Enlightenment is the “full comprehension of a situation”.[web 1] The term is commonly used to denote the Age of Enlightenment,[note 1] but is also used in Western cultures in a religious context. It translates several Buddhist terms and concepts, most notably bodhi,[note 2] kensho and satori. Related terms from Asian religions are moksha (liberation) in Hinduism, Kevala Jnana in Jainism, and ushta in Zoroastrianism.
In Christianity, the word “enlightenment” is rarely used, except to refer to the Age of Enlightenment and its influence on Christianity. Roughly equivalent terms in Christianity may be illumination, kenosis, metanoia, revelation, salvation and conversion.
Perennialists and Universalists view enlightenment and mysticism as equivalent terms for religious or spiritual insight.
The English term “enlightenment” has commonly been used to translate several Sanskrit, Pali,[web 2] Chinese and Japanese terms and concepts, especially bodhi, prajna, kensho, satori and buddhahood.
Bodhi is a Theravada term. It literally means “awakening” and “understanding”. Someone who is awakened has gained insight into the workings of the mind which keeps us imprisoned in craving, suffering and rebirth,[web 1] and has also gained insight into the way that leads to nirvana, the liberation of oneself from this imprisonment.
Prajna is a Mahayana term. It refers to insight into our true nature, which according to Madhyamaka is empty of a personal essence in the stream of experience. But it also refers to the Tathgata-garbha or Buddha-nature, the essential basic-consciousness beyond the stream of experience.
In Zen, kensho means “seeing into one’s true nature”. Satori is often used interchangeably with kensho, but refers to the experience of kensho.
Buddhahood is the attainment of full awakening and becoming a Buddha. According to the Tibetan Thubten Yeshe,[web 3] enlightenment
[means] full awakening; buddhahood. The ultimate goal of Buddhist practice, attained when all limitations have been removed from the mind and one’s positive potential has been completely and perfectly realized. It is a state characterized by infinite compassion, wisdom and skill.[web 4]
In Indian religions moksha (Sanskrit: moka; liberation) or mukti (Sanskrit: ; release both from the root muc “to let loose, let go”) is the final extrication of the soul or consciousness (purusha) from samsara and the bringing to an end of all the suffering involved in being subject to the cycle of repeated death and rebirth (reincarnation).
Advaita Vedanta (IAST Advaita Vednta; Sanskrit: [dait ednt]) is a philosophical concept where followers seek liberation/release by recognizing identity of the Self (Atman) and the Whole (Brahman) through long preparation and training, usually under the guidance of a guru, that involves efforts such as knowledge of scriptures, renunciation of worldy activities, and inducement of direct identity experiences. Originating in India before 788 AD, Advaita Vedanta is widely considered the most influential and most dominant[web 5] sub-school of the Vednta (literally, end or the goal of the Vedas, Sanskrit) school of Hindu philosophy. Other major sub-schools of Vednta are Viishdvaita and Dvaita; while the minor ones include Suddhadvaita, Dvaitadvaita and Achintya Bhedabheda.
Advaita (literally, non-duality) is a system of thought where “Advaita” refers to the identity of the Self (Atman) and the Whole (Brahman).[note 3] Recognition of this identity leads to liberation. Attaining this liberation takes a long preparation and training under the guidance of a guru.
The key source texts for all schools of Vednta are the Prasthanatrayithe canonical texts consisting of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras. The first person to explicitly consolidate the principles of Advaita Vedanta was Shankara Bhagavadpada, while the first historical proponent was Gaudapada, the guru of Shankara’s guru Govinda Bhagavatpada.
Shankara systematized the works of preceding philosophers. His system of Vedanta introduced the method of scholarly exegesis on the accepted metaphysics of the Upanishads. This style was adopted by all the later Vedanta schools.
Shankara’s synthesis of Advaita Vedanta is summarized in this quote from the Vivekacmai, one of his Prakaraa grathas (philosophical treatises):[note 4]
In half a couplet I state, what has been stated by crores of texts;
that is Brahman alone is real, the world is mithy (not independently existent),
In the 19th century Vivekananda played a major role in the revival of Hinduism, and the spread of Advaita Vedanta to the West via the Ramakrishna Mission. His interpretation of Advaita Vedanta has been called “Neo-Vedanta”.
In a talk on “The absolute and manifestation” given in at London in 1896 Swami Vivekananda said,
I may make bold to say that the only religion which agrees with, and even goes a little further than modern researchers, both on physical and moral lines is the Advaita, and that is why it appeals to modern scientists so much. They find that the old dualistic theories are not enough for them, do not satisfy their necessities. A man must have not only faith, but intellectual faith too”.[web 6]
Vivekananda emphasized samadhi as a means to attain liberation. Yet this emphasis is not to be found in the Upanishads nor in Shankara. For Shankara, meditation and Nirvikalpa Samadhi are means to gain knowledge of the already existing unity of Brahman and Atman, not the highest goal itself:
[Y]oga is a meditative exercise of withdrawal from the particular and identification with the universal, leading to contemplation of oneself as the most universal, namely, Consciousness. This approach is different from the classical yoga of complete thought suppression.
Vivekenanda’s modernisation has been criticized:
Without calling into question the right of any philosopher to interpret Advaita according to his own understanding of it, […] the process of Westernization has obscured the core of this school of thought. The basic correlation of renunciation and Bliss has been lost sight of in the attempts to underscore the cognitive structure and the realistic structure which according to Samkaracarya should both belong to, and indeed constitute the realm of my.
Neo-Advaita is a new religious movement based on a modern, Western interpretation of Advaita Vedanta, especially the teachings of Ramana Maharshi. Neo-Advaita is being criticized[note 6][note 7][note 8] for discarding the traditional prerequisites of knowledge of the scriptures and “renunciation as necessary preparation for the path of jnana-yoga”. Notable neo-advaita teachers are H. W. L. Poonja, his students Gangaji Andrew Cohen,[note 9], Madhukar and Eckhart Tolle.
The prime means to reach moksha is through the practice of yoga (Sanskrit, Pli: , /j/, yoga) is a commonly known generic term for physical, mental, and spiritual disciplines which originated in ancient India. Specifically, yoga is one of the six stika (“orthodox”) schools of Hindu philosophy. It is based on the Yoga Stras of Patajali. Various traditions of yoga are found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.[note 10]
Prephilosophical speculations and diverse ascetic practices of first millennium BCE were systematized into a formal philosophy in early centuries CE by the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. By the turn of the first millennium, Hatha yoga emerged as a prominent tradition of yoga distinct from the Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. While the Yoga Sutras focus on discipline of the mind, Hatha yoga concentrates on health and purity of the body.
Hindu monks, beginning with Swami Vivekananda, brought yoga to the West in the late 19th century. In the 1980s, yoga became popular as a physical system of health exercises across the Western world. Many studies have tried to determine the effectiveness of yoga as a complementary intervention for cancer, schizophrenia, asthma and heart patients. In a national survey, long-term yoga practitioners in the United States reported musculoskeletal and mental health improvements.
Classical Advaita Vedanta emphasises the path of jnana yoga, a progression of study and training to attain moksha. It consists of four stages:[web 12]
The paths of bhakti yoga and karma yoga are subsidiary.
In bhakti yoga, practice centers on the worship God in any way and in any form, like Krishna or Ayyappa. Adi Shankara himself was a proponent of devotional worship or Bhakti. But Adi Shankara taught that while Vedic sacrifices, puja and devotional worship can lead one in the direction of jnana (true knowledge), they cannot lead one directly to moksha. At best, they can serve as means to obtain moksha via shukla gati.
Karma yoga is the way of doing our duties, in disregard of personal gains or losses. According to Sri Swami Sivananda,
Karma Yoga is consecration of all actions and their fruits unto the Lord. Karma Yoga is performance of actions dwelling in union with the Divine, removing attachment and remaining balanced ever in success and failure.
Karma Yoga is selfless service unto humanity. Karma Yoga is the Yoga of action which purifies the heart and prepares the Antahkarana (the heart and the mind) for the reception of Divine Light or attainment if Knowledge of the Self. The important point is that you will have to serve humanity without any attachment or egoism.[web 15]
Jainism (; Sanskrit: Jainadharma, Tamil: Samaam, Bengali: Jainadharma, Telugu: Jainamata, Malayalam: Jainmat, Kannada: Jaina dharma), is an Indian religion that prescribes a path of non-violence towards all living beings. Its philosophy and practice emphasize the necessity of self-effort to move the soul toward divine consciousness and liberation. Any soul that has conquered its own inner enemies and achieved the state of supreme being is called a jina (“conqueror” or “victor”). The ultimate status of these perfect souls is called siddha. Ancient texts also refer to Jainism as shramana dharma (self-reliant) or the “path of the nirganthas” (those without attachments or aversions).
In Jainism highest form of pure knowledge a soul can attain is called Kevala Jnana ( Sanskrit: )or Kevala a (Prakrit: ). which means absolute or perfect and Jna, which means “knowledge”. Kevala is the state of isolation of the jva from the ajva attained through ascetic practices which burn off one’s karmic residues, releasing one from bondage to the cycle of death and rebirth. Kevala Jna thus means infinite knowledge of self and non-self, attained by a soul after annihilation of the all ghtiy karmas. The soul which has reached this stage achieves moksa or liberation at the end of its life span.
