Difference Between Mahayana and Vajrayana

Key Difference – Mahayana vs Vajrayana 


Buddhism is a great religion from Asia that has millions of followers worldwide. The religion is based upon the teachings of Lord Buddha, an Indian prince who turned ascetic and achieved enlightenment and eternal bliss through nonviolence and compassion. Over the course of few centuries, there appeared many different schools or sects of Buddhism, of which Mahayana and Vajrayana are most important. There are some differences between the two sects of Mahayana and Vajrayana that will be highlighted in this article.

What is Mahayana?

Mahayana is a Sanskrit word that literally translates into Great Vehicle. This is a Buddhism school of thought that originated and developed in India. Mahayana sect has the largest number of followers with more than half of the Buddhists around the world following the beliefs and practices of this tradition. This sect is a path for enlightenment. This is the reason why it is also called Bodhisattva vehicle. Bodhisattva is the title given to humans who attain enlightenment but are not content with it. They rather work for the uplift of others, in a bid to liberate them from the circle of lives and deaths. This tradition originated in south India and later spread to many other Asian countries like China, Tibet, Nepal, Mongolia, Japan, etc. The majority of scriptures of this school is based upon the teachings of Buddha himself and requires meditation for attaining enlightenment. Buddhahood is the aim of all followers of Mahayana, and they pledge to work for the enlightenment of others even after attaining enlightenment.

Mahayana Buddhism is not the entire Buddhism but it includes Buddhism traditions like Zen, Pure Land, and Tibetan Buddhism. Mahayana or the Great Vehicle is renowned for its emphasis on wisdom and awareness.

Difference Between Mahayana and Vajrayana

What is Vajrayana?

Vajrayana translates into thunderbolt vehicle, and it represents one of the three vehicles to enlightenment in Buddhism. This tradition or school of thought emerged later than Mahayana in the 8th century in India. Even though the teachings of Vajrayana are similar to what Buddha taught in his lifetime namely nonviolence and compassion, there is also the influence of Padmasambhava, an influential scholar also referred to as second Buddha by some. As the name implies, Vajrayana is the third yana or vehicle to achieve enlightenment in Buddhism. Vajra means hard, and this tradition is also called Diamond vehicle to indicate the inner strength of this school of thought. The followers of this path of enlightenment also call it the short path as it promises enlightenment in a lifetime as opposed to other schools of Buddhism that say that Nirvana is possible only in many lifetimes.

Mahayana vs Vajrayana

What is the difference between Mahayana and Vajrayana?

Definitions of Mahayana and Vajrayana:

Mahayana: Mahayana is a Sanskrit word that literally translates into Great Vehicle.

Vajrayana: Vajrayana translates into thunderbolt vehicle, and it represents one of the three vehicles to enlightenment in Buddhism.

Characteristics of Mahayana and Vajrayana:

School of Thought:

Mahayana: Mahayana is an older school of thought.

Vajrayana: Vajrayana is a newer school of thought.


Mahayana: Mahayana proposes enlightenment in many lifetimes.

Vajrayana: Vajrayana promises it in a single lifetime.


Image Courtesy:

1. “BuddhistTriad” by No machine [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Commons

2. “Lingyin temple 18 armed cundi” by Tengu800 – Own work. [CC0] via Commons