Like many important words in the language the word Enlightenment has acquires a variety of connotations. Two important meanings of the term refer to states of awareness and actions based on that awareness in two entirely different contexts: in the spiritual-religious realm and in worldly practical life. The first is important in one’s spiritual life; the second in one’s status as member of a society and of the world. Enlightenment of the first kind is of interest and significance for the individual. That of the second kind is of enormous import for societies, nations, and the world community at large. But both play central roles in the world today.
In the midst of the myriad problems facing the world today, some of which have the potential for catastrophic upheavals in the political, moral, and physical status of humanity, there are very few hopes that light up the pervasive gloom in the human condition. Different people and different groups entertain a variety of hopes, and many offer solutions to the problems we are facing. One of those hopes is that the vision of the Enlightenment will come within reach and inspire large numbers of people.
In order for this to happen people should have some idea as to what constitutes Enlightenment. That is what we shall try to do briefly in this in this chapter. The related questions of of the history of the Enlightenment, how to achieve it, how to propagate it, and how to establish it in the world at large will be taken up in other chapters.
But first it is important to distinguish between two important and quite unrelated meanings of the word. One refers to the new awakening in knowledge, worldviews, and methodologies that emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This is the meaning in which we shall be using the world in this book. The term is used in the second meaning in the context of certain spiritual disciplines in the Hindu-Buddhist framework. This is a powerful and widely adopted goal in life for many people, but we will not be concerned with it in this book. Given that we live in a multicultural world, it should be of some interest for modern readers beyond the Indic cultural framework to have some idea of this other significance of the term. The Sanskrit word for Enlightenment is bodhi. From this is derived the word for one who is enlightened, or more exactly one who has attained true Enlightenment: namely Buddha. In other words, the founder of the religion was Buddha, the Enlightened One, and the goal of the religion is to enable its adherents to the enlightened state. Thus a Buddhist is one who has either already achieved Enlightenment or is striving for that goal.