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Enlightenment - What It Means

By D. R. Sharma

We are in an age where chaos has become ubiquitous. Take any area of human activity and things seem to be drifting toward hopelessness and disorder. Nature itself appears to be on a path of degradation and even if it were attributed to human activities, the fact and the trend remain unchanged. Perhaps all this can be traced back to the change in human nature itself.

When things go bad in life people have a tendency to look up to the Divine and that may be a reason for the notion of spirituality becoming more in vogue these days. On a spiritual path the main objective is to make oneself progressively a better person and the ultimate goal is enlightenment. However, in the minds of most people spirituality is connected with religion and they tend to understand it according to their background and conditioning. Enlightenment therefore is commonly thought of as realizing God. The concept of God differs from religion to religion and different people also see enlightenment in different ways.

The word spirituality comes from spirit that is highly individual and as such it has really nothing to do with religion. Enlightenment is a state attained by an individual, in which he knows the spirit in him in the true sense. This is why it is also known as self-realization. The word literally means "having seen the light" or "having the light shine on."

The word always brings in mind examples of enlightened ones. One that comes to mind immediately is Buddha whose name itself is synonymous with the word. Buddha himself never believed in God, although his followers later on relegated him to that very status. His enlightenment amounted to knowing the true nature of man and his life, in other words the true nature of the spirit. And that was self-realization.

In this phenomenal world man usually identifies himself with the body that has name and form. But man is not just the physical body; he has other aspects of his existence that are collectively called the astral body. The physical body is just a vehicle through which he functions in this world. The real he is in the astral body and it is this realization that is enlightenment. In this state a person transcends the limitations of the physical body and becomes aware of his full potential.

It is an unfortunate fact that most people do not think for themselves. They always need someone else to think for them and guide them. This results in a 'follower' mentality. It is bad enough in politics but worse in spiritual matters. Added to that is another fact of life in modern societies - commercialization of anything that comes along. So we have any number of spiritual teachers who are ready to help one develop spiritually, including finding God and enlightenment.

As stated above, self-realization is a highly individual endeavor and one has to do it alone; one has to start thinking for oneself. This is one activity where only your intuition can be the guide, no one else can guide you no matter who he is. Whenever a person claims to teach enlightenment, it is natural to assume that he himself is enlightened. But a truly enlightened person will have no inclination to proclaim that fact to the world. He is not going to write books and give seminars. Even if done with honest and good intentions, there is always the ego involved in it and enlightenment and ego are mutually exclusive.

There is always a possibility that people will counter this idea giving the example of Buddha. Why the enlightened one went around giving sermons and attracting followers? But Buddha had killed his ego-centrism and all his activities arose from a burning desire to help man understand his true nature. He never took a penny from his sermons or his followers. He had the true wealth of contentment compared to which all material wealth is as insignificant as a handful of dust. Contentment, which is the cessation of all forms of desire, is a prerequisite for enlightenment.

This brings us to another point about enlightenment. Does one have to renounce everything in the world as Buddha did? The answer is no. A person can become enlightened living a normal life and continue to live in the world as an enlightened one. It is possible to live in this world and still not be tainted by it. The ego is the crucial factor. Even in modern times we have had enlightened persons like Ramana Maharshi and Mother Theresa who lived normal life but reached abnormal heights. (There may be many more who are not well known and perhaps did not even want to be.) As the Zen proverb goes:

Before enlightenment, chop wood carry water
After enlightenment, chop wood carry water.

Dharmbir Rai Sharma is a retired professor with an electrical engineering and physics background.

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