(Philosophers from ancient to modern times have been discussing the idea of ‘enlightenment’ – both in the Eastern & Western traditions. In the pre-modern era, Immanuel Kant famously asked, “What is Enlightenment?”. Michel Foucault too asked “What is Enlightenment?” in the pre-postmodern era. Divas asks the same question, “What is Enlightenment?” in the post-postmodern era of 21st century.)
What is Enlightenment?
Humans seem to desire self-transformation in their cognitive and affective faculties. Both in the Eastern and Western traditions, there have been attempts of finding a peculiar state of mind which surpasses normal instinctual feelings. Being social animals of the highest order, humans have developed very complex societies. Creation of social systems has endowed the species superiority over other species. However, human individuals undergo intense anxiety in the course of their adaptation and survival in accordance with the complex social systems. The demands of the complex social life often become stressful for the individual.
Moreover, there is also the natural process of decay and disease. The natural and social demands often persuade an individual to seek for a peculiar state of mind which remains untouched by the anxieties and suffering of normal life-cycle. The viscidities of normal social and personal life make some individuals to seek for a state of mind that may be called “enlightenment”.
However, the concepts of enlightenment differ between the Eastern and Western traditions. Eastern traditions see enlightenment as a spiritual phenomenon, while the Western concept seems to relate enlightenment with the acquirement of knowledge. Enlightenment is also an intellectual movement in the European history known as the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. Despite the various strands of Enlightenment ideas of the 17th and 18th century Europe, there seems to be a common theme of, “a drive to break the power of dogmatic religion and throw off the shackles of superstition, appealing instead of the power of reason” (Stokes 93).
Kant famously placed his faith in human reason in his answer to the question of “What is Enlightenment?” with, “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage . . . Sapere Aude! ‘Have courage to use your own reason!’ – that is the motto of enlightenment” (15). Thus, while Eastern traditions see enlightenment as a mystic experience of an individual in the course of spiritual evolution, on the other hand, the Western focus on reason takes Enlightenment away from mysticism.
Enlightenment as a state envisaged in the Eastern traditions is an individual phenomenon. Perhaps, therefore, the phrases “self-enlightenment” or “self-realization” are also used in the Eastern traditions to denote the goal of every individual spiritual seeker. How and when enlightenment dawns upon a person differs from individual to individual. As Kupperman observes, “The Buddha provides only what amounts to a do-it-yourself kit for liberation, so that in the last analysis enlightenment is a matter of individual effort” (40). On the other hand, in the Hindu philosophic system, an individual must possess the knowledge of one’s Atman or real self, “both for enlightenment and for liberation” (Kupperman 12).
However, once an individual has achieved his enlightenment, for him the duality of this world and the other world as well as the stages of enlightenment or non-enlightenment becomes irrelevant. Whether an individual is enlightened or not matters only to others, but not for the person who himself gets enlightened. The individual’s enlightenment, “would seem real from outside – from the point of view of those who still think of the world in terms of distinct individuals and are not enlightened – but not from inside” (Kupperman 14). Thus, even the distinction made between Atman and Brahman becomes meaningless, for Atman becomes Brahman for the enlightened individual.
However, there is also opposition to the concept of enlightenment that transcends all miseries as deception or illusion. Although enlightenment is supposed to vastly expand the individual’s consciousness by getting rid of personal ego, the psychologist Jung who was immensely influenced by Eastern mysticism tried to convince the Hindus that “. . . it is impossible to get rid of the idea of the Ego or of consciousness, even in the deepest state of Samadhi” (Serrano 62-63).
Even the Western concept of Enlightenment that celebrates the triumph of human reason and rationalism has been criticized as deception. The European Enlightenment superiority promoted more sophisticated violence and warfare, along with the call for democracy and personal freedom increased bureaucratic control over the individual, the natives’ control over natural resources were robbed off in the name of free trade, and exploitation of the native population took place through the spread of European colonialism in Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas.
Even in the postmodern era of the 20th and 21st century, Foucault feels the need to re-investigate Kant’s question of “What is Enlightenment?” observing that, “From Hegel through Nietzsche or Max Weber to Horkheimer or Habermas, hardly any philosophy has failed to confront this same question, directly or indirectly” (103). Foucault further warns not to confuse Enlightenment with “faithfulness to doctrinal elements” (113). Similarly, justifying Hesse’s model of aestheticism devoid of ideological dogmatism, Dollimore observes “In short, the Second World War confirmed, for many, the bankruptcy of Enlightenment humanism . . . not just of its inability to prevent barbarism, but its complicity with it” (39).
Thus, while the proponents and followers see enlightenment as a liberating phenomenon, critics claim the idea of enlightenment itself to be illusory and deceptive.