The Sarvastivadins ('Pan-realists') formed a major school of early non-Mahayana Buddhism. They are associated with the identification of seventy five dharmas, building blocks of existence, which, they believed, possess unique, inherent natures. Persons or things are made up of combinations of these dharmas. The characteristic doctrine of this school was their theory of time. They thought that all dharmas, past, present and future exist but move between these three modes. This theory explains how a past dharma can have a conditioning effect on the present and therefore explains the action of karma and also how it is that the mind can remember past events. The Sarvastivadins also systematized a theory of six perfections which was later developed by Mahayana schools in the concept of the Bodhisattva.
The Sarvastivadins divided from the Sthaviravadin school during the third century BCE, possibly at the time of the third council. The split resulted from differences in monastic discipline. The Sarvastivadins became dominant in North West India and as far as Afghanistan but were also represented in South India, Indonesia and China. In the first century CE a fourth Buddhist council was held under the patronage of King Kaniska. At this time 500 Sarvastivadin monks established the Sarvastivadin canon and compiled various commentarial works.Parts of the canon of the Sarvastivada still exist primarily in Chinese and Tibetan translation and the Sarvastivada Abhidharma was taken to be definitive by later Mahayana schools. The school was gradually absorbed by the Sautrantika and the Mahayana schools although it survived at least until the ninth century through the Mulasarvastivada. The complete vinaya of the Sarvastivada was preserved in Chinese and is one of two vinaya recensions to which Chinese monks adhered.
A particular contribution of this school was that it originated the Wheel of Life diagram which depicts the six realms of existence in which sentient beings exist. These are the realm of the complacent gods, the hell realm, the realm of the jealous gods, the realms of animals and of humans and finally the realm of the hungry ghosts. The diagram also shows in pictorial form the twelve links of conditioned existence which constitute samsara, the constant wheel of becoming. The wheel is gripped by Mara the lord of death and at its centre are three animals, a cock, a snake and a pig which depict the three unwholesome roots of greed, hatred and delusion. The diagram is a pictorial representation of the Buddhist understanding of life. These diagrams were adopted into Tibetan Buddhism and are still painted in the gateways of the monasteries of Tibetan Buddhists.
The school has no contemporary adherents.
The Sarvastivada school first developed at Mathura and then moved west into Kashmir.