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The Hinayana (Sanskrit lit. Lesser Vehicle) term used to identify ancient Indian schools of Buddhism that are now mostly extinct. None of the schools designated as 'Hinayana' survive today, but the Theravada School of Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand is descended from the Sthavirvadin School.

Hinayana is now widely thought of as pejorative - the word hina means "inferior, low; poor, miserable; vile, base, abject, contemptible, despicable" (Pali Text Society Dictionary). The term was coined by the Mahayana schools as a way to differentiate themselves from the early schools. Mahayana texts frequently contain polemics against formalism and disputed doctrines which are directed at monks from the schools which subsequently became known as hinayana.

However the term is still in current use to describe the early Buddhist schools, especially in Tibetan Buddhist circles because they inherited texts and teachings from all of the 'yanas' and simply adopted the terminolgy of the Mahayana Sutras. There doesn't seem to be a widely accepted, or understood, alternative. Early Buddhism is frequently used, but is not entirely accurate because some of the 'early' schools arose later than the Mahayana schools. The use of Theravada is not correct either as the Theravada are not representative of the other early schools, despite having roots that go back to that time. Shravakayana is another term that has been used and would seem to be a useful one in that it, indicates the earlyness of most of the schools (Shravaka means hearer [of the Buddha]), and it has no unfortunate connotations.

Some remnants of these schools do still exist: the Geluk School of Tibetan Buddhism still use a Sarvastivada vinaya, and Chinese schools use one from the Dharmagupta school. Fragments of the canon of texts from these schools also survive such as the Mahavastu of the Mahasanghika School. Other texts survive only in Tibetan and/or Chinese translation. Only the Theravadin Pali Canon survived intact in the language in which it was originally written down.

See also: Theravada and Mahayana

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