On Sarvastivāda

The Sarvastivāda is one of the ancient schools of Hinayana Buddhism. The term Sarvastivāda is composed of three words: sarva (all), asti (exist) and vada (discussion, talk). Therefore, Sarvastivāda is the theory that holds that everything exists, in the present but also in the past and the future. Sarvastivādins, with the other Abhidharmika schools, interpret Buddha’s rejection of substance (anatta) as the acceptance of discrete and momentary elements, called dhammas (Sanskrit: dharmas). This paper will focus on listing and explaining the Sarvastivādin system of dharmas, followed by some comparison with the dharmas of other schools, but first, we will define and attempt to clarify a few fundamental terms, in order to have a better view of the historical and conceptual position of Sarvastivāda.



It is indispensable to understand the precise meaning of a few specific terms in order to think correctly about Hinayana schools and particularly Sarvastivāda. During the course of time, some names, while having a distinct meaning at first, became synonymous. It is, for instance, the case of Theravāda and Hinayana. Hinayana (“hina”, ‘poor’, ‘inferior’ and “yana”, ‘vehicle’) is usually translated as ‘the small vehicle’. This negative denomination is due to the Mahayanists who intended, by this act, to distinguish their tradition with the old one. Theravāda is “the ‘Doctrine of the Elders’ who formed the 1st Buddhist Council” (Humphreys, 1975). Since it is the only one of the 18 schools of Hinayana tradition that survived until today, Theravāda is now used as a synonym of Hinayana. For the account of our understanding of Sarvastivāda, it is important to remember that Theravāda is only one of the schools of Hinayana tradition, at the same level as Sarvastivāda or Mahāsaṅghika. The study of Theravāda, as a concurrent school of Sarvastivāda, will highlight the particularities of the latter.

The second and most important distinction that should be made concerns the terms Sarvastivāda and Vaibhasika, and its implications on Sautrāntika. They are three schools of Hinayana tradition, but a question arises concerning their hierarchy. Some sources present Vaibhasika and Sautrāntika as two equal sub-schools of Sarvastivāda. In the first volume of Indian Philosophy, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan explains: “the Hīnayāna schools are the Vaibhāṣikas and the Sautrantikas, who are realists or Sarvāstivada…” (1999). Some other sources seem to consider Sarvastivāda and Vaibhasika as synonyms. In his article Rise of the Philosophical Schools, T.R.V. Murti says: “the Theravāda and the Sarvāstivāda (the Vaibhāṣika) are the chief exponents of this dogmatic pluralistic phase” (1983a). An interesting point can be found in the “Abhidhamma” entry of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Noa Ronkin deepens the direct link between Sarvāstivāda and Vaibhāṣika by explaining that there were “multiple Sarvāstivāda branches, most notably the Sarvāstivādins of Kashmir who are known as Sarvāstivāda-Vaibhāṣika” (2010). The newly coupled-term is later qualified of “orthodox” school of Sarvāstivāda. This would imply that Vaibhāṣika conforms to the traditionally accepted concept of Sarvāstivāda, while there would be another sub-school, heterodox this time. However, Ronkin does not say that Sautrāntika is this heterodox school. Rather, she puts Sautrāntika as being strictly outside of the Sarvāstivāda tradition by presenting the “three main Abhidharma traditions” as being “Theravada, Sarvāstivāda and Sautrāntika” (2010). Christmas Humphreys, in A Popular Dictionary of Buddhism, does not propose an entry for Vaibhasika, but defines Sautrāntika as an early School of Buddhism which acted “in reaction to the doctrine of the Abhidharmika system of the Sarvāstivādins” (1975). This quote extends the exclusion of Sautrāntika as one of the sub-schools of Sarvastivāda. All these statements tend to show that the scope of the Sarvāstivāda school and its possible sub-schools is highly debated by scholars. Our argument will however follow the latter position, i.e. the exclusion of Sautrāntika as a sub-school of Sarvāstivāda, this time on the account of a very technical fact: Sautrāntika, as we will see, argues against Vaibhasika and denies “the past and future phases” as dhammas (Murti, 1983b), while this is the very definition of Sarvāstivāda. Therefore, the dhammas we will list and detail in this paper belong to the Vaibhasika school which we will consider as the main, orthodox school of Sarvastivāda.


