The most descriptive name applied to the Mahatmans is that of the "Elder Brothers of Humanity." For they are our brothers in every sense. In the first place they are just as real human beings as you and I are. But they are as much more advanced than us as a mature man is developed beyond a child. Besides this, it is the essence of their work to watch over and guide the race — indeed, not only us but all creatures climbing up the toilsome evolutionary path. Evolution however does not end with the Mahatmans. Beyond them are the Christs or the Buddhas. And even this class of grand men ascend gradually in degrees of relatively greater perfection. They finally range into divine and still diviner beings until we come to the limits of evolution possible to the duration and the reaches of our Solar System. Even the Solar System itself is merely a cell so to say in the vast stellar galaxy. But into that illimitable realm we do not now require to stretch our vision.
There was of course a time when what we call the human race passed, as everything must, through its infancy. Then we were just learning to speak and to develop our brains and other organs to master the functions they now fulfil automatically. That was the "Golden Age" recorded in the traditions of every people, when men had the gods themselves for teachers. It was then that the "Wisdom-Religion" or "Archaic Science" or the "Esoteric Tradition" (which today we call Theosophy) was first taught to the human race.
Even at that time there were some human beings far in advance of the average. Just as there are today and always will be. And those advanced humans became pupils of the gods and were eventually formed into the Great White Lodge of Mahatmans. From that day to this that Lodge of Spiritual Initiates has never ceased as an organization to exist and to function. In cycles of spiritual vitality it has worked more or less openly. In cycles of spiritual barrenness like the so-called Dark Ages in Europe, it does its work in secret. From time to time it has sent its greatest Masters of Wisdom to incarnate among men and give out a fresh revelation of Truth to the world. Such men were Krishna, Gautama the Buddha, Jesus the Christ, Lao-Tse and Confucius. Then a new world-religion would be born. At other times they founded the Mystery-Schools such as those at Samothrace and Eleusis in Greece. And from those Mystery-Schools, which were colleges for training in Mahatmanship, Initiates were sent out who taught world-echoing philosophies. Pythagoras and Plato and Ammonius Saccas were Initiates of this stamp. H. P. Blavatsky was another. Read her preface to Isis Unveiled and you will get a glimpse of how she received her training. All these world-religions and philosophies imbodied the basic teachings of this same Wisdom-Religion. Yet in each case the Teacher adapted it to the age and the people to which it was being re-taught. Since the times of Ammonius Saccas it has usually been called Theosophy.
The most fascinating thing about the Mahatmans to most of us is their wonderful occult powers. Historical tradition is full of stories about the magic or miracles performed by the Seers and Sages of the world, from Moses to Apollonius of Tyana. There is of course no such thing as a miracle, in the sense of something outside the laws of Nature. An action that seems to us miraculous (if it actually happened) is due to the use of a wider knowledge of natural forces on the part of the Sage who performed the "miracle." We can find plenty of modern miracles like this in every branch of science today. To us they seem miraculous cures or discoveries or what-not, but are to the men who do them the every-day work of scientific knowledge.
There are abundant records of the exercise of their powers by the Mahatmans who watch over the destiny of the Theosophical Movement. (1) The most important thing to notice about these actions is the way in which the powers are used. It is spiritual or divine magic as contrasted with selfish or black magic. You will notice that the Initiate of the White Lodge will use his powers only for the good of others or to help the world in some way. Indeed that is one way you can tell if a Teacher belongs to the White Lodge. Never — or very, very rarely do they use these powers to help themselves. When they have to do this it is because the Initiate must protect himself — merely for the time being — as an agent for the work he must accomplish for the Lodge. "He saved others, himself he cannot save" is a taunt common to the lives of most spiritual teachers. If the saying went: "Himself he must not save," it would be true and would express a basic law of occult development.
1. See The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, The Occult World, by A. P. Sinnett, Five Years of Theosophy, and other books of the early years of the T. S. (return to text)