There have been many attempts at explaining the origin, formation and early development of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Often they are characterized by dichotomies such as, e.g., sect versus mainstream or lay people movement versus the order of monks, and in the absence of other historically relevant sources they are usually based on a corpus of normative scripture. Several times scholars studied the development of terms and dogmatic ideas in the relevant literature and used them in cladistics models in order to classify a work as containing more or less Mahāyāna content and thereby situate it in the historical development. However, none of those attempts led to really convincing results.
The project intends to take new manuscript finds as its starting point, but at the same avoid the exclusively literary approach characteristic of most of the earlier studies. It appears promising also to draw on models and questions of such research areas as religious economy, religious sociology, and religious aesthetics and to test them in order to find out if they may be employed for advancing our understanding, especially in view of the desperate situation with regard to other than literary sources for ancient India.