by Mukeshwar Singh
Contributing Author, Conscious Reminder
Enlightenment or awakening has always been an important concept in all religions, and most particularly in South-Asian religions. These concepts are often explained by words and phrases that are similar-sounding but still different.
When this concept is so familiar to South Asian traditions, then what are the nuances that differentiate one religious concept of enlightenment with the other, and why do these small changes exist.
This is the question that has been on the minds of many theologists for a while now. Here we will discuss what enlightenment stands for in Hinduism and Buddhism and what are the differences that encompass these concepts.
Enlightenment in various religions around the world.
When people use the word “Enlightenment” for the first time, the very first thing that comes in their mind is the “Age of Enlightenment.” It refers to the period of the 18th century in Europe where there were great advancements in art, culture, and rational thought.
This age of Renaissance humanism has gained the term “enlightenment.” In this historical context, it denotes an age of reason and philosophical advancement rather than a religious thought.
In western religious traditions that are dominated by Christianity, enlightenment is missing as a concept. Words like salvation are used more often in biblical texts and church sermons.
Salvation or redemption is the closest concept that one can find between Christianity and enlightenment. Salvation stands for the protection of human beings from separation from God.
It covers areas like how one should spend their lives within the ambit of Christian values, how one can be closer to Jesus, etc. The questions of sin, afterlife, and purgatory are also discussed heavily within the concept of salvation and redemption. Tribal religions also mention the afterlife and reunification with their ancestors.
These traditions focus a large part of their religious practices devoted to seeking ultimate salvation after death. The shamans and godmen in tribal culture are said to have reached higher consciousness by mediation and performing religious rigorousness.
A very loose translation of enlightenment can be “full comprehension of a situation.”It can easily be referred to many Buddhist concepts and terms, most particularly the word bodhi, satori and kensho. These words are found in religious texts written in Pali and Sanskrit.
Similarly, in Jainism, enlightenment can refer to Kevala Jnana which can be defined as a full understanding of divine wisdom. While in Zoroastrianism, it can be expressed as ushta, which is a word for eternal happiness that one seems after they lobotomize themselves from an individualistic sense of self.
Enlightenment in Hinduism
Hinduism is a very large religion. It consists of thousands of texts and many oral traditions that have come within the fold of Hinduism over the last 2,000 years and more.
While it’s impossible to talk about the enlightenment in the entirety of Hinduism, but we can broadly talk about the concept of moksha that is closest to, if not entirely synonyms, with enlightenment.
Before we learn what moksha stands for, one needs to familiarise themselves with a few concepts. In Hinduism, all things and desires of people are categorized into four categories. These categories are made to take an account and a comprehensive view of human conditions and mindsets.
These broad categories are chronologically named as, kama, purushaarthas, artha, dharma and moksha. In Hinduism, moksha is loosely translated as liberation from Maya (Maya stands for worldly desires). It’s believed that once a person attains moksha, they are freed from the cycle of birth and rebirth.
Once they are freed from this cycle, they are also free from the sorrows that come with living a life on earth. Moksha ultimately leads a person to Anand, which is eternal bliss that a person experiences when they are united with the god and their self dissolves. The union of Atma (self) and Brahma or mahatma (god, supreme power) is what comprises of moksha and subsequently Anand.
The concept of moksha or enlightenment is most particularly mentioned in Advaita Vedanta. This subsect of Vedanta started in India in 788 AD and grew up to be the most influential subset of Vedanta, which is one of the six schools of Hindu philosophy. Vedanta means “end of Vedas,” and it seeks its philosophies by condensing Vedas, Upanishads, and other spiritual texts.
Advaita Vedanta believes that one can gain moksha and union with the supreme being by rigorous training, extreme meditation, and good deeds that are performed under the guidance of a guru. This same sentiment was shared by famous Hindu philosopher Swami Vivekananda who said that enlightenment could be attained by observing samadhi, or a state of total concentration.
Renowned spiritual leader and writer, Shri Bansi Pandit, talk about moksha in his book The Hindu Mind: Fundamentals of Hindu Religion and Philosophy for All Ages, and writes, ” The social existence of an individual means for attaining this supreme goal. Since an individual cannot attain moksha without fulfilling his (her) individual and social duties, responsibilities and obligations.” Here the emphasis is placed on good karma as a way of attaining liberation or enlightenment.
Enlightenment in Buddhism
Buddhism is perhaps the first religion that specifically talks about enlightenment as an of aspiration of humankind. There is a central story in Buddhism that explains how Buddha himself got enlightenment or bodh.
In Buddhism, enlightenment can be simply translated as awareness and knowledge or life and the universe and the use of that knowledge for the betterment of the world. The term nirvana is also used for enlightenment in Buddhist traditions. It most closely resembles the Hindu notion of moksha.
Talking about how one can get nirvana, Buddha said, “He who gives away shall have real gain. He who subdues himself shall be free; he shall cease to be a slave of passions. The righteous man casts off evil, and by rooting out lust, bitterness, and illusion, do we reach Nirvana.”
Like Hinduism, it is believed that once a person reaches nirvana, they stop being reborn and freed from the cycle of death and life. Siddhartha Gautama is said to be the first person to gain Nirvana or enlightenment.
After he attained enlightenment, Buddha taught the masses about what he had learned until he died when he was 80 years old. Buddha is said to have gotten bodh (or enlightenment) when he tasted a kheer (milk pudding) given by a girl named Sujata.
The experience of tasting food after long years of rigorous meditation informed Buddha with the philosophy of the middle path that is central to the Buddhist idea of enlightenment. The middle path believes that anything to the extreme is wrong, and everything in moderation is good.
How is enlightenment in Buddhism and enlightenment in Hinduism different?
The concepts of enlightenment in Buddhism and Hinduism are very similar at the onset, but there are differences in their nuances. To put it simply, one can say that in Buddhism, moksha is not the end product of enlightenment.
Here moksha is replaced with vasika, which is sovereignty from influences of the Maya (worldly desires) and the commitment to help others. Similarly, in Buddhism, the concept of eternal bliss or Anand is substituted with nirvana dukkha which means helping the world get rid of its sorrows and grief.
To simplify it, the fundamental difference in Buddhism and Hinduism with regard to enlightenment is about consciousness. In Hinduism, enlightenment ends with a person’s union with the divine, while in Buddhism, consciousness is moving beyond the union with the divine and spreading the enlightenment.
However, at the same time, enlightenment is also not one absolute concept; it is made part of a lifestyle in both religions. The attainment of moksha or nirvana is not an ultimate product but a whole process.
In the words of Buddha himself, nirvana (enlightenment) is explained as, “To attain nirvana while alive, the individual consciousness must become non-existent because then there is nothing left in mind. Then, due to the attainment of nirvana, he becomes immersed forever in Pure Consciousness and the Liberated. One must live out his Dharma for the sake of others.”
The religious or spiritual sects in South East Asia or eastern societies grew very closely and with great collaboration, which is why many of their concepts overlap and even match each other.
In practice, both Hinduism and Buddhism practice a mix of meditative exercises, yoga, a strict lifestyle, and place a substantial value on doing good for society. Both Hindu sadhus and Buddhist monks believe in traditions of ahimsa and generosity, which is manifested in their sermons for world peace, vegetarianism, and compassion.
One should not see these concepts in opposition to each other but rather how the core concepts of most religions are identical in theory and practice. Buddhism did not grow as an independent fringe, and neither did Jainism.
These two old religions developed from the bedrocks of Hinduism and came up with a few ideas that were radically different from Hinduism or other mainstream religions. However, the core concepts of Buddhism and Jainism are heavily inspired by ancient Hindu ideas.