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Mahāyāna (Sanskrit for "Great Vehicle") is one of two (or three, under some classifications) main existing branches of Buddhism and a term for classification of Buddhist philosophies and practice.

This movement added a further set of discourses, and although it was initially small in India, it had long-term historical significance.

Seishi Karashima has suggested that the term first used in an earlier Gandhāri Prakrit version of the Lotus Sūtra was not the term mahāyāna but the Prakrit word mahājāna in the sense of mahājñāna (great knowing).

At a later stage when the early Prakrit word was converted into Sanskrit, this mahājāna, being phonetically ambivalent, was mistakenly converted into mahāyāna, possibly because of what may have been a double meaning in the famous Parable of the Burning House, which talks of three vehicles or carts (Skt: yāna).

Membership in these nikāyas, or monastic sects, continues today with the Dharmaguptaka nikāya in East Asia, and the Mūlasarvāstivāda nikāya in Tibetan Buddhism.Anthony Barber and Sree Padma note that "historians of Buddhist thought have been aware for quite some time that such pivotally important Mahayana Buddhist thinkers as Nāgārjuna, Dignaga, Candrakīrti, Āryadeva, and Bhavaviveka, among many others, formulated their theories while living in Buddhist communities in Āndhra." Some early Mahāyāna sūtras were translated by the Kuṣāṇa monk Lokakṣema, who came to China from the kingdom of Gandhāra.His first translations to Chinese were made in the Chinese capital of Luoyang between 178 and 189 CE.for the Blessed One, the Buddha Amitābha." There is also some evidence that Emperor Huviṣka himself was a follower of Mahāyāna Buddhism, and a Sanskrit manuscript fragment in the Schøyen Collection describes Huviṣka as having "set forth in the Mahāyāna." Evidence of the name "Mahāyāna" in Indian inscriptions in the period before the 5th century is very limited in comparison to the multiplicity of Mahāyāna writings transmitted from Central Asia to China at that time.Earlier stage forms of Mahāyāna such as the doctrines of Prajñāpāramitā, Yogācāra, Buddha Nature, and the Pure Land teachings are still popular in East Asia.