Within all orthodox religious traditions the responsibility of judgment and guidance is placed in the hands of spiritual masters, individuals who have received the wisdom and guidance of similar masters extending back to the origins of the tradition in question. The reception of the revelation from heaven on the part of the original founder is reflected in a two-fold manner in the experience of the spiritual master. The first is the spiritual transmission received through the lineage of teachers which represents a living link to the macrocosmic revelation and the second is the actualization of the microcosmic revelation of the intellect. Both of these conditions, horizontal and vertical transmission of a spiritual influence having its origins within Divinty, indicate the qualification of an individual master.
Of course, even provided with knowledge of the objective qualifications, a certain degree of experience and spiritual maturity is needed in order to determine the authenticity of a master. As in the case of the alchemical work you must essentially start with gold at the outset of the operation through which you may come to create more gold. The most important qualities necessary for the individual in attempting to discern the authenticity of a spiritual master are in my opinion sincerity of intentions and virtue. Sincerity is expressed in this context when a person is desirous of reaching the truth as it subsists in the Divine and is not driven on by the vain glorification of the ego. Virtue is something that is intimately intertwined with knowledge of metaphysical realities, the latter of which cannot be supported without it.
I occasionally like to relate in this regard, the story of Jesus, who in John, Ch. 7, went to teach at the temple during the Jewish feast of the tabernacles. In response to the accusations made against him that he taught a doctrine that was not inspired by God, he replied that “My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” This is to say that virtue or existential participation alone attests to the realization of sacred knowledge and a person who engages such a participation will be able to realize the authenticity of Jesus’ words intuitively through a knowledge carried within himself.
A similar teaching is related by Shankaracharya in the Upadesa Sahasri or A Thousand Teachings. He wrote, “When a teacher finds from signs that knowledge has not been grasped (or has been wrongly grasped) by the disciple, he should remove the causes of non-comprehension which are past and present sins, laxity, … courting popular esteem, vanity of caste, etc.” In other words, all of the deficiencies identified as preventing correct understanding of the doctrine are not concerned with rational understanding but rather are ethical in nature indicating a lack of moral conformity or virtue. This is very clearly summarized in the next passage in which Shankaracharya states, “He should also thoroughly impress upon the disciple qualities like humility, which are the means to knowledge.”
All of this is to say that virtue is necessary for the possession of sacred knowledge and discernment between truth and falsehood. Also, it is a quality that will be found mirrored in the master, but in an exemplary fashion, for the master is the living embodiment of the doctrine that he teaches in the same way that the soul of the Prophet Muhammad – May peace be upon him – is the Holy Quran.
Having examined the means of qualifying internal knowledge or inspiration through recourse to external knowledge or instruction, it is also necessary to examine the means of determining what constitutes an authentic religious tradition. Let us first define the term tradition. According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr,
"Tradition as used in its technical sense … means truths or principles of a divine origin revealed or unveiled to mankind and, in fact, a whole cosmic sector through various figures envisaged as messengers, prophets, avatāras, the Logos or other transmitting agencies, along with all the ramifications and applications of these principles in different realms including law and social structure, art, symbolism, the sciences, and embracing of course Supreme Knowledge along with the means for its attainment."
A religion is something that has been received from heaven, not created by man. Therefore, one very simple way of gauging its authenticity is to examine the unfoldment and integrity of its tradition. Generally speaking, a religious tradition, as something divine, has a transformative influence on a particular civilization as in the case of ethnic religions, and upon the world in its entirety as in the case of universal religions, although even the influence of ethnic religions reaches far beyond the boundaries of their particular civilization and ethnic group. It comprises three primary elements including a doctrine, a method, and a law. The doctrine is not limited to oral or written language and may be transmitted through all of those facets of civilization included in the list above. In fact, manifestation within the multitude of these facets is itself a gauge of authenticity. The method concerns those universal and canonical forms of worship established by heaven and additional or quintessential forms of worship synthesizing them and leading to realization, both of which may have been present at the inception of the religion or revealed at a later time. The law consists of the means of regulating the social order and also concerns the virtues through which a conforming and congenial ambiance is achieved at an internal level. Any movement or teacher claiming to represent the Divine, but failing to manifest or uphold these elements of tradition cannot reasonably be considered legitimate. As in the case of gauging the authenticity of a spiritual master who represents a particular tradition, the same discussion concerning knowledge and virtue applies here as well.