Mahavira, 24th thirthankara of Jainism, is said to have practised rigorous austerities for 12 years before he attained enlightenment,
During the thirteenth year, in the second month of summer, in the fourth fortnight, the light (fortnight) of Vaisakha, on its tenth day, when the shadow had turned towards the east and the first wake was over, on the day called Suvrata, in the Muhurta called Vigaya, outside of the town Grimbhikagrama on the bank of the river Rjupalika, not far from an old temple, in the field of the householder Samaga, under a Sal tree, when the moon was in conjunction with the asterism Uttara Phalguni, (the Venerable One) in a squatting position with joined heels, exposing himself to the heat of the sun, after fasting two and a half days without drinking water, being engaged in deep meditation, reached the highest knowledge and intuition, called Kevala, which is infinite, supreme, unobstructed, unimpeded, complete, and full.
Kevala Jna is one of the five major events in the life of a Tirthankara and is known as Jna Kalyanaka and supposedly celebrated by all gods. Mahaviras Kaivalya was said to have been celebrated by the demi-gods, who constructed the Samosarana or a grand preaching assembly for him.
In the Western world the concept of enlightenment in a religious context acquired a romantic meaning. It has become synonymous with self-realization and the true self, which is being regarded as a substantial essence which is covered over by social conditioning.[note 12]
The use of the Western word enlightenment is based on the supposed resemblance of bodhi with Aufklrung, the independent use of reason to gain insight into the true nature of our world. As a matter of fact there are more resemblances with Romanticism than with the Enlightenment: the emphasis on feeling, on intuitive insight, on a true essence beyond the world of appearances.
The equivalent term “awakening” has also been used in a Christian context, namely the Great Awakenings, several periods of religious revival in American religious history. Historians and theologians identify three or four waves of increased religious enthusiasm occurring between the early 18th century and the late 19th century. Each of these “Great Awakenings” was characterized by widespread revivals led by evangelical Protestant ministers, a sharp increase of interest in religion, a profound sense of conviction and redemption on the part of those affected, an increase in evangelical church membership, and the formation of new religious movements and denominations.
Another equivalent term is Illuminationism, which was also used by Paul Demieville in his work The Mirror of the Mind, in which he made a distinction between “illumination subie” and “illumination graduelle”.[web 16] Illuminationism is a doctrine according to which the process of human thought needs to be aided by divine grace. It is the oldest and most influential alternative to naturalism in the theory of mind and epistemology. It was an important feature of ancient Greek philosophy, Neoplatonism, medieval philosophy, and in particular, the Illuminationist school of Islamic philosophy.
Augustine was an important proponent of Illuminationism, stating that everything we know is taught to us by God as He casts His light over the world,[web 17] saying that “The mind needs to be enlightened by light from outside itself, so that it can participate in truth, because it is not itself the nature of truth. You will light my lamp, Lord,”  and “You hear nothing true from me which you have not first told me.” Augustine’s version of illuminationism is not that God gives us certain information, but rather gives us insight into the truth of the information we received for ourselves.
This romantic idea of enlightenment as insight into a timeless, transcendent reality has been popularized especially by D.T. Suzuki.[web 18][web 19] Further popularization was due to the writings of Heinrich Dumoulin.[web 20] Dumoulin viewed metaphysics as the expression of a transcendent truth, which according to him was expressed by Mahayana Buddhism, but not by the pragmatic analysis of the oldest Buddhism, which emphasizes anatta. This romantic vision is also recognizable in the works of Ken Wilber.
In the oldest Buddhism this essentialism is not recognizable.[web 21] According to critics it doesn’t really contribute to a real insight into Buddhism:[web 22]
…most of them labour under the old clich that the goal of Buddhist psychological analysis is to reveal the hidden mysteries in the human mind and thereby facilitate the development of a transcendental state of consciousness beyond the reach of linguistic expression.
A common reference in Western culture is the notion of “enlightenment experience”. This notion can be traced back to William James, who used the term “religious experience” in his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Wayne Proudfoot traces the roots of the notion of “religious experience” further back to the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (17681834), who argued that religion is based on a feeling of the infinite. The notion of “religious experience” was used by Schleiermacher to defend religion against the growing scientific and secular critique.
It was popularised by the Transcendentalists, and exported to Asia via missionaries. Transcendentalism developed as a reaction against 18th Century rationalism, John Locke’s philosophy of Sensualism, and the predestinationism of New England Calvinism. It is fundamentally a variety of diverse sources such as Hindu texts like the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, various religions, and German idealism.
It was adopted by many scholars of religion, of which William James was the most influential.[note 13]
The notion of “experience” has been criticised. Robert Sharf points out that “experience” is a typical Western term, which has found its way into Asian religiosity via western influences.[note 14] The notion of “experience” introduces a false notion of duality between “experiencer” and “experienced”, whereas the essence of kensho is the realisation of the “non-duality” of observer and observed. “Pure experience” does not exist; all experience is mediated by intellectual and cognitive activity. The specific teachings and practices of a specific tradition may even determine what “experience” someone has, which means that this “experience” is not the proof of the teaching, but a result of the teaching. A pure consciousness without concepts, reached by “cleaning the doors of perception”,[note 15] would be an overwhelming chaos of sensory input without coherence.
