The Mahayana Buddhist tradition is as authentic as any other Buddhist tradition is the argument set out in this short but compact essay. This essay argues that the sharp split between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism is a modern invention brought about by political power struggles between competing dynasties in 10th century Asia and anti-colonial activities in the 19th and 20th centuries and for millennia the practices coexisted, intermingled and have a common origin. Further, the Mahayana sutras were written down before the Pali-canon and furthermore, we actually do not have any record of the real words and deeds of the historical Shakyamuni and what we have instead are ideas preserved from multi-faceted and authentic Buddhist traditions.


The Theravada tradition has long held that their version of Buddhism is the original type but this is more about advertising and self-image rather than a true representation and our earliest records of ancient India show that monks and nuns of the Theravada and Mahayana traditions worked, lived, studied, prayed and coexisted together and“there is no evidence that there was any kind of Buddhist monk other than one associated with a Sectarian [i.e., nikāya] ordination lineage” (Silk, 2002) in the early tradition.

This process of monks, nuns and laymen practising a mixture of Theravada and Mahayana proceeded throughout all Asia until the tenth century where a reform movement in Southern Asia attempted to establish Theravada as a movement that was avowedly non-Mahayana (Walters 1997a) despite Southern Asia often having beenpreviouslyprominentlyMahayana including the entire Mahayana gambit including Tantrayanapractices(Preach, 2003.) Even after the 10th century reform movements Mahayana practices continued in South Asia and as late as 19th-centuryvisitors to Theravadacountries recounted monks still using Mahayana practices (Skilton, 2004, p141.)

There is an abundance of archaeological evidence of the large scale of the Mahayana in Sri-Lanka, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam we can still find Mahayana stupas, statues, monasteries, mantras, and Mahayana texts deposited in stupas. And although it is difficult to summarize the history of several countries in a single sentence I think it’s fair to say that the modern-day emphasis of Theravada in South Asia is largely an outcome of anti-colonial struggles in the 19th and 20th centuries and the efforts to establish strong monarchies in these countries which gave the impression of historical continuity with the ancient past and a sense of ideological purity


It is also worth remembering that texts that identify themselves as Mahayana were written down as early as the second century BCE (Williams, 2000, p21) (Guthin, 1989 p255)much earlier than the Pali-canon which was written down in 29 BCE. Modern scholars have even sometimes described the Mahayana as the ‘cult of the book’ for their enthusiasm for writing down their sutras, but despite this difference for centuries both Mahayana and non-Mahayana monks studied and worked side-by-side in the same monasteries (Williams, 2000, p71) (Harvey, 2013, p112) and there was not really any schism, conflict or antagonism between the different types of practice.

All of the most ancient Mahayana sutra manuscripts that have come to light were discovered in collections in which most of the manuscripts contain non-Mahayana texts (Allon, 2010) and as late as the seventh century Chinese pilgrims visiting Indian temples noted that Mahayanists were people who worship Bodhisattvas and read Mahayana sutras, and specifically stated that the nikāyas cannot be classified as Hinayana or Mahayana (cf, I Ching).

Just like the original words of Socrates, Jesus or other historical figures we do not have the original words of Buddha anywhere. And while it is the fashionable scholarly opinion that the jist of the Pali-canon originates from the Buddha there were clearly many additions and redactions. At the very most we can say that only the main ideas that are repeated often are really the ideas expressed by the Buddha. Even apologists admit that “the texts bear all the marks of redaction and editing”, and there are “cases where the editorial hand seems to have added interpretations to existing ideas” (Brahmali) and thus even the keenest defenders admit redactions and additions. 

 So great is the historical problem that scholarly guesses as to when the Buddha alive span a time period of six hundred years (from the 5th to 11th centuries BCE) with many scholars concluding that ‘it is impossible to construct an original form of Buddhism from modern-day examples because the change that has occurred has been too great’ since the Buddhist Canon is full of “discrepancies and contradictions” (Crabtree, 2011.) To make matters worse after more than two centuries of scholarship have failed to establish anything about the historical Buddha who has not been linked to any historical facts, an idea that would seem decidedly unempirical, and only dubiously coherent.

