Lesson 47 – Features of Vedic Sanskrit – Tense Systems and the Subjunctive

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

In the last lesson, Lesson 46, we concluded our discussions on Vedic accents.

In this lesson we will look at some of the key features of Vedic Sanskrit, especially at tense systems and the subjunctive.

There are many features of Vedic Sanskrit that have been lost in Classical Sanskrit. Vedic Sanskrit was a more vibrant and active language as compared to Classical Sanskrit.

Conjugation and Tenses

Over the previous lessons, we looked at tenses and modes. We elaborated on the present indicative, the imperfect, the optative, the imperative and the participles. We also looked at the perfect, the future and the aorists. And we looked at various secondary conjugations including the passive.

Grammarians classify these various forms into what are called tense systems. There are four such systems. The present system, the perfect system, the future system and the aorist system.  These systems are fully available only in Vedic Sanskrit. In Classical Sanskrit some of these have become obsolete.

The present system: Comprises the present tense, its modes (the optative, the imperative and the subjunctive), its participle and its preterit which we called the imperfect.

The perfect system: Consists of the perfect tense, its modes (as above), its participle and its preterit, called the pluperfect.

The aorist system: The many types of aorists we studied, (the root, the “a”, the “sa”, the “s”, the “iṣ”, the “siṣ” and the reduplicated types), its various modes (including the optative which is called the precative) and participles.

The future systems: The simple future and its preterit (called the conditional), its participle and the periphrastic future.

Then there are the various secondary conjugations and some tertiary conjugations.

The present system

We have thoroughly covered this. We looked at the present tense, the imperfect, the optative and the imperative. We will now look at the subjunctive.

The subjunctive is called leṭ लेट् by the Sanskrit grammarians. By the time of Classical Sanskrit the subjunctive had become obsolete, but it was very common in Vedic Sanskrit. The subjunctive was three to four times as common as the optative in the Rigveda. [We had said in lesson 10 that the first person imperative was a “re-purposed” form of the first person subjunctive.]

Construction of the subjunctive

The mode sign of the subjunctive is an “a” added to the present tense stem. In thematic verbs this “a” combines with the the thematic tense sign “a” to form ā. The accent always rests on the tense stem. So, the tense stem has the strong forms on all persons and numbers (active and middle).

  • From √bhū √भू, with the (thematic) tense stem bháva भव॑ is formed the subjunctive stem bhávā भवा॑ (bháva भव॑ + a अ)
  • From √vac √वच् with the passive tense stem ucyá उ॒च्य is formed ucyā́ उ॒च्या
  • From √tud √तुद् with the (thematic) tense stem tudá तु॒द is formed tudā́ तु॒दा
  • From √duh √duh दुह् with the (athematic) strong tense stem dóh दोह् is formed dóha दोह॑
  • From √hu √hu हु with the (athematic) strong tense stem juhó जु॒हो is formed juháva जु॒हव॑ (juhó जु॒हो + a अ)
  • From √yuj √युज् with the (athematic) strong tense stem yunáj यु॒नज् is formed yunája यु॒नज॑
  • From √su √सु with the (athematic) strong tense stem sunó सु॒नो is formed sunáva सु॒नव॑
  • and so on

This tense stem is then inflected like a thematic verb would be in the indicative, with a constant accent.

The subjunctive endings (with the mode-sign “a” combined) are given below.

