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Some characteristics of Sanskrit

This note provides a panoramic view of Sanskrit as a language. It does nor claim to cover all the features of Sanskrit nor does it deal with any characteristic in any depth. It often happens that a student of Sanskrit, in his attempt to climb the mountain of Sanskrit language too engrossed with his next step is unable to get a birds eye view of the language. He fails to see the wood for the trees. Here is an humble attempt to help him get a perspective.

phonetic, punctuation, genders, numbers, cases, persons, adjectives, verbs, active and passive voice, tenses and moods, causals, indeclinables, verbal derivatives, compound words, sandhi, double entendre, direct speech, verses

1. Sanskrit is phonetic:

If you know how to spell a word, you also know how to pronounce it. If you know how to pronounce a word, you know how to spell it. That is, there is a one to one correspondence between spelling and pronunciation. It is true for most Indian languages. It is not true for English.

2. Punctuation:

Sanskrit by itself contains only "|" to indicate an end of a sentence or half of a verse and "||" to indicate the end of a complete verse. However, with the advent of the printed book, most punctuation marks used in English are also being used in printed Sanskrit text. Punctuation certainly helps in following the text. [There is अवग्रह symbol "s" in Sanskrit to indicate अ which is lost in liaising. Its antiquity is not known]

3. Genders:

In English, gender of a noun denoting an inanimate object, collection or an abstraction is generally neuter. In Sanskrit, it could be any of the three- masculine, feminine or neuter. Often, the gender is determined by how a word is derived. Some words can be used in  two or all of the three genders. While learning a new word it is important to learn its gender too.

4. Numbers:

In English, there are only two numbers: singular and plural. In Sanskrit there are three: singular, dual and plural [एकवचन, द्विवचन, बहुवचन]. The noun undergoes appropriate inflexions to indicate the number. Example: फलम्= fruit;  फले= two fruits; फलानि= many (more than two) fruits.

4. Cases:

In English, the case of a noun in a sentence is determined by its position in the sentence or by prepositions preceding the noun. In Sanskrit, the stem of the noun itself gets inflected. Such inflexions occur in many Indian languages, although not in Hindi. The Table below which is in fact रामशब्द will clarify how nouns get inflected depending upon the case and number:



द्विवचनः बहुवचनः
  Singular Dual Plural
प्रथमा विभक्तिः रामः रामौ रामाः
Nominative case(subject) Raama two Raamaas many (more than two) raamaas
सम्बोधनप्रथमा विभक्तिः हे राम हे रामौ हे रामाः
Locative case O raama, O (two) Raamas O (many) raamaas
द्वितीया विभक्तिः रामम् रामौ रामान्
Accusative case(object) Raama two Raamas many raamaas
तृतीया विभक्तिः रामेण रामाभ्याम् रामैः
Instrumental case by Raama by two Raamas by many Raamas
चतुर्थी विभक्तिः रामाय रामाभ्याम् रामेभ्यः
Dative case for Raama for two Raamaas for many Raamas
पञ्चमी विभक्तिः रामात् रामाभ्याम् रामेभ्यः
Ablative vase from Raama from two Raamas from many Raamas
षष्ठी विभक्तिः रामस्य रामयोः रामाणाम्
Genitive case of Raama of two Raamaas of many Raamas
सप्तमी विभक्तिः रामे रामयोः रामेषु
Locative case in Raama in two Raamas in many Raamas

5. Persons: 

A Verb in a sentence gets inflected depending upon the person and number of the subject to which the verb refers.

  एकवचनः द्विवचनः बहुवचनः
प्रथमपुरुषः खादति खादतः खादन्ति
Third person eats (two) eat (many) eat
मध्यमपुरुषः खादसि खादथः खादथ
second person (you) eat (you two) eat (you many) eat
उत्तमपुरुषः खादामि खादावः खादामः
First person (I) eat (We two) eat (We many) eat

It is important to note that the order in which the three persons are written in Sanskrit  is the reverse of how it is written in English. In fact प्रथमपुरुषः literally means first person, but actually is equivalent to the third person of English ! In some Sanskrit grammar books written in English,  the order is reversed so that it falls in line with the way it is written in English grammar. In my view it is not a good practice and it is best learnt and written down the Sanskrit way. Also it is important to note that the inflected verb is not sensitive to the gender of the subject, which is not the case in many Indian languages.

In a sentence in Sanskrit,  nouns get inflected depending upon the case and number .  The verb also gets inflected appropriately in line with the number and person of the subject noun. Therefore in a simple sentence the order in which the words are written is immaterial. Ex: बालकः अन्नम् खादति। अन्नम् खादति बालकः । खादति बालकः अन्नम् । On the other hand, we cannot change the order in English. Ex: Boy eats food. Food eats boy. Eats food boy.!!

6. Adjectives:

Adjectives are declined like nouns and assume the gender, number and case of the noun they qualify. Therefore even if the adjective is not placed before the noun it qualifies, the two can be related by matching the words which agree in gender, number and case. This feature facilitates  writing verses to meet the constraints of meter. It helps a reader in rearranging the word order in a verse syntactically for proper understanding.

7. Verbs:

We have noted above that verbs are conjugated in three cases and three numbers. Root of a verb without any inflexions or terminations is called  धातु. There are two sets of terminations or inflexions that a verb can take in different persons and numbers. One set is आत्मनेपद  and the other is परस्मैपद. Some धातुs take आत्मनेपद terminations, some take परस्मैपद terminations and some take both. Examples will clarify.

खादति= (He,she or it) eats. धातु, is खाद् and the termination it has taken is परस्मैपद.

मोदते= (He, she or it) rejoices. धातु is मुद् and the termination it has taken is आत्मनेपद.

याचति or याचते = (He, she or it) requests or begs. धातु is याच् and it can take either termination. धातुs which take either terminations is called उभयपदी.

Therefore while learning verbs it is necessary to know धातु as well as whether it is आत्मनेपदी, परस्मैपदी or उभयपदी.

In addition, verbs are categorized into ten different groups called गण. A verb belonging to a गण gets inflected following a certain template specific to that गण. For example खाद्, याच् and मोद् quoted above belong to the first group called भ्वादिगण.  The गण  is called भ्वादि (भू+आदि=भ्वादि).as the group is headed by धातु: भू.

Therefore while learning a verb, we also need to learn to which गण it belongs.

8. Active and passive voice:

बालकः अन्नं खादति = Boy eats food

अन्नं बालकेन खाद्यते= Food is eaten by the boy.

Irrespective of whether धातु is आत्मनेपदी, परस्मैपदी or उभयपदी, all verbs take only आत्मनेपद terminations in passive voice.

9. Tenses and moods:

There are six tenses and four moods  Three tenses for the past, one for the present and two for the future. However Sanskrit does not have any direct equivalents to present continuous or past continuous. If you want to translate, "Boy is eating" into Sanskrit, you would do well to translate it as, " बालकः खादति।".

One mood is exclusively for giving commands (आज्ञा), another for polite requests (विधि), and another for giving benedictions (आशीः). However writers do not strictly follow the restrictions especially in poetry. There is another mood to be used in sentences with a conditional clause.

A verb can thus be conjugated in each one of  these tenses and moods (a total of ten).

10. Causals:

An interesting feature of most Indian languages is the facility of what is called the causal form. From any root verb you can derive another verb which denotes that the subject is causing another person or object to do the action. It is best to understand it through an example:

बालकः अन्नं खादति। = Boy eats food.

माता बालकं अन्नं खादयति। = Mother makes the boy eat food. Or, mother feeds the boy.

खादयति is the causal derivative of खादति.

खाद् --> खादय्

The derived verb can be conjugated in all the tenses and moods.

Somebody has made a wry remark that this facility in Indian languages points to the predisposition to get any work done by an other person!


11. Indeclinables:

Words in a Sanskrit sentence are one of the three types: 1. सुबन्त 2.तिङन्त and 3.अव्यय.

सुबन्त comprises nouns, pronouns, adjectives and participles, which are inflected in the appropriate gender, case and number. तिङन्त  are the verbs which have been inflected in the appropriate tense, number and person. अव्यय are those which  remain uninflected in a sentence and are therefore indeclinables. Indeclinables include a number of adverbs, conjunctions and interjections. In the sentence

बालकः क्षिप्रं अन्नं खादति ।

बालकः  and अन्नम् are सुबन्त. खादति is तिङन्त. क्षिप्रम् (=quickly) is अव्यय.

Words न, च, खलु etc are all indeclinables.

12. Verbal derivatives:

Sanskrit is rich in verbal derivatives which enables a writer to express complex constructions with simplicity and precision. A few examples will help understand the use of such derivatives.

बालः खादन् धावति । = Boy runs while eating.

खादन्तं बालकं उपाध्यायः तर्जति । = Teacher rebukes the boy who is eating.

खादन्तीं बालिकां उपाध्यायः तर्जति । = Teacher rebukes the girl who is eating.

From root खाद् the present participle खादत् , which is declined like a masculine noun, is derived. खादन् is in प्रथमाविभक्ति-एकवचन whereas खादन्तं is in द्वितीयाविभक्ति-एकवचन. Similarly while qualifying a feminine noun the participle takes the form खादन्ती, which is declined like a feminine noun.

The above is a case of a present participle, which really acts as an adjective qualifying the noun to which it refers. Note how the present participle gets inflected according to the case and gender of the noun it qualifies.

The past participle very often plays the part of a verb itself. For example:

बालकेन अन्नं खादितम् । = Food was eaten by the boy.

बालकेन आहारः खादितः । = Food was eaten by the boy.

बालकेन फलानि खादितानि । = Fruits were eaten by the boy.

In these three sentences above, verb has been dispensed with. The past participle form of खाद्, खादित does the job of a verb. Note how it agrees with the number and gender of the noun it qualifies. It can also be used in Active voice. For example:

बालकः अन्नं खादितवान् । = Boy ate food.

Use of past participle in place of a verb in past tense is very frequent in Sanskrit as it avoids the complexities of a verb.

There are a number of verbal derivatives which act as indeclinables (अव्यय). For example:

खादित्वा = after eating; खादितुम् = to eat or for eating; खादितव्यम् = worthy of eating, should be eaten.

13. Compound words:

A writer has tremendous freedom to build compound words. In classical Sanskrit it is rarely that you come across a sentence which does not contain a compound word. Compounding is called समासः.

Some forms of  compounding are shown below:

1. An adjective can be tagged on to a noun:

कृष्णः सर्पः = कृष्णसर्पः । A black cobra. Note that it is only the end word that gets inflected.

2. In place of possessive or genitive case.

छात्रस्य् अध्यापकः = छात्राध्यापकः । teacher of a student.

3. A compound word can denote a simile.

इन्दीवरवत् श्यामः = इन्दीवरश्यामः । Dark in complexion like a black lotus.

Let us take this fairly familiar श्लोक which is recited for an auspicious beginning:

शुक्लाम्बरधरं विष्णुं शशिवर्णं चतुर्भुजम् ।

प्रसन्नवदनं ध्यायेत् सर्वविघ्नोपशान्तये ॥

All words other than विष्णुं and ध्यायेत् are compound words.

शुक्लाम्बरधरम् = (one who is) wearing white dress.

शशिवर्णम् = (one who has) the complexion of moon.

चतुर्भुजम् = (one who has) four shoulders

प्रसन्नवदनम् = (one who has) a benign face

सर्वविघ्नोपशान्तये = for the removal of all obstacles.

Note that what is given in brackets is implied and is therefore to be assumed.

Some authors in classical literature go to such ridiculous lengths of  compounding words that by the time you have reached the end of the word you have forgotten where the word started!

14. Sandhi:

When we speak out sentences fast, there is a natural tendency for the starting syllable of a word to coalesce with the last syllable of its preceding word. The great Panini and perhaps grammarians who came before him have studied scientifically how syllables coalesce in Sanskrit when words are spoken one after the other and arrived at a set of rules which govern such liasing. This phenomenon of liasing of syllables is called सन्धिः. A few examples will help to provide clarity:

शुक्ल+अम्बरम् = शुक्लाम्बरम्;

विघ्न+उपशान्तये = विघ्नोपशान्तये;

सत् +चित् = सच्चित्;

सच्चित् +आनन्द= सच्चिदानन्द.

Liasing as per Sandhi rules is compulsory within a compound word and generally within a quarter of a verse. In prose however it is left to the discretion of the writer. In fact in modern prose there is a tendency to avoid Sandhi to enable readers to follow with ease. However it is virtually impossible to wade through Sanskrit literature if a student does not acquire the skill to recognize Sandhi and split words as per Sandhi rules.

15. Double entendre:

Sometimes a compound word can be meaningfully split in more than one way. For example,

पार्वतीपरमेश्वरौ can be split as पार्वती + परमेश्वरौ or as पार्वतीप+रमेश्वरौ. This leads to interpreting a sentence in two ways and each one may be as meaningful and admissible as the other.

Besides, Sanskrit abounds in words which have more than one meaning. अमरकोष which is a versified thesaurus of synonyms contains a chapter( सर्ग ) devoted to words with multiple meanings. It has listed the various meanings of word हरि as follows:

यमानिलेन्द्रचन्द्रार्कविष्णुसिंहांशुवाजिषु । Hari means 1. Yama, the God of death, 2. wind 3.Indra, 4.moon, 5.sun, 6.God ViShNu, 7.lion, 8.ray 9. horse.

By skillful use of such words and the possibility of splitting words in different ways, poets show their mastery over language by weaving elaborate sentences which provide two or more meaningful and relevant meanings. Such poetic jugglery is called श्लेष or श्लेषालङ्कारः. Here is a a standard example:

अब्जेन त्वन्मुखं तुल्यं हरिणाहितसक्तिना ।

अब्ज means moon as well as lotus.

हरिणाहितसक्तिना can be split in two ways: हरिणा + हितसक्तिना as well as हरिण+आहितसक्तिना. Thus a pair of meanings can be derived as follows: 1. Your face is like a lotus which is attached to the sun(हरि). 2. Your face is like the moon which is attached to the rabbit (rabbit-like mark on the moon).

16. Direct speech :

In Sanskrit there is no equivalent to indirect speech. If A wants to report to C what B told A, A will simply report the way he heard from B as direct speech. Puranas and epics have a way of telling multilayered stories. Perhaps in Mahabharata there are 3 or 4 levels in which the story is narrated. If indirect speech were possible it would have been confusion worse confounded! That is perhaps the reason why the poet introduces जनमेजय उवाच, वैशम्पायन उवाच, युधिष्ठिर उवाच etc.!

17. Verses verses everywhere:

An important characteristic of Sanskrit as a medium of communication was that almost everything was versified! There is hardly any branch of knowledge, whether it be philosophy, ethics, mythology,  lexicography, astronomy, mathematics, arts or science which is not written in verses. Study of sonorous meters in poetry is highly evolved and contains interesting aspects of mathematics. Right from the Vedic times, there evolved a versatile and simple meter called अनुष्टुप् which has four quarters (पाद) and each quarter contains 8 syllables (अक्षर) with some minimal constraints. It is perhaps the only meter which has the highest usage in world writing. Although it was used with ease by one and all since ancient times, it is a curious fact that it  remained poorly defined till very recent times.

18. Conclusion: As has been pointed out at the beginning this write up has no pretensions of covering the subject either in depth or in its breadth. You are welcome to write to me giving your suggestions and comments at