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Nikaya — early schools of buddhism

21.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

The development of Buddhism has an extensive history regarding its split into separate schools.

New religious denominations began to appear from the middle of the third century BC until the emergence of Mahayana in the fifth century. It was the early schools (Nikaya) that played an important role in the formation of Buddhism, not only in India but throughout Asia. Some of them exist now, in one form or another.

Schools of Early Buddhism is the term for the separate teachings into which the monastic sangha (Buddhist community) was divided in the third-second centuries BC due to disagreements in religious matters. New writings and practices developed by separate groups of clergy subsequently emerged. If we take the historical data as a basis, in the early period of the development of Buddhism there were 18 religious schools (according to some sources – 20 or more), representing two main groups: Theravādins and Mahasanghikas. They later initiated the emergence of the main schools of Buddhism — Hinayana (Theravada) and Mahayana.

Mahasanghika school

Mahasanghika (“majority teachings”, “large community”) is, according to most historians, one of the branches of Buddhism, which appeared after the split of the sangha at the Second Buddhist Council (about 380 years BC). Initially, the centre of the sect was in the Indian city of Magadha.

Mahasanghika school

Historians refer to the monk Mahadeva as the leader of the teachings. He criticised the basic principles of the nature of the arhat (a person who comes out of the “wheel of rebirth” during his lifetime and merely reaches incomplete nirvana), which during this period was supported by the other Schools of Buddhism. Mahadeva called for abandoning the idea of the “perfect holiness of the arhat”, saying that even an “enlightened” soul can have hidden desires such as lust, doubt and ignorance.

In the teachings of Mahasanghika, in addition to the new vision of the nature of the arhat, a significant part was given over to miracles performed by the Buddha himself. The color yellow and a seashell were the symbols of the religious movement.

The Large Community later split into several separate movements.


This community arose during the reign of Ashoka in the third century BC. Historians do not give exact data as to which part of India this religious movement originated. But it is assumed that it existed until the fourth century.

The equality of Samsara (the cycle of birth and death), Nirvana and Dharma (the laws of being in Buddhism) are the basis of the teachings of the Ekavyavaharikas. They believed that all this had no real substance. In the training of its adherents, the school paid great attention to the technique of quickly achieving a state of trance through intensive psychotechnics.

Another school of early Buddhism — Lokottaravada — “grew up” on the postulates of this doctrine.


This was a religious movement that was formed around the second-first century BC in the settlements of the mountainous part of South India.

Proponents of the doctrine in their hierarchy of values put the bodhisattva (a person who decided to become a Buddha for the benefit of all beings) above the arhat, who could be wrong and still subject to ignorance. These beliefs converged with those of Mahasanghikas. They also believed in the supernatural nature of the Buddha.

Two more religious schools were founded based on the teachings of Chaitika — Apara Shaila, from which Uttara Shaila was later formed.


Supporters of this movement led a solitary, ascetic lifestyle, refusing to preach. Unlike the Mahasanghikas, who followed the canons of Sutta Pitaka, the Gokuliki recognized only Abhidharma Pitaka among all the sacred books. “Samsara is only ashes” is the main idea of the doctrine. Hence another name for the school — Kukkulakatha (“reasoning about hot ash”).

Based on Gokulika, two more large schools were formed — Bahushrutia and Prajnaptivada (the Chetyavada movement later separated from the latter). Historians cannot say for sure when exactly the doctrine ceased to exist. Presumably, this happened during the period between the fourth and ninth centuries.

Sthaviravada school

Sthaviravada (“the teachings of the elders”) developed in parallel with the Mahasanghika. According to historians, the doctrine of this movement was formed after the Second Buddhist Council. The followers believed that they were the ones who kept the original beliefs of the Buddha pure.

Sthaviravada school

All the schools of Sthaviravada taught that dharmas were real, and the Buddha was an ordinary person who managed to achieve perfection and liberation from worldly transgressions through yogic practices. The followers of the movements saw their highest goal as the attainment of holiness and withdrawal into nirvana, which is achievable through firm will and one’s own strength.

The Sthavyravadins, spread their teachings and subsequently formed separate movements. Supporters of each of them saw their own path to achieving enlightenment. In the 13th century, the teachings of Sthaviravada (under the Pali name Theravada) survived only in the countries of South and Southeast Asia.


The School of Vibhajyavada (“the doctrine of analysis”) was formed in the first half of the third century BC. The followers considered their highest goal to be the development of special techniques that would help one to become Enlightened. According to Vibhajyavada, blind faith will not help to find the right path to the inner self. The process of enlightenment must be combined with the analysis of experience and critical research.

The following schools were formed from Vibhajyavada: Theravada (in Sri Lanka), Kashyapia, Mahishasaka and Dharmaguptaka.


The Sarvastivada school (or Vaibhasika, “the doctrine about the existence of everything”) was formed around 237 BC.

Followers of these teachings believed that all dharmas (past, present and future) are real and have ontological status. They recognised the real existence of the external world beyond consciousness and asserted its complete adequacy to the world perceived by living beings. Followers of the movement were engaged in the classification and description of dharmas in the context of the religious doctrine of Buddhism.

In its “pure” form, the philosophical Sarvastivada currently has no followers. Although some of its postulates formed the basis of the teachings of some of the Mahayana schools.

Sarvastivada marked the beginning of other religious movements — numerous schools of Vaibhasika (from Nepal, East and Central India, Kashmir and Aparantaki) and Southranthika (with an offshoot in the form of Mulasarvastivada).


It has been estimated that the Pudgalavada school was formed around 280 BC. Although this doctrine was considered by contemporaries as “heretical”. Its followers considered themselves faithful to the ideas of the Buddha.

The teachings of the Pudgalavadas are among the most scantily studied movements among all the schools of early Buddhism. Their followers saw the study of Pudgala (the appearance of personality constructed by the “skandhas” — the form-building components of the human psyche) as the centre of their faith. Almost all schools of Buddhism teach about the “non-existence of the individual”, but representatives of Pudgalavada considered Pudgala as a reality.

The subsequent division among the Pudgalavadas was caused, according to religious scholars, by their disagreement in the theoretical issues of Buddhism. Based on their philosophy, the school of Vatsiputria was formed after the split of which the teachings of Sammatia (with an offshoot in the form of Shannagarika), Dharmostaria, Bhadrayania appeared.

Early schools, disbanding and forming new ones, existed until the disappearance of Buddhism in India (13th century). Their teachings did not disappear completely however, and are reflected in many other religious movements.