Difference Between Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism (With Table)

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Buddhism includes a plethora of customs and beliefs that revolve around the idea of spirituality. It is largely grounded in the teachings of the śramaṇa, Gautama Buddha. However, upon his death, Buddhism split into various factions, each characterized by a specific interpretation of the philosophy. Mahayana and Hinayana are two such factions that have several differences between them.

Mahayana vs Hinayana

The difference between Mahayana and Hinayanais that Mahayana Buddhism largely supports idol-worshipping along with the idea that Buddha is a divine being who will help his devotees in achieving nirvana whereas Hinayana Buddhism supports the idea that nirvana can only be achieved through self-discipline and meditation. It considers Buddha to be an ordinary man who had attained enlightenment.

The term ‘Mahayana’ is a Sanskrit word that translates to ‘Greater Vehicle’. In the context of Buddhism, it encompasses a group of Buddhist texts and philosophies included in the Mahayana Sutras. Followers of this sect dwell in China, Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam, Japan, Nepal, Bhutan, Taiwan, and Malaysia. They believe in Mantra traditions and the bodhisattva path to attain nirvana.

Meanwhile, the term ‘Hinayana’ is a Sanskrit word that translates to ‘Smaller Vehicle’. It is synonymous with Theravada, which is a contrast to the Mahayana sect. followers of Hinayana Buddhism dwell in Myanmar, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Laos. Unlike Mahayana scriptures, which are written in Sanskrit, Hinayana Sutras are written in the Pali language. They emphasise the idea that an individual must find their own path to Nirvana.

Comparison Table Between Mahayana and Hinayana

Parameters of ComparisonMahayanaHinayana
OriginMahayana Buddhism gained popularity in 500 BC.Hinayana Buddhism gained popularity in 250 BC.
PhilosophyIt emphasizes that Buddha is a divine being who will help his devotees in achieving nirvana.It emphasizes that Buddha was an ordinary man who achieved enlightenment and that one must find their own path to Nirvana.
PracticesIt involves the practice of Mantra chanting and idol worshipping.It involves the practice of self-discipline and meditation.
ScripturesIt follows the Mahayana Sutras that were written in Sanskrit.It follows the Hinayana Sutras that were written in the Pali language.
AttitudeIt encourages mental stability, deep awareness, aspirational prayers, courage, and skills, among other attitudes.It encourages truth, renunciation, love, resolution, calmness, and composure, among other attitudes.
FollowersIt has followers in China, Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam, Japan, Nepal, Bhutan, Taiwan, and Malaysia.It has followers in Myanmar, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Laos.

What is Mahayana?

Mahayana Buddhism is essentially a movement that largely influences the Buddhist cultures of Central and East Asia. At one point, Buddhists in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia considered its philosophy as well. However, it did not survive there. The movement revolves around spiritual ideas regarding cosmology and metaphysics. It includes practices such as Mantra chanting and idol worshipping.

The movement is grounded in the Mahayana Sutras that were written in the Sanskrit language. They were compiled several years after Buddha’s demise. Over time, there have been several interpretations. However, the basic idea is that Buddha is a divine being who was sent on earth to help others attain nirvana. Therefore, his devotees might achieve enlightenment by following the bodhisattva path.

The bodhisattva path is that in which devotees seek to become a Buddha. Attitudes such as mental stability, deep awareness, aspirational prayers, courage, and skills of means are emphasized. The idea revolves around dropping the illusion of ‘self’ and realizing one’s true nature. In doing so, a person will be liberated from the tyranny of their life.

The origin of Mahayana Buddhism is still obscure. However, many believe that it began to flourish in 500 BC. Since then, its philosophy has been shaped by multiple people in various places.

What is Hinayana?

Even though Mahayana Buddhism came to being way before, Hinayana Buddhism is considered to be more orthodox and conservative. The movement has followers in Myanmar, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Laos. These people follow the Hinayana Sutras that were written in Pali.

The scriptures lay emphasis on one’s own path to enlightenment. They reject the idea of Buddha being a divine being. Rather, they believe that Buddha was only an ordinary man who attained Nirvana and was gracious enough to spread his knowledge. Practices such as self-discipline and meditation are believed to assist an individual during the journey.

Hinayana Buddhism has similar ideas regarding cosmology and metaphysics as the former. However, the way to achieve it is considered to be different. The movement lays emphasis on attitudes such as truth, renunciation, love, resolution, calmness, and composure. By consistently practising them, an individual might be liberated from the cycle of life and death.

The origins of this movement are obscure like Mahayana Buddhism. However, it was known to be flourishing in 250 BC. Like the former, Hinayana Buddhism has been interpreted and shaped throughout time by many people in different places. However, the core and aim of the philosophy have remained the same.

Main Differences Between Mahayana and Hinayana

  1. Mahayana Buddhism gained popularity in 500 BC whereas Hinayana Buddhism gained popularity in 250 BC.
  2. Mahayana emphasizes that Buddha is a divine being who will help his devotees in achieving nirvana whereas Hinayana emphasizes that Buddha was an ordinary man who achieved enlightenment and that one must find their own path to Nirvana.
  3. Mahayana involves the practice of Mantra chanting and idol worshipping whereas Hinayana involves the practice of self-discipline and meditation.
  4. Mahayana follows the Mahayana Sutras that were written in Sanskrit whereas Hinayana follows the Hinayana Sutras that were written in the Pali language.
  5. Mahayana encourages mental stability, deep awareness, aspirational prayers, courage, and skills, among other attitudes whereas Hinayana encourages truth, renunciation, love, resolution, calmness, and composure, among other attitudes.
  6. Mahayana has followers in China, Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam, Japan, Nepal, Bhutan, Taiwan, and Malaysia whereas Hinayana has followers in Myanmar, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Laos.

Conclusion

Mahayana and Hinayana are sects of Buddhism that came into being after the demise of Gautam Buddha. Each of them has its own interpretation of Buddha’s teachings, making them very different. Firstly, Mahayana emphasises that Buddha is a divine being who helps devotees attain nirvana whereas Hinayana emphasises that Buddha was only an ordinary man who attained nirvana.

Moreover, Mahayana involves practices such as Mantra chanting and idol worshipping whereas Hinayana involves practices such as self-discipline and meditation. Even though Mahayana became popular way before the latter, Hinayana is considered to be more orthodox and conservative in its teachings and practices.

References

  1. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1465151
  2. https://elibrary.ru/item.asp?id=5320149
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