Mahasanghika

Definition

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published on 12 December 2013
Bodhisattva Statue (Vassil)

Mahasanghika is the name of an early Buddhist school in India, which emerged about a century after the death of Siddhartha Gautama or the Buddha, during the Second Buddhist council held at Vaishali. The Sanskrit name Mahasanghika means “Great congregation” or "Great order of monks”. The Mahasanghika school represents the first major schism ever recorded in Buddhism.

The accounts of the events surrounding the origin of this school are conflicting and obscure. Traditionally, it is held that the Mahasanghika school came into existence as a result of a dispute over monastic practice during the Second Buddhist Council. This council was dominated by a Buddhist school named Sthaviranikaya also known as Sthaviravada (in Sanskrit “School of the elders”, the equivalent to the Pali term Theravada), the most powerful of the original 18 schools of early Buddhism.

The Sthavirah faction resolved that the members of the Buddhist monastic community should observe a regulatory framework of conduct which included the following 10 restrictions:

  1. Carrying salt in an animal horn.
  2. Eating when the shadow of the sundial is two fingerbreadths past noon.
  3. After eating, travelling to another village on the same day to eat another meal.
  4. Holding several monastic assemblies within the same boundary during the same fortnight.
  5. Making a monastic decision with an incomplete assembly and subsequently receiving the approval of the absent monks
  6. Citing precedent as a justification to violate monastic procedures.
  7. Drinking whey after mealtime.
  8. Drinking unfermented wine.
  9. Using mats with a fringe.
  10. Accepting gold and silver.

The Mahasanghika faction held that these rules could be ignored and that disobeying them did not constitute a violation of the monastic conduct, which the Sthavirah faction did not accept.

Some doctrinal innovations of the Mahasanghika also contibuted to the conflict. The sources explaining the doctrinal position of the Mahasanghika school are very scarce, so we know very little about it. They seem to have emphasized the supramundane nature of the Buddha, they were accused of preaching that the Buddha had the attributes of a god. As a result of the conflict over monastic discipline, coupled with their controversial views on the nature of the Buddha, the Mahasanghikas were expelled. Other accounts say that the members of this school claimed that a monk named Mahadeva who had achieved Nirvana, continued to display certain human weaknesses, such as ignorance, doubt and a capacity to be misled. The Sthavirah rejected these claims. The Mahasanghika ideas have a strong resemblance to Mahayana Buddhism: whether Mahasanghika influenced the Mahayana or vice versa is still debated.

Different Buddhist branches emerged from the Mahasanghika school including the Lokottaravada school that produced a famous biography of the Buddha known as Mahavastu. The Mahasanghika school was found throughout India and present-day Afghanistan, but it eventually disappeared as an ordination tradition.



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Timeline

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  • 386 BCE
    Second Buddhist council held at Vaishali, according to the Corrected Long Chronology. Emergence of the Mahasanghika school.
  • 268 BCE
    Second Buddhist council held at Vaishali, according to the Short Chronology. Emergence of the Mahasanghika school.

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