Roughly speaking, there are the following main points of distinction between these two sects!
1. The Summum Bonum:
The followers of the Hinayana sect consider the stage of ‘Arhat’ as the highest stage.
After reaching this stage, the aspirant becomes perfectly established in knowledge. The aspirants of the Mahayana sect, on the other hand, aspire to reach the stage of ‘Bodhisatva’. It is after reaching this stage that one gets the capacity to do good to others.
2. Concept of Liberation:
Thus the ideal pursued by the followers of Hinayana is somewhat narrow and selfish. They try only for their own liberation.
The ideal of Mahayana, on the other hand, is more liberal and altruistic. They not only seek their own liberation, but aim at cosmic good. Thus, Hinayana aims at only individual liberation, while Mahayana aims at the universal.
3. Self-dependence versus grace:
In Hinayana, there is emphasis on self-dependence. According to it, man may attain liberation only by his own efforts. As the Buddha himself has said, “Be ye a lamp unto you.” The aspirants must themselves try for their own uplift. Before attaining Mahaparinirvana, the Buddha said to his followers, All constructed things or conglomerations are subject to destruction.
One should try for liberation by one’s own efforts.” Mahayana, how-ever, finds a place also for such worldly persons who are so much busy with the struggle in life that they cannot make efforts themselves for their liberation and need the help of others. According to the Mahayana sect, the compassion of the Buddha can also lead to the liberation of man.
4. Worship of the Buddha:
Hinayana is atheistic. In it, the place of God has been given to the essentials of Dhamma. Dhamma (Dharma) moves the whole world. It is due to Dhamma that the fruits of karma are accumulated and every individual gels mind, body and worldly things according to his own karmas.
In the Hinayana, there is provision for seeking the shelter of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, but the Buddha was never conceived of as the idol of worship or God. In Mahayana, the Buddha gradually became the idol of worship and came to be identified, with the ultimate existence.
Siddhartha Gautama was adored as the incarnation of the Buddha. In the form of Dharma Kaya, the Buddha became God. He is the controller of the world and descends on the earth for the good of living beings. The sufferers in the world pray to get the help, sympathy and compassion of the Buddha by accepting him as God. In this form, the Buddha is also known as Amitabha Buddha.
5. Conservatism versus liberalism:
The Hinayana sect believes in the tradition of old Buddhist philosophy. As it has been already pointed out, it is conservative and vehemently opposed to all types of changes. Mahayana, on the other hand, is progressive. Hence, in the Mahayana sect there were great scholars like Ashva Ghosh Nagarjuna, Asanga, Vasu Bandhu and Arya Deva, who seriously discussed the various philosophical problems.
6. Concept of self:
Due to its faith in the ancient tradition, Hinayana does not accept self. According to Mahayana, on the other hand, only the lower self or Hina Atman is illusory, the transcendental self or Mahatma is not false.
7. Puritan versus utilitarian attitude:
Hinayana was more concerned with the purity and clarity of the ideal, while Mahayana aimed at its utility. In Hinayana, the early Buddhist principles remain in their original form while in Mahayana many new thoughts and principles were added to them.
8. Difference in attitude:
Due to its being conservative, one finds asceticism, narrowness and superstitiousness in Hinayana. Mahayana, on the other hand, being progressive, has a healthy and sympathetic attitude and liberal and progressive ideas.