Mahayana Buddhism in India

03 Sep

Buddhism as it is practiced today has three principal branches viz. Theravada (the school of the elders), Mahayana (the greater Vehicle) and Vajrayana (the diamond vehicle).Of the three the Mahayana is spread over a wider geographical area. It covers the vast populace of  China, Mongolia, Korea and Japan. It is also more diverse in its content as it encompasses a variety of Buddhist schools .It is more emotional, warmer, and more personal in devotion, more ornate in art, literature and ritual. It also has a record of striving to invent or include doctrines agreeable to the masses of the region. It is even seen as being closer to Hinduism as far as the rituals and practices are concerned

It is in this context that, recently, someone on the Forum asked me a question concerning the proximity of Mahayana Buddhism to Hinduism .The question specifically asked was:

IS it not true that Mahayana is essentially the way that Buddhism tried to come to terms with Hinduism the main religion of the day? I see Mahayana as the way Buddhism tried to survive in India

Let me at the outset say that I do not quite agree with the tenor of the question. I also do not agree with its drift or content. Let me explain why I think so.


A. Birth of the Mahayana

1. The concept of Mahayana came about because of the churning of ideas within the Buddhist community at the beginning of the Christian era. A large section of the community strongly felt there was a need for a more emotional, warmer, personal religion adequately disposed to evolution and development. The general tradition connects this evolution to the initiatives of King Kanishka (c 120 A. D) and scholars of the time such as Ashvaghosha (c 120 A. D)  and Nagarjuna (c 150 A D).

3. Though the concept of Mahayana was launched, officially, at the fourth religious council held at Kashmir in first century A.D, the germ- idea was in circulation even a hundred years earlier to that, more as a matter of speculation and argument than as a precise statement.

The evolution of the Mahayana concept came about as a gradual unfolding rather than as a sudden development.

4. At the time when the Mahayana doctrine came up for debate in the fourth religious council, nearly years 500 after the historical Buddha attained nirvana, Buddhism had well taken roots in India. It was popular among the masses. It also enjoyed the patronage of kings and Emperors.

 It was therefore, at that time, not in desperate need of a ruse for survival. The Mahayana did not take birth as a reaction to Hinduism.

B. Mahayana is not a departure from teachings of Buddha 

5. The Mahayana is not a departure from the doctrines enunciated by the historical Buddha. Both the schools – Theravada and Mahayana- accept the fundamental teaching of Buddha implicitly without any questions. Both the schools argue that the basic tenets of their school emanate directly from the teachings of the Buddha. Followers of Mahayana insist they have not deviated from the teachings of the Buddha instead, they claim to have rediscovered the Buddha’s lost teachings. Many scholars say that Nagarjuna grasped the Buddha’s “seed- idea” of void Sunyata and developed it into a system of thought in his book Madhyamika Karika.

C. Theravada – Mahayana


6. An obvious difference between the two schools is the Bodhisattva ideal. Both schools accept the three Yanas or Bodhis but consider the Bodhisattva ideal as the highest. The Mahayana accepts many mystical Bodhisattvas while the Theravada considers Bodhisattva as a human amongst humankind and as one who devotes his life for the attainment of perfection and who ultimately becomes a fully Enlightened Buddha for the welfare and happiness of the world. The Mahayana transfers the emphasis from personal salvation to universal salvation, from the ideal of Arhant to that of the Bodhisattva. It said, a monk should not be a lamp unto himself, while there is darkness every where

Perhaps, at some point of time, it was thought that the way of the Arhant meant complete detachment from the world. It was considered desirable that one should remain in the world out of compassion for the benefit of all beings striving to attain enlightenment (Bodhichitta), to become a Buddha. Let me add, the status of the Buddha was regarded an ideal. The Buddha was never looked upon as unique: there had been many others in the past ages. The Buddha is the supreme ideal. Anyone could strive to reach there. The conduct through which Gautama had become the Buddha was described in ancient texts. Therefore, every ardent seeker motivated by compassion for all beings (as did the Gautama) is a Bodhisattva, the Buddha in making.  The progress was partly through practices, and partly through right-understanding (prajna); the latter being more important. After some early Mahayana Sutras furthered the concept of Bodhisattva many more Sutras elaborated on the theme.

7. During the initial times, the difference between the two schools was not that apparent. As the Chinese traveler I- Ching (635-713 A.D.) put it, “Those who worship Bodhisattvas and read Mahayana Sutras are called Mahayanists, while those who do not do this are called Hinayanists”. It was that simple.

8. However the differences became explicit over a period when (a) each schools adopted its chosen texts –Pali texts by Theravada and Sanskrit texts by Mahayana; and;(b)when the two schools moved away to distinct geographical areas like Sri Lanka ,Burma , Far East on one hand and Tibet , China and Japan on the other.


D. Reforms within Mahayana

9. The challenges that Mahayana Buddhism faced in distant lands and diverse cultures called upon it to innovate. Buddhism that took root in those countries was not the same as the one practiced in India at the time. For instance, in order to be acceptable to the populace of Tibet it was necessary  that Buddhism evolve itself into a new form by letting in Bon practices and ideas while firmly retaining its basic Buddhist tenets. In the process, Buddhism took in materials and attitudes native to the soil, lent them a new sense of direction and grafted them with the Mahayana doctrines. It allowed many Bon attitudes, ideas, tribal gods, goddesses, and the associated rituals and instilled in them the spirit of Karuna. Thus, while the form was traditional to the soil, the soul was Buddhist.  Bon at the same time also adopted numerous Buddhist practices, attitudes and ideas.

A similar process took place in China and Japan where Buddhism imbibed the rituals, practices, attitudes and even deities of the native religions (Tao and Shinto) while retaining the essential Buddhist doctrines at heart. Those religions intern also modified themselves. It was/is a dynamic process.

10 Thus, Mahayana Buddhism became an umbrella concept for a great variety of sects, from the Tantric Sects found in Tibet and Nepal (secret Yoga teachings), to the Pure Land Sects found in China, Korea and Japan (reliance on simple faith- Bhakthi). The Mahayana also gave birth to an inward-looking Chan Buddhism (China), which then crossed the straights to Japan and flowered as Japanese Zen. For Chan and Zen followers, the path to enlightenment is meditation.

In fact, some scholars go further and say the Mahayana is not a single vehicle but rather a train comprising many carriages of different classes.

11 . Despite this proliferation in beliefs, Mahayana Buddhism tapers down to two general branches — the Madhyamika and the Yogacara.  While Madhyamika represents the middle view, the middle road, a path of relativity over extremes (e.g., extremes like existence vs. nonexistence, self vs. non-self); The  Yogachara  school emphasizes yoga — the practice of meditation. In either case, the path to enlightenment is long and arduous, requiring followers to build up merit in this life to be reborn in the next life with better karma.

E. Mahayana-Hinduism

12. Now, before coming to issue of Hindu influence we can digress a bit. While discussing the similarities among various Indian languages Prof. Emeneau, a well-known American scholar, in his classic paper, “India as a Linguistic Area”, came up with the concept of linguistic area for explaining the underlying Indian-ness of apparently divergent cultural and linguistic patterns. The resemblances between two or more languages (whether typological or in vocabulary), he said, can be due to genetic relation (descent from a common ancestor language), or due to borrowing at some time in the past between languages. He also said, essentially different but geographically and physically proximate languages often exhibit shared linguistic features.

We can perhaps extend this view to cover various religions that took birth or that took root in India. Amanda Coomaraswamy , the great scholar, once said “The more superficially one studies Buddhism, the more it seems to differ from Brahmanism in which it originated; the more profound our study, the more difficult it becomes to distinguish Buddhism from Brahmanism, or to say in what respects, if any, Buddhism is really unorthodox.”. The Buddha did not fight the religion of India of his time .He had a benevolent view towards it and its scholars. He however objected to the ritualistic aspect of that religion. Buddhist Rahula Vipola wrote,” the Buddha was trying to shed the true meaning of the Vedas. Buddha is a knower of the Veda (vedajña) or of the Vedanta (vedântajña) [(Sa.myutta, i. 168) and (Sutta Nipâta, 463)].” Hindus scholars have also accepted the Buddha and Buddhism as a fulfillment of Sanatana Dharma.

