Schools of Buddhism | Introduction


A glance at the Buddhist and Jaina canonical works will show that in the sixth century B.C. the country was seething with a very large number of religious and philosophical speculations and their advocates were sharply divided into two classes: the śramaṇas and the brāhmaṇas.

While the brāhmaṇas based their theories on the Vedas, the śramaṇas, i.e. those who perform acts of mortification or austerity as the means of pleasure and happiness here and hereafter, were quite opposed to them, discarding the austerity of the Vedas altogether.

Both of them were preceded by some thinkers belonging to the brāhmanic fold, i.e.

(1) the karmins, or the “followers of the karma-mārga”—the path of the Vedic acts con­sisting in the different sacrifices and ceremonials, and

(2) the Jñānins, i.e. the followers of the jñāna-mārga, "the path of knowledge,” the sublime thoughts of the supporters of which found the fullest expression in the Upaniṣads.

Owing to the gradual growth of rationalism in society, growing abhor­rence to animal sacrifice in Vedic rites, and the increasing dissatisfaction with various outward and complex practices in ceremonials

there came into being different Schools also in the brāhmanic class who doubted the value and validity of sacrifices.

They considered them to be frail rafts for crossing the oceans of the world (saṁsāra) and allegorical explanations of sacrifices were sought to be offered:

For instance, at the very beginning of the Brihadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad the Aśva-medhā (horse sacrifice) which is the most elaborate animal sacrifice, is interpreted as having cosmic significance.

As the above Schools lived in close contact, most of them were more or less mutually influenced, and the śramaṇas and the brāhmaṇas made the most remarkable and valuable contributions to the philosophical thoughts of the country.

We are concerned here with the śramaṇas or more precisely with the Buddhists.

They are divided into two broad Schools, i.e. Hīnayāna (in­ferior course) and Mahāyāna (great course). It is the Mahāyānists who, in order to assert their superiority over the Hīnayānists, used the epithets Hīna- and Mahā- before the word -yāna.

The Mahāyānists claim that the greatness of their course consists in its seven-fold merit which is not to be found in the Hīnayāna(Mahāyāna- sūtrālankāra).

Two important questions are discussed among the ancient teachers such as Asanga (c. A.D. 300) and Śāntirakṣita (A.D. 700):

The first of them is: Do the Mahāyāna sūtras actually represent the original speech of the Buddha? The Mahāyānist teachers answer is the affirmative.

The second question is: Which of the two, the Hīnayāna and the Mahāyāna, is earlier? The answer is quite clear that the Mahāyāna system is a much developed one unlike the Hīnayāna.

The very fact that the teachers have tried to prove the authenticity of the Mahāyāna shows that its authen­ticity was much disputed.

We will give next a general historical account of the chief branches of Buddhist thought in India and briefly show their relation to the central teachings of the Buddha and to early Indian thought.

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In Buddhist council the Sacred Canon was revised and a great commentary on the Abhidharma called Vibhāṣā (expounder) was written. The original text in Sanskrit of this work is lost, but there are still two Chinese translations.Again, among the Vaibhāṣikas there were different views on certain points, and two groups formed - Kaśmīra Vaibhāṣikas and Pāścātya or Western Vaibhāṣikas.


“Those who hold the sūtras as their authority and not the śāstras are Sautrāntikas.”says Yaśomitra in his Abhidharma-kośa-vyākhyā.The word sūtrānta actually means that which is definitely ascertained of the sūtras.They reject the authority of the Abhidharmas of the Sarvāstivādins, for according to them, those Abhidharmas are far from the sayings of the Buddha.


The followers of idealism are naturally known as Vijñāna-vādins. They are called Yogācāras. The word Yogācāra (literally, a practiser of yoga) originally meant an ascetic, but gradually was employed for an idealist or the School. The idealistic thought in Buddhism is already found in Mahāyāna- sūtras, but first systematized by Maitreyanātha, the master of Asanga.


Mādhyamika doctrine involving the Śūnya-vāda as in the Mahāyāna-sūtras is systematized by Nāgārjuna (A.D. 200?).Now the Mādhyamikas are those who followed the middle path of the Buddha. But what is this middle path?“Those ignorant people who see existence and non-existence do not see the cessation of the visible which is blissful.”

6. 4 Schools of Buddhism | Conclusion

The problem for the Buddha who was much influenced by the Upaniṣadic thoughts was as to how we can control desires which are so natural in human minds. He found the solution in his three fundamental principles of Impermanence (anitya), Sorrow (duhkha), and Non-self (anātman). If one deeply meditates upon them with regard to the worldly things, one's desire for their enjoyment is sure to vanish.