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The Mahāsāṃghika (Sanskrit "of the Great Sangha", Chinese: 大眾部; pinyin: Dàzhòng Bù) was one of the early Buddhist schools. Interest in the origins of the Mahāsāṃghika school lies in the fact that their Vinaya recension appears in several ways to represent an older redaction overall. Many scholars also look to the Mahāsāṃghika branch for the initial development of Mahayana Buddhism. Along with Theravada and Pudgalavada; the Mahasamghika is one of the three oldest schools of Buddhism, originating around 280 BCE.

Brief history of Buddhism

At the time of the Buddha's parinirvana around 483 BCE, the community of Buddhists was very cohesive with no major differences in doctrines and is known as the pre-sectarian period. Beginning with the Second Buddhist council there were disagreements, especially in regard to the monastic Vinaya rules. By the time of the Third Buddhist council in 250 BCE, Buddhism was spread out across about 20 different early schools.

Each school of Buddhism had their texts and versions of the Tipitaka, many of which have been lost, especially of those schools no longer existing in modern times. We have the largest available Tipitaka in full translations from the Theravada Pali Canon. This tradition remained oral and was passed down until being put into writing starting around 100 BCE. Therefore, the Pali Canon, although complete is not necessarily historically one hundred percent accurate when you consider that there were other schools of Buddhism in existence and simply don't have their full texts around any more. There is always the possibility, the potential that we must consider that one of the other early schools of Buddhism, no longer existing -- had it right in the accurate Buddhavacana (words of the Buddha).

The Mahāsāṃghika school established around 280 BCE as did the Pudgalavada school. The Mahāsāṃghika school might be the precursor to the Mahayana, according to many scholars. The Theravada was established as we know it today, around 240 BCE. At the Third Buddhist council the Kathavatthu was included in the then incomplete Pali Tipitaka with the orthodox Theravadins discussing the Pudgalavada views, indicating that the Pudgalavada school was already in existence. So if we go by a strict historical analysis, the Pudgalavada and the Mahāsāṃghika began earlier than the Theravada. Of course every sect claims that they are originated from the Buddha and represent a continuation of the teachings and it is just the name / label of the school that changes, but outside of meditative insights which cannot be independently verified, all we have is a historical analysis and based on that, the Pudgalavada and Mahāsāṃghika have equal footing with the Theravada in any claims they might make to being original Buddhism.

Most sources place the origin of the Mahāsāṃghikas to the Second Buddhist council. Traditions regarding the Second Council are confusing and ambiguous, but it is agreed that the overall result was the first schism in the Sangha between the Sthavira nikāya and the Mahāsāṃghika nikāya, although it is not agreed upon by all what the cause of this split was. Andrew Skilton has suggested that the problems of contradictory accounts are solved by the Mahāsāṃghika Śāriputraparipṛcchā, which is the earliest surviving account of the schism. In this account, the council was convened at Pāṭaliputra over matters of vinaya, and it is explained that the schism resulted from the majority (Mahāsaṃgha) refusing to accept the addition of rules to the Vinaya by the minority (Sthaviras). The Mahāsāṃghikas therefore saw the Sthaviras as being a breakaway group which was attempting to modify the original Vinaya.

Scholars have generally agreed that the matter of dispute was indeed a matter of vinaya, and have noted that the account of the Mahāsāṃghikas is bolstered by the vinaya texts themselves, as vinayas associated with the Sthaviras do contain more rules than those of the Mahāsāṃghika vinaya. Modern scholarship therefore generally agrees that the Mahāsāṃghika vinaya is the oldest. According to Skilton, future historians may determine that a study of the Mahāsāṃghika school will contribute to a better understanding of the early Dhamma-Vinaya than the Theravāda school.


The original center of the Mahāsāṃghika sect was in Magadha, but they also maintained important centers such as in Mathura and Karli. The Kukkuṭikas were situated in eastern India around Vārāṇasī and Pāṭaliputra. The Ekavyāvahārika and Lokottaravāda subschools were found near Peshawar around 200 BCE, and the Bahuśrutīya in Kośala.

