Difference Between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism

Mahayana vs Theravada Buddhism


There is quite a lot of difference between the Mahayana and the Theravada schools of Buddhism in terms of their teachings and topics. In Theravada Buddhism only Sakyamuni Buddha is accepted. Other contemporary Buddhas like Amitabha and Medicine Buddha are also accepted in the Mahayana school.

Theravada accepts only Maitreya bodhisattva whereas Mahayana Buddhists accept Mansjuri, Avalokiteswara, Ksitigarbha Samantabhadra forms of bodhisattva as well. The organization of Buddhist scriptures too differ between the two schools. The Pali Canon is divided into 3 Tirpitakas whereas Mahayana sect also accepts Tripitakas of disciplines, discourses and dhammas.

The main emphasis of the Theravada sect is on self liberation. Helping other sentient beings comes primary along with aiming for self liberation in the case of the Mahayana Buddhists. It is interesting to see that Theravada has spread in the southern direction including places like Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos and Cambodia.

Mahayana on the other hand is characterized by the transmission to northern places like Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Tibet, China and parts of Southeast Asia as well. One of the main differences between Mahayana and Theravada sects is the language in which Tripitaka is written. Tripitaka is strictly written in Pali in the Theravada tradition. The original language of spreading the teachings was Sanskrit in the case of the Mahayana tradition.

There is no distinction in the nirvana attained by the Buddha and the Arahat Buddha in the case of Theravada tradition. The Mahayana Buddhists on the other hand call it ‘liberation from Samsara’. Rituals are heavily stressed in the Mahayana tradition whereas rituals are not emphasized in the Theravada sect.

It is important to note that the stage between death and rebirth is ignored in the Theravada school whereas the Mahayana believes in the stage between death and rebirth. One meal a day principle is strictly followed by the Theravada practitioners whereas the Mahayana school leaves it to the respective Sanghas to decide and act. The aspect of vegetarianism is strictly followed by the Mahayana tradition whereas there are no steadfast rules about vegetarianism among the Theravada practitioners. Both the schools focus differently on the worship in the temple.

Images Courtesy:

  1. Buddhist Monks by Darren On The Road (CC BY 2.0)

Difference between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism

- Theravada accepts only Sakyamuni Buddha, contemporary Buddhas are also accepted in the Mahayana

- Theravada accepts only Maitreya bodhisattva, Mahayana accepts different forms of bodhisattva

- The objective of training in Theravada is Arahant or Pacceka Buddha, in Mahayana it is Buddha-hood

- In Theravada, the scripture is organized in to Tripitaka, in Mahayana in addition to Tripitaka many sutras are included

- Theravada emphasize on self liberation, Mahayana emphasize more on helping other sentient beings along with self liberation

- Theravada does not emphasize on rituals, Mahayana strongly believe in rituals

- Theravada ignores the stage between death and rebirth, Mahayana believes in the stage between death and rebirth

- Theravada strictly follow one meal a day principle, in Mahayana Sanghas decide

- Theravada does not emphasize on Vegetarianism, Mahayana strictly follow Vegetarianism