Buddhism is divided into two main religious groups Mahayana Buddhism and Hinayana Buddhism (also known as Theravada).
The meaning of the word Hinayana is “a small vehicle or short sect (Laghu Pant).
The word Mahayana means ‘big vehicle or wider road’ (Brihad Path). The Mahayana sect emphasises the welfare of the group (Smashti)
Both Hinayana and Mahayana teach the practice of the four immeasurable attitudes of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Both define love as the wish for others to have happiness and the causes of happiness, and compassion as the wish for them to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. Hinayana, however, does not develop these immeasurable attitudes through a line of reasoning, such as that all beings have been our mother and so on. Rather, it starts by directing love at those whom we already love and then extending it, in stages, toward a widening range of others.
But these sect have also a few differences.
One of the differences is that Mahayana Buddhists believe that The Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) is a God but Hinayana Buddhists believe that The Buddha was an ordinary Human.
The ideal of Hinayana is individual salvation, but the ideal of Mahayana is Bodhisatva. A Bodhisatva is that “being” who does not accept his own salvation till all beings attain the same’ (salvation). Thus a Bodhisatva neglects his salvation for the sake of salvation of others.
Mahayana says that everyone can become a Buddha. This is because of the fact that everyone is blessed with the Buddha-nature factor that can propel the attainment of the status of Buddha. Hinayana does not go into the details of Buddha-nature factors at all.
According to Mahayana Buddhism, the ten far-reaching attitudes are generosity, skill in means, patience, ethical self-discipline, mental stability, joyful perseverance, strengthening, deep awareness, aspiration-filled prayer and discriminating awareness. Hinayana replaces mental stability, skill in means, aspiration-filled prayer, strengthening and deep awareness by renunciation, being true to one’s word, resolution, love and equanimity.
However, we have to remember that these two schools are only two classes. The Hinayana School may be regarded as the primary stage of Buddhism and Mahayana as a developed stage. In fact, the basis of the two is the preaching’s of Lord Buddha.
There is not a single principle of the Mahayana School which is not found in the Hinayana School in a seed-form. So if the Hinayana School is a seed, then the Mahayana School is a well developed tree. Really speaking, basically the two are the same. They appear to be two as branches only.