buddha was shown in sculpture through signs but statues of Buddha were made.

Two great schools of sculpture that developed at this time were Mathura School of arts and Gandhara school of arts.

The other major changing during this period was a belief in Bodhisattva. They were supposed to be persons who had attained enlightenment. Earlier, it was considered that once Bodhisattva attained enlightenment, they had to live in complete isolation and meditate in peace. During this period, this belief changed. Bodhisattva started to mingle with the common people. From here, the worshipping of Bodhisattva began and this spread throughout China, Central Asia and later to Korea and Japan.

lord gautma buddha


Mahayana Buddhist monks in morning prayer


monks believe in Hinayana teachings


The Hinayana Tripitaka was first written down in Sri Lanka

Hinayana or Theravada

Both, the Theravadins and the Mahayanists believe that there were twenty – two Buddhas who preceded Gautama and that the twenty – fourth or the last one, Bodhisattva Maitreya is yet to become a Buddha. They also believe that Buddhas are very special beings. However, the Theravadins (Humanists) emphasize individual effort and meditations rather than worship of the Buddhas and Bodhisattva as the means to attain Nirvana. Further, the Theravadins did not develop any elaborate religious rituals though they do practice veneration of the Stupa as symbol of the Buddha and go on pilgrimages to places associated with important events in his life his birth, enlightenment, first sermon and death.

The Hinayana Tripitaka was first written down in Sri Lanka in the first century BC in Pali language, a variety of Prakrit spoken at that time. In the present times, Buddhists of Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia and Laos are followers of the Hinayana or Theravada school.


The Mahayanists have their own version of the Tripitaka which was written in Sanskrit in the first century AD only parts of it are available now.

According to the beliefs of the Mahayanists, the Buddhas, and even more so the Bodhisattvas, are kind, compassionate beings who respond to people's prayers. A Bodhisattva is a special being who is potential Buddha but has not become one as yet. Even in Pali (Hinayana) Buddhist literature, Gautama himself is said to have been born on this earth hundreds of times as a Bodhisattva to help suffering humanity before he decided to attain Buddhahood. Stories of his previous births, known as Jatakas, are a part Pali Buddhist religious literature. It is believed that the name of the twenty – fourth Buddha, who is yet to come, will be Maitreya and, thus, Maitreya is still a Bodhisattva. Avalokiteshvara, another Bodhisattva, is so compassionate that he has decided never to become a Buddha and thus continues to help the suffering humanity. The Mahayanists believe that praying to the Bodhisattvas can move them to help their devotees in their worldly problems as well as in spiritual progress.

The Mahayanists also started worshipping the representations of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in human form along with the worship of the Stupas. Moreover, the special powers of the Bodhisattvas were imagined as female divinities and worshipped in the form of images. Such practices and rituals of the Mahayanists were, in part, the result of Hindu influence on that faith.

In course of time, it was the Mahayana faith which became the religion of the majority of Buddhists in China, Japan, Korea, Central Asia, Mongolia and Siberia. The Mahayana Tripitaka was translated into the languages of all these countries.

Theravada monks in Myanma



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    • 10000001 profile image

      madugundu krishna 2 years ago from Yemmiganur

      thanks for comment

    • Adrien Richards profile image

      Adrien 2 years ago

      nice rereading this history again, the Mahayana was brought from India to China by Bodhidharma actually very similar to Hinayana but guess it branched out again in different sects as the emphasis on Sutras like the Lotus, etc. We have here Thailand Hinayana Buddhist hour away, and Shin Japanese Buddhist Temple in Miami Beach, haven't been in that one. It all has to do with the Sutras they follow. Zen of Bodhidharma is very similar to Theravadins guess more not relying on scripture but meditation and the Diamond Sutra. Shingon of Japan is very interesting too.