Q. How can you tell if someone who claims to be enlightened really is so? The past several decades have shown countless gurus and spiritual teachers to have feet of clay, and even though the myth of the all-wise, God-realized guru has taken a knock in recent times, and spiritual seekers are more cautious than they used to be, there are still many teachers around today who either say or imply that they are enlightened. How can you know if they are genuine or blind leaders of the blind?
A. If you are actually asking how do you know if a teacher is qualified to teach then I would say that you don't need to be enlightened to be a spiritual teacher. If that were the case there would be very few spiritual teachers. But often the best teacher is someone not too far ahead of the student, someone who can share in their difficulties and identify with their problems from his or her own recent experience. You don't need to be enlightened to be a competent spiritual guide and to know the fundamental mechanics of the path.
But if you are asking for some kind of sign which will enable you to recognise full spiritual realization then I must tell you that there is none. Or, at least, there is no infallible test available to an ordinary person using ordinary means. You might think that the peace you feel in a teacher's presence is a good indication that they are the genuine article but being the genuine article does not mean you are enlightened, besides which people can imagine peace because of a pleasant atmosphere, uplifting surroundings or the reverence with which a teacher is treated by his disciples. Feelings, either yours or those of others, cannot be a reliable guide unless you are absolutely clear where they come from and what they are based on.
Ultimately only one enlightened person can truly recognise another. Until then we have to rely on common sense and intuition. If a person does not behave in a way appropriate for a true saint they are not enlightened. You can forget all the crazy wisdom nonsense. Whatever powers they might possess (or appear to), whatever knowledge or wisdom they might have, whatever their apparent authority or oratorical ability, if they do not embody true love and humility they are not enlightened. And even if they do possess such qualities that does not necessarily mean they are enlightened either because real enlightenment is not just a matter of insight or understanding or even love, as these are understood in human terms. It is not just a question of perceiving the non-dual background to life or realizing that all is consciousness. There are many stages on the path that are often imagined to be its conclusion but the fact is that true enlightenment is rare and hard to attain now as much as ever. It is so because it requires the complete transcendence of identification with self which is not a theoretical or even an experiential thing and which does not come about as a result of knowledge or through meditation (even though these are essential), but as a result of purification and sacrifice, and is usually only achieved through suffering which is the one fire that burns out ego though that is not a very popular thing to say nowadays.
Enlightenment means illumination which tells us that light is the key here. An enlightened person is someone in whom the light shines. The light can only shine clearly when all impediments to it have been removed, and the reason for spiritual practice is to remove these blocks which manifest in the form of self-centred feelings, bad habits, attachments, thoughts based on ignorance and the residue of past actions springing from these which have left their mark on us, stamped into our aura as it were. The spiritual path relates to the cleansing of the aura which is why the ennoblement of the imagination is so important. Only a thoroughly purified and completely refined aura can receive the grace that bestows enlightenment. There is no enlightenment without this grace and yet, while we can never achieve enlightenment through our own actions or efforts, nor can we receive grace without making extreme spiritual efforts which are necessary to purify the mind and prepare the vessel.
In truth it doesn't matter too much if someone claims to be enlightened (possibly in good faith because they genuinely believe they are) but isn't. It matters in the sense that they are spreading illusion but the spiritual path is a learning process for all of us and we learn from making mistakes, both the person claiming and those who might believe the claim and take that person as a guide. The fact is that the whole concept of enlightenment and liberation has moved into the public domain, as it were, over the last few decades. There are bound to be many misunderstandings and incomplete understandings (as the Masters said, there are many teaching half-truths at present) as what was esoteric becomes externalised, but these all serve to help us sharpen discrimination and move us on to the next step. What we eventually come to understand is that the search for enlightenment and the concern with it as a goal indicate an attitude to spirituality that has yet to ripen properly. It is far better just to seek to coordinate your being to the truth of the universe and serve that truth in whatever capacity you can. Then wait for the light of grace, the light that brings enlightenment, to descend in God's good time.
You ask about those who claim to be enlightened. Of course, it's a truism that only those who aren't will make such a claim, and because that is now well known all sorts of entertaining word games are played. But I would say this. Don't worry about the enlightenment or otherwise of a teacher. If you are drawn to someone then learn from them. If you have doubts, stay away. Doubts may well mean it's time to move on and go to the next level. Nowadays when all the mystical teachings of the past are available at the click of a mouse there are many dispensing a wisdom that is not their own, not fully integrated anyway, but, as the Masters said, they are doing work at their level. They may well be over-estimating what that level is but those who can benefit from their teachings will do so and those who find nothing for them there can go elsewhere.
I would like to conclude with this thought which might explain some of the mistaken claims to enlightenment. Enlightenment is not just the realization that one is pure, silent awareness beyond all phenomena, as is sometimes taught. This state can be attained without grace but, elevated as it may appear, it must finally be seen as a one-sided view of existence that resembles a retreat to the pre-lapsarian state of oneness with God/the Self, and which negates the whole point of the journey through matter and form. True enlightenment is the full integration of being and becoming in the individual soul at the expense of neither. It is not a rejection of becoming for being alone but the bringing of the two elements of reality into perfect harmony. It is the union of spirit and matter, life and form, and not the denial or negation of the one in order to assert the other though, to be sure, there must be complete recognition of the place of each in the hierarchical scheme of things. Enlightenment is the realization that one is the Universal Self but this realization can only take place in the context of a fully individual soul. The individual and the universal are the two equally necessary sides of the coin of enlightenment.