What should also be clear is that most of what is contained in the Pali-cannon show all the hallmarks of being added at a later date and this is not surprising as it was written down hundreds of years after the life of the Buddha in a foreign country and in a foreign language (the Buddha did not speak Pali but something quite different probably something related to the language of Kosala or Magadhi). In a way it is completely wrong to assume that the Pali-cannon is any more original than the Mahayana cannon as both traditions did not think they were preserving historical events but an idea or philosophy. It did not seem strange to them to add saying and events to explain what they understood Buddha said and what he was.

In addition the Pali-cannon there is a rival cannon from the Sarvastivada School of early Buddhism that still exists and thus rival stories of the Buddha can be compared. In fact, since the Sarvastivada School wrote down the sutras earlier than the Pali-canon in a language closer to what the Buddha taught it has a claim to be more original. Even in the Sarvastivada sour,ces, we do not have the real words of the Buddha but it’s interesting to compare them and we find large differences such as the Buddha not allowing monks to eat meat as the Pali-tradition held. Furthermore, it is interesting to compare the Chinese version of the Pali-canon and when we do we find it sometimes agrees with the Sarvastivadian version which of course further calls into question the authenticity of the Pali-sutras which some still assume are more authentic than the Mahayana.

The best we can hope for is that the early cannon (Pali, Sarvastivada, etc) contains the jist of what the Buddha said but we must admit that it is not a historical document and does not contain the real words or stories of the Buddha. It is very easy to find stuff that has been made up such as Buddha being alone talking to gods and devils or his meetings with local kings and so on. For example, there is every reason to think that the stories of King Pasenadi were later additions since the Jakarta (J.ii.15) claim that he built a monastery called the Rājakārāma, and that the Buddha sometimes stayed there whereas there are no signs of these monasteries. In fact, if King Pasenadi did build a monastery for the Buddha it would have almost certainly have become a place of reverence after Buddha’s death but there is no evidence of any such place. Furthermore, it is also thought monasteries (Viharas) were not built until well after the Buddha’s death and perhaps as late as the 3rd century BCE. Furthermore, despite being ample historic evidence about King Pasenadi there is no confirmation outside the Buddhist scriptures that he was Buddhist at all. There is independent historical confirmation of King Pasenadi where it is said that he was from the Aikhsvaka dynasty and he lost his crown to his cousin and died trying to raise an army to retake it (Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, 1972, pp. 88-90) but no evidence he was actually Buddhist or built any great monasteries as the Pali-canon maintains. All things considered the story of King Pasenadi does not ring true.

Furthermore, attributing Kings as Buddhist seems to a repeating theme in the sutras and other Kings are also recorded as getting advice on affairs of state from the Buddha but are equally doubtful. There are stories in the sutras of King Seniya Bimbisara getting advice about affairs of state and impending conflicts which is equally dubious with no historic confirmation and yet rival reports that he was a devout Jain with high realisation in Jain meditation. Someone is lying here (it could be the Jains of course, but could be the Buddhists or both).

Another apparent devotee of the Buddha who was also a powerful King was Ajatasatru who again is claimed by both Buddhists and Jains as devotees. How feasible that in ancient India only Jains were dubious historians? Besides, it is even said that using contextual evidence and textual analysis it is thought that the Buddhist tradition is the one lying.

n conclusion, then it is wrong to say we know what the Buddha said or did and also wrong to claim that the Mahayana sutras are less authentic as they contain the same ideas other Buddhist traditions and were often written down at the same time or before the Pali-canon. Furthermore, most Mahayana sutras originated in India amongst the Monks and Nuns that lived and worked with devotees of the Theravada tradition. We must not fall into the trap of thinking there is an original Buddhism and a later corruption or addition. And further, the Mahayana tradition developed from the words and ideas of Master Gautama but do not contain a transcript of his actual words or deeds, but it is worth remembering is that the Theravada sutras are also not the words of Gautama but were also the basis of them and the kind of things that he did teach. The Mahayana tradition did not, in my view, develop out of or from the older tradition but side by side with the Theravada tradition.


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