In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sarvāstivāda

  • Introduction
  • History
  • The Language of the Sarvāstivāda Texts
  • Sutra Literature
  • Vinaya Literature
  • The Sarvāstivāda Kṣudrakapiṭaka
  • Sarvāstivāda in China

Buddhism Sarvāstivāda
Bart Dessein
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0139


The rise of the Sarvāstivāda school of Buddhism as a distinct group dates back to the 2nd to 1st centuries BCE. According to Buddhist historical literature, the Sarvāstivādins split from the Sthaviravāda school at a council held in Pāṭaliputra (present-day Patna). The name “Sarvāstivāda” suggests that the disagreement with the Sthaviravādins was a matter of doctrinal viewpoint: “sarvāstivāda” is derived from the Sanskrit sarvam asti, meaning essentially “everything exists/all is.” The question from which the school derives its name is whether discrete entities (dharma) have an existence only in the present, or whether they also exist as such in the past and future. In other words, the question is whether the past becomes manifest in the present, and whether the future is already latent in the present. This focus on philosophical interpretation and debate explains why the Sarvāstivāda school predominantly is an abhidharma school. Of their subsequent history until the occurrence of a famous council in Kashmir during the reign of the Kuṣāņa king Kaniṣka (2nd century CE), our knowledge is only fragmentary. Most likely, this council in Kaśmīra was an exclusive reunion of the Vaibhāṣika subgroup of the larger Sarvāstivāda community, not a general “synod” meant to discuss doctrinal disputes with other schools. Profiting from the territorial expansion of the Kuṣāņa Empire, these Vaibhāṣikas became the most dominant Sarvāstivāda subgroup in the period extending from the 2nd to the 4th centuries CE. The Vaibhāṣikas have to be differentiated from the original Sarvāstivādins, originating from Mathurā. Other Sarvāstivāda subgroups are the Western Masters of Gandhāra and Bactria, who are also referred to as Bahirdeśaka, Aparāntaka, and Pāścattya; and the Mūlasarvāstivādins. The relation of the Sautrāntikas to the Sarvāstivādins, and the question of whether the Sautrāntikas are the same subgroup as the Dārṣṭāntikas, who are, in their turn, equated with the Western Masters of Gandhāra and Bactria, has not been settled univocally yet. The Sarvāstivādins have been of major importance in the development of Śrāvakayāna (Hinayana) Buddhism, as well as for the origin of the Mahayana. For the latter, the contacts of the Sarvāstivādins with the Hellenistic world have been of great importance. As the famous Silk Route went through Central Asian Sarvāstivāda territory, their philosophical ideas became very influential in China. The Sarvāstivādins remained influential to about the 7th century CE.

General Overviews

The history of the Sarvāstivāda school of Buddhism extends over a large span of time and over a huge geographical area, starting with its rise as a distinct group in northern India in approximately the 2nd to 1st centuries BCE, and extending into the 7th century, when, through the Chinese translations of many of the school’s texts (mainly done in the 4th to 7th centuries CE), the school was also influential in China. Apart from northern India and China, the Sarvāstivādins were also important in Central Asia and in Tibet. Given this temporal and geographical extension, and given the connection of the Sarvāstivāda school with the political developments in the different regions in which it was present, some background knowledge of Buddhist India, the region in which the school originated, and of Buddhist Central Asia, the region that witnessed major developments in the school’s doctrine and through which the school reached China, may be valuable.

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