I was asked the other day if there is a difference between being “enlightened” and being “Self-realized”/”Self-actualized” whichever you prefer. And if so, is it wrong to say “I am enlightened.”
Let me deal with the second question first. I see no foul in saying that you have had an experience which has changed you – an experience after which you will never be the same. I think that or a similar statement might be a little easier on the ears of others – who may be skeptical of the whole concept – than “I am enlightened.” But even so, Western Civilization had an entire period in history in which a claim to enlightenment was made, so if an individual were to make that claim I don’t see the harm if it is profoundly sincere.
But it is not the same thing as being a Self-realized soul. Because the capital S suggests a realization of the higher Self. It is essentially moksha, absolute liberation while still in the body. Consider the term “enlightenment” for a second. To me, to become enlightened means that a light has come on, or something that was previously in the dark is now visible. Sometimes such sudden clarity, I’m told, can shuttle a person into instantaneous Self-realization, but the two are not mutually exclusive experiences.
We can say that enlightenment leaves us forever changed, but truth be told, there is always the potential to flutter back and forth from the new state of light to the former hazy state in which we’d lived. Self-Realization is permanent state of Satchitananda.
For another perspective,see “Sahaj Marg.”
To put this into a Vaisnav frame of reference, to compare Enlightenment to Self-realization, one might consider Vaikuntha, the heavenly abode of Lord Vishnu. It is the highest Heaven. Yet in Hinduism, Heaven is not permanent. (This may already appear to be a bad analogy as according to some, Vaikuntha is mearly Vishnu’s resting place, not one to which the currently embodied can aspire to see.) As Enlightenment is like the most heightened state of awareness for the jivan, Vaikuntha is the highest (possible?) abode for the soul still in the cycle of rebirth. Enlightenment may be compared to Vaikuntha if Self-realization is moksha, the ego dissolved into Brahman.
If this does not work for you, then let’s say that Enlightenment is to Self-realization what the coming avatar Kalki at the end of this Mahayuga is to the Dance of Nataraja Shiva which will obliterate all matter on a subatomic level. Kalki is to come at the end of the Kali Yuga to usher in a new cycle. As a friend of mine has often referenced, it has been suggested that Kalki may come in the form of a virus, thinning the herd, destroying the wicked, and whatnot. But the Dance of Shiva would be the end of the current manifestation of the cosmos as we know it.
Even as a Vaisnav, I know no more final dissolution of Being than that to be delivered by Lord Shiva.
Or, as I told my friend who asked me about Enlightenment vs. Self-realization, “Self-realization is a much stronger term.” I hope the two large-scale examples above do well to illustrate the difference.
Of course my own interpretations of Vaikuntha and the Kalki avatar are up for discussion.
Jai Harihara Aum.