Validity of Mahayana ‘Bodhisattva’ Concept

Purpose of this article is to analyze the validity of Mahayana Buddhism's concept of bodhisattva.

It's also an exercise of your reasoning power. Taking any philosophical concept and finding holes in it's claims.

In this example, the bodhisattva claim was challenged by an avid student, thus the inspiration for this article.

Firstly, what is a bodhisattva?

Perspective 1:

A bodhisattva is a being who carries out the work of the buddhas, vowing not to personally settle into the salvation of final buddhahood until she or he can assist all beings throughout the vast reaches of time and space to fully be free.

Put differently, one refrains to take the last step in the path of enlightenment so he or she can reincarnate in favorable conditions and be of aid for the rest of us.

Perspective 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 stay back to help others.

Vedanta argues the validity of both perspectives doesn't hold up when confronted logically. Here's why…

Let's start by presenting the student's comment first…

  • I think it is a consequence of Mahayana dismissing the idea of Oneness as the ultimate reality… so they take the burden upon themselves, as if samsara is a war to be won.
  • It further assumes that the count of jivas (living beings) is finite and the task will eventually end. IE: No more jivas to save!
  • I think this vow 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.

I especially appreciated the first point, denoting samsara is not a war to be won because it's eternal at the collective level. Meaning the “war” will never come to an end.

Secondly, if you save one being out of infinite beings, have you actually done anything, when infinite more remain?  The only real saving is to save yourself. To save yourself is to end samsara once and for all instantly.

Thus motivation to save others out of samsara, life after life, only reveals the ignorance of the one who has undertaken that role. Samsara only exists for the one who is still stuck in samsara. Hence they're no different then the one they're saving. A half-blind guide leading a half-blind follower. 

Many causes

Furthermore, a human being is product of many causes. Parental. Cultural. Past life samskaras. Present life circumstances. So we can never pinpoint a single cause to person's personality or choices in life.

Meaning we can't attribute anyone the title “bodhisattva”, because it would imply that the choice to lead others out of darkness – is entirely attributed to a past-life decision.

No memory

Additionally, 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.

Saving you for my sake, not yours.

Another way Vedanta argues is noone does things for others sake. We do things for our sake.

For example, we don’t marry to make another happy. We marry to increase our own happiness, security, sense of belonging and love.

Student doesn’t listen to make the teacher feel good by having another student in class. But listens to benefit from the information.

Therefore, one who claims to reincarnate to save others from samsara is themselves in samsara. Because definition of samsara is: Doing things for my own good.

And a samsari guiding a samsari, leads only to more samsara (only better version of it).

So noone really got saved. Because true saving is being taken out of samsara completely by recognizing one’s nature to be a different order of reality (Consciousness).

Bodhisattva is nothing new in Vedas

In light of Vedic four purusharthas (4 goals of life) — a Boddhisattva is one has has taken to a dharmic pursuit of life. In other words, being of service wherever and whenever possible. A karma-yogi per Bhagavad Gita, CH3.

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).

So boddhisattva is technically a good person under spell of ignorance, who is yet to arrive to final liberation and end the cycle of rebirth.

As for coming back to save others — when is that not happening? In every culture, not just buddhism, and every age — we've had hundreds of liberated beings take up the job of guiding others to the light. 


  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.

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