According to the MacMillan Library Reference Encyclopedia of Buddhism, it is a polemical term coined by Mahāyāna Buddhists to denigrate their opponents. The term appeared around the 1st or 2nd century CE. Its use in scholarly publications is controversial. There are differing views on the use and meaning of the term, both among scholars and within Buddhism.
The legitimacy of using the term Hinayana to refer to the early Buddhist schools, including the contemporary Theravada, is disputed. In the Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Japanese languages, the term is not pejorative (小 meaning "small", 乘 meaning "vehicle"), and in the Tibetan language (theg chung) the word is only slightly pejorative (chung meaning "small" or "lesser"). By some it is used with respect proper to teachings coming direct from the Buddha.
Hīnayāna is used by Mahayanists as a name to refer variously to one or more doctrines, traditions, practitioners or thoughts that are generally concerned with the achievement of Nirvana as an Arahant or a Pratyeka-Buddha, as opposed to the achievement of liberation as a Samyaksambuddha, wherein the Samyaksambuddha (according to Mahayana lore) is deemed to operate from a basis of vowing to effect the spiritual liberation of all beings and creatures from the suffering of samsara (not just himself or a small number of others). Hīnayāna is sometimes said to be corresponding solely to the Early Buddhist Schools, and not to the current Theravada school, while sometimes it is held to be also cognate with the modern Theravada tradition. Many hold that the term was coined to be purposely pejorative, while others do not.
Within Buddhism the differing interpretations of Hīnayāna have consequences that are sometimes quite far-reaching. It is primarily the interpretation of Hīnayāna as a tradition that has led to the most concern, especially as many people have seen the term as a slur against Pre-sectarian Buddhism, Theravada and the other Early Buddhist schools (the Nikaya Buddhism–schools). These schools solely follow the sutras that are included in the Pali Canon, and which are aimed at helping to achieve the extinction of suffering, as attained by the Arahants.
Jonathan Salk has argued that the term "Hinayana" was used to refer to whomever one wanted to criticize on any given occasion, and did not refer to any definite grouping of Buddhists.
In the Vajrayana practice tradition of Buddhism the Hinayana is seen as one of the three major yanas (or 'vehicles') of Buddhism, alongside the Mahayana and Vajrayana. According to this view, there were three 'turnings of the wheel of dharma'. In the first turning, Shakyamuni Buddha taught the dharma as the Four Noble Truths at Varanasi which led to the Hinayana schools, of which only the Theravada remain today (although they object to the term 'Hinayana'). In the second turning, the 'Perfection of Wisdom' sutras were taught at Vulture's Peak and led to the Mahayana schools. The teachings which constituted the third turning of the wheel of dharma were taught at Shravasti and expounded that all beings have Buddha Nature. This third turning is described as having led to the Vajrayana.
For instance, in Chapter three of the Lotus Sutra, there is a parable of a father promising three carts to lure sons out of a burning building, where the goat-cart represents the Sravaka-vehicle; the deer-cart, Pratyeka-Buddhahood; and the bullock-cart, Samyaksambuddha-hood. According to early Mahayana (as found in the Lotus sutra), it is the vehicles that are taught as a method for journeying on the path to enlightenment. It is here that we can see the basis for term being used to indicate differences of doctrine. The Lotus Sutra declares that the bullock-cart is "supremely restful", implying that the goat-cart and the deer-cart are inferior to the bullock-cart. This is where we begin to see the terminological origins for the term Hīnayāna: The Sravakayana and the Pratyekabuddhayana as vehicles inferior to the superior bullock-cart of the Mahayana.
The Dharmakshema Mahaparinirvana Sutra also speaks of the inferior nature of the Hinayana when compared to the higher level of the Mahayana. In that sutra the Buddha states:
"Noble son, there are also two groups of people within this great congregation: those who seek the Inferior Way (hīnayāna) and those who seek the Great Way (mahāyāna). In past days I turned the lesser Wheel of the Dharma for the Śrāvakas, but now here in Kuśinagara I turn the great Wheel of the Dharma for Bodhisattvas."
The term first appeared in the Mahayana Prajñāpāramitā literature. Possibly the earliest instance appears in the Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines (Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra), believed by scholars to have been composed some time between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE. Chapter 11 ("Mara's Deeds") depicts a conversation between Buddha and the Bodhisattva Subhuti, where in Buddha admonishes those Bodhisattvas who disavow this sutra in favor of certain unnamed Buddhist sutras. In the following passage, the term hinayana is translated as "inferior vehicle" (emphasis added). "Subhuti, do these Bodhisattvas appear to be very intelligent who, having obtained and met with the irreversible, the great vehicle, and then again abandon this, turn away from this, and prefer an inferior vehicle [...] this is seen as being done to these Bodhisattvas by Mara."