Active Middle
at / ati अत् /  अति ataḥ अतः an अन् ate / ātai अते / आतै aite ऐते ante / anta /  āntai अन्ते  / अन्त  / आन्तै
aḥ / asi अः / असि athaḥ अथः atha अथ ase / āsai असे  / आसै aithe ऐथे adhve / ādhvai अध्वे  /आध्वै
āni आनि āva आव āma आम ai ऐ āvahai / āvahe आवहै  / आवहे āmahai / āmahe आमहै  / आमहे

Subjunctive conjugation of Class 2 (athematic) roots

Active √i √इ “go” Middle √ās √आस् “sit”
áyati / áyat अय॑ति॒ / अय॑त् áyataḥ अय॑तः áyan अय॑न् ā́sate / ā́sātai आस॑ते॒ / आसा॑तै ā́saite आसै॑ते ā́sante / ā́santa / ā́sāntai आस॑न्ते॒  /आस॑न्त॒  /आसा॑न्तै
áyasi / áyaḥ अय॑सि॒ / अयः॑ áyathaḥ अय॑थः áyatha अय॑थ ā́sase / ā́sāsai आस॑से॒ / आसा॑सै ā́saithe आसै॑थे ā́sadhve / ā́sādhvai आस॑ध्वे॒  /आसा॑ध्वै
áyāni / áyā अया॑नि॒ / अया॑ áyāva अया॑व áyāma अया॑म ā́sai आसै॑ ā́sāvahai / ā́sāvahe आसा॑वहै॒  /आसा॑वहे ā́sāmahai / ā́sāmahe आसा॑महै॒  /आसा॑महे

Subjunctive conjugation of Class 1 (thematic) roots

Active √bhū √भू॒ “be” Middle √bhū √भू॒ “be”
bhávāti / bhávāt भवा॑ति॒  / भवा॑त् bhávātaḥ भवा॑तः bhávān भवा॑न् bhávāte / bhávātai भवा॑ते॒ / भवा॑तै bhávaite भवै॑ते bhávanta / bhávāntai भव॑न्त॒ / भवा॑न्तै
bhávāsi / bhávāḥ भवा॑सि॒ / भवाः॑ bhávāthaḥ भवा॑थः bhávātha भवा॑थ bhávāse / bhávāsai भवा॑से॒  / भवा॑सै bhávaithe भवै॑थे bhávādhvai भवा॑ध्वै
bhávāni भवा॑नि bhávāva भवा॑व bhávāma भवा॑म bhávai भवै॑ bhávāvahai भवा॑वहै bhávāmahai भवा॑महै

Use of the subjunctive

We looked at the optative and imperative before in lesson 10. The main difference between the imperative, the subjunctive and the optative is this: Theoretically, the first one expresses a command, the second, a requisition or a will and the third, a wish. There is really no sharp distinction between the three. A general rule (or a general guideline) could be that the imperative has the command meaning when used with the second person and the optative has the “wish” meaning with the first person. By extension, I feel that the subjunctive has the “will” meaning with the third person.


  • śatáṃ jīva śarádaḥ श॒तं जी॑व श॒रदः॑ (imperative) (second person) “live a hundred autumns”
  • śatáṃ jīvāti śarádaḥ श॒तं जी॑वाति श॒रदः॑ (subjunctive) (third person) “he shall live a hundred autumns”
  • jī́vema śarádaḥ śatám जीवे॑म श॒रदः॑ श॒तम् (optative) (first person) “may we live a hundred autumns”

But, in many cases they are more or less exchangeable with each other. In fact in the Vedas they are combined in coordinate clauses.

The perfect system

The perfect system consists of the perfect indicative, its modes, its participle and an augment perterit, the pluperfect. In lessons 28, 29 and 30, we looked at the indicative and the participle perfect system.

We need to add that in the three persons of the singular active, the root syllable is accented. [These also normally show a stronger form than the rest. ] The endings are accented in the rest.

Modes of the perfect

It is difficult sometimes to distinguish between the modes of the perfect and the modes of the other reduplicating tense-stems – class 3 present stem, the reduplicated aorist and the intensive. But there are certain forms that are without doubt modes of the perfect system.

The normal method of forming the modes is this: form the reduplicated perfect stem, and then add the mode sign  and then the endings.

