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March 27, 2012 / A

The semantics of Sanskrit nouns

Today I started into chapter 1.4, whose 110 rules make this the longest chapter in book 1. This is a welcome change of pace from the dozens of rules on the use of आत्मनेपद and परस्मैपद. But these rules are manageable enough that I have remembered about 30 already. And what is most fascinating about this chapter is that the core of its rules (at least, so far) deals with the semantics of the Sanskrit noun cases.

Sanskrit is a richly inflected language that encodes information about the world in suffixes (प्रत्यय), which are attached to the end of some word base (अङ्ग). Thus for the noun नर (“man”), we have नरः (“the man”, as a subject), नरम् (“the man”, as an object), नरेण (“with the man”), नराय (“for the man”), नरात् (“from the man”), नरस्य (“of the man”), नरे (“in the man”), and नर (“hey, man!”), along with similar forms for “two men” and “many men.” These are the conventional meanings of the eight noun cases.

But we must make a distinction between the noun ending and the noun meaning. नरः is usually a subject, as in नरः पृच्छति (“the man asks”), but in नरः पृच्छ्यते (“the man is asked”), he is closer to the object of the sentence instead. Panini makes this distinction in the form of the विभक्ति (case ending) and the कारक (semantic role). The कारकs are treated as components of some verbal action, and they include the following:

  • कर्तृ — “agent”, usually corresponding to नरः
  • कर्मन् — “object”, usually corresponding to नरम्
  • करण — “means”, usually corresponding to नरेण
  • संप्रदान — “purpose,” usually corresponding to नराय
  • अपादान — “basis,” usually corresponding to नरात्
  • अधिकरण — “context,” usually corresponding to नरे

S. D. Joshi cites the following three examples, which use the same कारक relations even though syntactically the sentences are very different:

  • देवदत्त ओदनं पचति
    Devadatta cooks rice.
  • देवदत्तेन ओदनः पच्यते
    Rice is cooked by Devadatta.
  • देवदत्तः ओदनस्य पाचकः
    Devadatta is a cooker of rice.

Here the कर्तृ is Devadatta, and he appears in 2 different cases. The कर्मन् is the rice, and it appears in 3 different cases. The agent is specified by the verbal form: ति indicates the nominative is the agent, ते indicates that the instrumental is the agent, and ण्वुल् (suffix that produces पाचक) indicates again that the nominative is the agent.

So far I’ve only seen the definitions of the अपादान relation, which has the following meanings:

1.4.24 ध्रुवमपायेऽपादानम्
Withdrawal from some fixed thing is called अपादान (when it is a  कारक, i.e. when it contributes to some action being performed), as are the following:
1.4.25 भीत्रार्थानां भयहेतुः
when used with words meaning “fear” or “protect,” the cause of fear;
1.4.26 पराजेरसोढः
when used with पराजि (“to overcome”), what cannot be endured (e.g., a student unable to bear studying);
1.4.27 वारणार्थानामीप्सितः
when used with words meaning “ward off,” the item one hopes to reach (e.g., warding off a cow from barley, or a blind man from a well);
1.4.28 अन्तर्धौ येनादर्शनमिच्छति
when hiding behind something, what one hopes to escape (e.g., a student hiding behind a tree from a teacher);
1.4.29 आख्यातोपयोगे
when something useful is being communicated, the communicator (e.g., a student learning from a teacher);
1.4.30 जनिकर्तुः प्रकृतिः
when used with जन्, the material basis of the कर्तृ (e.g., “the bow is produced (जायते) from the horn”);
1.4.31 भुवः प्रभवः
and when used with भू, the origin (e.g., Ganga originates from Himavat).

These examples come from traditional sources. Stringing them together, I made this mnemonic:

The wall (1.4.24) is afraid (1.4.25) of the student who can’t endure studying (1.4.26) about the blind man looking for a well (1.4.27) in which a student hides (1.4.28) from his teacher, who talks (1.4.29) about the water that becomes the Ganga (1.4.30, 1.4.31).

It’s crude, but I’ll take it.


At Devaprayag ("the divine confluence"), a town in northwest India. To the left is the river Bhagirathi. To the right is the river Alakananda. They combine at the bottom to form Ganga, also known as the Ganges.

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