Mahasa?ghika School

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The Mahāsāṃghika (or Mahāsāṅghika) school is believed to have emerged from the first major schism in the Buddhist order, at a council held in the fourth century b.c.e., more than a century after Gautama's death. The name, from mahāsaṃgha, "great (er) community," supposedly reflects the Mahāsāṃghikas' superior numbers, the Sthaviras being the minority party to the dispute. The split may have been caused by disagreements over the vinaya, or the famous five theses of Mahādeva concerning the arhat, or the introduction of MahĀyĀna sūtras into the canon. Traditional accounts of these issues are obscure and conflicting. What is certain is that the Mahāsāṃghikas and their many subschools (Lokottaravādins, Prajñaptivādins, Pūrvaśailas, Aparaśailas, etc.) followed a conservative form of the vinaya, yet were responsible for many doctrinal innovations, chief of which is the theory known as lokottaravāda. This holds that the Buddha transcends all human limitations, and is thus above (uttara) the world (loka), his life as Gautama being a compassionate display.

Some Mahāsāṃghika ideas later flowed into Mahāyāna Buddhism, which is, however, now thought to have drawn its inspiration from many schools. Once well represented throughout the subcontinent, especially in the northwest (including present-day Afghanistan) and the south, the Mahāsāṃghikas eventually disappeared as a living ordination tradition. Now only parts of their canon survive, including the distinctively structured vinaya and what may be their Ekottarikāgāma (both in Chinese translation). Sections of the Mahāsāṃghika-Lokottaravādin Vinaya also survive in Sanskrit (notably the Mahāvastu), as do fragments of the literature of other subschools.

See also:Mainstream Buddhist Schools


Bareau, André. Les sectes bouddhiques du petit véhicule. Saigon, Vietnam: École Française d'Extrême-Orient, 1955.

Lamotte, Étienne. History of Indian Buddhism: From the Origins to the Saka Era, tr. Sara Webb-Boin. Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium: Université catholique de Louvain, Institut Orientaliste, 1988.

Nattier, Janice J., and Prebish, Charles S. "Mahāsāṅghika Origins: The Beginnings of Buddhist Sectarianism." History of Religions 16 (1977): 237–272.

Paul Harrison