In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mahayana

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Problem of Origins
  • Transmission outside India

Buddhism Mahayana
Daniel Boucher
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0018


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.

General Overviews

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 Daijō–Daishi. Vol. 7 of Hōbōgirin: Dictionnaire encyclopédique du bouddhisme d’après les sources chinoises et japonaises. 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, and 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).

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