Mahāyāna Buddhists sometimes refer to all forms of non-Mahāyāna Buddhism, past and present, including the Theravāda school, as members of the Hīnayāna grouping. This term, which literally means "the inferior vehicle", tends to relate to those Buddhists who were deemed by Mahayanists to have rather narrow aspirations: instead of vowing (as the Mahayanists ideally did) to strive for the liberation both of themselves and all other sentient beings from samsara, the "Hinayanists" were viewed as being excessively concerned with their own individual release into Nirvana. The term, "Hinayana", is now widely regarded as unhappily derogatory and inaccurate (at least in reference to the Theravada, but also to the other, already non-existent, schools).
In the Mahayana tradition (in certain sutras) the label Hinayana is used by the Buddha himself (e.g. in the Lotus Sutra). The label of Hinayana also does accurately label a polemical category that existed in the minds of Mahāyāna Buddhists. Some of the alternatives which were coined in order to find a less denigratory label have difficulties. Among the terms that have been used as substitutes for "Hīnayāna" are the following:
Those who assert the idea of Hinayana as a pejorative logically also are among those who subscribe the idea of an early (historical) Mahayana schism, and who believe that there was a history of polemics (see also the book of kathavatthu) between the early Mahayana and other early Buddhist schools. An argument used by those who consider Hinayana to be pejorative is based on the fact that if the term was to mean only 'Small or Lesser vehicle', then the term chosen would have been, "Culla" or in Sanskrit "Ksulla-ksudra" giving us Ksudrayana - though 'ksudra' has also had a history of being used in a somewhat pejorative manner.
Those who assert that the term was coined in a merely classificatory manner (denying the histrical Mahayana schism and a history of polemics) believe that the usage of 'hīna-' as a prefix represents those "inferior": inferior because they do not lead to the attainment of full Buddhahood.
We can find Mahayana Sutras and traditions which repeatedly admonish the trainee Bodhisattva not to criticise any of the Buddhist schools. The mere fact that there is such a strong admonishment against criticising the Hinayana indicates that it was either a common attitude, or that there was a degree of defensiveness within Mahayana regarding this issue. By the 3rd Century CE, in the ethics chapter of Asanga's Bodhisattvabhumi, we find an explicit injunction not to criticise or reject the Hīnayāna texts or traditions, where Trainee Bodhisattvas are instructed not to "disparage the Hīnayāna, or over-encourage others to learn Mahayana". Candragomin wrote a very influential twenty verse summary of Asanga's Ethics, written or summarised as a set of vows to be taken by a trainee Bodhisattve. The 15th Verse (derived from Asanga's chapter on ethics) cites "rejecting the Sravakayana" as a root downfall. Candragomin's vows were adopted by the Indo-Tibetan Mahayana tradition via Atisha, and are still used today by the Gelugpa and Kagyupa schools.
In the early centuries CE, the Mahayana tradition was making efforts not to criticize or condemn the Hīnayāna vehicles:
Lotus Sutra (Ch.14): A bodhisattva [...] does not hold other Buddhists in contempt, not even those who follow the Hinayana path, nor does he cause them to have doubts or regrets by criticizing their way of practice or making discouraging remarks.
However, the Buddha also emphasises that the Bodhisattva should only preach the Mahayana in response to queries, not the Hinayana:
"If there are objections or queries, one is not to answer them by resort to the Dharma of the Lesser Vehicle [Hinayana], but one is to explain only in terms of the Greater Vehicle [Mahayana], causing persons to gain knowledge of all modes" (Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma, tr. by Leon Hurvitz, Columbia UP, 1976, pp. 213-214).
The 18,000 verse perfection of wisdom sutra (an early Madhyamaka Mahayana sutra) indicates a progression of training and an all-embracing approach: Bodhisattvas should practice all paths - whatever is a path of a sravaka, a pratyeka or a Buddha - and should know all paths.
in the opening verses of the Vimalakirti Sutra: Reverence to all Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Aryasravakas, and Pratyekabuddhas, in the past, the present, and the future, and [...] Of bhikshus there were eight thousand, all arhats. They were free from impurities and afflictions, and all had attained self-mastery. Their minds were entirely liberated by perfect knowledge [...]
However, it should be noted that the form given in the recently published Sanskrit edition of the Vimalakirti Sutra (Institute for Compreghensive Studies of Buddhism Taisho University 2004) is different. It merely has , with no reference to anybody else. The salutation, as given above, derives from the Tibetan translation. Furthermore, it is not found in any of the three Chinese translations.
We must not confuse Hīnayāna with Theravāda because the terms are not synonymous. Theravāda Buddhism went to Sri Lanka during the 3rd Century B.C. when there was no Mahāyāna at all. Hīnayāna sects developed in India and had an existence independent from the form of Buddhism existing in Sri Lanka. Today there is no Hīnayāna sect in existence anywhere in the world. Therefore, in 1950 the World Fellowship of Buddhists inaugurated in Colombo unanimously decided that the term Hīnayana should be dropped when referring to Buddhism existing today in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, etc. This is the brief history of Theravāda, Mahayāna and Hīnayāna.
Hīna is defined in the same dictionary as follows:
According to Pali Text Society's Pali-English Dictionary (1921-25), the word 'hīna is defined thus: