What does it mean to be enlightened? To be enlightened is to have knowledge and awareness, providing insight and wisdom. Who are the enlightened people of the world? Use this as a guide to help you develop your own path and become more aware and enlightened.
How do you define enlightenment? Can we identify the signs of an enlightened person? We posed these questions to members, and they came up with a working definition and examples of those that fit the criteria they outlined.
The list will show you what is possible. You may not gain notoriety and publicity, but that doesn’t mean you can make similar contributions.
What Does it Mean to Be Enlightened?
Positive change-makers are among the enlightened people of the world. There are more than you think. You need to learn how to spot them. To make it manageable, we needed to narrow the scope of our list. So, here are the criteria we use.
1) Objective evidence they were a real person.
2) Lived in the last 300 years.
3) Demonstrate the highest spiritual virtues.
4) Promote progressive ideals.
5) Show the signs of enlightenment listed below.
Signs of An Enlightened Person
It is essential to distinguish between myths, stories, legends, and real people.
The above criteria would exclude all famous historical religious figures of Western religion, such as Jesus of Nazareth, Moses, and Mohammad. There are good reasons for these parameters. Don’t judge truth by its popularity, which applies to all avatars and gods, from Apollo to Zeus. Also, just because you are famous does not mean you are enlightened. It is obvious when we look at other cult leaders like Jim Jones, Joseph Smith, and Donald Trump.
Just because you name a religion after a legendary figure does not mean they were a real person. Nor does it mean the legacy they left was a positive one. There is clear evidence the personalities of organized religion are the composite of anecdotal stories and not the story of a single person who actually lived.
To Be Enlightened is to Be Exceptional
Next, we wanted to identify the attributes of an enlightened person. What does it mean to be enlightened? Here’s is our list of exceptional characteristics:
1) They are exceptional human beings who demonstrate the values of peace and harmony. They are people who promote progressive values, equity, and equality.
2) Possess a high level of Self-awareness and Self-observation.
3) To be enlightened is to be a freethinker, an open-minded intellect who shows deep insight and wisdom in word and deed.
4) Shows kindness, compassion, and friendliness
5) Demonstrate an understanding of Oneness and connection with the less fortunate
6) Reject Commercialism
7) Champion inclusive spiritual values versus sectarian prejudice
8) Shows intuitive and analytical problem-solving ability
Enlightened People of the World
This list is alphabetical by last name or title, not a ranking, so your list may differ. It is meant to provide examples of people who have spoken wisdom and guidance and lived lives with positive values. Apply their wisdom to shape your spiritual path. The signs of an enlightened person are the breadcrumbs on the path. Use their wisdom to help you become a better person. The world needs people who are awake.
Adyashanti — Stephen Gray
Our list of enlightened people starts with Stephen Gray, born October 26, 1962. He goes by the Sanskrit name Adyashanti, which means primordial peace. Best known as an American Zen Buddhist spiritual writer and teacher. He can teach you about personal autonomy, enlightenment, and perception.
Amma — Mata Amritanandamayi
Amma is the Indian term for Mother, born September 27, 1953. She has dedicated her life to helping those less fortunate. She can teach you how to open your heart to understand compassion and love. So, her teachings showcase what it means to champion those less fortunate. An enlightened person does not sit on the sidelines of injustice. Amma is a perfect example of compassion in action. She is a shining light of enlightenment.
Mr. Brand does not shy away from controversial topics, showing that even enlightened beings can make mistakes. Born June 4, 1975. He is an articulate comedian similar to the infamous Don Rickles and his “insult comedy.” Mr. Brand can entertain, insult, and make you think all in the same paragraph. He grew up poor and suffered from drug addiction. He speaks out against social inequity.
Thanks to Bill Moyers, Mr. Campbell’s (1904 — 1987) work made comparative religious study a well-known approach to spirituality. He did extensive research, which he passed along to many students in his classes and millions who have read his works.
If you hear any of his lectures, it is apparent that he speaks not just from personal experience but also a theoretical point of view. When he talks, you hear the vantage point of someone who is a spiritual explorer. When discussing enlightened people of the world, Mr. Campbell’s name always surfaces. He helped us understand the difference between religion and spirituality. His absence in the realm of spirituality is missed.
Mr. Carey was born on January 17, 1962. His life experience runs the whole gambit of the socioeconomic classes. He was homeless but became a famous and wealthy actor. And he is fond of saying; I wish everyone could be rich so they would see money is not everything. He says he has done enough and will retire and live. Stepping aside from celebrity status while at the peak of his film career is one choice that answers the question, what does it mean to be enlightened? Learning what is meaningful in life shows he is an enlightened person.
Carlos Castaneda — Spiritual Explorer and Warrior
Carlos (1925 — 1998) was a writer who brought the shamanic journey into the mainstream because of his training with a Yaqui Indian Shaman. If you wish to gain insight into the beings of shamanism and Sorcery, then Mr. Castaneda can give you a lot of information. His works are sold as fiction, but his work contains a lot of spiritual truths. If you are interested in shamanism, read his books. Find the truth in fiction.
Deepak, born in 1946, is an author and speaker on spiritual and health issues. He is the creator of The Chopra Foundation, a non-profit entity dedicated to researching alternative medicine. He is a champion of humanitarianism. His mainstream appeal has made him a household name.
She was born in 1936, the author of several dozen books on every subject dealing with daily life. She has written on topics from attachment and healing to the beginner’s guide to Buddhism. She is one of the enlightened individuals who exemplifies a dedication to helping others.
Mr. Coelho is a Brazilian novelist born in 1947. He has written over fifty books. His works revisit many ancient myths of religion and spirituality with new twists and turns. Major themes in his work revolve around walking the spiritual path.
Wayne W. Dyer
Mr. Dyer teaches about living your purpose and your dharma while avoiding the trappings of the ego. He taught about the principles of Bamboo, learning to bend but not break. His book, Getting in the Gap, is a modern-day reference for the transcendental state of awareness. He wrote one of the best-selling self-help books of all time, Your Erroneous Zones (1976). This book offers ideas about how to handle negative habitual thinking patterns. He exhibited the signs of an enlightened person in his daily life. Dr. Dyer exemplifies to be enlightened is to be compassionate and insightful.
Ram Dass — Richard Alpert
He was a Harvard professor (1931 — 2019), and then in the late 1960s, he met Maharaj-ji, Neem Karoli Baba, or Neeb Karori Babain. This relationship resulted in a life-changing experience. Afterward, he promoted the use of psychedelic drugs for exploring spirituality. His book, Be Here Now, promoted the concept of presence. He co-founded the Seva Foundation, an organization dedicated to spiritual service.
Mahatma Gandhi — The epitome of an Enlightened Person
Gandhi (1869 — 1944) is an example of a leader with compassion. Gandhi would be included in any inventory listing enlightened people of the world.
He led the effort to stop the rioting in India in 1947. Without his leadership and sacrifices, India would have plunged into civil war. And his political stance helped to pressure Britain to bring independence to India. The life of Gandhi exemplifies servant leadership.
Gangaji — Merle Antoinette Roberson
Gangaji was born in Texas on June 11, 1942. Her spiritual walk began as a social activist. These interests led her to study Zen Buddhism and Vipassana Meditation. Today she is a well-known teacher on a range of relationship topics. She is well-known as an acupuncture practitioner.
Ms. Goodall, born April 3, 1934, is a scientist, investigator, and environmentalist. She documented chimpanzees using tools, which was thought to be a distinctly human skill set. She started as a scientist studying primates, leading to her becoming an activist. When you think about signs of an enlightened person, Ms. Goodall comes to mind.
George Ivanovich Gurdjieff
Born in present-day Armenia (1866 — 1949), he became a world traveler, explorer, and spiritual pioneer. He believed that most people were asleep and needed to be awakened. He used the strategy used to create many religions. He combined and renamed several systems into one of his own.
Carl Gustav Jung
Jung is still one of the most powerful voices in spirituality and psychology (1875 to 1961). He took psychology from mysticism to the realm of valid science. Along the way, he created analytical psychology.
He researched spiritual traditions to find valid techniques for modern psychology. This quest made him enemies within the camps of science and religion. His wisdom survives his adversaries. Jung wrote over 50 books that have been translated into all major languages. His collective works comprise 20 volumes, making them larger than most exhaustive dictionaries. It contains his work with Sigmund Freud. His writings include his investigation of the paranormal.
Mr. Kornfield is a teacher and writer born in 1945 in the USA but has lived in India, Thailand, and Burma. He studied in Thailand under Ajahn Chah and then Mahasi Sayadaw in Burma. Today, he teaches Vipassana and mindfulness meditation.
There is some debate over his exact birthdate. It was 1895 or 1896. Jiddu contracted Miliaria in 1903 and had psychic experiences after that. He sought employment with the Theosophical Society in India, where he met Charles Webster Leadbeater, the headteacher in India. Charles groomed Jiddu to be an Ascended Master or World Teacher. Jiddu left the sect after WW I war and settled in Ojai, California, in 1922 and began his own quest.
He showed that to be enlightened is to never stop learning. He has been in the public domain since his early introduction to the Theosophical Society, writing many articles and books. His first book was written when he was 14, At the Feet of the Master, penned under the Alcyone, a pseudonym assigned to Krishnamurti by one of his mentors. He traveled and gave lectures in the 1960s and 1070s. He succumbed to cancer in 1986.
Mr. McKenna (1946 — 2000) advocated for studying traditional knowledge and using plants and psychotropics. He saw how indigenous cultures used them for medical and spiritual purposes.
His career became overshadowed by his promotion of the “novelty theory,” which he linked to the Mayan calendar, which ended in 2012. Many people believed the world would end. He wrote several books on consciousness exploration aided by Shamanic drums and psychotropic additives.
Mooji — Anthony Paul Moo-Young
He was born in 1954 in Jamaica and migrated to the UK when he was one year old. He currently resides in Portugal. His teachings are appreciated for being inclusive and easy to grasp. Mooji is a disciple of the Advaita master, Sri H.W.L. Poonja or Papaji, and has written about ten books. Mooji is someone who can talk about spiritual things without using jargon. He shows how to live a life of kindness and generosity.
Thích Nhất Hạnh
He was a Vietnamese Thiền Buddhist monk (1926 — 2022). Nhất Hạnh was a teacher, author, and creator of the Plum Village Tradition. In the West, he was known as the father of mindfulness.
Robert Green. Ingersoll
(1833 — 1899) His father was a preacher, so the family moved often. His orthodox Christian family sparked his interest in freethinking. He became a lawyer and leader in the Union Army. He became active in politics, and his liberal thinking and criticism of the Church gave him the moniker “the great agnostic.” His most influential works are the documents of his speeches. He believed man created the idea of God, an unpopular stance for any politician.
David G. McAfee
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
(1844 — 1900) A remarkable mind. At 24, he was the youngest to hold the Chair of Classical Philology at the University of Basel in 1869. Nietzsche resigned in 1879 because of health problems, which persisted for the rest of his life. His writings were not popular during his life because many of his works were published by the 3rd Reich. After WWII, his works were resurrected, influencing philosophy and psychiatry.
His life showed how genius and mental illness are not opposite ends of the spectrum. His sister rewrote his writings after his death, which often contradicted his stances on issues like antisemitism. After later authors restored them, his ideas gained more visibility in the 1950s and 1960s. The threads of his ideas became the shaping forces of philosophy and psychology.
Osho, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh
Osho (1931 — 1990) is one of the most controversial spiritual teachers of the century. He was eclectic in his approach to spiritual exploration and promoted the idea that institutional religions were inferior. His early career was as a professor at the University of India until 1953. He left to travel and began to create his own approach. By the 1970s, the political climate in India began cracking down on independent schools like his. He attempted to set up a community in the rural northwest United States in the 1980s. Netflix did a documentary called Wild, Wild Country. It was a failed attempt to create a utopian community. He underestimated the power of religious bigotry in the USA.
He has an extensive library of writings and recordings, known for interjecting humor into his lectures and works. His teachings ranged from the mind and ego to different processes for meditation. He even provided his own ten commandments.
1 Do not obey the orders of anyone unless it is coming from within you.
2 Life is the only God.
3 Truth is within you, do not search for it elsewhere.
4 Love is prayer.
5 Becoming a nothingness is the door to truth. Nothingness itself is the means, the goal.
6 Life is now and here.
7 Live wakefully.
8 Do not swim—float.
9 Be new in each moment.
10 Do not search. That which is is. Stop and see.
The 14th Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Rinpoche
You cannot create a list of enlightened people in the world without adding the Dalai Lama. He became the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama at two years old. He was chosen by monastic disciples of the order, who identified him by undisclosed spiritual signs and visions. His life proves that some spiritual traditions can be accurate.
Keanu’s name means cool breeze over the mountain in Hawaiian. He has an unusual name for someone born in Berit and raised in Canada. He is a successful actor known for his generosity and random acts of kindness, including making large donations to children’s hospitals. He takes pay cuts for other actors to be a part of the productions. He was born on September 2, 1964.
Sogyal was a Tibetan Dzogchen lama, (1947 — 2019). He revised the Tibetan books of the Dead and Living. He regularly taught at conferences and was known for his sense of humor. His teachings focused on Buddhist philosophy. His career was overshadowed by allegations of the misuse of funds and sexual abuse just before his death.
Ángel Ruiz Macías or Don Miguel Ruiz
Don is an author of Toltec shamanism. His work focuses on ancient teachings as a path to achieve spiritual enlightenment. Perhaps his most famous work is The Four Agreements. He was born in 1952.
Born in Germany in 1948, he is an author and teacher on a wide range of topics in spirituality and psychology. His most popular book is The Power of Now. He also speaks about social issues of inequity and racism.
Paramahansa (1893 — 1952) was one of the first Indian gurus to teach meditation and Kriya Yoga in the West through his organization, the Self-Realization Fellowship.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
If we were to rank these sages based on their wisdom and contribution to society, then Maharishi would be number one. Maharishi (1918 — 2008) was a powerful force in making meditation acceptable in Western culture. He helped millions to learn the simple but powerful technique to reach the 4th state of awareness. Japa, or the Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique, is one mental tool with many health benefits. What is it to be enlightened? You can see it when you read his books or watch hundreds of his videos.
Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev
He is the founder of the Isha Foundation based in India. Born in 1957, he was in the second wave of gurus to teach about awareness and environmental stewardship. Early in his life, he built a poultry farm before selling it to become a teacher. He has written over 30 books. His most successful is Inner Engineering: A Yogi’s Guide to Joy.
She is one of this century’s youngest and most influential environmental activists, born in 2003 in Sweden. She is not afraid to confront anyone about the effects of climate change.
Last but not least on our list of enlightened people is the late Mr. Alan Watts (1915 — 1973). Mr. Watts fancied himself a philosophical entertainer. His career took off when he became a radio broadcast host in Berkeley, California. He studied and taught his brand of Zen Buddhism.
Many of his books and audio recording are still used in popular media. He talked about a wide range of subjects focusing on consciousness and culture. If you want to learn about the impact of spirituality and its collision with religion and commercialism, Mr. Watts can help you sort out the facts from the fiction.
List of Enlightened People of the World
This list shows us what is possible. Many of these enlightened individuals had humble beginnings. Several were destitute and homeless but defied the culture’s conventions to rise above circumstances.
If you find one of these teachers resonates, we suggest reading all their publications. This may be a significant undertaking. Some of these sages have extensive written and audio recordings.