  • Examples of subjunctives: rāráṇaḥ रा॒रणः॑; jabhárat ज॒भर॑त्; cākánāma चा॒कना॑म; tatánan त॒तन॑न्; vavártati व॒वर्त॑ति; tatápate त॒तप॑ते; jujóṣate जु॒जोष॑ते; tatánanta त॒तन॑न्त; cākánanta चा॒कन॑न्त
  • Examples of optatives: babhūyā́t ब॒भू॒यात्; śuśrūyā́tam शु॒श्रू॒यात॑म्; śuśrūyā́ḥ शु॒श्रू॒याः; vavr̥jyúḥ व॒वृ॒ज्युः; vāvr̥dhīthā́ḥ वा॒वृ॒धी॒थाः
  • Examples of imperatives: rārandhí रा॒र॒न्धि


Equivalent to the imperfect in the present system, there exists an augment preterit in the perfect system. This is called a pluperfect. [Again there is some difficulty in distinguishing this form from the aorists and others]

Example: ájagantana अज॑गन्तन, ájagan अज॑गन् etc.

The aorist system

There are seven types of aorists (as we saw before in lesson 34) The aorist system consists, for each of these aorists, of an indicative, which is an augment-preterit to which there is no corresponding present, participles, modes and augment-less indicatives used as subjunctives.

As we said before, the aorists normally accent the augment. Aorists are very commonly used in Vedic Sanskrit.

Let us now look at the modes of the aorists.


[There are modes of all the seven different varieties of the aorist. I will just give a few examples – not all. Go to Whitney for more examples.]

An augmentless form of the indicative is used as a subjunctive, in addition to the normal subjunctive. These augmentless forms of the reduplicative aorist are generally accented on the reduplication (some exceptions are met with). Of other aorists, the accents can be either on the root or the ending. (In many cases it is not clear where the accent is, since in the Vedas, the principal verb is not accented, and, if this form appears only as a principal verb, it is never accented).

Examples: dī́dharaḥ दीध॑रः; jī́janat जीज॑नत्; vádhīm वधी॑म्; yā́vīḥ यावीः॑; ávīt अवी॑त्

This augmentless subjunctive is also used after the prohibitive mā́ (“dont”)

For example: mā́ karat मा क॑रत् (“let him not do”, “may he not do”); mā́ bhūt मा भू॑त् – “Let him not be”

[One such form of the augmentless indicative, mā bhūt मा भूत् – “Let him not be” survives in classical Sanskrit.]

[Note of the above karat करत् could be an augmentless form of the “a” aorist or a proper subjunctive of the root aorist]

Proper subjunctives

kárāṇi करा॑णि; kárate कर॑ते; káraḥ करः॑; sakṣati सक्षति; máṃsai मंसै॑; jéṣaḥ जेषः॑; kā́niṣaḥ कानि॑षः; gāsiṣat गासिषत्


idhīmahi इधीमहि; dheyuḥ धेयुः; yujyāva युज्याव; gamet गमेत्

[Note: In lesson 34 we learned that the form of the precative conjugation points to the fact that it is an optative of the aorist with an interposed sibilant before the optative endings. The active precative is formed from the root aorist and the middle from the sibilant aorists.]


sadatana सदतन; sadantām सदन्ताम्; pūpurantu पूपुरन्तु; jajastam जजस्तम्; aviṣṭu अविष्टु

Participles of the aorists

kránt क्रन्त्; krāṇá क्रा॒ण; tr̥pánt तृ॒पन्त्; guhamāná गु॒ह॒मा॒न; dákṣat दक्ष॑त्

Future systems

In lesson 27, we looked at the simple future, the periphrastic future and the conditional (which is the augment preterit of the simple future) and the participle. This with the few examples of the modes of the simple future make up the present system. Modes are very rare with the futures.

A couple of examples: Subjunctive: kariṣyā́ḥ क॒रि॒ष्याः; Optative: dhakṣyet धक्ष्येत्

This is the end of lesson 47. In this lesson we looked at some of the features of Vedic Sanskrit, especially at tense systems and the subjunctive.



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