Hīna is a past-participle from the verbal root of the 3rd class: √hā - which forms stems by reduplication. "hahā" is disallowed, so the reduplicated 'ha' becomes 'ja'. The 3rd person singular present is jahati or jahāti (in both Pāli and Sanskrit) - the rules for reduplication apparently leaving room for ambiguity. The basic meaning is 'to leave, desert, abandon, renounce, forsake'. The past-participle then means 'abandoned, deserted, forsaken.' In practice it also means 'to fall short of, be deficient, or defective'.
Roots in 'h' are often abbreviated from gha and PED suggests a comparison with an Indo-European root *ghē from which we get the Greek words khēros (void), khēra (widow), khora (open space), and khorizo (separate). Compare this with the word kha in Sanskrit which means a space, or aperture; and it seems likely that words 'hole' and 'hollow' from this same root. It is from kha in the sense of 'the hole in the wheel through which the axle goes', that we get the two important terms sukha and duḥkha: the metaphor is a contrast between smoothly (su 'good, well') running cart' and one which gives a lumpy uncomfortable (dus) ride.
Monier-Williams gives more than two dozen compounds using this word. About half of them relate to social grade, or a social role; while the other half relate to something which is defective or absent. In the first category we have hīnakula and °kuṣṭa (low status family), °ja/jati/yoni (low birth), and °varga/varṇa which specifically refer to the śudra caste.
The second category we find °karman/kriya/kratu (someone who neglects the sacrifice), °guṇa/carita/vṛtta (of inferior virtue, base conduct) both of these clusters reflect the Brahminical prejudice against non-Brahmins who did not participate in their sacrificial religion. Another term for a non-believer was hīnapratijña (faithless). A drama with an anti-hero is hīnanāyaka ('whose leader is corrupt'). Finally those who associate with inferiors might be described as °sakhya (friends of the low people) or °seva (an attendant on low people).
The third category refers to something which is missing or defective: hīnakosa (empty treasury), °cakṣu/darsana-sāmarthya (blind), °bala (feeble), °buddhi (stupid), °rūpa (ugly), °roman (bald), hīnaṇga (crippled), hīnāṃsu (dark [an insult in the Brahmin lexicon]); °dagdha (insufficiently burned), °pakṣa (unprotected), °mūtya (a low price), °vāda (defective statement, contradictory evidence), °vyañjana (indistinct consonants), °svara (discordant or silent), hīnārtha (fallen short of his goals, [opposite of siddhartha]). Used abstractly we find: °tva (defectiveness), hīnātirikta (defective), hīnādhika (too few, too much, i.e. the wrong amount), °krama (in diminishing order), °tara (worse, worst).
On this basis of this survey I must temper my statement about hīnayāna and caste. However since there are several related terms which clearly are caste related, we can say that a connotation of caste prejudice cannot be ruled out. Clearly none of the other compounds with hīna as a first member have a positive connotation, and most are related to ways in which people or things fail to live up to (especially Brahmanical) ideals.
The compound mahāyāna is clearly a karmadhāraya compound meaning 'big or great vehicle'; so we could expect hīnayāna to be intended as the same type of compound. From this point of view it would mean 'defective vehicle'. However hīnayana could also be read as a tatpuruṣa - 'vehicle of the defective', or 'vehicle of the abandoned'. Read as a bahuvrīhi we could take is referring to someone who has 'abandoned the way'. Clearly English translators have fudged this term by translating it as "lesser" vehicle, but to be fair it is likely that they were following the influential Chinese translator Kumārajīva who rendered hīnayāna as 小乘 'hsiao-sheng, little vehicle'. (See Nattier p.172, n.4). Kumārajīva's translation of the Lotus Sūtra (for instance) is the preferred translation, and except for Kern's translation from the Sanskrit, all of the English translations are from Kumārajīva's Chinese translation (despite there being later, more accurate, Chinese translations).
The Saddharmapuṇḍarika (SP) is a locus classicus for the use of 'hīnayāna' as a pejorative. In chapter two after the Buddha announces that he will give a new teaching, a new yāna, a group of 5000 men and women, monks and lay leave before the sermon is delivered. After which the Buddha says to Śāriputra (taking my examples from the verse section):
śuddhā ca niṣpalāvā ca susthitā pariṣanmama|Hīnayāna does not seem to apply to the people themselves, though they are 'chaff' and 'worthless'. Curiously the text seems to use the term hīnayāna quite vaguely. Later in Chapter 2 the Buddha says:
phalguvyapagatā sarvā sārā ceyaṁ pratiṣṭhitā||41||
Pure and free of chaff, my assembly is well established
The worthless have retreated and all the strong are steadfast
ekaṁ hi kāryaṁ dvitiyaṁ na vidyateI think the definite article would be out of place here - it is 'a' not 'the' defective way. If we were to use the definite article it would imply that "the hīnayāna" was not something taught by the Buddha, and this would contradict everything we know about the history of Buddhism. Two verses on the Buddha continues
na hīnayānena nayanti buddhāḥ ||55||
There is only one method, not a second,
The Buddhas do not lead by a defective way.
yadi hīnayānasmi pratiṣṭhapeya-Again my sense here is of 'a defective vehicle', not 'the defective vehicle'. And actually it's not that clear what is being criticised here. It is curious and not at all what I expected to find, but this essay is already quite long, so I will have to explore it more at a later date. I will mention that SP uses the term hīnābhirata which Kern translates as 'low dispositions'. Abhirata means pleased or satisfied, as well as practising. There's every chance that hīnābhirata means 'dissatisfied' or 'lacking contentment' here. There is one other mention of a 'defective way' in chapter 6, but it doesn't add much to the picture. It almost seems as though the association of the people who leave the assembly and the 'defective way' is accidental. I don't see a direct connection between them in the key chapter. I'm reminded of the accidental identification of Lucifer ('the light bearer', an epithet of Nebuchadnezzar) with the Christian Devil based on a misreading of Isaiah 14:12 by Origen.
mekaṁ pi sattvaṁ na mamate sādhu||57||
It would not be good if even one being
Were to become established in a defective vehicle.
The argument over a suitable replacement term continues with some (me) using "Early Buddhism"; some opting for "Pāli Buddhism" (since the best known texts are in Pāli); and some "Mainstream Buddhism". All of these are problematic for a variety of reasons. My current favourite comes from Wikipedia and is "pre-sectarian". I'm going to adopt this and suggest other people do as well - it avoids the temporal problems (unlike "early"), it is neutral (unlike Pāli and Hīnayāna), it is a fair description of the subject (unlike "mainstream").
Note 10 Oct 2010:
In the Alagaddūpama Sutta hīnaṃ 'rejected' is contrasted with paṇītaṃ 'exalted'.
- Vaidya, P. L. Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtram. The Mithila Institute of Post-Graduate Studies and Research in Sanskrit Learning, 1960. Online: Digital Sanskrit Buddhist Canon.
- Kern, H. Saddharma-pundarika or The Lotus of the True Law. 1884. Sacred Books of the East, Vol XXI. Online: Internet Sacred Text Archive.
- Nattier, Jan. A few Good Men: The Bodhisattva Path According to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai'i Press, 2003.
Image: Abandoned Bicycle now defective (a hīnayāna). Jayarava