Psychological Traits and Enlightenment: Ignorance and Knowledge

About the relationship between scientific knowledge and enlightenment: If every human being can become enlightened (at any time, place or culture), it logically follows that some or another hypothesis about the world cannot be a requirement to become enlightened. People were enlightened (in the past) without possessing knowledge that humankind has today; one can become enlightened without being a physicist or a geneticist; one can believe in the existence of ghosts and spirits and still be enlightened… and so on. In the same way one can seek and find enlightenment while believing that human body is composed of five sheaths, one can also become enlightened by dismissing the idea of five sheaths as a false and primitive belief. There is, however, a caveat that ties knowledge to enlightenment. Perhaps, a contemporary example would help here.

John Bowlby, a psychologist from yesteryears, proposed the idea that ‘attachment’ is very crucial to healthy human development. Today, apparently, this idea is becoming very popular both in developmental and child psychology and in other domains. The Indian traditions localize precisely this ‘attachment’ as one of the biggest sources of human misery and suffering. Question: which of these two claims is scientific, i.e. which of the two is knowledge? If you go with Bowlby ( or with the variations to this idea) and believe in its truth, the likelihood that you will become enlightened is very, very low. Thus, knowledge question becomes crucial here.

Enlightenment, in this sense, is tied to knowledge and ignorance. In the simplest possible terms: absence of information about the world (defining knowledge as information about aspects of the world) is not a problem in of itself. It becomes a problem, only when it hinders knowledge. If we identify such a state of hindrance as ‘ignorance’, then ignorance prevents enlightenment, where enlightenment is identified as knowledge. The question, therefore, is: under what conditions does ignorance hinder the emergence of knowledge? It is possible to identify some very general conditions. Such conditions, quite obviously, cannot be about this or that specific hypothesis about some or another aspect of the physical world. One could imagine cases where the belief about the constitutive nature of the five elements could hinder a person from seeking or finding enlightenment; cases where it facilitates; and also cases where this belief is entirely irrelevant to the process of becoming enlightened.

About the relationship between psychological traits and enlightenment. There are two different kinds of problems here. The first kind of problems has to do with the way we think and talk about human psychology today. The second kind of problems has to do with the kind of creatures we are. In one sense, you could say that both are issues concerning the relationship between knowledge and ignorance. Again, an example would facilitate.

Consider the fact that your reference to ‘compassion’ (love and compassion are contrasted with anger and greed) suggests that compassion is a ‘good’ (or desirable or valued or however else you want to formulate it) psychological or moral or cognitive trait of a person. This is how we talk and think about human beings today. Consider this question now: what if human beings are creatures of that kind in whom compassion is a ‘bad’ trait? This question is not as crazy as it sounds: Indian traditions develop the idea that ‘compassion’ is a pathological affliction. ‘Kripa’ (or Krupa) arises from a flawed way of dealing with difficult situations, it is a pathological trait and that it has fatal psychological and cognitive consequences for the person. (‘Kripa’ is one of the core elements in ‘compassion’.)  ‘Compassion’, in one way of thinking and talking, is a wonderful virtue: God is compassionate; human beings ought to be compassionate and so on. Many Indians also claim to seek ‘Guru Kripa’, ‘Daiva Kripa’, etc. and think too that ‘kripa’ is something wonderful. What if this is not the case, as Indian texts (like Gita for example) claim? What if ‘kripa’ is a debilitating psychological flaw in human beings? Which of these two conflicting and opposed beliefs is knowledge? Depending on your answer, you can tackle the issue of cultivating some or another trait in human beings.

Claims about enlightenment are claims about the kind of creatures we are. Routes to enlightenment work on human ‘psychology’ (in the broadest possible sense of the word). If colonial consciousness prevents access to experiences, it does so by introducing multiple filters between what we ‘undergo’ in this world and how we transform these into experience. This means that the way we ask questions, think and seek answers about enlightenment is also very deeply ‘contaminated’. Because of this state of affairs, your second question, even though perfectly reasonable, genuine and understandable, is difficult to answer in a satisfactory manner. It can only be answered in a very fragmentary way today: some traits strengthen the process of enlightenment, some others are neutral and yet others hinder. This is a very, very unsatisfactory answer; but this issue can be settled definitively only by knowledge. In the same way doing science (say doing solid state physics or organic chemistry) does not give you an understanding what ‘science’ is, becoming enlightened does not mean you understand what that process or what that state is. In both cases, it is a knowledge issue. Asking questions of the right kind in a right way is crucial to generating knowledge. What Einstein says about ‘science’ might prove insightful in attempting to understand that phenomenon but it is not cognitively ‘authoritative’. The same applies to the Buddha, Nagarjuna, Shankara, Ramanuja, Vallabha, etc.

In short: when asking questions about enlightenment and seeking answers to them, please do not forget to think about your evaluative standards. How are you going to judge the answer? When the Buddha and Bowlby put across opposing claims, what are you going to choose, how and why? When I raised this question with a professional psychiatrist (an NRI, who is also a ‘sadhaka’ like many people I have met and heard, who also believes like many others that he accesses only a tiny fragment from that ocean of wisdom), he said that he prefers the Winnicottian formulation to Bowlby’s and that one set of claims have to do with the practice of clinical psychology and psychiatry and the other set is about the ‘spiritual’, the ‘mystical’ and the ‘adhyatmic science’. He believes that the ‘Indian wisdom traditions’  have little or nothing to with ‘science’ (and its fetishism) but with ‘the truth’ that is invisible to ‘modern science’. (Even though, in a very specific sense, he is right about a part of his statement, his reasons will only hinder his ‘sadhana’.) The routes are thus set up in the contemporary world. Choose with care.