Sanskrit recognizes eight ways to use a noun. We tend to call them “cases.” In Sanskrit they are called विभक्ति (vibhakti), and are referred to by number (“first”, “second”, “third”, etc). For some reason, perhaps showing the influence of Western Indology, most people use confusing Latin names for the cases.
I will now introduce the cases, and try to make the Latin names easier to handle and remember.
Using the cases involves “declination” – which means changing the ending of the word. Exactly how you change the word’s ending depends on many things: the case you want to use; whether the word is singular, plural or dual; whether it is masculine, feminine, or neuter; and its natural ending. For the examples here, I will use simply use singular, masculine nouns ending naturally in -a.
The eight cases are:
- Subject (“Nominative”)
- Objective (“Accusative”)
- Method (“Instrumental”) “by”
- Purpose (“Dative”) “for”
- Origin (“Ablative”) “from”
- Possession (“Genitive”) “of”
- Location (“Locative”) “in”
- Evoking (“Vocative”) “hey”
Cases 2-7 show how the subject relates to the object. Let’s go case by case.
Case 1: The Subject — “Nominative”
The Latin here is easy, because “nominative” is the base of our English word “name” and that’s what the case does, it names the subject of the sentence.
कृष्णो वनं गच्छति
kṛṣṇo vanaṁ gacchati
Krishna goes to the forest
Here the word “Krishna” is in the first case (nominative), as kṛṣṇaḥ (which changes to kṛṣṇo due to sandhi). This shows Krishna is the subject of the sentence.
Case 2: The Objective / Cause of Action— “Accusative”
The Latin here is a little weird. It sounds like “accuse.” When we accuse someone we claim that they are the cause of something (“he is accused of murder”), and that’s what this case does: it identifies the cause / objective of the subject’s action. (If you look carefully, you can see the word “cause” (cuse) in accusative.)
कृष्णो वनं गच्छति
kṛṣṇo vanaṁ gacchati
Krishna goes to the forest
Here the word “forest” (vana) is in the second case (accusative), as vanam, to show that it is the objective of Krishna’s movement. The forest is the motivator that causes his movement.
Case 3: The Method to Accomplish the Objective — “Instrumental”
The Latin here is easy. An instrument is the tool we use to accomplish an objective, and that’s what this case is for: it indicates how the subject accomplishes its objective. In English we usually what this case accomplishes by using the words by (“I’ll go by car”) or with (“I drink with a straw”), or sometimes using on (“I will get there on a bike”).
कृष्णो पादेन वनं गच्छति
kṛṣṇo pādena vanaṁ gacchati
Krishna goes to the forest on foot.
Here the word “foot” (pāda) is in the third case (instrumental), as pādena, to show that his feet are the instrument Krishna uses to go to the forest.
Case 4: Purpose of the Objective — “Dative”
This Latin is particularly difficult, because it sounds like “date,” which misleads me into thinking this is a case for describing time. In Latin, however, date means “what will be obtained,” and that’s what the case does – it shows what the subject hopes to gain from the objective. In English, we usually accomplish this with the words for (“I work for money”) or to (“I work to make money”).
कृष्णो वनमानन्दाय गच्छति
kṛṣṇo vanam ānandāya gacchati
Krishna goes to the forest for joy.
Here the word “joy” (ānanda) is in the fourth case (dative), as ānandāya, to show that joy is what the Krishna hopes to gain by going to the forest.
Case 5: Origin of the Objective — “Ablative”
The Latin here is also difficult. It conveys the sense of something “abating” (going away). This case lets us show where something comes from – literally or conceptually. Conceptual movement from one thing towards another is how Sanskrit shows causality and also how it makes comparisons.
In English, we usually accomplish this using words like from (“I come from New York”), and out of (“He overeats out of stress.”). We can also use because of and due to for accomplishing the conceptual-conceptual sense of this case.
kṛṣṇo grāmāt carati
Krishna walks from the village.
Here the word “village” (grāma) is in the fifth case (ablative), as grāmāt, to show Krishna’s movement brings him from the village. This is an example using the case literally.
They wander due to happiness.
Here the word “happiness” (sukha) is in the fifth case (ablative), as sukhāt, to show that they wander as a result of their happiness. This is an example using the case conceptually, to show causality.
kṛṣṇo candrāt sundaraḥ
Krishna is more beautiful than the moon.
Here the word “moon” (candra) is in the fifth, ablative case (candrāt) to show that beauty moves away from the moon, towards Krishna. This conceptual movement is how Sanskrit makes a comparison expressing that Krishna is more beautiful than the Moon.
Case 6: Possessive — “Genitive”
The Latin word for this has to do with producing (and therefore owning) something. Parents, for example, are progenitors, who give us their genes. In English we use “-’s” or “of” to accomplish what this case does.
Krishna’s potency. -or- The potency of Krishna.
Here the word kṛṣṇa is in the sixth case (genitive), as kṛṣṇasya, to show that Krishna is the producer, and thus the possessor, of the śakti.
Case 7: Location — “Locative”
The Latin here is mercifully simple. We use this case to express a position in either space or time. In English we accomplish this using words like “in”, “on”, “at”, and so on.
मनः कृष्णे निवेशयेत्
manaḥ kṛṣṇe niveśayet
Invest your mind in Krishna. -or- Set your mind on Krishna.
Here, the word kṛṣṇa is in the seventh case (locative), as kṛṣṇe. It therefore signifies the location upon which / in which the mind’s thoughts and emotions should exist.
Case 8: Evoking — “Vocative”
Here, too, the Latin is mercifully easy. We use this case to call to (“evoke”) someone, or directly address them by name. In English we just use a person’s name without modification, but we can make our evocation more explicit by by using hey, as in, “Hey John” or “Hey you!” In older English they used O, as in “O Lord.”
Hey Hara! Hey Krishna!
In Sanskrit too, this case involves little change to the original names. With kṛṣna (a male noun ending in “a”) the eighth case (vocative) involves no change at all. With hara (a female noun ending in “a”) the eighth case (vocative) changes it slightly, to hare.