Enlightenment is a term that has been used throughout the history of modern spirituality and is also used in other fields of knowledge, such as philosophy and psychology. According to the Vedic tradition, what does this word mean and where does it come from?
If we look at the various uses of the word, we can get a general idea of its meaning. Although there is a connection as to its usage, it is not enough to define a single meaning for the word “enlightenment.”
- Colloquially, an enlightened person is someone who is special, who shines and who stands out. It may be a talented, charismatic person or simply someone who is privileged within a social group.
- Religiously, an enlightened person is someone who has “divine attention”, a “light” as a blessing that allows her/him to do things that others do not do or that affords her/him above normal human abilities. In some religious groups, there are the so-called “light beings” that can be associated with the term “enlightened.”
- Philosophically, an enlightened person is someone who is able to submit his/her intellect to understand the point of view from someone who is better informed. This can occur in any relationship provided there is a gap of knowledge, for example, as in a doctor-patient relationship.
- Psychologically, it is acceptable to say that an enlightened person is an emotionally mature person who has the ability to deal with his/her emotions and his/her past.
Although there are several lines that can differ among each other in all these fields of knowledge, the concept of an enlightened person expresses the idea of a “special” person, within the context being used, be it in a worldly or divine ability.
It is appropriate to say that everyone is free to use the term whichever way is most suitable. When analyzing this word, our objective is to understand its many uses and compare it with its perspective as found in the Vedas.
In the Vedic tradition, the term “the enlightened one” comes from the translation of the word “Buddha”. This word comes from the root “budh”, which means to know, therefore literally speaking “Buddha” means “the one who knows”, or in other words “the wise one.” The leap from “the wise one” to “the enlightened one” occurs indirectly, given that it is common in the Vedas and colloquially to associate knowledge with light and ignorance with darkness. The word “guru”, which refers to a teacher, means “one who removes darkness”. Therefore, the wise one who has knowledge is “enlightened” because he has the “light”, which is knowledge. Within the context of the Vedas, considering that the subject is self-knowledge, the enlightened one is the individual who has knowledge of the self. This is the classic definition of the word enlightened and the etymological origin of the word “Buddha”.
With the spread of Buddhism, this term became popular with an alternative meaning. Buddha became known as “the enlightened one” and the purpose of his spiritual path was called enlightenment, associated with an experience achieved through meditation.
Despite the fact that the Vedic tradition recognizes “Buddha” and his divine nature, there are speculations that his teachings are probably different from what is now known as Buddhism, because there are two basic differences between the enlightenment concept defined by the Vedas and the concept spread by Buddhism in terms of spiritual attainment.
The first difference is in the nature of the enlightenment or liberation as it is also called. According to the Vedas, enlightenment is the very nature of the individual and not something that can be achieved in time and space. A state or an object that is obtained in time and space is limited by nature because it is a product of a finite action, such as meditation or a ritual. It is not conceivable that through a limited cause one can obtain a limitless product or limitless state. Therefore, given this logic, it is not acceptable to say that enlightenment or liberation is definitive, since it is a product of actions carried out in the world – without mentioning that our experience in the world also runs contrary to the idea of an eternal state or place. Our experience tells us that everything that is obtained within time and space will likewise be gone within time and space. Therefore, the first difference is the fact that enlightenment cannot be a state, because it is finite and this impossibility of an “infinite state” is also supported by logic as well as our experience.
The second difference is the “path to enlightenment”. This difference is a natural consequence of understanding the first. After we realize that what lies behind the concept of “enlightenment” – as proposed in Buddhism or even the concept of “paradise” according to other religions – is something that is eternal, permanent, blissful or, in other words, eternal, the path to achieving this objective cannot be a combination of actions, whether it be meditation, helping others or any other type of action. Irrespective of the fact that they have an extremely important role in a person’s spiritual path, we must admit that neither such actions, nor the combination of any of them, can produce something eternal, because eternity does not begin. If it has a beginning, it is not eternity and everything that begins comes to an end. Eternity is forever.
This second point is very important because it is not enough to know what the objective is, if one does not know how to obtain it. Despite the fact that one cannot obtain eternity or plenitude through action, there is still a possibility that people generally do not explore. Every search for an object occurs when we do not have the object of desire or when we do not know that we have the object of desire. If we really lack what we desire then we need to go after it, but sometimes one already has what one seeks and, in this case, one does not need to go after it. Just like the “lost pen” that was in my pocket the whole time, we can spend a lifetime looking for the “darn thing” that we will not find until we look in our pocket. Thus, we cannot find eternity in time or enter a state of eternal liberation. However, if eternity exists, it will also have to be at the present moment; thus, all that is needed is knowledge. The type of knowledge that can thoroughly explain the experience that is taking place at this very moment.
Therefore, according to Vedic tradition, enlightenment is not a state, but the very nature of the individual and, given its unlimitedness, this nature cannot be achieved in time or space: it is obtained through knowledge. The Vedas stand as a means to obtain this knowledge, when administered by a teacher trained for this purpose. All asana and meditations practices, as well as a life of yoga, serve as a means to prepare for such knowledge.
Does the need for a teacher add a human value to the process that may compromise the ultimate truth?
Actually, it is just the opposite, the teacher is not someone who gives his/her own interpretation of the text s/he is merely someone who understood it and is passing on the information to another. In order for learning to occur, one needs to let go and surrender beliefs about oneself, which is not possible to do with a book.
However, every human being is born with the capacity to surrender to another, and through this archetype that knowledge is passed on – and not to someone who is studious, intelligent and wants to solve the universe’s problem and control everything around him/her in order to be happy. The pupil-teacher relationship protects the tradition allowing people to drop this “old shell” to hear what the Vedas have to say and not try to interpret it in light of his/her own ignorance.
Moreover, if that is not enough to understand the need for the teacher, we can rest assured that nothing will be compromised due to the very nature of the knowledge we are seeking. We are looking to be complete, to be free – and completeness is not subject to perspectives. Therefore, even if the teacher speaks with a different accent and comes from a completely different cultural background, when all is said and done, I am the one who has to be whole and free. Thus, no one can fool us: we may be incomplete, limited and “sinners” in many ways, but completeness allows for no variations – if not for the fact, after all, that it is complete!
Finally, when we understand the Vedas as a means of knowledge, only by using it with the attitude and sincerity of someone who seeks an answer can we validate it as true or false. Just as logic can be applied employed to understand all the principles of how to operate a telescope, it is only when we use it that we will know perfectly well if we can see the stars.
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