Enlightenment and Empowerment: How the West Sees Them Differently

Updated on July 1, 2017
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Trying to apply Western understanding to Eastern thought can be challenging, as in the case for “enlightenment and empowerment.” In the Eastern psyche, enlightenment and empowerment are the cause and effect of a new personal awareness or consciousness. They are considered as two integral parts of one learning process for self-knowledge. In the East, you cannot experience empowerment without first becoming enlightened spiritually, and psychologically, as well. However, in the West, enlightenment and empowerment are oftentimes two distinctly unrelated concepts. Western postsecondary education can be viewed as enlightening because of its emphasis on critical thinking and the sciences. Additionally, Westerners can be empowered by law, literature, media, celebrity, politics or spirituality, oftentimes without enlightenment. It is interesting to see how similar dictionary definitions are in the Eastern and Western versions, yet still be understood so differently. How could the same words have such different meanings?

The West’s Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “enlightenment” as an 18th century European movement that promoted science and reason above tradition and religion.[1] It was the Age of Reason, The Enlightenment, a period which lasted from the late 1650's through the mid-1800's. The East's HinKhoj dictionary for the Hindi language defines “enlightenment” as an “education” resulting in clarity and understanding, without ambiguity.[2] A spiritual quality is also included. A more detailed definition can be taken from the Hindu and Buddhist perspectives. Enlightenment is defined as the beatitude that transcends the cycle of reincarnation; and, is characterized by the extinction of desire and suffering of the individual consciousness.[3] This basically means that personal enlightenment will free you from suffering in this world and the next. This spiritual quality adds a new dimension to the word that the West simply does not comprehend or believe. Therefore, when introducing concepts such as enlightenment for personal development seminars, meditation groups or humanities classes, one must be mindful of the fundamental difference in meaning of enlightenment between the two cultures. Empowerment, on the other hand, does not seem to have such a profound difference in meaning between the East and the West, even though it too has a spiritual dimension.

Interestingly, the word “empowerment” has similar meanings in both the Western and Hindi dictionaries. The Merriam-Webster describes “empowerment” as the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in the controlling one’s life or one’s rights. Legal rights are given or granted by a power of authority.[4] In the HinKhoj, “empowerment” is an act of conferring some form of legality.[5] Empowerment in the Hindi language is also a legal state or status, like in the West. Power is being granted to an individual by an entity or person in power. This form of empowerment is then understood by both the East and the West as an act of making someone powerful. However, power does not always involve legalities. The Eastern difference in empowerment, like enlightenment, also has a spiritual component. That spiritual component, of course is spiritual enlightenment. But, this relates to personal development. And, the authority to bestow such empowerment comes from the enlightenment given by the gods or the mind. In this case, empowerment and enlightenment are so closely connected that it would be self-defeating to try to separate them.

All in all, trying to fit an Eastern concept such as enlightenment-empowerment into Western thought can be tricky without acknowledging the spiritual component. Where enlightenment and empowerment are part of a whole in Eastern culture, they are two distinct concepts in Western culture. Therefore, it would be best to keep in mind the two distinct cultural approaches when introducing the enlightenment-empowerment concept in your meditation, life coaching or humanities classes.


[1] Merriam Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/enlightenment

[2] HinKhoj Dictionary, http://dict.hinkhoj.com/enlightenment-meaning-in-hindi.words

[3]HinKhoj Dictionary, http://dict.hinkhoj.com/enlightenment-meaning-in-hindi.words.

[4] Merriam Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empowerment

[5] HinKhoj Dictionary, http://dict.hinkhoj.com/hindi-dictionary.php?word=Empowerment&ie=UTF-8.

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