Hinayana and Mahayana- Two Sects of Buddhism

Hinayana and Mahayana

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buddhaBuddhism is one of the oldest and major religions in the world. It originated in India in 563–483 B.C.E. and its teachings were imparted by Siddhartha Gautama who became the Buddha or the “enlightened being”. Eventually, Buddhism got divided into two sects, Mahayana and Hinayana. These two sects represented the two different views or philosophies of Buddhism. In this article, we will be talking about these two divisions and will also be discussing the differences in Mahayana and Hinayana. Moreover, you will also have the reason behind the division of these two sects of Buddhism along with the time period mentioned in the FAQ section.

So, without delaying any further, let us start our peaceful adventure!

What is Buddhism?

Buddhism is a religion first founded on the teachings of the Buddha or the “enlightened being”. There are many philosophies and quite a few schools of thought associated with Buddhism. Buddha was originally Siddhartha Gautama who after knowing that life is a cycle of births and deaths where one continues to suffer, embarked on his journey towards enlightenment, Nirvana or the path of truth. Buddhism originated as a Sramana tradition that eventually spread to Asia. The followers of Buddhism are known as Buddhists. Buddhists comprise over 7% of the global population. The religion is the fifth largest after Christianity, Islam, Irreligion and Hinduism.

What are the two sects of Buddhism?

The two sects of Buddhism are:

  1. Hinayana Buddhism
  2. Mahayana Buddhism

After the death of Buddha in 400 BC, Buddhism got divided into these two sects. The source of these two terms, Hinayana and Mahayana can be traced through the Prajnaparamita Sutras which are the sutras on Far-reaching Discriminating Awareness or The Perfection of Wisdom Sutras.

What is Hinayana Buddhism?

Hinayana Buddhism is the Lesser Vehicle or the Modest Vehicle. It propagates the original teachings of Buddha and considers that true salvation can be achieved by self-discipline and meditation. This sect puts emphasis on moral activity and the law of karma. Hinayana Buddhism is often referred to as Theravada Buddhism.

What is Mahayana Buddhism?

Mahayana Buddhism is the Greater Vehicle or Vast Vehicle. Mahayana Buddhism believes that all living beings must work towards liberation from suffering. Liberation can only be achieved when one has strong faith and commitment towards Buddha. The Mahayana sect believes in the chanting of mantras and idol worship. It also believes in the overpowering of karma by karuna (compassion). This sect of Buddhism spread from India to other countries like Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Mongolia.

What are the Differences between Mahayana and Hinayana?

  • Hinayana Buddhism is a teaching or a philosophy whereas Mahayana Buddhism is like a religion.
  • Mahayana Buddhism started flourishing around 500 BC whereas Hinayana Buddhism flourished around 250 BC.
  • Followers of Hinayana Buddhism are found in Indo-China and Ceylon whereas those of Mahayana Buddhism are found in countries like China, Japan, Tibet, Mangolia etc.
  • The scriptures of the Mahayana sect of Buddhism were written in Sanskrit. Some of the examples of Sanskrit terms included are Karma, Dharma. The scriptures of the Hinayana Buddhism were written in Pali, where some of the words include Kamma, Dhamma etc.
  • Bodhisattvas are someone who is on their way to becoming the Buddha. They are making efforts to inculcate positive behaviour like compassion, powers and wisdom. They can also be called as saviour deities. The Mahayana sect of Buddhism worships these Bodhisattvas while Hinayana Buddhism has no such thing.
  • The two sects of Buddhism has different opinions on whether the Buddha is a God or not. The Mahayana sect of Buddhism believes that the Buddha is a God who has come down to earth to take people towards liberation. On the other hand, the Hinayana sect of Buddhism posits this view that the Buddha is simply a human being who has found a path to become a Buddha or attain Nirvana.
  • According to the Hinayana sect, Buddha cannot be called a God because he was born a human, behaved like one and even was not aware about how to meditate. It is after approaching the masters that he got to know about the right meditation technique. Moreover, if he was a God, he could naturally predict circumstances before they even occurred.

In Mahayana Buddhism there are three bodies or “modes of being” of the Buddha. They are:

  1. Dharmakaya: Dharmakaya represents the supreme state of absolute knowledge or the mode of essence. This body is an unmanifested mode of Buddha.
  2. Sambhogakaya: Sambhogakaya is also known as the body of enjoyment. It refers to the manifestation of Buddha into an enjoyment-body in a pure land (Akanistha) to teach bodhisattvas through visionary experiences.
  3. Nirmanakaya: The body of Nirmanakaya is the body of transformation. Buddha is born in the body of a Boddhisattva, a terrestrial-king, painting or any other natural object like a lotus. It is like being an avatar of God in Hinduism.

In contrast to Mahayana Buddhism that believes in these three bodies (trikaya) or manifestations, Hinayana Buddhism has no similar beliefs as according to them the Buddha was originally a human who has simply found his way towards enlightenment.

  • There are ten mental factors or far-reaching attitudes (paramitas) of both Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism. Although somewhat similar, they too have variations. The ten perfections or paramitas that lead a Mahayana Buddhist towards enlightenment are:
  1. Generosity
  2. Self-discipline
  3. Patience
  4. Perseverance
  5. Mental Stability
  6. Wisdom
  7. Skillful means
  8. Aspirational prayers
  9. Spiritual power
  10. Deep Awareness

The ten perfections or paramitas that lead a Hinayana Buddhist towards enlightenment are:

  1. Generosity
  2. Self-discipline
  3. Patience
  4. Perseverance
  5. Being true to one’s own self or words
  6. Wisdom
  7. Renunciation
  8. Resolution
  9. Love
  10. Equanimity
  • The goal of Mahayana Buddhism is wishing immeasurable joy for oneself and others. The goal of Hinayana Buddhism is celebrating joys of others without feeling jealous and not expecting anything from others.

Final Thought!

It is difficult to decide which of the two sects of Buddhism, Mahayana and Hinayana is more appropriate. Both of them seem to be correct in their own views. No one can deny that Buddha was a human being, neither they can disclaim the fact that Buddha was enlightened. It might be concluded from Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism that although a human, Siddharth Gautama was destined to be a Buddha or an enlightened one.

What are your views regarding Hinayana and Mahayana? Which according to you is superior and why? Can you state any other differences in Mahayana and Hinayana?

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are the 2 major sects of Buddhism?

Ans: The 2 major sects of Buddhism are Hinayana Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism.

What is the basic difference between Mahayana Buddhism and Hinayana Buddhism?

Ans: The basic difference between Mahayana Buddhism and Hinayana Buddhism is that the former considers Buddha as a God whereas the latter is of the view that Buddha was a human being who found his way to Nirvana.

Who divided Buddhism into Mahayana and Hinayana?

Ans: The Fourth Buddhist Council, under the patronage of king Kanishka, divided Buddhism into the two sects of Hinayana and Mahayana. The Council was held during 72 AD in Kundalvana, Kashmir.

Which countries practice Hinayana Buddhism?

Ans: The countries that practice Hinayana Buddhism include Indo-China and Ceylon (Sri Lanka)

Why is Mahayana called the Greater Vehicle?

Ans: Mahayana is called as the Great Vehicle because it represents the vehicle of a Boddhisattva who is seeking to become a Buddha.

Why is Hinayana called a lesser vehicle?

Ans: Hinayana Buddhism is called lesser vehicle not because of social or economic status. It is called so because whatever we experience in samsara is full of sufferings. We must strive to get rid of these sufferings for which it is essential to persevere and renounce everything.

Is idol worship allowed in Buddhism?

Ans: The Mahayana sect of Buddhism believes in idols whereas the Hinayana sect doesn’t.

In what languages were Hinayana and Mahayana scriptures written?

Ans: Hinayana scriptures were written in Pali whereas Mahayana scriptures were written in Sanskrit.

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