I was listening to Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi's second talk on the Sutta Nipata
and towards the end, he makes a comment about arhats and bodhisattvas that I found very memorable. Here is a word for word transcript.
There’s a tendency sometimes amongst Buddhists of different followings to oppose arhats and bodhisattvas and to see which one is superior to which. And then it leads to conflict, friction, between followers of different vehicles.
Followers of Mahayana say bodhisattvas are superior to arhats. Arhats are narrow, selfish, small-minded. Followers of the Theravada say followers of the bodhisattva vehicle are deluded or taking too much time following an impossible course, something to difficult, that one should just aim quickly for one’s own liberation. And so this leads to certain conflicts, quarrels, frictions.
The way I see it, both sides, followers of both paths, have to respect each other. First of all, if there were no bodhisattvas, there could be no Buddhas because Buddhas arise from bodhisattvas. Every Buddha is the end product of one who has followed the bodhisattva course.
But also, if there were no arhats, there could be no Buddhas. Because what is the task of a Buddha? A Buddha is one who aspires to achieve Buddhahood in order to liberate many, many sentient beings. And those beings who are liberated by the Buddha are liberated by attaining arhatship. If nobody followed the Buddha’s instructions and attained arhatship, then the Buddha could not be a Buddha. He would just be teaching pointlessly.