How do we know, whether one is “self-realized”, or one is merely mistaken/deluded?
Clearly, we are looking for proof. How does one acquire this proof? Proof, says ancient wisdom, can be of 3 types - direct perception or experience, inference and wisdom of someone we trust. Everything in our life is essentially a truth to us based on one or more of these proof types.
Therefore, if wise man of today state that there was a big bang, this knowledge is not available to us through direct perception since none of us can go back in time to witness the bang.
Scientists who doubt this therefore use inference and based on sensible assumptions together with use of equations along with other related data, they have inferred that Big Bang has indeed occurred around 13 billion years ago. However, while even young and budding people who are knowledgeable may question this theory, they have a chance to enhance their knowledge and through their own experimentation, they can also infer the theory of the big bang to their satisfaction.
However, there are other illiterate laymen who cannot acquire knowledge of Physics owing to their own inabilities. People like that therefore have no choice but to accept the theory based on the third method of proof, i.e., trust the words of Mr Stephen Hawking. Underlying this assumption is a belief that Stephen Hawking is a learned man. He must be a wise man and let them therefore accept his statement. There is no alternative left to them though they agree that it is not a wholly comforting position to be in. However, there must be no doubt that the best proof is the proof of direct perception where we get the truth our self - we see the BIG BANG!!!
Coming to the point about consciousness, how does one therefore get proof? Atma, as it is called in Indian traditions, cannot be seen through eyes or heard through ears, etc. Atma is THAT which SEES, THAT which hears, etc. Indian traditions therefore make a claim - ATMA is something that can be realized through Sadhana. One must note that this is a claim and a few people have made a statement that this is indeed true. One need not believe it is true. Either we are interested or we are not interested in this claim. If we are not interested, there is no need to argue with someone who believes this claim. We can move on. However, if we want to explore this statement, we need to start somewhere and we can read books like Panchadasi or Vivekachudamani (commentary by Sri Ranganathananda is wonderful) who have asserted this view. These books were written by people whom the Indian tradition has acknowledged as wise men. However, those wise men themselves have not written something based on hearsay. They have stated that through a process of intense Sadhana, we can perceive the ATMA our self. This Sadhana will however require us to curb the limited mind which is small and ordinary. This curbing does not mean we become mindless but we actually acquire the features of a Universal Mind. Once again, we can dismiss this as mumbo-jumbo and talk only to wise men like Richard Dawkins. However, if we want to explore these claims, we must do the SADHANA our self - maybe we will experience something that will enhance our world view. A true person of science does not dismiss all claims but systematically goes the path of exploration and then accepts or rejects based on his or her own experience. If we have had the experience and failed to achieve, let us share this experience with others so that they can also learn from us. Questioning is very essential but that must be followed by exploration, experimentation or at least a serious attempt to get an answer otherwise mere questioning will be of no particular value. Chinmayananda actually enrolled into Ashrams to prove that all SWAMIS are bogus but in the end, he became a SWAMI himself. Ancient India gives the example of Valmiki to provide a similar example. There are other examples of a vedic pandit Ravana who became the Adharmic Ravana.
If we have proof let us share for the benefit of all so that we benefit. If we do not have anything to contribute today, let us start Sadhana and see where this takes us. If we believe that all of ancient wisdom is bogus, junk it and move on either with or without alternatives.