A question asked by many people is " What is the difference between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism?" To find the answer let us look at the history of Buddhism and compare and contrast the beliefs and philosophies of the two. .
The Buddah, Siddhartha Gautama, was born in the 6th century B.C.E. in Northwestern India. The Buddah was the son of an aristocrat and grew up in a world of affluence and privilege. His father, Suddhodana took every precaution to make sure Siddhartha didn’t experience anything that would hurt his happiness. .
The Buddah attained enlightenment at the age of 35 and spent his life teaching. He taught for 45 years and only slept for about two hours a day. What he taught was called Buddha Vacana, i.e. the word of the Buddha. .
Three months after the Buddha’s death five hundred of his disciples convened the First Council at Rajagaha. Maha Kassapa, the most respected and elderly monk, presided the council. Since members of the council were not able to agree on any changes, Maha Kassapa ruled that no rules laid down by the Buddha should be changed and no new ones should be introduced. Maha Kassapa also said "If we changed the rules, people would say that Ven. Gotama’s disciples changed the rules even before his funeral fire ceased burning.".
On hundred years later a Second Council was held and they made some changes to certain minor rules. In the 3rd Century B.C.E., the Third Council was held to discuss the difference between different sects. At the end of this Council, the President of the Council, Moggaliputta Tissa, wrote a book called the Kathavatthu refuting the heretical, false views and theories of some sects. The teaching approved by this council was known as Theravada. There was nothing known as Mahayana at this time.
Between the 1st Century B.C.E. and the 1st Century A.D., the term Mahayana appeared in the Saddharma Pundarike Sutra or Sutra of the Lotus of the Good Law.