Sects of Buddhism

  • Buddhist texts mention about 64 sects or schools of Buddhism. Teachers travelled from place to place, trying to convince one another and laypersons about the validity of their philosophy.
  • Debates took place in the Kutagarashala – literally, a hut with a pointed roof or in groves where travelling mendicants halted.
  • If a philosopher succeeded in convincing one of his rivals, the followers of the latter also became his disciples. So, support for any sect could grow and shrink over time.

Prominent sects of Buddhism

1. Hinayana School (the lesser vehicle)

  • Hinayana is also known as Shravakayana.
  • They saw Buddha as a great soul but not God.
  • They were orthodox in nature.
  • Hinayana followers believed in helping themselves over others to attain salvation.
  • They did not believe in Bhakti and idol worship.
  • Their scriptures are written in Pali
  • Later divided into 2 sects i.e., Vaibhashika and Sautrantika.
  • Found in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Java.

Sub-schools of Hinayana

Staviravadin or Thervadins

  • Earliest school from which all other schools of Buddhism originated. They follow the original doctrines of Buddha closely. They believe only in the three Pitakas: Sutta Pitaka, Vinaya Pitaka and Abhidhamma Pitaka.

2. Sarvastivada

  • This is one of the early Buddhist schools which originated during the time of Ashoka (Separated from Sthaviravadins). This school is popular in Kashmir and Central Asia. This school has been broadly divided into
  • Vaibhasika: They hold that objects (Reality) are directly perceived. They follow the Mahavibhasa Sutra.
  • Sautantrika: They hold that objects (reality) are indirectly perceived. They did not uphold the Mahavibhasa Sutra.

3. Mahasanghika

  • It is a school which came into existence after the 2nd Buddhist Council. It separated from the Staviravadis over the differences in following monastic practices.
  • Famous caves of Ellora, Ajanta and Karla in India, intricately carved and painted with images of Buddha and his teachings are associated with this sect.
  • This sect is considered the origin of Mahayana School.
  • Sub-sects of Mahasanghika school are:
    • Lokottarvada: This school wrote Biography of Buddha in Sanskrit.
    • Kukkutika: Set down an early chronology of the Buddha’s life.
    • Caitika: Paintings of Ajanta and Ellora are associated with this school.

4. Sammitiya

  • A subsect of Hinayana tradition which believes that though an individual does not exist independently from the five skandhas, or components that make up his personality, he is at the same time something greater than the mere sum of his parts. The Sammatīya were severely criticized by other Buddhists who considered the theory close to the rejected theory of atman—i.e., the supreme universal self.
  • It was popular in Gujarat and Sindh during 7th Century. Their important centre of learning was at Valabhi, Gujarat. When Heun-Tsang visited India, this school was the most popular non-Mahayana sect in India.

2. Mahayana School (Greater Vehicle)

  • Its prime centre was in Andhra Pradesh.
  • Its scriptures are written in Sanskrit.
  • They see Buddha as an incarnation of God and started his idol worship.
  • Mahayana attaches importance to the role of Bodhisattvas who delay their own salvation to help others to its path.
  • They believed in the concept of transmigration of soul and rebirth.
  • Later divided into 2 sects i.e.,Shunyavaad (Founder: Nagarjuna) and Vigyanvaad.
  • In the 8th century AD, Vajrayana School developed as an offshoot of Mahayana school in which Tara is considered as wife of Buddha.
  • In early medieval period a new form of Mahayana called Mantrayana came up in which Bodhisattva Avalokiteshwar began to be worshipped.

Sub-Schools of Mahayana

1.Yogachara School (Also known as Vigyanavada)

  • Important scholars of this school were: Asanga & Vasubandhu.
  • It attaches foremost importance to meditation as a means of attaining the highest goal. Hence, the name Yogachara.

2.  Madhyamaka School (Also known as Sunyavada)

  • Founder of this school was Nagarjuna.
  • Idea of Shunyata is important feature of this school. It means that appearances are misleading, and that permanent selves and substances do not exist.
  • It focuses on consciousness.
  • Important scholars of this school were Buddhapalita, Bhavaviveka and Chandrakirti.

3. Vajrayana Buddhism

  • This sect of Buddhism incorporates elements of mysticism and magic. They believed that salvation can be achieved by acquiring magical powers called Vajra, meaning thunderbolt or diamond.
  • This form of Buddhism was focussed on feminine divinities who were the force behind the male divinities. These feminine spouses of the new sect saviour of the followers.
  • Tara is considered as a female Buddha in Vajrayana Buddhism. She is considered to be a meditation deity.
  • This school is prevalent in Tibet, Mongolia and some parts of Siberia and is dominantly identified with Tibetan Lamaism. In India, Vajrayana school flourished in Bengal, Bihar, Ladakh and Sikkim.
  • “Om Mani Padme Hum” is a chanting associated with Vajrayana Buddhism. This mantra is expected to bestow magical power on the worship and lead to the highest bliss. 

Which are the different sects of Buddhism?

Buddhism can be divided into three main sects: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana.

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