Difference Between Mahayana and Theravada (With Table)

Gautama Buddha’s teachings and principles are spread all over the world and are considered as dharma. His followers are Buddhists and the religion is Buddhism. Buddhism has three main traditions or vehicles by the ways of which pilgrims can have suffering to enlightenment. Those traditions are Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayana.

Mahayana vs Theravada

The main difference between Mahayana and Theravada is that Mahayana refers to various Buddhist traditions, texts, practices, and philosophies while Theravada refers to the oldest existing school of Buddhism. Mahayana is also known as Great Vehicle while Theravada is also known as the doctrine of the elders.

Mahayana believes that enlightenment can be achieved by following the teachings of Buddha. Boddhisattvas have huge prominence in Mahayana. It does not believe in the supremacy of exclusively Buddha. It follows Buddha’s teachings but has different interpretations and explanations, which is considered corrupted in Theravada. Over 56% of Buddhists are followers of Mahayana.

While Theravada believes monks need to strive to gain freedom and need to become Arhats. It believes that freedom from samsara’s cycle is crucial. It promotes Arhantship and believes in one God and creator – Buddha. The principles of Theravada are traditional and orthodox. Over 38% of Buddhists are followers of Theravada.

Comparison Table Between Mahayana and Theravada

Parameters of ComparisonMahayanaTheravada
OriginBelieved to be originated in the Hinayana schools Descends from Vibhajjavada (a division within the Sthavira Nikaya)
Buddhists FollowersOver 360 million Buddhists are followers Mahayana Over 150 million Buddhists are followers of Theravada
Earliest of evidenceTextual evidence from Sutras Textual evidence of gold plates found in Sri Ksetra in the Pāli language
Promotion of beliefsBelieves in promotion of other monks too and not exclusively Buddha Believes in exclusive supremacy of Buddha
SpreadFrom China and India to different parts of Southeast Asia From Southern India to Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Myanmar, and beyond

What is Mahayana?

Mahayana is a term used to refer to a branch of Buddhism which includes Buddhist traditions, practices, philosophies, and texts. It is also called the Great Vehicle. It contains the scriptures and teachings of Buddhism. Mahayana also means the path of Bodhisattva to become samyaksambuddha or a fully awakened Buddha. Mahayana includes various theories like the famous Madhyamaka (theory of emptiness).

Mahayana is the largest Buddhist tradition to date. There are various origin theories and hypotheses to explain the origin of Mahayana like the lays origin theory, the Mahasamghika origin theory, the forest hypothesis, the cult of the book theory, and others.

Mahayana is considered as the vision which motivated to achieve Buddhahood for the sake of other beings and provides supreme religious motivation. It focuses on inner motivation and vision regardless of the institutional position of the individual. Therefore, it is not considered as a term but a religious tendency. It even enlightens on elements like cosmology and theology.

Mahayana has achieved growth from the fifth century. Some popular Buddha’s of Mahayana are Amitabha, Aksobhya, Bhaisajyaguru, and Vairocana. It has spread across South Asia, East Asia, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. It is extremely influential in India, China, Japan, Korea, Nepal, Bhutan, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Mongolia.

What is Theravada?

Theravada is a term used to refer to the oldest existing school of Buddhism. It is also called the doctrine of the elders. The Pail of Canon contains the main scriptures of Theravada. It was first well established in the first century in the settlements of the Kingdom of Anuradhapura. Theravada becomes the main religion of the Sinhalese people. Theravada provides conservative subjects, doctrines, and monastic discipline.

Theravada does not promote the authenticity of Mahayana sutras. A part of the modern Theravada is derived from a tradition of the Sri Lankan branch called the Mahavihara order. Modern Theravada includes Buddhist modernism, the Vipassana movement, and the Thai Forest Tradition.

Theravada consists of seven stages of purification and considers it to be the path to be followed, which is orthodox, unlike Mahayana. Some major establishments in Modern Theravada are the Maha Bodhi Society in 1891, Bengal Buddhist Association in 1892, London Buddhist Vihara in 1926, Das Biddhistische Haus in 1957, and Washington Buddhist Vihara in 1965.

Theravada is extremely influential in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Vietnam, Laos, India, China, Nepal, Bangladesh. Mauryan kings like Ashoka helped Theravada reach different parts of Southeast Asia. Pieces of evidence show that Theravada becomes a dominant religion in Southeast Asia after the 5th century CE. Before Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana were prominent.

Main Differences Between Mahayana and Theravada

  1. Mahayana is also called the Great vehicle while Theravada is also called the doctrine of the elders.
  2. Mahayana includes less conservative practices and beliefs while Theravada is the most oldest and conservative sector in Buddhism.
  3. Mahayana includes the early teachings of Buddha and expands them into a new form while Theravada exclusively believes Buddha and his teachings and consider expansion as corruption.
  4. Mahayana Buddhists believe in faith time to achieve salvation while Theravada Buddhists believe one has to work out the salvation with diligence.
  5. Mahayana believes in three words Bodhisattva-yana, Prateka-Buddha-yana, and Sravaka-yana while Theravada believes in Arahant-yana and promotes Arahantship.


Mahayana and Theravada are the main branches of Buddhism. Both follow the deep-rooted teachings of Lord Buddha. The goal of both the branches is similar – to promote the liberation of individuals by search. Liberation of individuals from the cycles of samsara.

The methods to attain liberation are different in every branch. Both the branches rigidly follow the teachings and principles of Buddha without doubt or contradiction. Though Mahayana has expanded some doctrines and Theravada considers expansion as corruption.

The fundamental teachings are similar in both the branches like the four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, the Dependent Origination (Paticca-Samuppada) are the same for both the branches. The concepts like Anicca, Dukkha, Samadhi, Anatta, and Panna have been accepted by both branches without any difference. The idea of supreme power has been rejected by both branches of Buddhism.


  1. https://noblepath.info/PDFs/theravada_mahayana_buddhism.pdf
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