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The Ordinary Past Tense

Also known as: imperfect (in analogy with Greek), anadyatana-bhūta ("past action, not of today"), laṅ

Introduction

Although we've studied participles in the past, present, and future tenses, we've only studied "regular" verbs in the present tense. Now let's take a look at these sorts of verbs in the past:

Each of these sentences can be translated to Sanskrit. But we should not translate them hastily: Sanskrit has three different versions of the past tense, and each version represents one of the following:

The "recent past" and "distant past" are extremely old verb forms and are difficult to learn, so we'll stick with the "not-so-distant past" — which is the most common form of the past tense — for now. But "not-so-distant past" is a lengthy term, so let's just call it the ordinary past tense. Let's see how the sample sentences above look in the ordinary past tense:

Past participles (e.g. gata) can represent any of the three past tenses above.

Endings

We have three sets of endings to learn: P endings, A endings for the simple verb classes, and A endings for the complex verb classes. In this lesson, we'll study all three. But first, let's talk about that little a in front of the verb stem.

a

You might have noticed that the ordinary past tense has the letter a- in front of the stem. (I say a- instead of just a to emphasize that the letter is a prefix). This a- is sometimes called the "sign" or "mark" of the ordinary past tense. We attach this sign to the front of the normal stem to produce a special "past stem."

This a- sound is crucial for interpreting and recognizing the ordinary past tense. Fortunately, Sanskrit itself seems to recognize this fact; the a- of a past tense verb is never hidden. For instance, what do you think happens when a- is used with a verb that starts with a vowel, like iṣ? Based on the sandhi rules we've studied so far, you might guess that the past tense stem would be eccha. But the result is surprising:

Traditionally, this behavior is explained as follows:

If the root starts with a vowel, the a prefix combines with that vowel and makes it a strong vowel.

It's that simple! Now, let's start studying some of the endings that this verb form uses.

P Endings

The P endings are similar to the endings of the present tense, but they're not exactly the same. Take a look:

bhū (a+, P, ordinary past tense)
भू Singular Dual Plural
Third Person अभवत्
abhavat
अभवताम्
abhavatām
अभवन्
abhavan
Second Person अभवः
abhavaḥ
अभवतम्
abhavatam
अभवत
abhavata
First Person अभवम्
abhavam
अभवाव
abhavāva
अभवाम
abhavāma

For comparison, here are the endings for the present tense:

bhū (a+, P, present tense)
भू Singular Dual Plural
Third Person भवति
bhavati
भवतः
bhavataḥ
भवन्ति
bhavanti
Second Person भवसि
bhavasi
भवथः
bhavathaḥ
भवथ
bhavatha
First Person भवामि
bhavāmi
भवावः
bhavāvaḥ
भवामः
bhavāmaḥ

Note the simple and elegant transformation from the present tense endings to the ordinary past tense endings. Each present tense ending loses its last letter; then, the rules of sandhi act to reduce the present endings to the past endings.

The complex verb classes use the same endings, as mentioned above. All of the verbs in the singular number use the strong stem.

su (no, P, past tense)
सु Singular Dual Plural
Third Person असुनोत्
asunot
असुनुताम्
asunutām
असुन्वन्
asunvan
Second Person असुनोः
asunoḥ
असुनुतम्
asunutam
असुनुत
asunuta
First Person असुनवम्
asunavam
असुनुव
asunuva
असुनुम
asusuma

A Endings

These endings are significantly different from the ones above. Try to memorize them now, and use the exercises on the next page to reinforce your memory. But don't work too hard; this set of endings is used by three different verb forms, and you'll have plenty of time to practice.

Here are the endings for verbs from the simple verb classes.

labh (a+, A, ordinary past tense)
लभ् Singular Dual Plural
Third Person अलभत
alabhata
अलभेताम्
alabhetām
अलभन्त
alabhanta
Second Person अलभथाः
alabhathāḥ
अलभेथाम्
alabhethām
अलभध्वम्
alabhadhvam
First Person अलभे
alabhe
अलभावहि
alabhāvahi
अलभामहि
alabhāmahi

The endings for verbs from the complex verb classes are almost exactly the same.

su (no, A, past tense)
सु Singular Dual Plural
Third Person असुनुत
asunuta
असुन्वाताम्
asunvātām
असुन्वत
asunvata
Second Person असुनुथाः
asunuthāḥ
असुन्वाथाम्
asunvāthām
असुनुध्वम्
asunudhvam
First Person असुन्वि
asunvi
असुनुवहि
asunuvahi
असुनुमहि
asunumahi

The changes are listed below:

These differences are exactly parallel to the difference in the present ātmanepada.

Verb Prefixes and the Ordinary Past Tense

The earlier lesson on verb prefixes mentioned that the verb prefix comes before the verb stem. But now we have another prefix: the letter a-, which marks the ordinary past tense. Which prefix appears first? The answer might surprise you: the verb prefix appears first!

Verb prefixes were once entirely separate from the verb itself. Over time, they came to be placed right in front of the verb, as in prati agacchat. The two forms combined, and the a- prefix was sandwiched in the middle.