The Mahayana emerged between 100 B.C.E. and 100 C.E. in India in the context of debate about proper Buddhist doctrine and practice, about monastic discipline, and particularly about the ongoing presence of the Buddha after his death as well as the nature of enlightenment itself.
Initially, the Mahayana was influenced by other Buddhist schools of thought in India; as it spread in and beyond India, it absorbed and adopted aspects of indigenous religious traditions, such as Taoism, Confucianism, Bon, and various forms of Hinduism.
The philosopher/monk Nagarjuna is sometimes said to be the founder of the Mahayana, along with such early figures as Asanga and Vasubandhu, although each of these figures actually founded sub-schools within the early Mahayana; in reality there is no single founder of the tradition.
The earliest Mahayana texts compose the vast corpus known as the "Prajnaparamita" ("Perfection of Wisdom"), which forms the foundation of many later Mahayana schools. Other important early texts include the "Sadharmapundarika" ("Lotus Sutra") and the "Vimalakirti Nirdesha Sutra."
Mahayana thought has been extremely influential in western philosophy and, in recent decades, western religious and ethical practice. Early scholarship on the Mahayana focused primarily on Mahayana thought, but more attention recently has been paid to ritual and devotional practices.