The origin, nature, organization, and influence of the collection of Buddhist movements subsumed under the label Mahayana (Great Vehicle) have long been a matter of scholarly and insider debate. The Mahayana is most essentially thought to be characterized by a commitment to the bodhisattva path along with an acceptance of the canonical authority of at least a certain number of Mahayana texts. Scholarly consensus has generally dated the appearance of this movement to roughly the 1st century BCE, and, since the late 20th century, the finds of Mahayana texts in Gāndhārī Prakrit from northern Pakistan, datable to the first two centuries CE, makes this date all the more likely. These movements are generally believed to have started as a loose confederation of small monastic fraternities within Mainstream environments and to have remained very much a minority for the first several hundred years. The Mahayana appears prominently in the epigraphical and art-historical record around the 5th century CE and becomes increasingly mainstreamed within Indian monastic culture thereafter. Much of its most profound influence, however, took place outside India, particularly in Tibet and East Asia.
Despite a century and a half of scholarship on the Mahayana, there have been, until the late 20th century, few comprehensive treatments of the complex of traditions it represents. The best and most up-to-date survey is Williams 2009, which focuses on doctrine but gives due weight to the best scholarship on the formative period as well as developments that take place outside India. Durt 1994 is more narrow in focus but especially valuable for Chinese sources on Mahayana history. Berkwitz 2010 is a survey of South Asian Buddhism generally but includes substantial coverage of the Mahayana. Williams and Tribe 2000, on the history of Indian Buddhist thought, is also very useful, primarily for connecting the Mahayana both to the preceding Mainstream tradition and to the subsequent tantric developments. Katsuzaki, et al. 1997 treats Mahayana literature comprehensively (in Japanese). Hirakawa 1990 also includes a useful overview of early scriptures, though its thesis on the lay origins of the Mahayana institutionally situated at stupa sites is now seriously questioned in more-recent scholarship.
Berkwitz, Stephen C. South Asian Buddhism: A Survey. London and New York: Routledge, 2010.
Very up-to-date survey of the range of South Asian Buddhist traditions, with significant coverage of the Mahayana (pp. 68–125).
Durt, Hubert. “Daijō.” In Hōbōgirin: Dictionnaire encyclopédique du bouddhisme d’après les sources chinoises et japonaises. Vol. 7. Edited by Sylvain Lévi, Jacques Gernet, and Hubert Durt, 767–801. Paris: Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1994.
Overview of Mahayana sources, with focus on materials available in Chinese, especially the large commentary on the Perfection of Wisdom, the Da zhidu lun. In French.
Hirakawa, Akira. A History of Indian Buddhism: From Śākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna. Translated and edited by Paul Groner. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1990.
Most of this book treats earlier Buddhism, but Part 3 (pp. 223–311) deals with the author’s very influential thesis concerning the lay origins of the Mahayana, particularly at prominent cultic centers. This thesis has been challenged several times in more-recent scholarship.
Katsuzaki Yūgen, Komine Michihiko, Shimoda Masahiro, and Watanabe Shōgo, comps. Daijō kyōten kaisetsu jiten (大乗経典解説事典). Tokyo: Hokushindō, 1997.
Overview with extensive bibliographical notes on the major genres of Mahayana sutra literature, including commentaries and citations in larger compendia. In Japanese.
Williams, Paul. Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. 2d ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2009.
Single-best introduction to the breadth and depth of this tradition. Originally published in 1989, the second edition has been updated considerably in light of the most recent scholarship.
Williams, Paul, with Anthony Tribe. Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
Broad introduction to the intellectual history of the Indian Buddhist tradition, with considerable attention to the Mahayana (pp. 96–191).
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions and individuals. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article
Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.
If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email firstname.lastname@example.org to express your interest.
- Abhijñā/Ṛddhi (Extraordinary Knowledge and Powers)
- Abortion, Buddhism and
- Ajanta Caves
- Ambedkar Buddhism
- Ancient Indian Society
- Archaeology of Early Buddhism
- Art and Architecture In China, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in India, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Japan, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Nepal, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Tibet, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture on the "Silk Road," Buddhist
- Asceticism, Buddhism and
- Awakening of Faith
- Beats, Buddhism and the
- Bhāviveka / Bhāvaviveka
- Body, Buddhism and the
- Buddha, Three Bodies of the (Trikāya)
- Buddhism and Ethics
- Buddhism and Law
- Buddhism and Modern Literature
- Buddhist Art and Architecture in Sri Lanka and Southeast A...
