Theravada Buddhism, along with Mahayana Buddhism, are the two principal branches of Buddhist belief. It is most widespread in Sri Lanka, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. Like Mahayana Buddhism, Theravada (Pali for "School of the Elders") claims to perpetuate the true teachings and practices of the Buddha.
The Theravada school traces its descent from the original sangha, or monastic community, that first followed the Buddha. Its canon of scripture consists of the Tipitaka (Three Baskets), the first great compendium of Buddhist writings, composed in the Pali language. Theravada tends toward doctrinal conservatism, exemplified in a cautious interpretation of its canon. Because of this, it has been given the pejorative name Hinayana (Sanskrit for "Lesser Vehicle") by its rivals, who call their own tradition Mahayana ("Greater Vehicle"). The goal of the Theravadin, or devotee of Theravada, is to become an arhat, a sage who has achieved nirvana (enlightenment) and will never be reborn. Mahayana traditionally prefers the figure of the bodhisattva - who, out of compassion, helps others toward salvation - to the arhat, who is concerned chiefly with his own salvation.