The Relation between Sanskrit and Indian Conceptions of Time

Charles Ess, Professor of Philosophy, Drury College

From Hajime Nakamura 's Notion of Time in India

In the classical Indian languages, there are no words which corresponded to the concept "to become." The verb formed from the root bhu can be translated as both "to become" and "to exist." These two aspects of perceived reality, conceived as antithetical by the Western mind, are not even distinguished. "To become" is merely an aspect of "to exist." The noun bhava, formed from the same root, can mean either "being born" or ''existing'' (1); in other words, to become is to be born. To express the idea of change at all, Indians had to make shift with the words anyatha bhavati or anyathabhava"being otherwise." Becoming is expressed in terms of being, dynamic is seen as a phase of static. The point of view permeates the language. The noun, which expresses the more stable and unchanging aspects of a thing, is in Sanskrit more likely to be used than the verb, and correspondingly adjectives are more frequent than adverbs. In classical Sanskrit,(2) indeed, especially in prose writings, it became usual to employ verbal nouns or participles instead of finite verbs. For example, the sentence "Because of the rain, the food appears" is expressed in classical Sanskrit as "Because of the rain, appearance of the food (is possible)." It has been the practice since ancient times to use the participial form instead of the finite verb to express the past tense, and it became a common expression in colloquialism of the later periods.(3) Sanskrit will also use an adjective, which is static in feeling, to express an idea which might take a verb in the languages of the West. The classic Western expression of the sense of flux uses a vivid and specific verb. "All things flow" (pa/nta rei), The corresponding idea is expressed in Sanskrit as sarvam anityam, "all existences are impermanent."

We find the same habit of mind conditioning the use of periphrastic forms. The periphrastic perfect, though seldom found in the Vedas, appears frequently in the literature after the Brahmanas. "He went" becomes gamayam cakara (literally, "he did going"). Again, the periphrastic future may be used to express future action.(4) For example, the word gantasi (you are the one who goes) is used to express the meaning "you will go," thus directing the attention away from the action to the stable state of the actor.
The primacy of the noun is illustrated in the Sanskrit denominative, a category of verb not found in the classical grammar of the West. For example, the denominative putrlyati is formed from the noun putra (son) and means "to desire to have a son," and svamlyati, from the noun svamin (master) means "to regard as a master." Generally speaking, the denominative connotes the meaning of "to be . . . ," "to work as . . . ," "toregard as . . . ," "to desire . . . ," but the real emphasis of the word is on the noun.

Similarly, the meaning "to be able to," expressed in Western languages by verbs or auxiliary verbs, is expressed in Sanskrit by an adjective, sakya, or an indeclinable, sakyam. For example, na devasuraih sarvaifh sakyahprasahitum yudhi (Ramayana II, 86, 11 ) = non potest proelio superari acunctis dis daemonibusque(5) (he cannot be conquered in battle by all the gods and spirits).

In Sanskrit, then, finite verbs are seldom used; the verb appears mainly as a verbal noun, and the nominal sentence is more often used than the verbal sentence. Usage of the infinitive of the verb is also limited; it is never used as subject(6) or as object. When it seems necessary to use the infinitive as an object, an abstract noun formed from the root of the verb is used instead, thus directing attention from the changing aspect of the action to the unchanging universal: "to appear" does not equal "appearance."

The centrality of the noun is further illustrated by the absence in Sanskrit of the adverbial suffix which is common to all Western languages. Adjectives are converted into adverbs by adding (w=s) in Greek, -ment in French, -Iy and -lich in English and German. In Sanskrit, however, the accusative case of the adjective is used if it is necessary to modify the verb. Ablative and locative cases of adjectives may also be used adverbially.The adverb itself is not even acknowledged as a part of speech in Sanskrit.

There are other curious illustrations of this tendency to comprehend things through their static aspects. To connect two ideas, Western languages use such conjunctions as and or then; Sanskrit, in contrast, will express the same idea by adding the demonstrative pronoun sa to the subject of the sentence, as if "John runs and jumps" were to be expressed as"John running he jumping." The conjunction emphasizes the separateness of events; the demonstrative focuses on the subject, unchanging throughtime.

[Postcolonial] [Indian Subcontinent] India OV

Last modified 15 December 2000