What is Enlightenment? Can it be attained or it just happens? Is it in the realm of being or becoming? Can it be achieved collectively or is it peculiar to an individual? Is an enlightened being different from ordinary beings? Can, or to what extent, accomplishments of the mind be construed as a form of enlightenment? Or, is Enlightenment really beyond mind? These are questions of perennial philosophy and have never been answered definitively. Perhaps, on the mundane level, Enlightenment is seeking rather than finding, far less it is keeping and possessing.
We live in a scientific age but science and scientists have not enlightened us much on Enlightenment. Though, as Science advances, the distinction between matter and mind is becoming blurred and indistinct. And, enlightenment is increasingly being understood in terms of consciousness rather than in terms of individual or collective achievements of the mind. We of speak of “enlightened society” or “enlightened persons” but these phrases have very limited meaning and contexts. Enlightenment is coextensive with Consciousness which, like the Universe is ever expanding. True enlightenment is a kind of self- realization, a spiritual fulfillment, beyond the dimension of space and time. And, the poets and saints have dared reach for a glimpse of that which lies beyond Time. T.S.Eliot, for instance, in his Four Quartets tells us:
Time past and time present
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden
…. ..involved with past and future
Only through time time is conquered.
Is enlightenment, then, total consciousness? How can such a state of being be sustained? Words, after all, are spoken and written in time and space and, hence , are incapable of capturing and expressing the moment [or is it eternity?] of total or universal consciousness or moment of self realization where time and the timeless interpenetrate and leave the realizing self configured into another pattern so that the Enlightened One experiences the Now and Here at the same time as it experiences Never and Nowhere:
Words move, music moves Only in time; but that which is only living Can only die. Words, after speech, reach Into the silence.
[T.S. Eliot ]
That is why the yogis, or the enlightened ones do not speak about their enlightenment. That which is beyond space and time, cannot be put into words. Language is a creation of the Mind and Enlightenment remains beyond the Mind’s grasp.
We cannot, however, totally disregard the concept and view of Enlightenment that provided impetus to “ an intellectual movement and cultural atmosphere which developed in western Europe during the seventeenth and reached its height in the eighteenth century”. The name given to this movement was Enlightenment and its common element was a belief in the efficacy of Reason. Reason, according to Godwin, Descartes, Voltaire, Diderot, Leibniz, Immanuel Kant, would lead man to Enlightenment , that is, “The Light of Reason”. Kant , in his famous essay “What is Enlightenment” published in 1784 defined it as “ the liberation of mankind from his self-caused state of minority.” In other words, Mind when fully developed makes Reason prevail or Universal Reason synonymous with “ fully developed Mind”.
Allied to this “Light of Reason” or Eighteenth Century European Enlightenment is Deism that eschews all “ revealed religions”, including Christianity. Deists’ rely on “universal human reason” for creating universal truths and values and for liberating the whole mankind from false and narrow beliefs. In other words, “ there is a deity, discoverable by reasoning from the creation to the creator, who sanctions all moral values and deserves our worship”. Alexander Pope, renouncing Catholicism, expressed the basic deistic tenet in “The Universal Prayer”
Father of all in every age, In every clime adorned By saint, by savage, and by sage, Jehovah, Jove or Lord.
In Modern Western Tradition Knowledge is equated , if not identified with Consciousness till the Existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Kierkegaard,Heidegger, Husserl, Merlau-Ponty, Karl Jaspers toward mid-twentieth century became concerned with the questions of positing the individual as a “conscious being” in the phenomenal world. Absurdity rather than meaning they encountered in Existence that “precedes” Essence. Therefore, one must make “ conscious choices” in order to authenticate one’s individual existence which can at the most be a series or concatenation of conscious choices in moments of crisis. Kierkegaard questioned Reason and Reasoning and reversed Descarte’s proposition:
“ I think, therefore, I am” to “I am, therefore, I think”.
Existentialist Enlightenment, then, is an enlarging and heightening of disillusionment with established norms and bourgeois existence of routine life where Nine to Five pattern of life has a boring ,deadening and killing effect on an individual being’s consciousness. Existentialist living demands individual and collective or historical consciousness and choices made often against one’s own grain, a kind of continued renewal of “ being” in “acts of becoming” and “intense living”. Existentialists emphasize Experience rather than Knowledge for conscious and enlightened living which is a form of “disillusionment” forcing an individual to invent his own meaning in an absurd meaningless universe.