Swami Ranganathananada in his article Bhagavan Buddha and Our Heritage (published separately as booklet by Advaita Ashrama) explains that it is essential to understand Upanishads in order to fully understand the Buddha and his teachings. He regards the Buddha as continuing the Upanishad tradition of enquiry. Gautama assimilated whatever his teachers could give ; and asked for more. But, when that did not satisfy his aspirations Gautama resolved to leave his teachers and to seek the Truth on his own. Swami points out that Yoga and the Buddha both emphasize the Middle Path: “Yoga the discipline for the destruction of sorrow is for him who is moderate in eating, and recreation; moderate in work work and sleep and waking (BG-16.17).The additional charm of the Buddha’s teaching is that it arose out of his own experience. The Buddha’s second discourse at Saranath on the subject of Anatta is acceptable to Vedanta, entirely; and can be understood better in the light of the Upanishads. The attainment of Nirvana, the Swami explains, agrees essentially with the realization of the form-less Brahman of the Upanishads. The Buddha’s teaching is not only complete in itself but is also an essential part of the Indian Philosophy. The Buddha is the most wonderful flowering of the combined legacy. Swami Raganathananda concludes: “The self-transcending ethics of the Buddha united to the transcendent Self of Sri Sankara is the most stimulating essence of the Indian thouht”.

13. Hinduism and Buddhism influenced each other in many ways. The Buddhist notion of non-injury and compassion toward all living beings took deep roots in the Indian ethos, while Mahayana Buddhism took cue from the traditional Indian methods of devotional worship. Buddhism influenced the growth and development of Indian art and architecture and contributed richly to the practice of breathing and meditation in attaining mindfulness and higher states of consciousness. The Hindu Tantra influenced the origin and evolution of Vajrayana Buddhism that flowered in Tibet.   The systems of Buddhism and Hinduism are not either contradictory to one another or completely self contained.

14. We may say that in the first few centuries following the nirvana of the Buddha, Buddhism was an integral and significant part of that complex religious character of the Indian subcontinent, which the outsiders called as Hinduism. However over a period thereafter Buddhism crossed the boundaries of the Indian subcontinent and went on to play a much greater role in the whole of Asia. In the process, it developed a very complex sectarian, theological and geographical diversity and a tradition of its own – a unique blend of local customs and Buddhist faith- to become one of the most significant and influential religions of the world. Many people who are not familiar with the history of the Indian subcontinent fail to understand the deep connection that existed between Hinduism and Buddhism in the earlier days and the significant ways in which they enriched each other. 

F. Conclusion

15. The birth of Mahayana was not as a reaction to Hinduism .It was a concept that emerged out of churning of ideas within the Buddhist community. Perhaps it was the need of the time. The Mahayana did not deviate from the doctrines enunciated by the historical Buddha .The various forms that Mahayana assumed in different geographical and cultural contexts were a part of the dynamics of its growth.  The Mahayana in any country has to be viewed against the broad canvas of that region’s cultural and religious uniqueness. This is true in the Indian context too. Further, the systems of Buddhism and Hinduism are not either contradictory to one another or completely self contained.

16. What happened to Buddhism after eighth century and Muslim invasion is another story.



Hinduism and Buddhism – A historical sketch By Sir Charles Eliot

Timeline, history-Three   Main Buddhist schools


Posted by on September 3, 2012 in Buddhism


Tags: ,

5 responses to “Mahayana Buddhism in India

  1. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 11:58 am

    hi sreenivasarao s

    a fascinating topic and covered thoroughly.

    i’m glad you pointed out about mahayana’s origins and how it is not a deviation but that it is based on the buddha’s teachings. it is fair to the mahayanists.

    i read somewhere – i have no scholarly interest in such matters, only an intuitive one, to experience the reality of the way – that because the buddha was a skilful teacher he taught various people according to their temperament and dispositions. and to some he taught the mahayana way. so in those terms there there is a direct link back to the buddha.

    a question:
    do the thearvadas refer to the bodhisattvas as men only as you seem to suggest?
    (may i say that if they agree that women too can be bodhisattvas, tnen the blog be amended to be more inclusive in this regard. i’d be very surprsied and amused if anyone said only men can be bodhisattvas – if, according to the buddha, women too can achieve nirvana, i wonder why women, according to anyone cannot be a bodhisattva.)

    thanks again for an enlightening blog.

