Lesson 38 – Outlines of Syntax – 1

A short YouTube version is available here. [Expand to the full article to be able to click on the link].

In Lesson 37, we took a story, “The Brahmin and his faithful mongoose“, fable 13 of book 4, of the Hitopadeśa. and analysed the text.

In this, and the next few lessons, we will look at Sanskrit syntax.


Syntax deals with the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language. The main features of classical Sanskrit style are:

  • The use of the past participle instead of the finite verb;
  • use of the passive rather than active forms;
  • heavy use of compounds;
  • the use of locative absolutes;
  • indeclinable participles instead of subordinate clauses;
  • absence of indirect construction;
  • not using the subjunctive mood;
  • predominance of coordination;
  • and the use of periphrastic verbal forms.

Ancient Sanskrit differed from classical Sanskrit in that there was more use of the middle voice, fuller use of the tenses, moods, infinitives, inflected participles and genuine prepositions.

Word order

The general rule is that the subject begins the sentence, the verb ends it, and the other members come in between. So, रामः कृष्णं पश्यति (rāmaḥ kr̥ṣṇaṃ paśyati ) . ” Rama sees Krishna”. But, since Sanskrit is a heavily inflected language, the order of words is not very important. So, even  कृष्णं रामः पश्यति (kr̥ṣṇaṃ rāmaḥ  paśyati ) or पश्यति रामः कृष्णं ( paśyati rāmaḥ kr̥ṣṇaṃ) etc. are all equally valid. In many cases, the emphasis required determines the word order. For example, asti (there is) ujjayinyām (in Ujjain) māṭharaḥ (Māṭhara) nāma (named) brāhmaṇaḥ (brahmin).

Adjectives (and the genitive) normally precedes the substantive. tasya (his) brāhmaṇī (wife); āgacchan (coming) kr̥ṣṇasarpaḥ (black snake) etc.

The apposition follows the word it explains or defines. rāmo rājā gacchati रामो राजा  गच्छति, Rama, the King, goes.

rāmo rājā रामो राजा can also mean Rama is (or becomes) King. [Here the copula (is, becomes etc.) is omitted].

Note that a lot of works in Sanskrit are in verse. And hence, metrical and alliterative considerations may take precedence over normal order.

There is neither an indefinite nor a definite article in Sanskrit. The words kascit कस्चित् or eka एक are used in the sense of “a certain” and the pronoun tad तद् is used equivalent to “the”. eko rājā एको राजा “a king”, kascid rājā कस्चिद् राजा “a certain king”, sa rājā स राजा “that (the) king”.


As we have said before, Sanskrit has three numbers singular, dual and plural.

Some things to note are:

  1. The singular may be used to denote a class: siṃhaḥ paśūnāṃ rājā सिंहः पशूनां राजा;
  2. The dual sometimes denotes the male and female of the same class: pitarau पितरौ (father and mother, parents)
  3. The plural is sometimes used as a mark of respect or reverence: śaṃkarācāryāḥ शंकराचार्याः (The great Sankaracharya)


The verb agrees with the subject (rāmo māṃ paśyati रामो मां पश्यति) , an adjective agrees with its substantive (balī rāmaḥ बली रामः), a demonstrative pronoun agrees with its noun in number and gender (sa rājā स राजा ) and a relative agrees with its antecedent (yo gacchati sa rāmaḥ यो गच्छति स रामः).


The nominatives of the first and second person personal pronouns (aham अहम् and others and tvam त्वम् and others) are only rarely used, since the person is inherent in the verb endings. gacchāmi गच्छामि – I go.

bhavān भवान् (Your Honour) a very respectable way of saying “you” normally uses takes a verb in the the third person singular (bhavān gacchatu भवान् गच्छतु).

idam इदम् (this, here) is used adjectivally of what is in the neighbourhood, presence or possession of the speaker. Eg. idaṃ bhuvanam इदं भुवनम् (this world); ayaṃ janaḥ अयं जनः (the people here) etc.

adas अदस् is used for objects remote from the speaker. Eg. asau bālaḥ असौ बालः (the boy there, that boy) etc.

tad तद् can be translated by that, but it is different from adas अदस्, in that, it is less used for pointing than for referring to something already known or mentioned (somewhat like the English “the”). sa bālaḥ स बालः (that boy, the boy). It is often used as a correlative. yo bālo gacchati, sa govindaḥ यो बालो गच्छति, स गोविन्दः

etad एतद् is like tad तद्,  but is more emphatic.

Let us now look at the cases

Nominative Case

The nominative case is, like in other languages, used as the subject of the sentence it is in. rāmo māṃ paśyati रामो मां पश्यति.

A second nominative is used (instead of the accusative) as predicate with some verbs meaning be, become, seem, think oneself etc. sa manyeta paṇḍitaḥ स मन्येत पण्डितः (he thinks himself to be learned)

A word made by iti, which is logically predicate to an object, is normally in the nominative: māṃ damayantīti viddhi मां दमयन्तीति विद्धि (Know me as Damayanti)

Accusative Case

This case is normally employed as the direct object of a transitive verb (and its equivalents like participles, infinitives and other derivatives having a infinitival or participial character) and also predicate words qualifying the object; Some prepositions are accompanied by the accusative The accusative is also used as goal of motion or action and also of approach and address; Two accusatives are often found as objects of the same verb.


Direct object: रामः कृष्णं पश्यति (rāmaḥ kr̥ṣṇaṃ paśyati )

Predicate word qualifying object: rāmo rāvaṇam alpaṃ karoti रामो रावणम् अल्पं करोति (Rama makes Ravana small)

Accusative as object of infinitive: sa tasmai pustakaṃ dātuṃ gacchati स तस्मै पुस्तकं दातुं गच्छति

Accusative as object of derivative words: damayantīm abhīpsavaḥ दमयन्तीम् अभीप्सवः (desiring to win Damayanti); tam abhibhāṣiṇī तम् अभिभाषिणी (addressing him); yo rāvaṇaṃ hantā sa rāmaḥ यो रावणं हन्ता स रामः (he who kills Ravana, he is Rama)

The accusative is used as the goal of motion, with verbs of going, sending, bringing etc.

sa vasatiṃ gacchati स वसतिं गच्छति;

The accusative is also used with abstract nouns to form interesting phrases of “becoming”

sa samatām eti स समताम् एति (he goes to equality ie. he becomes equal)

sa pañcatvam āgacchati स पञ्चत्वम् आगच्छति (he comes to the five elements ie. he dies)

The accusative is used in adverbial constructions.

To denote measure of space: yojanaśataṃ gantum योजनशतं गन्तुम् (to go a thousand yojanas)

To denote a measure of time: trīn ahorātrān gatvā त्रीन् अहोरात्रान् गत्वा (having gone three days and nights)

Many verbs take two accusatives

tāṃ vācam abravīt तां वाचम् अब्रवीत् – he said these words to her

A causative sometimes takes two accusatives. रामो रावणं स्वर्गम् अगमयत् – Rama caused Ravana to go to heaven OR Rama sent Ravana to heaven [But many a time it takes an instrumental instead of the second accusative]

This is the end of Lesson 38. In this lesson we started looking at Sanskrit syntax. We will continue to do this in the next few more lessons.


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