The Caitika branch was based in the Coastal Andhra region and especially at Amarāvati and Nāgārjunakoṇḍā. This Caitika branch included the Pūrvaśailas, Aparaśailas, Rājagirikas, and the Siddhārthikas. Finally, Madhyadesa was home to the Prajñaptivādins. The ancient Buddhist sites in the lower Krishna Valley, including Amarāvati, Nāgārjunakoṇḍā and Jaggayyapeṭa, "can be traced to at least the third century BCE, if not earlier."

The cave temples at the Ajaṇṭā Caves, the Ellora Caves, and the Karla Caves are associated with the Mahāsāṃghikas.

Between 148 and 170 CE, the Parthian monk An Shigao came to China and translated a work which describes the color of monastic robes (Skt. kāṣāya) utitized in five major Indian Buddhist sects, called Da Biqiu Sanqian Weiyi (Ch. 大比丘三千威儀). Another text translated at a later date, the Śāriputraparipṛcchā, contains a very similar passage corroborating this information. In both sources, the Mahāsāṃghikas are described as wearing yellow robes. The relevant portion of the Śāriputraparipṛcchā reads:

The Mahāsāṃghika school diligently study the collected sūtras and teach the true meaning, because they are the source and the center. They wear yellow robes.

The lower part of the yellow robe was pulled tightly to the left.

According to Dudjom Rinpoche from the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, the robes of fully ordained Mahāsāṃghika monastics were to be sewn out of more than seven sections, but no more than twenty-three sections. The symbols sewn on the robes were the endless knot (Skt. śrīvatsa) and the conch shell (Skt. śaṅkha), two of the Eight Auspicious Signs in Buddhism.

Doctrines and teachings

The Mahāsāṃghikas held that the teachings of the Buddha were to be understood as having two principal levels of truth: a relative or conventional (Skt. saṃvṛti) truth, and the absolute or ultimate (Skt. paramārtha) truth. For the Mahāsāṃghika branch of Buddhism, the final and ultimate meaning of the Buddha's teachings was "beyond words," and words were merely the conventional exposition of the Dharma. K. Venkata Ramanan writes:

The credit of having kept alive the emphasis on the ultimacy of the unconditioned reality by drawing attention to the non-substantiality of the basic elements of existence (dharma-śūnyatā) belongs to the Mahāsāṃghikas. Every branch of these clearly drew the distinction between the mundane and the ultimate, came to emphasize the non-ultimacy of the mundane and thus facilitated the fixing of attention on the ultimate.

The Mahāsāṃghikas advocated the transcendental and supramundane nature of the buddhas and bodhisattvas, and the fallibility of arhats. Of the 48 special theses attributed by the Samayabhedoparacanacakra to the Mahāsāṃghika, Ekavyāvahārika, Lokottaravāda, and the Kukkuṭika, 20 concern the supramundane nature of buddhas and bodhisattvas. According to the Samayabhedoparacanacakra, these four groups held that the Buddha is able to know all dharmas in a single moment of the mind. Yao Zhihua writes:

In their view, the Buddha is equipped with the following supernatural qualities: transcendence (lokottara), lack of defilements, all of his utterances preaching his teaching, expounding all his teachings in a single utterance, all of his sayings being true, his physical body being limitless, his power (prabhāva) being limitless, the length of his life being limitless, never tiring of enlightening sentient beings and awakening pure faith in them, having no sleep or dreams, no pause in answering a question, and always in meditation (samādhi)

A doctrine ascribed to the Mahāsāṃghikas is, "The power of the tathāgatas is unlimited, and the life of the buddhas is unlimited." According to Guang Xing, two main aspects of the Buddha can be seen in Mahāsāṃghika teachings: the true Buddha who is omniscient and omnipotent, and the manifested forms through which he liberates sentient beings through his skillful means (Skt. upāya For the Mahāsāṃghikas, the historical Gautama Buddha was merely one of these transformation bodies (Skt. nirmāṇakāya), while the essential real Buddha was equated with the Dharmakāya.

Like the Mahāyāna traditions, the Mahāsāṃghikas held the doctrine of the existence of many contemporaneous buddhas throughout the ten directions. In the Mahāsāṃghika Lokānuvartana Sūtra, it is stated, "The Buddha knows all the dharmas of the countless buddhas of the ten directions." It is also stated, "All buddhas have one body, the body of the Dharma."

In the view of Mahāsāṃghikas, advanced bodhisattvas have severed the bonds of karma, and are born out of their own free will into lower states of existence (Skt. durgati) in order to help liberate other sentient beings. As described by Akira Hirakawa:

The Sarvāstivādin also taught that the Bodhisattva was subject to the law of karma. If one attained arhathood, he was free of the karmic law; and once the arhat died, he entered nirvāṇa never to return to the world of saṃsāra. But living in the cycle of saṃsāra, the Bodhisattva was bound to the law of karma. In contrast to this school the Mahāsāṃghika held that the Bodhisattva has already sundered karmic bondage and, therefore, is born in durgati out of his own free will, his deep vow (praṇidhāna) of salvation.

The concept of many bodhisattvas simultaneously working toward buddhahood is also found among the Mahāsāṃghika tradition, and further evidence of this is given in the Samayabhedoparacanacakra, which describes the doctrines of the Mahāsāṃghikas. These two concepts of contemporaneous bodhisattvas and contemporaneous buddhas were linked in some traditions, and texts such as the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Śāstra use the principle of contemporaneous bodhisattvas to demonstrate the necessity of contemporaneous buddhas throughout the ten directions. It is thought that the doctrine of contemporaneous buddhas was already old and well established by the time of early Mahāyāna texts such as the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, due to the clear presumptions of this doctrine.

Manuscript collections

The Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang visited a Mahāsāṃghika-Lokottaravāda vihara in the 7th century at Bamyan, Afghanistan, and this monastery site has since been rediscovered by archaeologists. Birch bark manuscripts and palm-leaf manuscripts of texts in this monastery's collection, including Mahayana sutras, have been discovered at the site, and these are now located in the Schøyen Collection. Some manuscripts are in the Gāndhārī language and Kharoṣṭhī script, while others are in Sanskrit and written in forms of the Gupta script. Manuscripts and fragments that have survived from this monastery's collection include the following source texts:

  • Prātimokṣa Vibhaṅga of the Mahāsāṃghika-Lokottaravāda (MS 2382/269)
  • Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra, a sutra from the Āgamas (MS 2179/44)
  • Caṃgī Sūtra, a sūtra from the Āgamas (MS 2376)
  • Diamond Sutra, a Mahayana sutra (MS 2385)
  • Bhaiṣajyaguru Sūtra, a Mahayana sutra (MS 2385)
  • Śrīmālādevī Siṃhanāda Sūtra, a Mahayana sutra (MS 2378)
  • Pravāraṇa Sūtra, a Mahayana sutra (MS 2378)
  • Sarvadharmapravṛttinirdeśa Sūtra, a Mahayana sutra (MS 2378)
  • Ajātaśatrukaukṛtyavinodana Sūtra, a Mahayana sutra (MS 2378)
  • Śāriputra Abhidharma Śāstra (MS 2375/08)


According to some sources, abhidharma was not accepted as canonical by the Mahāsāṃghika school. The Theravādin Dīpavaṃsa, for example, records that the Mahāsāṃghikas had no abhidharma. However, other sources indicate that there were such collections of abhidharma. During the early 5th century, the Chinese pilgrim Faxian is said to have found a Mahāsāṃghika abhidharma at a monastery in Pāṭaliputra. When Xuanzang visited Dhānyakaṭaka, he wrote that the monks of this region were Mahāsāṃghikas, and mentions the Pūrvaśailas specifically. Near Dhānyakaṭaka, he met two Mahāsāṃghika bhikṣus and studied Mahāsāṃghika abhidharma with them for several months, during which time they also studied various Mahāyāna śāstras together under Xuanzang's direction. On the basis of textual evidence as well as inscriptions at Nāgārjunakoṇḍā, Joseph Walser concludes that at least some Mahāsāṃghika sects probably had an abhidharma collection, and that it likely contained five or six books.

Acceptance of Mahāyāna

In the 6th century CE, Paramārtha, a Buddhist monk from Ujjain in central India, wrote about a special affiliation of the Mahāsāṃghika school with the Mahāyāna tradition. He associates the initial composition and acceptance of Mahāyāna sūtras with the Mahāsāṃghika branch of Buddhism. He states that 200 years after the parinirvāṇa of the Buddha, much of the Mahāsāṃghika school moved north of Rājagṛha, and were divided over whether the Mahāyāna teachings should be incorporated formally into their Tripiṭaka. According to this account, they split into three groups based upon the relative manner and degree to which they accepted the authority of these Mahāyāna texts. Paramārtha states that the Kukkuṭika sect did not accept the Mahāyāna sūtras as buddhavacana ("words of the Buddha"), while the Lokottaravāda sect and the Ekavyāvahārika sect did accept the Mahāyāna sūtras as buddhavacana.

Paramārtha also wrote about the origins of the Bahuśrutīya sect in connection with acceptance of Mahāyāna teachings. According to his account, the founder of the Bahuśrutīya sect was named Yājñavalkya. In Paramārtha's account, Yājñavalkya is said to have lived during the time of the Buddha, and to have heard his discourses, but was in a profound state of samādhi during the time of the Buddha's parinirvāṇa. After Yājñavalkya emerged from this samādhi 200 years later, he discovered that the Mahāsāṃghikas were teaching only the superficial meaning of the sūtras, and therefore founded the Bahuśrutīya sect in order to expound the full meaning. According to Paramārtha, the Bahuśrutīya school was formed in order to fully embrace both "conventional truth" and "ultimate truth." Bart Dessein links the Bahuśrutīya understanding of this full exposition to the Mahāyāna teachings. In his writings, Paramārtha also indicated as much:

In the Mahāsāṃghika school this Arhat recited completely the superficial sense and the profound sense. In the latter, there was the sense of the Mahāyāna. Some did not believe it. Those who believed it recited and retained it. There were in the Mahāsāṃghika school those who propagated these teachings, and others who did not propagate them. The former formed a separate school called "Those who have heard much" (Bahuśrutīya). It is from this school that there has come the Satyasiddhiśāstra. That is why there is a mixture of ideas from the Mahāyāna found there.


A number of scholars have proposed that the Mahāyāna Prajñāpāramitā teachings were first developed by the Caitika subsect of the Mahāsāṃghikas. They believe that the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra originated amongst the southern Mahāsāṃghika schools of the Āndhra region, along the Kṛṣṇa River. Guang Xing states, "Several scholars have suggested that the Prajñāpāramitā probably developed among the Mahāsāṃghikas in southern India, in the Āndhra country, on the Kṛṣṇa River." These Mahāsāṃghikas had two famous monasteries near the Amarāvati and the Dhānyakaṭaka, which gave their names to the schools of the Pūrvaśailas and the Aparaśailas. Each of these schools had a copy of the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra in Prakrit. Guang Xing also assesses the view of the Buddha given in the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra as being that of the Mahāsāṃghikas. Edward Conze estimates that this sūtra originated around 100 BCE.


Brian Edward Brown, a specialist in Tathāgatagarbha doctrines, writes that it has been determined that the composition of the Śrīmālādevī Siṃhanāda Sūtra occurred during the Īkṣvāku Dynasty in the 3rd century as a product of the Mahāsāṃghikas of the Āndhra region (i.e. the Caitika schools). Wayman has outlined eleven points of complete agreement between the Mahāsāṃghikas and the Śrīmālā, along with four major arguments for this association.Anthony Barber also associates the earlier development of the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra with the Mahāsāṃghikas, and concludes that the Mahāsāṃghikas of the Āndhra region were responsible for the inception of the Tathāgatagarbha doctrine.

According to Stephen Hodge, internal textual evidence in the Aṅgulimālīya Sūtra, Mahābherihāraka Parivarta Sūtra, and the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra, indicates that these texts were first circulated in South India and then gradually propagated up to the northwest, with Kashmir being the other major center. The Aṅgulimālīya Sūtra gives a more detailed account by mentioning the points of distribution as including South India, the Vindhya Range, Bharuch, and Kashmir.

The language used in the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra and related texts, seems to indicate a region in southern India during the time of the Śātavāhana Dynasty. The Śātavāhana rulers gave rich patronage to Buddhism, and were involved with the development of the cave temples at Karla and Ajaṇṭā, and also with the Great Stūpa at Amarāvati. During this time, the Śātavāhana Dynasty also maintained extensive links with the Kuṣāṇa Empire.

Using textual evidence in the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra and related texts, Stephen Hodge estimates a compilation period between 100 CE and 220 CE for the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra. Hodge summarizes his findings as follows:

[T]here are strong grounds based on textual evidence that the MPNS (Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra), or a major portion of it, together with related texts were compiled in the Deccan during the second half of the 2nd century CE, in a Mahāsāṃghika environment, probably in one of their centres along the western coastal region such as Karli, or perhaps, though less likely, the Amaravatī-Dhanyakaṭaka region.

In the 6th century CE, Paramārtha wrote that the Mahāsāṃghikas revere the sūtras which teach the Tathāgatagarbha.

Bodhisattva canons

Within the Mahāsāṃghika branch, the Bahuśrutīyas are said to have included a Bodhisattva Piṭaka in their canon, and Paramārtha wrote that the Bahuśrutīyas accepted both the Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna teachings. In the 6th century CE, Bhāvaviveka speaks of the Siddhārthikas using a Vidyādhāra Piṭaka, and the Pūrvaśailas and Aparaśailas both using a Bodhisattva Piṭaka, all implying collections of Mahāyāna texts within the Mahāsāṃghika schools. During the same period, Avalokitavrata speaks of the Mahāsāṃghikas using a "Great Āgama Piṭaka," which is then associated with Mahāyāna sūtras such as the Prajñāparamitā and the Daśabhūmika Sūtra.

Depiction of Devadatta

According to Reginald Ray, the Mahāsāṃghika Vinaya mentions the figure of Devadatta, but in a way that is different from the vinayas of the Sthavira branch. According to this study, the earliest vinaya material common to all sects simply depicts Devadatta as a Buddhist saint who wishes for the monks to live a rigorous lifestyle. This has led Ray to regard the story of Devadatta as a legend produced by the Sthavira group. However, upon examining the same vinaya materials, Bhikkhu Sujato has written that the portrayals of Devadatta are largely consistent between the Mahāsāṃghika Vinaya and the other vinayas, and that the supposed discrepancy is simply due to the minimalist literary style of the Mahāsāṃghika Vinaya. He also points to other parts of the Mahāsāṃghika Vinaya that clearly portray Devadatta as a villain, as well as similar portrayals that exist in the Lokottaravādin Mahāvastu.

Views of scholars

Since at least the Meiji period in Japan, some scholars of Buddhism have looked to the Mahāsāṃghika as the originators of Mahāyāna Buddhism. According to Akira Hirakawa, modern scholars often look to the Mahāsāṃghikas as the originators of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

According to A.K. Warder, it is "clearly" the case that the Mahāyāna teachings originally came from the Mahāsāṃghika branch of Buddhism. Warder holds that "the Mahāyāna originated in the south of India and almost certainly in the Āndhra country." Anthony Barber and Sree Padma note that "historians of Buddhist thought have been aware for quite some time that such pivotally important Mahayana Buddhist thinkers as Nāgārjuna, Dignaga, Candrakīrti, Āryadeva, and Bhavaviveka, among many others, formulated their theories while living in Buddhist communities in Āndhra."