    Raj Armugam

    • sreenivasaraos

      March 21, 2015 at 11:59 am

      Dear Raj, thank you for the comments.

      the teacher taught what was in the best interests of the pupil and the dharma.

      what we call mahayana or hinayana and their differences, surfaced centuries after the buddha’s nirvana. he could not have anticipated a schism that came about centuries later in a religion that then did not exist.

      i intended to say, theravada, in its pali texts, regarded the buddha as human and not as a supernatural being. i have amended the line.

      thank you.


    • sreenivasaraos

      March 21, 2015 at 12:02 pm

      Dear Ssubanna, Could you quote the source [Book/Publication] of Buddhist Rahula Walpole wrote,” the Buddha was trying to shed the true meaning of the Vedas” and also the ‘meaning of the vedas’. Regards


      • sreenivasaraos

        March 21, 2015 at 12:02 pm

        Dear searchnreach, Wow… You have dug out an old and a neglected blog. The sentence you mentioned ‘Buddhist Rahula Vipola wrote,” the Buddha was trying to shed the true meaning of the Vedas. Buddha is a knower of the Veda (vedajña) or of the Vedanta (vedântajña) [(Sa.myutta, i. 168) and (Sutta Nipâta, 463] is based in information given in Wikipedia (please click here). Thank you.


  2. Sam

    January 23, 2023 at 2:15 pm

    Dear Sreenivas Rao,

    Since this post is over a decade old, I’m not sure you will see this comment, but posting anyway.

    Going back to the second Buddhist council that was convened perhaps a hundred years after Buddha’s parinibbana is a good starting point for some perspective and a few additional points to complement your rather thorough analysis.

    By most accounts, the purpose of this council was to try and resolve the differences between the Mahāsamghikā and Sthavira groups on the matter of the Vinaya (rules for monastics). This is where there was a clear separation or schism between the groups who eventually decided to go out on their own due to the specific differences over Vinaya. By all accounts, there was no disagreement over the core teachings, practices for lay-persons, or any other Abhidhamma related topics.

    At the time, the Mahāsamghikā group already had a Vinaya, the āgamas or sutrapitaka , and a flavour of the Abhidharma. There appears to be some consensus that the Mahāsamghikās were like an early version of Mahayana or strongly influenced the development of Mahayana practices. There were still differences of opinion across the Lokottaravāda, Bahuśrutīya, Ekavyāvahārika, and other groups that emerged from Mahāsamghikā, though there was a much smaller schism across these groups.

    I’m not getting into the history and spread of the Mahāsamghikā, Mahayana and derivative schools, but even with this diversification and geographical reach it still retained the core principles that did not deviate from the original intent. You have spelled this out rather clearly.

    We also note from several authoritative works and in [1] Paul Williams’ Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations that Mahayana itself did not have a Vinaya (rules for monastic practice) and derived its practices from earlier rule books. A substantial portion of Mahayana development and practice happened outside India through the Kushan region, central Asia, China, including commentaries and interpretations of key sutras that did not make it back into India at the time. For example, of the main sutras, the Lotus sutra is one of the most important Sutra outside India (with the most authoritative translations and commentary from Chinese), but this is not given as much importance inside India. There are several analyses and scholarly works that point to the rapid growth and acceptance of Mahayana practices during the 5th through the 9th centuries AD/CE with a significant portion happening outside India.

    In summary, Mahayana did not come about as a reaction to Hinduism / Vedic religion / indigenous practices at the time, but more as a means of consolidating internal differences within some Buddhist schools over differences of opinion and practices, consolidating the Vinayas into a consistent work, consolidating the Sutras and firming up the Abhidharma explanations across a few centuries.

    While this may sound like a trivial exercise, it was anything but. At several instances after Buddha’s parinibbana, the schools and practices may very well have disappeared due to internal differences of opinion and strife. You can read more on this from Bhikkhu Sujato’s excellent work on Sects and Sectarianism, available for free download.

    I hope this 2-cents gives a little perspective.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: