What is Enlightenment?

This is the third article in the series on enlightement and self-mastery. In Part 2 of this series, I tackled the issue of why one should go for enlightenment and if it was our choice. In this article, I will discuss what I think enlightenment is.

In the article, Self-Mastery and Enlightenment Demysified, I gave a model and gave a physiological connection to the enlightenment process. In this article, I will elaborate more on this topic and discuss what my idea of enlightenment is.

Further, my friend Jonathan Mead wrote an article titled, “Enlightenment is Overrated.” It is a very interesting article and I suggest you head on over there to read it and other interesting articles on his site. This article picked my interest and I decided to finally write this article and add to or complement his material.

What is Enlightenment

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He has clearly nailed down the misconceptions that people held of what it is to be enlightened. These misconceptions, out of many other reasons, are responsible for the many enthusiatic spiritual seekers being cheated by many false gurus. He also stated what he thought to be enlightenment. His definition is very close to my definition here. A True teacher will point you inward and ask you to improve yourself rather than worship him/her.

To Live In Light

As far as I am concerned enlightenment means “to live in light.” To see everything clearly as it is and not color what is seen by our mental conditioning and emotions. To know in your being, in your every atom, that you are one with everything. Since you are one with everything, you don’t need to indulge in emotional dramas. You are free from emotional dramas, so you can fully, unconditionally, passionately love everything and everyone without expecting anything in return. It does not mean that you don’t have emotions and that you become a stone wall. No, in fact you can feel those emotions even more fully. You can experience true empathy and compassion. If you want to indulge in emotional dramas once in a while, you can make that choice, since you will have control over your emotions. Those emotions won’t have a hold over you.

Definition of Enlightenment

My definition of enlightenment is, “Be liberated from the mentally created emotional attachments and live a life of unconditional love and oneness with everything.” This means that you have gone beyond the state of functioning out of fear of failure or success, or living expecting something to happen in the future. You are living your life completely in the moment, fully experiencing whatever is happening, without mental judgments. I feel that all attachments, whether negative or positive, arise because of judgments. A negative attachment arises because you judge that you don’t like someone or something, and a positive attachment occurs when you make a judgment that you love someone or something. Some people call living in this state, of being liberated from mental attachments and judgments, as Living from the Heart or Heart Centered Living. I call this also as having achieved Self-Mastery. Enlightenment is nothing esoteric.

Buddha’s Renunciation

In the article, “Enlightenment is Overrated,” Jonathan says that Buddha did not lead a monastic life, but lived in the world. We should realize that Buddha tried to escape from the realities of life. He wanted to find enlightenment, and left his wife and son to lead a monastic life. Until he left all the mental attachments, including his attachments to all practices and to his attachment to enlightenment itself, the self-realization did not dawn on him. He realized that the attachment was not physical, but a mental concept. Until we let go of those mental concepts that keep us attached to objects of this world, we cannot truly be detached, we cannot be truly liberated and enlightened.

Story of King Sikhidhwaja

To illustrate this, let me tell you a story, from Yoga Vasishta (pronounced, yOga vaSishTa — see sanskrit transliteration scheme), of king Sikhidhwaja, who wanted to be enlightened. Yoga Vasishta is part of the great epic Ramayana (pronounced, rAmAyaNa) in which Vasishta, the preceptor of Rama (pronounced rAma) taught him about enlightenment. Vasishta told Rama the story of king Sikhidhwaja in an attempt to persuade Rama not to renounce the kingdom in an attempt to find enlightenment.

Now coming to the story, some guru told Sikhidhwaja that he should be detached from everything to be enlightened. So, he decided that to be detached meant to renounce everything. On a whim he decided to renounce his kingdom and go off to the forest to meditate in order to find the ultimate truth. His wife Chudala (pronounced, cUdAla), an enlightened being herself, tried to dissuade him from renouncing everything. She tried to convince him in every possible way that one should not shy away from one’s responsibilities and why physical renunciation is not the way to go about it. However, not realizing that his wife was an enlightened soul, he only saw a woman well adorned in gold ornaments and enjoying a royal life. He did not realize the level detachment in her. Unconvinced by his wife’s advice, he left the kingdom and all the wealth to his wife and went off to the forest wearing saffron robes. He built a nice little hut for himself, with a nice wooden cot to sleep in, and a few vessels he could eat in.

He told himself, “Now that I have renounced the kingdom and all the wealth, I can meditate and be enlightened.”

However, he kept thinking of his wife and kingdom without being aware of it. To his frustration, he did not make any perceivable progress toward the so called enlightenment.

He thought, “It may be because I am still sleeping comfortably enough on a wooden cot. Duh! How could I not see this! My attachment to the cot is causing this problem.”

He threw away the cot and started sleeping on the floor. Still nothing happened. His mind was still wandering. He gave up his hut and started sleeping outside in nature. He gave up his copper vessels and started eating on leaves. But, nothing happened. Finally, he became very helpless.

He felt, “I renounced everything and nothing happened. No enlightenment. I am feeling the same as I felt when I was a king and rich. What do I do? I am helpless.”

Being an enlightened sage and connected with the entire universe, his wife Chudala sensed his predicament. Using her powers or siddhis she took the form of a male sage named Kumbha Muni and appeared before Sikhidhwaja who was a mental and emotional wreck. All the experiences he had in the forest cleansed his mind, and he was mentally and physically exhausted. So, he was ready to listen. After a long discussion between them, Sikhidwaja came to realize that the seat of illusion was the mind and not the object that was being perceived. The attachment was created by the thoughts upon physical contact with the objects of the world and not the objects themselves. He realized even though he had given up everything physically, he never gave up the thoughts that bound him to those objects. He realized that the state of enlightenment was the state of detachment to those thoughts that bound him to the objective world and that was the true liberation.

Thus, enlightened he went back to his kingdom and ruled it for many years along with his wife, with unconditional love, and passion in everything he did. When he ruled thus the kingdom flourished more than ever before.

Enlightenment is a State of Being

Enlightenment is, therefore, a state of Being, nothing esoteric, your true nature, wherein you are free from constricting mental concepts that create attachments to thoughts that bind you to the objective world.

I hope that this article picked your interest and helped in your contemplation. What is your definition of enlightenment? After all everything is a model until we experience it by ourselves; after that there is no need for any model.

14 Responses

  1. Hi Desika,

    Thank you so much for linking me here, I truly appreciate your support.

    Also, it’s true what you said. After experiencing Enlightenment, there is no longer a need for any model. As Hui-Neng said “Nothing, from the first”


  2. Desika,

    Welcome back! Your article is a spark to thought. Rather than try to put something in my own clumsy words, let me link to an excellent article by Swami Nirmalananda Giri explaining the concept of enlightenment in the Bhagavad Gita: Union With Brahman.

    It is good to explore various concepts and teachings on enlightenment, and go with the one that our illumined intuition resonates with.

  3. Hi Jonathan: You are very welcome! I appreciate your support, too.

    Hi ReddyK: Thanks. I really appreciate the link. There is so much information in that article that it will take me sometime to study which is a good thing. I am also of the view that enlightenment of a person is his internal state and others cannot know it. For me enlightenment is only the first step in our evolution on our eternal journey to merge into Brahman. As always, you give me great food for contemplation.


  4. Anu says:

    Welcome back. A very interesting and thought provoking article. I haven’t come across the story of Sikhidhwaja before so enjoyed reading that as well. The line that “……that the seat of illusion was the mind and not the object that was being perceived.” is something to contemplate about.

  5. Anu,

    Thanks. You are very correct about the sentence you quoted. It is something that I have been contemplating of late and also about “letting go” and “surrender.”

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment.


