Is enlightenment learnable? (In a less loaded formulation: Can all people be happy?) My answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’. Before we go further, we need to be clear what exactly this sentence says: enlightenment is not, say, the result of some genes (that explains why we get molars and not tusks, for instance), nor is it a law of nature (that explains why, say, water boils when heated and does not become gold instead) and so on. While individual psychology (and the combination of the chromosomes in each individual) does have a certain role to play in our lives, they cannot explain why I learnt something (say, English) at all. At best, if we are able to develop our understanding to the extent that we can explain such questions, they could explain why I learnt English slowly or mastered in two weeks’ time. To understand why I learnt English, you have to look elsewhere: at my biography and not into the structure of my genes. However, that I could learn a natural language at all might be explained by evolutionary biology one day. But its explanation, in such a case, will encompass all human beings. It is in this sense that I say that Enlightenment is learnable or that all human beings can be happy. (This is something that out traditions have always taught and I think they are right.)
Why does someone get enlightened by one process (say, doing Sudrashan Kriya for two weeks) and another does not get enlightened (even if he does it for a year)? No one can give an answer to this question because differential learning (that is, individuals learn in different paces, to different extents, and so on) is an inescapable fact of all learning processes. We know this is true; but we do not know how to explain this. When confronted with this situation, one can take many routes: I prefer to take a scientific route.
I formulate a hypothesis that one of the reasons for differential learning has to do with (a) the cognitive strategies used in learning; (b) whether or not what is taught hooks itself to the experience of the student. The deeper I do research into these issues, the more I learn about human beings: (c) I do more refined research into cognitive strategies that are themselves both learnable and teachable; (d) the more I try out different methods of teaching, the closer I come to the different experiences of people and the more I know about them. I have an axiom which I accept as true until the opposite is proved: whatever a human being does can be emulated by another. I might take longer to understand Einstein’s general theory than Arun, but I can also understand it. (It might take me longer; I might not see all the implications…) Nothing that a fellow human being writes is inaccessible to me or to anyone else. It might only take us more work than the other, but, ultimately, I too can understand it. By saying this, I do not mean that I can learn to become a Michael Schumacher or an Albert Einstein. But I too can learn to drive a car and solve some problems in Physics (including understanding the latter’s theory).
Why am I merely a Balu and not an Albert Einstein? No one on earth can answer this question today; I doubt whether it is answerable in the course of the next 1000 years. However, the question does not bother me (partly because I am an Indian, I think). The question about enlightenment is different from this question.
So, let us say, I want to become a Ramana Maharishi or a Dalia Lama. Can I? My answer is, yes, sooner or later. I need to figure out how to go about doing it. Suppose I die before I can complete this task. What then? Here is where what we have learnt in India gives us a surprising result: I have infinitely many births within which to accomplish it. Further, because each birth builds upon the actions of this birth, none of your effort to become enlightened is wasted. You will begin in the next birth where you ended in this life. Ramana and Dalai Lama started many births earlier and that is why they are further ahead of you. What this story about ‘rebirth’ does is to remove the possibility of the emergence of a neurotic anxiety.
Formulating the above in my language: one might want to become happy so desperately that ‘wanting to find happiness’ becomes a neurotic obsession and the possibility of failure generating a neurotic anxiety. The story of rebirth reduces the possibility of such an outcome, while suggesting at the same time that “wanting to be happy is the first step in being happy”. (We do not have to become obsessive about happiness: each one of us can try to be happy and become happy. No one can take this away from you.) This is one of the ways the Indian traditions prevent the possibility of a nervous breakdown.
So, do we need to assume the truth of rebirth? No, we do not. I do not buy the story of rebirth. However, I have the same attitude about time. I will find happiness in this life. I am certain of this because I know that it is possible and that other people have found it.
- Foundationalism and Virtuous Circularity
- Secularization and world views