André Bareau has stated that there can be found Mahāyāna ontology prefigured in the Mahāsāṃghika schools, and has offered an array of evidence to support this conclusion. Bareau traces the origin of the Mahāyāna tradition to the older Mahāsāṃghika schools in regions such as Odisha, Kosala, Koñkana, and so on. He then cites the Bahuśrutīyas and Prajñaptivādins as sub-sects of the Mahāsāṃghika that may have played an important role in bridging the flow of Mahāyāna teachings between the northern and southern Mahāsāṃghika traditions.

André Bareau also mentions that according to Xuanzang and Yijing in the 7th century CE, the Mahāsāṃghika schools had essentially disappeared, and instead these travelers found what they described as "Mahāyāna." The region occupied by the Mahāsāṃghika was then an important center for Mahāyāna Buddhism. Bareau has proposed that Mahāyāna grew out of the Mahāsāṃghika schools, and the members of the Mahāsāṃghika schools also accepted the teachings of the Mahāyāna. Additionally, the extant Mahāsāṃghika Vinaya was originally procured by Faxian in the early 5th century CE at what he describes as a "Mahāyāna" monastery in Pāṭaliputra.

See also: Original Buddhism


  • "Arya-Mahasamghika-Lokuttaravadin Bhiksuni-Vinaya"; edited by Gustav Roth, 1970.
  • Mahasamghika and Mahasamghika-Lokuttaravadin Vinayas in Chinese translation; CBETA Taisho digital edition.
  • "The Earliest Vinaya and the Beginnings of Buddhist Literature"; Frauwallner, Serie Orientale Roma, 8. Rome: Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente.
  • "Vinaya-Matrka — Mother of the Monastic Codes, or Just Another Set of Lists? A Response to Frauwallner's Handling of the Mahasamghika Vinaya"; Shayne Clarke. Indo-Iranian Journal 47: 77-120, 2004.
  • "A Survey of Vinaya Literature"; Charles Prebish. Originally, Volume I of The Dharma Lamp Series. Taipei, Taiwan: Jin Luen Publishing House, 1994, 157 pages. Now published by Curzon Press.
  • "The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism: a comparative study based on the Sūtrāṅga portion of the Pali Saṃyutta-Nikāya and the Chinese Saṃyuktāgama", Choong Mun-Keat, Wiesbaden : Harrassowitz, 2000. (Contains an account of Master Yin-Shun's theory that the Samyukt'Agama is the oldest collection, by a student of Prof. Rod Bucknell.)
  • "History of Mindfulness"; Bhikkhu Sujato, Taipei, Taiwan: the Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 2006. (Gives further evidence for the Anga-theory of Master Yin-Shun and the theory that the Samyukta-/ Samyutta- is the oldest organising principle.)
  • "Buddhist Monastic Discipline: The Sanskrit Pratimoksa Sutras of the Mahasamghikas and Mulasarvastivadins"; Charles Prebish. Volume I of the Institute for Advanced Studies of World Religions Series. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975, 156 pages. First Indian Edition, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1996. (This is only a translation of a small part of the Vinayas, on its own it is nearly useless.)
  • Charles Prebish and Janice J. Nattier, "Mahasamghika Origins: The Beginnings of Buddhist Sectarianism"; History of Religions, 16, 3 (February, 1977), 237-272.
  • "The Pratimoksa Puzzle: Fact Versus Fantasy"; Charles Prebish. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 94, 2 (April–June, 1974), 168-176.
  • "A Review of Scholarship on the Buddhist Councils"; Charles Prebish. Journal of Asian Studies, XXXIII, 2 (February, 1974), 239-254.
  • "Theories Concerning the Skandhaka: An Appraisal"; Charles Prebish Journal of Asian Studies, XXXII, 4 (August, 1973), 669-678.
  • "Saiksa-dharmas Revisited: Further Considerations of Mahasamghika Origins"; Charles Prebish. History of Religions, 35, 3 (February, 1996), 258-270.