There is no such thing as Hinayana. It is a slander made up by so called Great Wayists who were busy assimilating Hinduism in order to suck up to their high caste patrons whose money they couldn't do without, and who are ultimately responsible for the disappearance of Buddhism from India. Where do they get off being so arrogant?! The Brahmins had a far more sophisticated approach to religion, and a much better understanding of what religion does for people, and you'll notice that successive waves of Muslim iconoclasts, not to mention Muslim rulers did not wipe them out! The Mahayana sold itself out, and we would know nothing at all about it if the Chinese and Tibetans hadn't kept careful records.
One thing that has been becoming abundantly clear about Buddhists is that we are deluded as to the origins of our traditions. Apart from the idea of dependent-origination which is incredibly important, everything else was taken bodily from existing models of practice. They mainly drew on the Shramana tradition which had turned away from the Vedic tradition only a few hundred years before Gotama did his thing under the Bodhi tree, although you could argue that they had simply re-emphasized some of the original aspects of it - the quest for inspiration and insight was fundamental to early Vedic religion! What the Mahayana did which was interesting was to go back to the source and start incorporating Vedic ideas directly, assimilating Vedic and tribal gods where earlier Buddhists had tried to head off that kind of syncretism. Buddhist practice is essentially Vedic in origin,although the best of it is interpreted in terms of dependent-origination, I wonder at times whether this idea were not incipient in the Vedic world view in any case. It wouldn't surprise me. So all this talk of Hinayana/Mahayana is kind of meaningless. Mind you I've had some very unproductive arguments about this question with some Gelugpas!
The word hina is not a very nice one in Sanskrit. It was very frequently used to describe outcasts and people of low status. A contemporary translation might be "Nigger's Way" - I think it would have been that shocking to the people of ancient India. The assumption, as far as I can tell from the kinds of terms it's used in, is that the hina-people were not lesser in the ordinary sense (for which one might use the Pali word cula - there are frequently cula and maha versions of Pali suttas. ) but actually the untouchables and other people beneath contempt. It goes back to late Brahminical ideas of ritual pollution- the touch of these people is polluting! These are the hina-people. I suspect that it resulted from a Brahmin infiltration of the Buddhist monasteries. During India's golden age, the Gupta period,the rulers were all followers of the Brahminical religion! At the same time they started incorporating Vedic style mantras into their texts, but completely out of context. They also included worship of deities like Saraswati and Sri (see the Golden Light Sutra) in their texts without much if any conversion.
See also my update on this essay: Hīnayāna Reprise. 05 March 2010.