Enlightenment: The Difference Between Eastern and Western Illumination

Tamanna Khosla
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By Tamanna Khosla

NEW DELHI–Knowing others is wisdom, knowing yourself is Enlightenment, Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu had said hundreds of years ago. But what is an Enlightenment? Is it same everywhere, or its meaning changes from East to West? A short answer is that both Western and Eastern enlightenment vary in their emphasis on certain principals.


The Enlightenment was a philosophical movement that dominated in Europe during the 18th century. It was centered on the idea that reason is the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and it advocated such ideals as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state. However, historians of race, gender, and class note that Enlightenment ideals were not originally envisioned as universal in today’s sense of the word.The Philosophic Movement advocated for a society based upon reason rather than faith and Catholic doctrine, for a new civil order based on natural law, and for science based on experiments and observation.

There were two distinct lines of Enlightenment thought: the radical enlightenment, advocating democracy, individual liberty, freedom of expression, and eradication of religious authority. A second, more moderate variety sought accommodation between reform and the traditional systems of power and faith.

While the Enlightenment cannot be pigeonholed into a specific doctrine or set of dogmas, science came to play a leading role in Enlightenment discourse and thought.

The Enlightenment brought political modernization to the west, in terms of focusing on democratic values and institutions and the creation of modern, liberal democracies.

Enlightenment thinkers sought to curtail the political power of organized religion, and thereby prevent another age of intolerant religious war. The radical Enlightenment promoted the concept of separating church and state.


In Eastern philosophies, to become enlightened means to experience an “awakening.” It’s widely held that enlightenment is a state that must be experienced. But politically it is different. It however does not believe in separation of church and state. Have you ever stopped to question if and how you could live a life that was more meaningful?

Do you seek inner-peace, happiness and a sense of fulfillment?

Of course you have! Everyone asks these questions at some point in their lives. The problem for most is they have become to accustomed to the Western way of living!

We live in an age where technology does the thinking for us, where we never really stop and take the time to seek fulfillment and peace.

Essentially we have lost that connection with ourselves, others and even planet Earth and the universe that are the gate-keepers to all life! If you seek a deeper understanding of life, yourself and a deeper sense of spirituality then Eastern philosophy may aid you in your quest.

Eastern philosophy dates back thousands of years and offers a traditional yet for many a new approach to a deeper and more meaningful understanding of life with its unique spiritual approach to self-consciousness and awareness.

It’s not strictly religion based although there are spiritual groups based on these beliefs such as Buddhism. Basically anyone can apply Eastern philosophy in their lives regardless or sex, race, religion or belief system.

One can be a Zen Buddhist by choosing yet  follow no form of religion, I am atheist so to speak. Eastern spiritual practices aren’t mandatory, people can apply theses philosophies and beliefs in their own life at their own choosing and discretion.

The term enlightenment itself is a state of being that very few people actually achieve! Anyone considered to be “enlightened” is said to have experienced a spiritual awakening and to be at a state of content and peace with both their-selves and others.

The Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) was one of few who reached enlightenment and it was from his teachings that enlightenment became more widespread and slowly introduced into the Western world.Many sages in hindu civilization achieved Moksha while being alive. For example Brahma Gyani Ashtavakra, King Janaka.

There are many individuals (including myself) who follow the teachings of the Buddha with the intent and purpose of becoming ever more enlightened.

Walking the path to enlightenment is very much a personal and spiritual journey that is different for everyone. We all have different ideologies of peace and fulfillment which is why Eastern philosophy can aid anyone.

When it comes to applying Eastern Philosophy there are many teachings and practices one can learn but the most widely recognized in the Western world is (in my opinion) meditation and natural healing. Karma also has its roots in Eastern traditions and is likewise recognized in the Western world.

Applying these philosophies in your own life can help you seek that inner-peace, happiness and sense of fulfillment we all desire. Even just a basic understanding of these philosophies can help you live more enriched life.


Both enlightenment in west and east have specific principles which can be exchanged for good. For example there is need for separation of church and state in eastern cultures. Scientificism and rationality are needed for eastern cuktures. . This is not seen important in eastern religions. But eastern religions focus on Moksha or nirvana. Thus enlightenment means different for both eastern and western civilizations.

But eastern cultures need to realize that all castes, class, religion, gender,culture are equal in the eyes of law. This law of equality was realized during enlightenment in western civilization.This has to be borrowed by eastern cultures from west. While west needs to realize that peace realizes not just science. It requires a nice blend of science with spirituality.

Many principals need to be adopted from east to west and west to east.But eastern enlightenment have many schools for example Hinduism and Buddhism. Some may be in agreements with western rationality others may be totally different. So currently what we need is a mixture of west and eastern civilization taking the best from each.

(Tamanna Khosla, an alumni of Lady Shriram College in New Delhi, studied political science. She did her Masters and PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru Universty in Political Theory. She has written three books. One is on Personal Law in India Reconciling Diversity with Gender Equality. Other is on Globalization and Democratic Values. The latest one is on feminist political philosophy. She has taught in Delhi University for several years and has worked as a researcher with WISCOMP and CSR. Currently, she is an independent scholar.)


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