Theravada began as one of many schools of Buddhism that emerged in India in the centuries after the Buddha's life. Theravada took on its distinctive form in Sri Lanka between the 3rd century B.C.E. and the 6th century C.E.
The early Theravada tradition was shaped by debates with other religious groups, especially other Buddhist schools, and by its relationship with its lay supporters.
Theravadins claim that their teachings and way of life were set out by the Buddha himself. Central figures in establishing Theravada as a distinct tradition were the editors of the Pali canon and its commentaries.
The Theravada scriptures are the Pali language recension of the Tipitaka, which consists of the Vinaya, the rules governing monastic life; the Suttas, the teachings of the Buddha; and the Abhidhamma, the systematic explanation of the Buddha's teachings.
While some modern scholars accept traditional accounts of Theravada's beginnings as the school of Buddhism most faithful to the Buddha's original teachings, others argue that there is little reliable knowledge about the development of Theravada before the 5th and 6th centuries C.E.