Buddhism Early Mahayana
David Drewes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0145


In recent decades the study of early Mahayana has witnessed significant upheaval. Western scholars have abandoned the old theories that the Mahayana originated from a lay reaction to the arhat ideal or from the Mahāsāṃghika nikāka and advanced a range of new ideas. Gregory Schopen suggested in 1975 that the Mahayana developed with the creation of special shrines dedicated to the worship of Mahayana sutras. Following Schopen, other scholars have argued that the shift from oral to written textuality enabled or influenced the development of the Mahayana in various ways. In place of the lay origin theory, most scholars now believe the exact opposite, that forest-dwelling or ascetic monks were the Mahayana’s primary agents. Several scholars in recent years have shifted attention away from Sanskrit versions of Mahayana sutras to early Chinese translations, which often preserve more primitive forms of these texts. A 1st-century Prajñāpāramitā manuscript and a 1st- or 2nd-century manuscript of a previously unknown Mahayana sutra have recently been discovered that promise to shed new light on early Mahayana, the former manuscript now being the oldest datable evidence for Mahayana that we possess.

General Overviews

General overviews of early Mahayana can be found in nearly every world religions textbook and introductory text on Buddhism, but most have no merit, typically being based on scholarship that is more than fifty years old. Schopen 2003 presents the perspective of one of the most influential scholars in the field, though most of his views have been contested in recent years. Williams 2008 is a revised version of the most commonly used textbook on Mahayana. Its section on early Mahayana is good in many ways, but falls heavily under the sway of the theory that forest ascetics played a central role in early Mahayana (see Forest/Ascetic Monks). Drewes 2010 surveys the main issues in current scholarship and provides a general overview of the movement. All three publications are suitable for graduate and advanced undergraduate students.

  • Drewes, David. “Early Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism.” 2 parts. Religion Compass 4.2 (2010): 55–65, 66–74.

    Surveys and evaluates recent Western scholarship on early Mahayana and presents a broad new overview of the movement.

  • Schopen, Gregory. “Mahāyāna.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Edited by Robert E. Buswell Jr., 492–499. Indianapolis, IN: Macmillan, 2003.

    Interesting presentation of the views of an influential scholar in the field.

  • Williams, Paul. Mahāyāna Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 2008.

    Revised version of the standard textbook on Mahayana originally published in 1989.

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