  6. manoj saranathan says:


    I think in all these discussions esp. of enlightenment, it is good to recall nAgarjuNA’s dialectic of the tetralemma. He uses (in one instance) the example of a house with 4 walls- the first wall to be torn down is the “I”. the second is the “not I”, the third is “both I and not I” and the fourth “neither I nor not I”. He uses this powerful dialectic, essentially a deconstructionism, so we don’t get trapped in the illusion that we know something or even there is something to be known not to omit the knower-known dualism. The same is true of enlightenment too- the moment someone puts his finger down and says this is it, it no longer is and the tetralemma destroys further refuges which the clever mind can seek. The Buddha also never enunciated or described clearly these things- atman, nirvana precisely because he understood the language trap. So (one of) the etymology of nirvANa from the root “to extinguish” makes more sense in that it is not a state or something to be achieved so much so as shedding delusions and ideas, a classical definition by not defining !!

  7. Hi Manoj,

    Hope you are doing well.

    You are exactly right. Enlightenment is nothing be achieved, but it is already there. We just need tear down the walls. This is what to me liberation or enlightenment means. Liberation from the box we have created for ourselves through our emotions and suffering. What you described essentially is the “Jnana Yoga” path.

    All techniques/paths eventually lead to the path of Jnana (and Bhakthi) only, since Jnana and Bhakthi are one and the same. As you know this state of bhakthi is not the same as doing rituals.

    I agree with you that words cannot describe that state. However, all you can describe is the way it shows up through the personality, because the personality (or ego) in my opinion becomes more expansive (not inflated). This also has profound impact on the physiology and emotional states of the person. We can only describe these side effects, but not the state itself. As you said Buddha remained deeply silent, when his disciples asked him to describe God. In that state thoughts may come and go but he was anchored in the source of those thoughts and that source could not be described, but only felt as deep silence. This is what he pointed to through being silent. That is probably one of the reasons why he was misunderstood by his own followers and was called a Nihilist. There was another instance when Buddha supposed to have given a silent sermon by holding up a flower and just gazing at it. After some time only one of his disciples, MahAkashyapa, got it and started smiling.

    I agree with you, when you label the state, it is gone. Mind (which is the story of me, arrived at by linking all the random thoughts and emotions) can only capture the past and not the present moment.


  8. Beautiful article, Desika. Enlightenment is an available state – not something we have to become or do. It’s all about recognizing our true identity, enjoying this world without attaching to it.

    Very inspiring!


  9. Hi Andrea,

    I am happy that you enjoyed the article.


  10. dontmatter says:

    enlightenment dont exist


  11. Mits says:

    “Enlightenment is, therefore, a state of Being, nothing esoteric, your true nature, wherein you are free from constricting mental concepts that create attachments to thoughts that bind you to the objective world.”

    What a load of non-sense your missing the point completely! If your supposedly enlightened and don’t already know it, then what is the point or the need to go search for this damn thing, it really makes no sense. From a perspective it looks like it’s just a trap that means you don’t do anything and believe your are enlightened so you really don’t go after it with your heart and being.

    Enlightenment is the realization that your spirit and none other than “HE” (god) and not a mere mortal as it seems. To be brutally honest my search has taken me over 10 years and it finally happened, I was just a caterpillar before this now I am a butterfly. What your saying is far from truth as I have experienced it so far, plus mental concepts and attachments have nothing to do with enlightenment!

  12. Dontmatter,

    Everyone to his/her own.


  13. Mits,

    The light is already there. If it is not already there and you need to obtain it from somewhere anew, then it is not eternal and you may again loose it. That is why it is called, “Self-discovery,” not “self-invention.”

    If you read my article carefully, you will notice that I did not say that everybody was enlightened already, but I said that the light is already there, but obscured by attachments to thoughts, emotions, etc. The effort is needed to remove that veil or go beyond the veil in order to enter the light — en-light-enment.

    Ramana Maharshi said that the main hindrance is believing that you are not enlightened, meaning that the light of the divine is not within you already. His approach was to already believe or at the least assume that the light is already there and then strive to remove the veil. This is the same when it is said, “aham brahmasmi” (I am Brahman) or “tat tvam asi” (Thou art that).

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment.


  14. Gaining spiritual enlightenment is ultimate goal of life as a human being! Realizing we are a pure soul atman… the spirit within is essence of spirituality. Spiritual enlightenment is reached via path of sacred Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism… the doctrine given to mankind by Lord Krishna about 3600 years before now! Spiritual enlightenment can never be gained via path of religion (path of rituals)!