Is Enlightenment the Right Word for Spiritual Liberation?


by Jayaram V

What is enlightenment? Different people answer this question differently. The word enlightenment is also interpreted differently in different contexts. For some people enlightenment means a sudden revelation or intuition. It is as if a light bulb has flashed in your mind about a perplexing problem or about a new idea you have been searching for, or as if light has been shed upon a dark corner of your mind, and reveled to you a hidden gem. Since it is closely associated with knowledge and learning, it is also used to connote teaching or explaining. This is the commonest and familiar definition of enlightenment. It is also the most superficial, because it deals with but one aspect of enlightenment only, that is mental liberation.

Eastern liberation vs. Western enlightenment

The word enlightenment is an English word, derived from Latin. When we use it to explain important concepts of eastern philosophies, we are bound to face problems and corruption of ideas, as it happened to many important eastern concepts. Western scholars until now rarely adapted to eastern thought without making up something in the process. Since the medieval times, they have been using the knowledge and standards of the western world, which are strikingly inferior in both scope and quality to their eastern counterparts, to make sense of the Indian, spiritual, and religious concepts. In the process, they minimized their importance or altered their meaning. They have influenced our thinking and approach so much that we are stroll trying to make sense of our spiritual ideas and find their original meaning.

For example, in India until Islam came there was no concept of religion in the western sense. People practiced various forms of Dharma or Adharma. Both these words have a wider connotation than the word religion, which is a very narrow, restrictive, and exclusive practice. Hence, for the last two or three hundred years, Indian scholars and legal luminaries have been grappling with the problem of defining Hinduism according to the western notion of a religion. Apart from that, the definition also created a communal mindset and pitted Indians against Indians. Just as the Christian scholars of early Christian era destroyed Greek and Egyptian knowledge and literature with their minimalist thinking and approach, European scholars from the 16th century onwards tried to fit in every concept they found in India in the Biblical mindset of Paganism or Orientalism. Hence, those who solely depend upon western scholars would never get a full understanding of Indian religions, but only what a Christian mindset would allow them to see and understand.

The word enlightenment was used in Europe on a wider scale in the 18th century intellectual movement which emphasized the use of reason and scientific method to explore the material world and understand the philosophical truths. Enlightenment was a kind of liberation for the Christian world that had just passed through a phase of religious intolerance, inquisitions and medieval barbarism. Hence, in the European world enlightenment came to mean knowing truths through rational and objective means. In Indian traditions, especially Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, it is one of the several words used (rather erroneously) by English scholars to describe the ultimate liberation namely moksha, nirvana or kaivalya. Other words associated with the concept are jivanmukta, nitya yukta, mumuksatva, brahmasamadhi, kevalam, jnanodaya, amaratva, etc. Each of these has again a specific meaning, but imply the state of liberation or freedom from desires and ignorance. The scope of this article does not permit me to explain the meaning of each. I have already explained some of them in detail in my other articles. In this, I will focus upon the concept of liberation (moksha or nirvana).

Stages in liberation

There are two aspects about liberation, the conditions that lead to liberation, and the state that leads to liberation. The first one is easier to understand, because it is the preparatory stage and every person who enters spirituality for one reason or the other practices it to some degree. However, the second one is more difficult to understand because not many people who seek liberation really succeed in reaching the state. As the scriptures describe, only after many deaths and births a soul reaches the highest level of perfection to attain liberation. The following are the three important stages in liberation.


In this stage, you become aware of the need for liberation. You realize the impermanence of the world, the suffering all life forms undergo, how bondage and ignorance arise, how the soul is caught in the snare of worldly pleasures, and so on. You also realize that your mind and body are just name and form, and you have a deeper identity that outlasts both, or may outlast both. Since you become aware of many things, you may consider this process also some kind of enlightenment only, if you still cannot get the word out of your thinking. In this stage, you open your eyes to many truths as you gain insight into the nature of existence through self-study (abhyasa) contemplation, understanding and deliberation (vicara).

Preparation or transformation

This is the most crucial phase of the whole effort. In this you gain much deeper awareness and experiential insight about the nature of existence and need for liberation, as you deal with the obstacles that prevent your liberation and the factors that facilitate it. In this phase, you may also gain many rare perspectives about yourself, and experience several states of enlightenment, as you discipline and purify your mind and body, overcome the enemies of the mind namely, desires, attachment, identity, egoism, duality, mental instability, craving, greed, anger, envy, selfishness, etc. Whatever may be the path you choose or the practices you use, your effort must eventually lead to the following: absence of desires, passions, attachment, and ego. Of them the last one is the culminating state, which is characterized by absence of individuality, or the sense I am, me and mine. In other words all sense of identity and individuality must disappear gradually from your consciousness, whereby you become mere emptiness and one with everything. It is again possible only when you are free from all desires, attachments and duality.


Thus as you can see, liberation is not about using the faculty of reason or any scientific method, but going beyond the mind and reason to see the truths of existence as they are. It is not only becoming enlightened about the nature of Self and ultimate reality, but going beyond it. When all notations of individuality, duality and separation are dissolved one enters the final state of liberation, which is described by the scriptures as ultimate bliss, the state of final perfection, deathlessness, or immortality. A truly liberated person has the following characteristics.

1. He is forever in the present.

2. He is free from desires, passions and attachment. He lives without making his presence felt, as if he is absent or does not exist.

3. He can merge into anyone's consciousness easily as he has no ego and no sense of separation.

4. He is in perfect alignment with the whole existence and makes no attempt to control or change anything.

5. He is the same to all dualities, and embraces everything and all conditions.

6. His mind and senses remain fully awake, without the usual seeking and commotion.

7. He is satisfied with everything. Hence, he imposes no conditions and criticizes none.

8. He is at peace with everything. Hence is he neither disturbs nor is disturbed.

9. He floats in the winds of impermanence, like an autumn leaf shed by the tree of life.

Thus, you can see that liberation happens in stages. First, you have to go through physical liberation, then mental liberation, and finally spiritual liberation. In the physical liberation, you overcome attachment to name and form, need for physical comforts, tasty food, sexual pleasure, etc. In the mental liberation, you become free from attachment, authority, control, emotions, passions, attraction and aversion, etc.

In spiritual liberation, you transcend your mind, body and senses and perceive the highest reality in which nothing exists except you or God. In the liberated state, you erase all boundaries of consciousness that separates you from the rest of existence. You become One. And only.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Introduction to Hinduism
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Selected Upanishads
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The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
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The Chandogya Upanishad
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The Bhagavadgita Complete Translation
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