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 is disputed while use of Hinayana to refer to the contemporary Theravada is seen as pejorative.. In the Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Japanese languages, the term means small vehicle (小 meaning "small", 乘 meaning "vehicle"), and in the Tibetan language (theg chung) the word means "small" or "lesser" vehicle.
The word Hīnayāna is formed of hīna(हीन): "low", "inferior", "deficient", "defective", and yāna (यान): "vehicle", where "vehicle" means "a way of going to enlightenment".
Hīnayāna has been used by both past and present 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.
Scholar Isabelle Onians asserts that although "the Mahāyāna . . . very occasionally referred contemptuously to earlier Buddhism as the Hinayāna, the Inferior Way," "the preponderance of this name in the secondary literature is far out of proportion to occurrences in the Indian texts." She notes that the term Śrāvakayāna was "the more politically correct and much more usual" term used by Mahāyānists.
Hīnayāna as doctrine would (from a Mahayana perspective) include the Sutras taught by Buddha that admonish the practitioner to follow the Sravaka path or strive for Paccekabuddhahood. In such teachings there is no emphasis on pledging to emancipate the totality of sentient beings from the pain and bondage of samsara - the focus is more on practice for individual liberation. However, the Buddha did not teach in this manner according to the Pali Canon. In the Pali Canon the Buddha never admonishes his disciples to strive to become a Paccekabuddha, and 'sravaka' just translates as follower or disciple: any disciple of Buddha would be a savaka. There is thus no mention of a 'Savakapath' as 'savaka' refers to all disciples, not to a limited class of disciples.
Hīnayāna as a tradition in general would include those schools who solely follow the sutras of the Pali Canon or the Agamas (being, Pre-sectarian Buddhism and the Early Buddhist Schools). Some recent Mahayanist scholars have also used the name Nikaya Buddhism to refer to these schools. Some of these schools actively rejected the Mahayana sutras during the time of the rise of the Mahayana, around 2,000 years ago.
Hīnayāna as practitioner would be an individual of any school (including Mahayana) who practices to eliminate suffering according to basic Buddhist teachings; if successful, he is called an Arahant. (Similarly, a follower of a bodhisattva path in any school would be Mahayana in this sense.) As a follower of what Mahayana terms "Hinayana", he or she will not strive to become a Buddha, nor will he or she take the Mahayana Bodhisattva-vow of pledging to come back into samsara countless times in the future in order to liberate all other sentient beings from suffering. Also, the 'Pratyeka-Buddha' is regarded by Mahayana as being Hinayanist. Mahayana only considers the ideal of a Samyaksambuddha 'Great'; the other enlightened ideals are considered by Mahayana orthodoxy to be (depending on the translation) either 'inferior', 'degrading', 'base' or 'low'.
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 Silk 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.
It appears that the distinction between vehicles and paths arises in early Mahayana sutras, such as the Lotus Sutra, where it is stated that there is one path - the path to Nirvana -, but there are different vehicles. The vehicles are described (by Mahayana) as representing the fruit of the two types of Buddha found in the Pali Canon, plus the path of the Arahants.
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 derogatory and inaccurate (at least in reference to the Theravada, but also to the other, already non-existent, schools).
In the Mahayana tradition, the label Hinayana is attributed to the Buddha himself (e.g. in the Lotus Sutra). As it is a polemical term and represents a specifically Mahayana point of view, other terms have been suggested to describe the Buddhist schools which chose not to adopted the Mahayana sutras. As noted above, in India Hinayana was not the predominant term used in Mahayana texts for early Buddhist schools, Sravakayana being much more commonly used (with the former used only rarely). Among the terms that have been used as substitutes for "Hīnayāna" are the following:
Śrāvakayāna Buddhism – The term most often historically used Mahāyāna texts to refer to early Buddhist schools. This term refers to the "śrāvakas," meaning disciples, followers, or hearers. They who followed the Buddha and sought solely to eliminate suffering, thus culminating in Arahantship. This term originates (like the term Hinayana) from within Mahāyāna Buddhism, and thus faces some of the same objections as "Hīnayāna", though it is less obviously derogatory. Śrāvakayāna can also refer to a tendency or intention found in an individual; this is, one might be a member of a Mahāyāna school, but be personally following a Śrāvakayāna path. Śrāvakayāna is also contrasted with the term "Bodhisattvayāna".
Early Buddhism - refers to the variations within Buddhism (both Pre-sectarian Buddhism as the Early Buddhist schools) that were current before the Mahayana movement emerged.
Early Buddhist schools – This term properly covers all the schools that existed before the emergence of the Mahāyāna. The arising of the Mahayana school of Buddhism (1st / 2nd century CE) went together with the adoption of new (previously not-existing) sutras, and introduced new (or emphasized old but not very central) philosophies such as the Bodhisattva and having the intention of liberating all sentient beings. Since this constituted a serious break with the previous traditions and customs that the earlier schools had in common, the Mahayana is seen as a 'reformist' or revolutionary movement, and not included in any lists of the early schools. Thus, there is a large correlation between the earlier schools and the label 'Hinayana'. Also the Mahayana itself never groups itself with the previously existing schools. Some of the later 'early schools' might have arisen (meaning: split off) from another, older, early school, and might have come into existence at about the same time as the Mahayana. However, these schools kept to the larger framework and attitude of the earlier schools.
Eighteen Schools (or Twenty Schools) – This term is historically oriented, based on the lists of the various Early Buddhist schools. However, the list itself is numerically inexact since the exact number and the names of the schools differ between the various lists. These were the schools that the emerging Mahayana-movement was familiar with because they were existing at that time. Subsequently, these eighteen schools split up further into a larger number, and the Hinayana label could have also been applied to those later split-offs. Also, the Mahayana writer Bhavya (Bhavaviveka) says in the Tarkajvala that Mahayana is oncluded in the eighteen schools.
Southern Buddhism – This frequently used geographical designation is appropriately applied to the Theravāda, whose centers in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia are located south of the centers of Mahayana (China, Tibet, Japan). In its early period, however, there was significant overlap between the geographical regions of Mahayana and the early schools.
Pāli Buddhism – This term only applies to the Theravāda, whose scriptures (the Pāli canon) are in the Pāli language. The other "Hīnayāna" schools wrote either in Sanskrit, in other Prakrits (notably Gāndhārī) or in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, a mixed language with both Sanskrit and Prakrit elements.
Nikāya Buddhism – This recently invented term was intended to cover the same ground as Hīnayāna, referring to the nikāyas or "schools" into which Buddhism was split by the beginning of the Common Era. It could also be interpreted as "Buddhism as taught in the Nikāyas", the five primary divisions of the Tipiṭaka, although this second usage of the term is only used among the Theravāda—other schools used the term Āgamas— so if used in the latter sense "Nikaya Buddhism" would be a misnomer when applied to non-Theravāda early schools such as the Sarvastivada and Sammitiya.
Theravāda – This term properly refers to only one school among many non-Mahāyāna schools that once existed, many of which espoused philosophical notions contrary to those of the Theravādins. It would be altogether inaccurate to refer to such Buddhists as the Sarvāstivādins as Theravādins. Some scholars, such as Dr. Walpola Rahula, have pointed out that there was small contact between early Mahāyānists and Theravādins, and have suggested that the term "Hīnayāna" was never intended to include the Theravāda. Judging by the content of Mahāyāna polemic, it seems certain that other sects of northern India were the primary targets of the "Hīnayāna" critique.
Mainstream Buddhism: this term might be considered derogatory by Mahayanists, as it seems to suggest they are fringe (when in fact they are the majority)