The Sautrāntika were an "early Buddhist school generally believed to be descended from the "Sthavira nikāya by way of their immediate parent school, the Sarvāstivādins. Their name means literally "those who rely upon the "sutras", and indicated their rejection of the "Abhidharma texts of other early Buddhist schools.
The name Sautrāntika indicates that unlike other North Indian "Sthaviras, this school held the Buddhist sutras as central to their views, over and above the ideas presented in the "Abhidharma literature. The Sarvastivada scholar Samghabhadra, in his Nyayanusara, attacks a school of thought named Sautrantika which he associates with the scholars Śrīlāta and his student "Vasubandhu. According to Samghabhadra, a central tenet of this school was that all sutra is explicit meaning (nitartha), hence their name.
The Sarvāstivādins sometimes referred to them as the Dārṣṭāntika school, meaning "those who utilize the method of examples". This latter name may have been a pejorative label. It is also possible that the name 'Dārṣṭāntika' identifies a predecessor tradition, or another related, but distinct, doctrinal position; the exact relationship between the two terms is unclear. Charles Willemen identifies the Sautrāntika as a Western branch of the Sarvāstivādins, active in the "Gandhara area, who split from the "Sarvāstivādins sometime before 200 CE, when the Sautrāntika name emerged. Other scholars are less confident of a specific identification for the Sautrāntika; Nobuyoshi Yamabe calls specifying the precise identity of the Sautrāntika "one of the biggest problems in current Buddhist scholarship."
The founding of the Sautantrika school is attributed to the elder Kumaralata (c. first century), author of a "collection of drstanta" (drstantapankti) named Kalpanamanditika. The Sautantrikas were sometimes also called "disciples of Kumaralata". According to Chinese sources, Harivarman (250-350 CE) was a student of Kumaralata who became disillusioned with Buddhist "Abhidharma and then wrote the "Tattvasiddhi-Śāstra in order to "eliminate confusion and abandon the later developments, with the hope of returning to the origin". The Tattvasiddhi was translated into Chinese and became an important text in Chinese Buddhism until the Tang Dynasty.
Other works by Sautrantika affiliated authors include the Abhidharmamrtara-sasastra attributed to Ghosaka, and the Abhidharmavatara-sastra attributed to Skandhila. The elder Śrīlāta, who was "Vasubandhu's teacher is also known as a famous Sautrantika who wrote the Sautrantika-Vibhasa. Ghosaka's Abhidharmavatara and Harivarman's Tattvasiddhi have both been translated into English.
The Buddhist philosopher "Vasubandhu wrote the famous Abhidharma work "Abhidharmakośakārikā which presented "Sarvastivada-"Vaibhāṣika Abhidharma tenets, he also wrote a "bhasya" or commentary on this work, which presented critiques of the "Vaibhāṣika tradition from a Sautrāntika perspective. The Abhidharmakośa was highly influential and is the main text on Abhidharma used in Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism up until today.
No separate "vinaya (monastic code) specific to the Sautrāntika has been found, nor is the existence of any such separate disciplinary code evidenced in other texts; this indicates that they were likely only a doctrinal division within the Sarvāstivādin school.
The Sautrāntika critiziced the Sarvāstivādins on various matters such as "ontology, "philosophy of mind and "perception. While the Sarvāstivādin "abhidharma described a complex system in which past, present, and future phenomena are all held to have some form of their own existence, the Sautrāntika subscribed to a doctrine of "extreme momentariness" that held that only the present moment existed. They seem to have regarded the Sarvāstivādin position as a violation of the basic Buddhist principle of "impermanence. The Sarvāstivādin abhidharma also broke down human experience in terms of a variety of underlying phenomena (a view similar to that held by the modern "Theravadin abhidhamma); the Sautrāntika believed that experience could not be differentiated in this manner.
Sautrantika doctrines expounded by elder Śrīlāta and critiqued in turn by Samghabhadra's Nyayanusara include: