Updated: Aug 2, 2021
Angela Vettikkal, CC ’17, came to New York from the suburbs of Cincinnati with plans to pick up a major in a STEM field and make a career out of Indian classical dance, which she has studied for years. Now she studies philosophy and Sanskrit. “I thought, ‘Oh yeah, Sanskrit’s going to be really useful for me to be a dancer,’ but I don’t know if that was the real reason … I was told by some people I had met in my first year that Sanskrit was super difficult. Like it’s harder than Latin, it’s harder than Greek, so I was like, ‘Oh OK, so now I have to do it,’” Vettikkal explains. Rumors that it was similarly difficult and an interest in classics sparked by the Core led her to philosophy.
By her junior year, Vettikkal’s explorations of philosophy and Sanskrit had begun to intersect. “We [started] reading philosophical texts, it’s hard to say whether or not they’re philosophy because there’s no real word ‘philosophy’ in the Sanskrit tradition. There are instances where we could say that [the texts] are concerned with the same questions, like ‘What are the valid means of knowledge?’, ‘What is real?’, ‘Are there universals?,’ so we look at that and we say, ‘Oh that’s philosophy,’ but there’s not technically a single word for it. But we’re not reading [Sanskrit texts] in a philosophic way, we’re just trying to read the [text], what it says.”
This point is where Vettikkal’s training in philosophy comes into play. She continues, “but immediately this has philosophical concerns, because if you can’t follow the argument, you’re not going to be able to read the text or figure out what’s going on in the language, because there’s no way to just read it without knowing what’s going on.”
Bringing out her philosopher’s toolkit to try to understand what’s going on in certain Sanskrit texts led Vettikkal to organize a non-Western reading group with the Minorities and Philosophy (MAP) chapter at Columbia. This semester, Vettikkal, a professor in the Philosophy Department, and a cohort of undergrads and grad students across several departments are working their way through a text by a Buddhist philosopher of language named Jñānaśrīmitra. Vettikkal isn’t sure whether she’s a Sanskrit scholar or philosopher first—she’s applying to graduate programs in both—perhaps “historian” is a better way to put it. “I just really like history of philosophy a lot, because it makes all these questions that some people take for granted completely contingent.” In the seminar she and I take together, she likes how “we’re getting into the history of how modern epistemological questions came to be the way that they are…How did we get to this point right now? Whether or not the entire world is real, whether or not I’m still dreaming—there’s a history to these questions.”
Vettikkal doesn’t want to “destroy philosophy as we know it,” but she is interested in evaluating the categories that make up the discipline and illustrating how the trajectory differs in the Sanskrit intellectual history. In Western philosophy, “we take for granted that there’s Metaphysics, there’s Epistemology and there’s Ethics, [that] these are separate fields, [that] the discipline must be separated into these categories—so when you have an entirely, nearly independent philosophical tradition that lasted for at least 1,500 years, you see different categories that were formed, different developments…What if you didn’t start with Aristotle? What would have happened?”