Nevertheless, the notion of religious experience has gained widespread use in the study of religion, and is extensively researched.
The word “enlightenment” is not generally used in Christian contexts for religious understanding or insight. More commonly used terms in the Christian tradition are religious conversion and revelation.
Lewis Sperry Chafer (18711952), one of the founders of Dispensationalism, uses the word “illuminism”. Christians who are “illuminated” are of two groups, those who have experienced true illuminism (biblical) and those who experienced false illuminism (not from the Holy Spirit).
Christian interest in eastern spirituality has grown throughout the 20th century. Notable Christians, such as Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle and AMA Samy, have participated in Buddhist training and even become Buddhist teachers themselves. In a few places Eastern contemplative techniques have been integrated in Christian practices, such as centering prayer.[web 24] But this integration has also raised questions about the borders between these traditions.[web 25]
Western and Mediterranean culture has a rich tradition of esotericism and mysticism. The Perennial philosophy, basic to the New Age understanding of the world, regards those traditions as akin to Eastern religions which aim at awakening/ enlightenment and developing wisdom. The hypothesis that all mystical traditions share a “common core”, is central to New Age, but contested by a diversity of scientists like Katz and Proudfoot.
Judaism includes the mystical tradition of Kabbalah. Islam includes the mystical tradition of Sufism. In the Fourth Way teaching, enlightenment is the highest state of Man (humanity).
A popular western understanding sees “enlightenment” as “nondual consciousness”, “a primordial, natural awareness without subject or object”.[web 26] It is used interchangeably with Neo-Advaita.
This nondual consciousness is seen as a common stratum to different religions. Several definitions or meanings are combined in this approach, which makes it possible to recognize various traditions as having the same essence. According to Renard, many forms of religion are based on an experiential or intuitive understanding of “the Real”
This idea of nonduality as “the central essence” is part of a modern mutual exchange and synthesis of ideas between western spiritual and esoteric traditions and Asian religious revival and reform movements.[note 16] Western predecessors are, among others, New Age, Wilber’s synthesis of western psychology and Asian spirituality, the idea of a Perennial Philosophy, and Theosophy. Eastern influences are the Hindu reform movements such as Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga and Vivekananda’s Neo-Vedanta, the Vipassana movement, and Buddhist modernism. A truly syncretistic influence is Osho and the Rajneesh movement, a hybrid of eastern and western ideas and teachings, and a mainly western group of followers.
“Religious experiences” have “evidential value”, since they confirm the specific worldview of the experiencer:
These experiences are cognitive in that, allegedly at least, the subject of the experience receives a reliable and accurate view of what, religiously considered, are the most important features of things. This, so far as their religious tradition is concerned, is what is most important about them. This is what makes them “salvific” or powerful to save.
Yet, just like the very notion of “religious experience” is shaped by a specific discourse and habitus, the “uniformity of interpretation” may be due to the influence of religious traditions which shape the interpretation of such experiences.
Yandell discerns various “religious experiences” and their corresponding doctrinal settings, which differ in structure and phenomenological content, and in the “evidential value” they present. Yandell discerns five sorts:
Various philosophers and cognitive scientists state that there is no “true self” or a “little person” (homunculus) in the brain that “watches the show,” and that consciousness is an emergent property that arise from the various modules of the brain in ways that are yet far from understood. According to Susan Greenfield, the “self” may be seen as a composite, whereas Douglas R. Hofstadter describes the sense of “I” as a result of cognitive process.
This is in line with the Buddhist teachings, which state that
[…] what we call ‘I’ or ‘being,’ is only a combination of physical and mental aggregates which are working together interdependently in a flux of momentary change within the law of cause and effect, and that there is nothing, permanent, everlasting, unchanging, and eternal in the whole of existence.
To this end, Parfit called Buddha the “first bundle theorist”.
The idea that the mind is the result of the activities of neurons in the brain was most notably popularized by Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA, in his book The Astonishing Hypothesis.[note 17] The basic idea can be traced back to at least tienne Bonnot de Condillac. According to Crick, the idea was not a novel one:
[…] an exceptionally clear statement of it can be found in a well known paper by Horace Barlow.
Several users of entheogens throughout the ages have claimed spiritual enlightenment with the use of these substances, their use and prevalence through history is well recorded, and continues today. In modern times we have seen increased interest in these practices, for example the rise of interest in Ayahuasca. The psychological effects of these substances have been subject to scientific research focused on understanding their physiological basis.
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Enlightenment (spiritual) – Wikipedia