In modern times, there is a tendency among some Tamilians to see Sanskrit as somehow in competition with Tamil, as if the two were at war. This attitude has been brought out by opposition to the creation of a unicode block for Grantha (the writing system traditionally used for Sanskrit in Tamil Nadu). Some go so far as to argue that Grantha should have no unicode implementation at all or even that the few Grantha letters commonly used in Tamil should be eliminated. My own view is that Grantha is something that belongs to all Tamilians and that its use for Sanskrit should be encouraged. Of course, nowadays most Sanskrit books are published in Devanagari, but it seems a pity that Grantha, with its long history, should be utterly lost. The use of Grantha is an ancient Tamil tradition, and it seems unjust that it should be utterly supplanted by something imported from North India.
In the first millennium CE, Sanskrit was what Pollock has called a “cosmopolitan language.” By that he means that it was used as a sign and carrier of political and cultural status. But it was much more than that. In an area with hundreds of different languages, ranging from Kashmir to Indonesia and Cambodia, it was used as a language of communication. Buddhists used it just as much as Hindus, and one cannot study Buddhism properly without knowing Sanskrit. The breadth of subjects addressed in Sanskrit is enormous, including literature, literary theory, Buddhist philosophy, logic, eroticism, music, dance, medicine, astrology, mathematics, the Vedas — the list goes on and on. One can find documents advocating Brahmin supremacy, but there are also many sources in Sanskrit that mock Brahmanism. So much has been written in Sanskrit that it is virtually impossible for any one person to become an expert in all its different forms. It is an ocean that goes on and on and seemingly spreads everywhere. Even among Hindus, Sanskrit writers were not exclusively Brahmin. The people who sang the epics, Sūtas and Magadhas, were not Brahmins, and the Sanskrit plays show many non-Brahmins proficient in Sanskrit.
If there is anything lamentable about this it is that the enormous respect and weight given to Sanskrit tended to strangle other languages. We have little or nothing in Telugu or Kannada until about the 10th century, even though we know those languages were widely spoken and vigorous. And when Telugu and Kannada do develop literatures, they borrow their conventions and literary ideas almost entirely from Sanskrit — with few exceptions (like the Vacanas in Kannada), we do not see local oral literature reflected in the major works of these languages. They gained status by imitating Sanskrit, and one major Telugu poet actually had to write a Sanskrit version of a work he had already written so that he could claim his own work as an anuvāda of a Sanskrit original.
What about Tamil? It had the good fortune to gain an extensive written literature before the Sanskrit juggernaut became irresistible. Its early works owe virtually nothing to Sanskrit, but rather are indebted to the oral traditions of the local countryside. Perhaps this process was helped along by the vast distances between the Tamil areas and North India. In any event, we are fortunate that Sangam literature was valued and preserved, as it is not only one of the great world literatures, it gives us a lens through which we can see ancient Tamil culture without the distortion of Sanskrit sources, which tend to adhere to a set of conventions and ideas that are independent of any given area or culture. Whether written by Buddhists or Hindus, Sanskrit invariably adopts a sort of elitist perspective, out of touch with local developments. Tamil is quite different. As anyone reading Sangam literature knows, its works are quite thoroughly grounded in local traditions and describe people of all backgrounds and classes. Because Tamil developed its own identity so early, it remained relatively immune to the influence of Sanskrit. It retained (and retains) its own writing system that genuinely fits the pronunciation of the language unlike, say, Malayalam, most of whose speakers write bhū but say pū.
There is another way to envision Sanskrit, and that is as an enormous pool collecting any significant cultural or technical knowledge from every part of South Asia. It is scarcely the pristine and untouched artifact of elitism that many imagine. There is a huge Buddhist literature in corrupt Sanskrit, and in Malayalam we find true maṇipravāḷam, which combines Sanskrit and Malayalam-Tamil grammar in striking and unexpected ways. Most modern South Asian languages exist as continua between Sanskrit and spoken language. This is especially true of Hindi, which uses Sanskrit neologisms that are absent in the commonly spoken language.
The early origins of Tamil and of its writing system have helped it keep its separate identity from Sanskrit. Most Sanskrit words cannot even be written accurately in Tamil — ṛṣabha becomes iṭupam, for example. From the beginning, elegant Tamil has eschewed Sanskrit words and encouraged the use of pure Tamil vocabulary, though of course Tamil has still managed to borrow an enormous number of Sanskrit words (just as Sanskrit has borrowed many Dravidian words). Once, reading a hymn from the Rig Veda, we found that virtually every word is found in modern Tamil. The fact is that everyday Tamil uses much more Sanskrit than Hindi (pustakam vs. kibāb). But while the use of Sanskrit creates a high diction or tone in Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali, and other languages, it does not do so for Tamil. Rather, Sanskrit words give a colloquial, everyday flavor to Tamil (sneehitaṉ, cuttam, sattam, varṣam). For formal Tamil, one must use words like naṇpaṉ, tūymai, oli, āṇṭu, and these pure Dravidian words impart an elegance that is entirely lacking when Sanskrit words are used. Is the use of Sanskrit vocabulary therefore to be avoided in Tamil? I would rather argue that Sanskrit, like English, is a source of richness for Tamil, enabling different registers of the language that coexist with the elegant register of pure Tamil. Ultimately, the identity of Tamil has, from the first, been mainly dependent on its elegant incarnation. Centamiḻ is the heart and soul of the language, but Sanskrit and English are attributes that can be used to enrich it.
I don’t think Tamil is threatened by Sanskrit (or even English), and I don’t think it ever has been. Its separate identity and character have been cultivated and preserved from its beginnings to the present, and they will be preserved. The Tamils value and love their language, and they will certainly always continue to cultivate it. I find myself less sanguine about Sanskrit itself. Nowadays, very few serious scholars in India study Sanskrit. The language, however many Hindi or Malayalam words it may furnish, is dying of neglect, and as a result much of the cultural history of South and Southeast Asia is becoming inaccessible. I find it ironic that some Tamilians still feel their language threatened by Sanskrit, while in fact Tamil is flourishing and it is Sanskrit that is threatened by neglect. Tamil and Sanskrit are, after all, the two classical languages of India (and South Asia) and, if we are to properly understand the heritage of India, both must be cultivated and studied.
– George Hart