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

  • Introduction
  • Buddhist India
  • The Mahāsāṃghika School of Buddhism
  • Other Mahāsāṃghika Issues
  • Mahāsāṃghika and Tantrism

Buddhism Mahāsāṃghika
Bart Dessein
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0121


Tradition posits the start of the history of the Mahāsāṃghika (Mahāsāńgika/Mahasamghika/Mahasanghika) school of Buddhism with the so-called Buddhist Council of Vaiśālī (present-day Besarh in the northwest of Bihar state), held about a hundred years after the demise of Śākyamuni Buddha. This council is reported to have introduced the first schism in the Buddhist community, when the famous king Aśoka (reigned c. 270–c. 230 BCE) intervened in a dispute among the monastics and decided in favor of the majority, whence the name “Mahāsāṃghika” (“Great Community,” Chinese name “dazhong bu,” 大眾部, as an alternative for the transliteration “Mohesengqi bu,” 摩訶僧祇部). The other group involved in the dispute became known as the Sthaviravādins (“the Elders”), of whom the present-day Theravādins are the only successors. In the course of time, along with the spread of the Mahāsāṃghikas over the Indian subcontinent, the school was the subject of a further dissemination. The presence of a variety of Mahāsāṃghika subgroups is attested by epigraphic evidence and is corroborated in Buddhist literature. Until the beginning of the common era, the Mahāsāṃghikas had their stronghold in the North. Starting from the 2nd century CE, the valley of the Kŗṣṇā River in Andhra Pradesh developed into a major center of different Mahāsāṃghika subschools. Apart from some textual materials belonging to the Mahāsāṃghika-Lokottaravāda and Bahuśrutīya subgroups, the few extant texts are those preserved in Chinese translation. This textual evidence reveals that the northern groups had a much more divinized concept of a bodhisattva than the southern groups had. In the South, a more human description of the bodhisattva prevails. It is therefore not unlikely that the so-called five points of Mahādeva (who is in some accounts also mentioned with respect to the Council of Vaiśālī), which are depreciatory of the status of the arhat, played a decisive role in the formation of the southern subschools. It is likely that a more human concept of the arhat also encroached on the interpretation of the status of the bodhisattva and the attribution of divine characteristics to the Buddha only. The exalted status of the Buddha only, also helps to explain why the Andhra region witnessed the development of stūpa worship. Although the Mahāsāṃghikas no longer exist as a separate Buddhist school, their doctrinal and cultic developments have been important for the development of the Mahayana, the general name for what was originally known as “bodhisattvayāna.” The Mahāsāṃghikas have also been important for the development of tantric Buddhism. The very existence of Chinese textual sources related to the Mahāsāṃghikas attests the presence in China, at some point in history, of the Mahāsāṃghikas—or at least of Mahāsāṃghika texts.

Buddhist India

For a good understanding of the historical and cultural context in which the Mahāsāṃghika school of Buddhism developed, some background knowledge of India in the pre-Christian era, and especially of the Mauryan Empire, may be necessary. Although the first volumes of Renou and Filliozat 1985–1996 already are of a somewhat earlier date, the reprints of these works remain classics in this respect. The traditional view that Buddhism originated in reaction to Brahmanism is challenged in the thought-provoking study Bronkhorst 2011. An excellent introduction to Buddhism in its historical and cultural background is given in Harvey 1990.

  • Bronkhorst, Johannes. Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism. Handbook of Oriental Studies, Section 2, South Asia 24. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004201408.i-294

    In this publication, Bronkhorst addresses the interaction of Buddhism with Brahmanism and challenges the common viewpoint that Buddhism originated as a reaction against Brahmanism.

  • Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

    To date one of the best comprehensive introductions to Buddhism. The first chapter of the book provides a concise introduction to the Buddha in his Indian context. The fourth chapter deals with early schismatic developments in the Buddhist community, and the fifth and sixth chapters deal with the development of the Mahayana.

  • Renou, Louis, and Jean Filliozat. L’Inde Classique: Manuel des études indiennes. 2 vols. Paris: Librairie d’Amérique et d’Orient Adrien Maisonneuve, 1985–1996.

    The fifth and sixth chapters of the first volume are an excellent introduction to Indian civilization, focusing, respectively, on the Vedic and Brahmanical background of Buddhism. Chapter 11 of the second volume introduces the person of the Buddha as seen through early Indian Buddhist thought and literature (title translation: Classical India: Manual of Indian studies); Volume 1, 1985; Volume 2, 1996.

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