In both secular and religious western traditions, however, Knowledge and Reason, resulting from the development of the mind receive emphasis. Objective reality, its penetration through active mind is the way to enlightenment and even perfection in history. Christian Humanism and Scientific Method both rely on Knowledge: Science in the acts of discovery and invention, Christian Humanism in the form of good moral conduct and belief in the anthropocentricity or centrality of the Human Being in the Chain of Being. Man is the Center of the Universe and all things and beings, fish or fowl, birds or animal exist for Man’s enjoyment. But man, endowed as he is with a moral faculty, will prevail over his baser self, finally do good and not merely avoid evil. All humanists, Christian or secular believe that Man shall triumph and the Nobel Prize Winner, novelist William Faulkner articulated their belief when he said : “Man Shall Prevail”. Development of the Mind, in other words, is the way to Enlightenment for all mankind.
In the twentieth century new strands of thought made possible by mingling of races, civilizations and traditions , have changed our view of Enlightenment. As early as 1725, Vico challenged the view about the “primitive man” which , according to him, was far from being “savage”; it had the characteristic of the “poetic wisdom”[sapienza poetica] and is not less but more enlightened than the so-called “rational” or “civilized” man. Only, the ‘primitive mind” comprehends reality by symbols, metaphors, myths instead of describing it in reasoned prose. Not the secrets of Physics but the mysteries of Metaphysics are the subjects of his exploration. Perception, conscious discourse, epiphany or “sudden spiritual manifestation” currently have become part of the academic and humanist endeavors as tools of enlightenment. Yet, linguists and anthropologists such as Franz Boaz, Edward Sapir, Levi-Strauss have made us aware that “human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society”. Since Language has been created by Human Mind, one is a prisoner of the language , as the title of Fredric Jameson’s book “The Prison-House of Language” would suggest and, hence, of the Mind.
Along with these trends, we have the increased visibility of Godmen like Mahesh Yogi to Rajnish developing techniques of meditation, modes of living and establishing Retreats and Ashrams for their followers or seekers of “Instant Nirvana” for the rich of the world and “unhappy hordes” everywhere. But serious thinkers like Aldous Huxley, T.S. Eliot, Hermann Hesse have explored the traditions of the East, predominantly Zen and Indian traditions in which “darshan”, “revelation”, “self-surrender”, merging of smaller identity with universal self form part or various stages of Enlightenment. In the Indian Tradition, Knowledge is a form of Ignorance rather than a ladder to the Tower of Enlightenment. An Enlightened Being shuts himself from the World of Mind and Senses and transcends to a Reality where words are not valid, distinctions dissolve and moment becomes timeless as the drop becomes ocean when the rain falls over the vast seas. Earlier Chinese traditions of Tao and Confucius emphasized codes of moral conduct rather than realization of the self or universal consciousness for becoming an enlightened person.
In the Vedant and Upanishads, Hindu rishis explored regions of Consciousness and described three stages of human awareness as “Awakening”, “Dreaming”, and “Deep Sleep” , summed up in the “imperishable sound”- “AUM”. A totally aware, self-realized being is like a “being in deep , dreamless sleep”, with no distinction between “Being” and “Nothing”. But for most of us, only partial consciousness or “Awakening” or “Dreaming” is possible. A glimpse of all these stages of consciousness is possible through Meditation. But when the self returns to the work-a-day world, what happens to the enlightened experiencer ? About this there are many interesting anecdotes. One of them is about a Chinese wood cutter who suddenly became famous for being a ‘realized soul’. People swarmed his hut and waited for him to come out duly in awe of the ‘Enlightened One’. The wood cutter came out with his axe and a piece of rope as usual and looked somewhat surprised to see so many people at his door.
“Your Holiness, You have become a realized soul, you are The Enlightened One. So we have heard”.
“Maybe, but right now I am going to the forest for my daily work”, and he walked to the woods.
Sidharatha , after he had become the Buddha, the Enlightened One, laughed to his heart’s content when an elder from his own hometown asked him: “What knowledge did you gain after your tapas or long meditation and penance under the Bodhi Tree?”. Replied Gautum the Buddha: “ Nothing that I did not know when I left Kapilvastu”. [About 1650 words.]