- Buddhist Hermeneutics
- Buddhist Ordination
- Buddhist Theories of Causality (karma, pratītyasamutpāda, ...
- Buddhist Thought and Western Philosophy
- Buddhist Thought, Embryology in
- Buddhist-Christian Dialogue
- Cambodian Buddhism
- Canon, History of the Buddhist
- Caste, Buddhism and
- Central Asia, Buddhism in
- China, Esoteric Buddhism in, (Zhenyan and Mijiao)
- Chinese Buddhist Publishing and Print Culture, 1900-1950
- Colonialism and Postcolonialism
- Compassion (karuṇā)
- Cosmology, Astronomy and Astrology
- Culture, Material
- Dalai Lama
- Demons and the Demonic in Buddhism
- Dignāga and Dharmakīrti, The Philosophical Works and Influ...
- Drigung Kagyu (’Bri gung bKa’ brgyud)
- Dzogchen (rDzogs chen)
- Early Buddhist Philosophy (Abhidharma/Abhidhamma)
- Early Modern European Encounters with Buddhism
- East Asian Buddhist Art, Portraiture in
- Ellora Caves
- Emptiness (Śūnyatā)
- Environment, Buddhism and the
- Ethics of Violence, Buddhist
- Family, Buddhism and the
- Feminist Approaches to the Study of Buddhism
- Four Noble Truths
- Funeral Practices
- Gandhāra, Buddhism in
- Gelugpa (dGe lugs pa)
- Gender, Buddhism and
- Hakuin Ekaku
- History of Buddhisms in China
- Image Consecrations
- India, Buddhism in
- India, Mahāmudrā in
- Internationalism, Buddhism and
- Intersections Between Buddhism and Hinduism in Thailand
- Iranian World, Buddhism in the
- Islam, Buddhism and
- Japan, Buddhism in
- Korea, Buddhism in
- Laos, Buddhism in
- Linji and the Linjilu
- Literature, Chan
- Literature, Tantric
- Local Religion, Buddhism as
- Lotus Sūtra
- Mahayana, Early
- Malaysia, Buddhism in
- Mantras and Dhāraṇīs
- Merit Transfer
- Miracles, Buddhist
- Modernism, Buddhist
- Monasticism in East Asia
- Mongolia, Buddhism in
- Mongolia, Buddhist Art and Architecture in
- Music, and Buddhism
- Myanmar, Buddhism in
- New Medias, Buddhism in
- New Religions in Japan (Shinshūkyō), Buddhism and
- Śāntideva (Bodhicaryāvatāra)
- Nuns, Lives, and Rules
- Oral and Literate Traditions
- Pagan (Bagan)
- Perfection of Wisdom
- Perfections (Six and Ten)
- Philosophy, Chinese Buddhist
- Philosophy, Classical Indian Buddhist
- Philosophy, Classical Japanese Buddhist
- Philosophy, Tibetan Buddhist
- Pilgrimage in India
- Pilgrimage in Japan
- Pilgrimage in Tibet
- Psychology and Psychotherapy, Buddhism in
- Pure Land Buddhism
- Pure Land Sūtras
- Religious Tourism, Buddhism and
- Saṃsāra and Rebirth
- Self, Non-Self, and Personal Identity
- Shinto, Buddhism and
- Soka Gakkai
- South and Southeast Asia, Devatās, Nats, And Phii In
- Southeast Asia, Buddhism in
- Sri Lanka, Monasticism in
- Sōtō Zen (Japan)
- Stūpa Pagoda Caitya
- Suffering (Dukkha)
- Sutta (Pāli/Theravada Canon)
- Texts, Dunhuang
- Thai Buddhism
- Thích Nhất Hạnh
- Three Turnings of the Wheel of Doctrine (Dharma-Cakra)
- Tibet, Buddhism in
- Tibet, Mahāmudrā in
- Tibetan Book of the Dead
- Tri Songdetsen
- Uighur Buddhism
- Vidyādhara (weikza/weizzā)
- Vietnam, Buddhism in
- Vision and Visualization
- Visualization/Contemplation Sutras
- Warrior Monk Traditions
- West (North America and Europe), Buddhism in the
- Wheel of Life (Bhava-Cakra)
- Women in Buddhism
- Women in the West, Prominent Buddhist
- Zen, Premodern Japanese