Sarvastivādin dhammas

The Abhidhamma. With the rules and regulations (Vinaya Piṭaka) and the teachings of the Buddha (Sutta Piṭaka), a series of book gathered under the name of Abhidhamma (Sanskrit: Abhidharma) form the three “baskets” of the Tipitaka or Pāli canon. The Abhidhamma can be understood as analyses of Buddha’s teachings (“abhi”: “concerning”, “dhamma”: “teachings”). Further, they are now considered as the original philosophical literature of two traditions: the Theravāda and the Sarvāstivāda (Murti, 2006). Their respective versions of the Abhidhamma are the only collections preserved until today: in Pāli for the Theravadin Abhidhamma and in the Chinese Tipitaka for the Sarvastivādin version (Ronkin, 2010). While the Sarvastivāda emerged as an independent school around the first or second century b.c.e. (Ronkin, 2010), the most influential commentary on the Sarvastivādin Abhidhamma is authored by Vasubandhu, of the fifth century c.e., who, while being a Sautrāntika, is the author of the Abhidharmakośa, the most recognized systematic presentation of the orthodox Vaibhāṣika school. For Vasubandhu, the Abhidhamma are the “pure intuitive knowledge of the dharmas (existents)”, “an attempt to penetrate to the ultimate reality and define it” (cited by Murti, 1983b).

Dhammas and Types of dhammas. The basic standpoint of the various Abhidharmika schools is to accept a list of dhammas or ultimate elements of the mental and material world. Basically, the dhammas appear as a way to interpret Buddha’s precept of insubstantiality (anatta): there is no substance, but human experience is made of a flux of fundamental elements. The dhammas are entities which are not compound of smaller entities, they are impermanent and without duration (Murti, 1983b). I.N. Singh adds that, for the Sarvastivādins, these elements are a “multitude of interconnected facts” (2010), usually mistaken as the atmān or the soul. A decent size of each school’s Abhidhamma is dedicated to the listing and the explanation of accepted dhammas. It is precisely in the debates on some particular dhammas, on their respective list or taxonomy, that will arise the different standpoints of Theravada school, Sarvastivāda school, and later, Sautrāntika school. Ronkin emphasizes on the double meaning of dhamma or dharma: dhamma refers to the “category that represents a type of occurrence” as well as its particular occurrence (2010). We can gain in clarity by talking of “types of dhammas” for the categories and of “dhammas” for the particular occurrences.

75 types of Dhammas. While the Theravada school accepted 82 types of dhammas (Ronkin, 2010), the Sarvastivādin particularity resided in its acceptance of only 75 types of dhammas. They are divided into the saṁskrṭa dharma, or conditioned dharmas, composed of 72 dharmas, and the asaṁskrṭa dharma, or unconditioned dharmas, composed of 3 dharmas (Singh, 2010). The categorization 1 of the conditioned dharmas is four-fold. The first group concerns the matter (Rūpa). It is compound of the five sense organs, the five sense objects and avijñapti 2, making 11 dharmas altogether. The second group concerns consciousness (Citta), for 1 dharma. Citta is also known as vijñana, “contentless consciousness” (Murti, 1983b). The third group concerns the psychic factors (Cetasika), for 46 dharmas. They are divided in six sub-categories: the mental states present in all states (10 dharmas), the general properties associated with good states (10), the evil mental properties (2), the primary passions (6), the subsidiary passions (10) and the indeterminate elements (8). The fourth group concerns the non-mental forces (Citta Viprayukta Samskaras), for 14 dharmas. These dharmas cover attainment, birth, continuation, decay, death, etc. (Murti, 1983b). Murti further explains on the conditioned dharmas: “conditioned by ignorance and its satellite passions, the elements cooperate to flow as the defiled stream of phenomenal life; the saṁskṛta are thus pain (duḥkha) or cause of pain (samudaya)” (1983b). Here the author presents the existence of the saṁskrṭa dharma as being directly responsible (“cause”) for dukkha, described by Lord Buddha, in the Maggavagga Sutta, as the second of the three characteristics (Trilaksana) of all conditioned things.

Besides the saṁskrṭa or conditioned dharma, the Sarvastivāda school holds the existence of three asaṁskrṭa or unconditioned dharmas. Murti (1983b) gives to these unconditioned dharmas the Kantian terminology of “noumena”, as opposed to the conditioned dharmas called “phenomena”. Noa Ronkin defines an asaṁskrṭa dharma as what “neither arises nor ceases through causal interaction” (2010). The first type of unconditioned dharma is the Pratisaṅkhyā-nirodha. Pratisaṅkhyā-nirodha is the reduction of the conditioned dharmas to a state of blank, or Nirvana, through spiritual discipline. The second type of unconditioned dharma is the A-pratisaṅkhyā-nirodha. This is another state of cessation, lower than Pratisaṅkhyā-nirodha as it does not depend on spiritually gained prajña (intuitive knowledge), but in the lack of some necessary conditions, for instance in the case of a diverted attention. The last unconditioned dharma is space or Ākāśa, defined as the non-obstruction: it is empty and provides space for the entities.


Sarvastivāda and other Abhidharmika schools

In order to complete the presentation of the Sarvastivādin precepts, we will briefly compare the dhammas above mentioned with the other taxonomies of the two main other Abhidharmika schools, namely, Theravada and especially Sautrāntika.

One of the differences underlying the opposition of Theravadin and Sarvastivāda, besides the number of dhammas (82 versus 75), concerns the accepted unconditioned dhammas. While Sarvastivāda accepts three unconditioned dhammas (cessation acquired with prajña, cessation acquired without prajña and space), the only asaṁskrṭa dhamma accepted by the Theravadin was Nirvana (Murti, 1983b; Ronkin, 2010). Then, space arises as one of the Sarvastivādin specificity, besides the acceptance of the three periods of time, which confirms the Sarvastivāda principles: everything exists, in time but also in space, since space is everywhere.

The Sautrāntika school grew as a criticism of the Sarvastivāda-Vaibhasika school. Sautrāntikas also constituted their classification of dhammas. They reduced the number to only 43 dhammas. Rather than a simple deletion of some of the dhammas peculiar to the Sarvastivāda-Vaibhasika, it is a full reorganization of the categories that the Sautrāntikan proposed (Murti, 1983b). However, we can still notice the main distance taken by the late school over the orthodox one.

First is the full refusal of past and future tense, which constitute the core of the Sarvastivāda theory. The Sautrāntika understand the Sarvastivādin view of the existence of all elements in the past, present and future, as being based on the trust of the sense-organ and the object: each thing exists in the present, which is perceived, in the past, which is remembered, and in the future, which is prospected (Murti, 1983b). The Sautrāntika simply challenged the idea of a permanence of the same object in the past, present and future. According to them, the Sarvastivādin failed in distinguishing “the existent and the subsistent thought-forms” (Murti, 1983b). Secondly, the Sautrāntika rejected the whole three asaṁskrṭa or unconditioned dharmas. This distance was taken on the main criticism formulated by the Sautrāntika towards the Sarvastivādin: its tendency to erect objective realities.


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In the article Studies in Indian Thought, T.R.V. Murti presents the controversial idea that, out of the 18 schools of Hinayana Buddhism, only four “deserve consideration”. Among them, Sarvāstivada is qualified as “the most dominant and influential School.”

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As a conclusion, it seems meaningful to quote another part of T.R.V. Murti’s presentation of Sarvastivāda. In the article Studies in Indian Thought, he presents the controversial idea that, out of the 18 schools of Hinayana Buddhism, only four “deserve consideration”. Among them, Sarvāstivada is qualified as “the most dominant and influential School” (1983b). Indeed, the Sarvāstivada school is central in the evolution of Buddhist Philosophy. The Theravada and the Sarvastivāda, followed by the Sautrāntika, formed the first historical step of a systematical, philosophical understanding of Buddha’s teaching. Murti considered this step as the first stage of Buddhist thought, categorized as “realist” (1983b). The second phase of Buddhist thought, is categorized as “absolutist”, through Nagarjuna’s dialectic of the Middle Path (Mādhyamika). The third and final phase of Buddhist thought, categorized as “idealist”, is represented by the Yogācāra school. This typology shows that the Sarvāstivada was always present in all the stages of the Buddhist Philosophy, either way as main school of thought, main school directly criticized (by Mādhyamika) or main school indirectly criticized (by Yogācāra). If Mādhyamika is “the Central Philosophy of Buddhism”, as Murti asserted in his most famous book of the same name, we could also defend the idea that Sarvastivāda is “the Mother Philosophy of Buddhism.”






Image courtesy: Luca Galuzzi



  1. Here is presented the “objective classification” of the dharmas. There is also a “subjective classification” (Murti, 1983b; Singh, 2010).
  2. “Unmanifested matter” (Murti, 1983b).