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For other uses, see Enlightenment. For other views or essays on enlightenment, see meditation, mysticism (ancient to contemporary).

Enlightenment is a fundamental concept in religion, spirituality and secular philosophy, essentially meaning being illuminated by acquiring new wisdom or understanding.

While "enlightenment" may refer specifically to the secular European Age of Enlightenment, it also has parallels in both Far Eastern religious concepts (the Buddhist Bodhi, the Zen Satori, and the Hindu moksha) and Abrahamic religions (ie. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).


The Western intellectual history of term "enlightenment" is the basis for the secular idea that relates to a localized, religion-specific "enlightenment". It also attempts to bridge the traditional gap between religions and religious belief and psychological science.

In this secular sense, 'the enlightened' are those who are not distracted by their thoughts but who stay focused —resisting the natural tendency to be come 'lost' in thinking about experience (rather than experiencing the present). This focus is called 'awareness of being', (satchidananda) where one's attention is given to their existence rather than their experience. The ability to concentrate is strengthened by techniques such as meditation, chanting (with awareness), and mentally affirming what's happening now ("I am breathing in," "I am tasting my food," "I am doing [this] now").

Enlightenment is becoming aware of the nature of the self through choiceless observation. By observation the self (our self) with detachment, we can become aware of its processes without being caught up in them. Doing such allows one to rest as the witness.

Seeking enlightenment[]

Template:Spirituality portal The systematic search for enlightenment was a goal of truth seekers after they found a master teacher or guru, who could guide them. However, this formulation was not necessarily spiritual. In earlier times, such as during the Bön period of Tibetan religion, enlightenment was considered to be within the context of magic —from which scientific methods descended (through alchemy). After the systematic methods were learned in India, the nations of Asia made pilgrimages to learn them. The relationship between seeker and guru was and remains, in most cases, an essential point for enlightenment. There are practical signs of such a state, which can be recognized by a guru.

Thus there is a generally secular component to enlightenment which, in some cases, may differ from Western concepts of divine grace (of God), which was essentially spiritual (ie. holy, sacred or mystical).

Kant's definition of enlightenment[]

(Note: Kant is here talking about "Aufklarung", a phase in cultural history marked by a faith in reason; this is quite different from "Erleuchtung", the spiritual awakening spoken of above in relation to e.g. the Buddha. Only in English is the same word used for these two different phenomena.)

In his famous 1784 essay What Is Enlightenment?, Immanuel Kant described it as follows:

Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is the incapacity to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another. Such tutelage is self-imposed if its cause is not lack of intelligence, but rather a lack of determination and courage to use one's intelligence without being guided by another.

Kant reasoned that although a man must obey in his civil duties, he must make public his use of reason. His motto for enlightenment is Sapere aude! or "Dare to know."

Adorno's and Horkheimer's definition of enlightenment[]

In their controversial analysis of the contemporary western society, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer developed a wider, and more pessimistic concept of enlightenment. In their analysis enlightenment had its dark side: while trying to abolish superstition and myths by 'foundationalist' philosophy, it ignored its own 'mythical' basis. Its strivings towards totality and certainty led to an increasing instrumentalization of reason and thus it was ultimately responsible for the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. In their view the enlightenment itself should be enlightened and not posed as a 'myth-free' view of the world.

Enlightenment in Western civilization[]

The Christian saints, who stood outside the religious hierarchy, attained their spiritual standing on their own and could not communicate the practical means toward illumination. Instead, the Christian saints were frequently adjoined into religious orders, as was the case for Mother Teresa in the twentieth century. Thus, as in the case of Saint Francis of Assisi, huge wealth was channelled into their orders. Put boldly, the Christian ideas were used to make money, the primary motivation for the Age of Exploration.

During the period after the Age of Exploration when Portuguese, and later, English trading companies were gaining hegemony over the rajahs of India, the concept of Enlightenment started filtering into Europe. Concurrently, when Isaac Newton's System of the World was being formulated and then exploited, it was realized that a mystical view of the world could be discarded. This program was called the Enlightenment. Thus the Christian viewpoint was systematically suppressed, culminating in the secular viewpoint expressed in the American Revolution, and tragically in the violent actions of the French Revolution against the King, the First Estate (the Church) and the Second Estate (the nobility).

The Age of Enlightenment[]

The "Age of Enlightenment" is a proverbial time of maturing in people -- roughly around the age of 18 years -- when the illusions of childhood lift, and one is left with greater self-awareness and understanding of their own roles and responsibilities in the world. This is analogous to the Christian-adopted concept of being "born-again" and is a direct tie between the spiritual teachings of The Christ, Jesus and Buddha. In Buddhism, enlightenment means one is ultimately free from the cycle of suffering and rebirth thus never have to be born again except by choice, to save others, by aiding others in the path toward Enlightenment.

People who have been said to be enlightened[]

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Many individuals have claimed to reach a state of enlightenment, including many famous yogis and meditation masters from well-known spiritual traditions. Mahatma Gandhi was said to be an enlightened seeker of truth. Siddharta Guatama, the Buddha, was said to have reached the "ultimate state of enlightenment" or "nirvana."

Nārāyana Guru (1856 to 1928), the prolific poet, philosopher and social reformer is believed to have attained enlightenment, i.e. an absolute state of wisdom, after his several years of education in languages, the scriptures of the different religions, yoga, and experiences with ascetic life, culminating in his long and meditative recluse in Maruthwamala hills in South India. Nārāyana Guru’s philosophical masterpiece “Atmopadeśa Śatakam” (one hundred verses of self-instruction) is primarily the Guru’s poetic expression of his philosophy of universal love, emanating from his experienced state of primordial knowledge of the Universe, and his consequent ability to view the human race as one of a species, in unqualified equality and without any racial, religious, caste or other discriminations whatsoever.

In our own time, Jiddu Krishnamurti is said by some to have attained Enlightenment under a pepper tree in Ojai, California in the 1920s.

See also[]

External links[]

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