Validity of Mahayana ‘Bodhisattva’ Concept

Purpose of this article is to analyze Mahayana Buddhism's concept of bodhisattva. (Article is not referring to Zen Buddhism's implied interpretation, which is different from Mahayana's more literal interpretation and how most interpret it).

In Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva is an one who possesses the aspiration to achieve Buddhahood (enlightenment and freedom from birth and death) not just for their own benefit, but also to help all other sincere seekers attain enlightenment. This altruistic intention is known as bodhicitta (one with a mature, evolved, compassionate mind).

There are two interpretations of bodhisattva:

  • Interpretation 1: A bodhisattva is one with commitment to help all sentient beings achieve enlightenment over the course of many lifetimes. According to this tradition, a bodhisattva is willing to be reborn again and again, indefinitely, until all beings are liberated from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara). This is an immense vow, reflecting the deep compassion and dedication of bodhisattvas to the welfare of others, which transcends any single lifetime. Bodhisattvas practice and develop their virtues and wisdom over countless lives, continually aiding others on the path to enlightenment.  IN SHORT: Not enlightened. Desire to guide others to enlightenment.
  • Interpretation 2: Bodhisattva is a being who has attained enlightenment but chooses to remain in the cycle of birth and death (samsara) to help other beings reach enlightenment. They are not bound by samsara but choose to remain in it out of compassion for other beings. So, they are actually liberated but choose to return to help others.  IN SHORT: Enlightened. Desire to guide others to enlightenment.

According to Vedas, neither interpretation holds up for the following reasons…


Interpretations dismiss God (the intelligence in form of laws and orders that governs time, space, interaction of objects, cause-effect relationships). Take intelligence out, and the burden is naturally taken onto oneself, as if I have control where and when to be reborn and under what circumstances. As you know, Buddhism doesn't accept the notion of “God”.


 Interpretations assumes that count of living beings is finite and the task will eventually end. For example, if you save one being out of infinite beings, have you actually done anything, when infinite more remain? 


The vow of saving poses some risk, as it is difficult to guarantee 100% that the new incarnation will be favorable, and spiritual evolution is not necessarily progressive and there’s always a slight chance of spiritual regression.


Veda further states samsara only exists for one who is NOT liberated. It only exists for the ignorant. From standpoint of the liberated being (a true bodhisattva), there's no samsara.


A human being is product of many past causes, such as parental and cultural. So we can never pinpoint a single cause to one's choice in the present life to guide others out of darkness.


The bodhisattva who made a promise to reincarnate will be a completely different person without memory of past life claims. Hence it's impossible to prove that the present life bodhisattva is an effect of having made a past-life claim, or is simply an effect of having made the choice in the present life.


In light of Vedas, all human pursuits can be more or less categorized into four goals (purusharthas).

They are: artha (security/material prosperity), kama (pleasures), dharma (duty/righteousness) and moksha (liberation, equivalent is Buddhahood).

The first three are essential, but are to be understood as means. Not the end. Although we observe many turning pleasures (kama) of life as the ultimate end.  Or taking extreme measures to increase one's sense of security (artha) through money, societal position and possessions.

Same with ethics. While crucial for enjoying a sensitive, informed, harmonious, mature mind — one needs to eventually ask the big existential questions that'll cause one to pursue moksha (liberation). According to Vedanta, Moksha (enlightenment) alone solves the problem of birth and death (life of limited existence).

In light of this understanding, extending one's hand to contribute according to one's capacity (as a bodhisattva would do), is indicative of an evolved person. But when it too becomes the end of life, one could say that's loss of perspective.

We'll close with a quote from Bhagavad Gita 5.17:

“Those whose intellect is awake to that (Brahman), for whom the self is that (Brahman), who are committed only to that (Brahman), for whom the ultimate end is that (Brahman which is already accomplished), whose impurities have been destroyed by knowledge—they attain a state from which there is no return.


  1. And from the Advanced Gita study, lesson 83, I have arrived here-seeing this post. Very humbling and something has broken free within me: I understand how the spell of ignorance had “glamoured” me. “And a samsari guiding a samsari, leads only to more samsara (only better version of it)”, who needs that! LOL The exercising of the reasoning power at work-how wonderful. Pranams.

  2. “In Bhagavad Gita it’s stated — when mind is truly qualified, it drops dharmic-pursuit and solely pursues liberation (moksha or nirvana per Buddhist term).”

    Is there a proper reference to this from Bhagavad gita?

    1. Thanks for pointing it out Nikhil.

      It implied, the mature mind no longer views dharma as sole pursuit of life, but a means to moksha. Or means by which moksha is attained.

      It’s been rewritten.

      1. Thanks Mark. Article is specifically targeting Mayahana’s more literal interpretation and how most unfortunately perceive it. Zend Buddhism which you’re referring to is implied meaning which is consistent and have no issue with. Can’t start mixing up various sects. Our mistake is not mentioning Zen Buddhism’s implied meaning. This will be included soon. Your mistake is over reacting by labeling the author, whoever the author is, as “arrogant fool”. Right thing to do is to criticize the information, not the person.

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