The Theosophical Forum – May 1945

WHO ARE THE MAHATMANS? — Lydia Ross and C. J. Ryan

Every inquirer wants to know what Theosophists mean by a Mahatman. This Sanskrit word explains itself: Mahd means great and Atman means soul. A Theosophical Mahatman is a great soul expressing itself in a human body. Theosophy teaches that at the center of every man's being he is a spark of divinity; and the real purpose of repeated earth-lives is to bring forth and express this inner Self, so that its light will illumine his whole being. Ordinary men express this but feebly as yet; but the Mahatmans are those in whom this divine flame shines forth. They are not "gods" or "saints" or anything supernatural, but are men who, by their own unremitting efforts during many lives, under the guidance of Initiate Teachers, have become supermen. They are the Elder Brothers of humanity, the "Fine Flowers" of human evolution, spiritually and intellectually.

Naturally, these Great Men are not all equally advanced; but the greatest of them have reached a stage which the mass of humanity will attain, at its ordinary rate of progress, only in far distant ages, after very many lives on earth. When that time comes, the present Adepts will have evolved beyond the highest human standard of perfection, and will have passed on, to continue growing in spiritual glory in the "land of the gods."

The Mahatmans belong to a Brotherhood which has been active in all ages. They possess immense stores of knowledge of the real nature of man, of his unknown racial history, and of the structure and operations of the Universe, visible and invisible. Their original body of teachings, sacredly preserved from age to age, has been passed on through a continuous chain of initiated Teachers and their pledged disciples. Each member of this Order, in turn, tests these teachings for himself, and confirms the truth of them. A portion of this knowledge, suitable for humanity at large, according to its varying stages of intelligence and spirituality, has been given out from time to time, and in one country or another, by Messengers from the Great White Lodge, as it is called. Truth has always been in the world, even in the dark ages when its light was obscured and its Messengers were misunderstood and persecuted. Mankind as a whole has never been without its Elder Brothers, those Helpers whose beneficent work has never ceased, whether seen or unseen by men.

These Messengers were such great Sages and Seers as Jesus, the Buddha and Krishna of India, Confucius and Lao-Tse of China, Zoroaster of Persia, Plato and Pythagoras of Greece, Hermes of Egypt, Quetzalcoatl of Mexico, and many others more or less exalted, upon whose teachings great world-religions and philosophies were founded. This explains why the deeper, essential truths of all the great religions are the same, however much their outer forms and the sacred names and mystical symbology used varied in different countries and ages. Exhaustive evidence of this underlying unity of teachings is given by H. P. Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine. She also explains that it was because the inner meaning of religion became gradually obscured by dogmas and intolerance that conflicting opinions led to bigotry and persecution.

Of the continued activities of the Great-Souled Ones in guiding and protecting mankind, the best known in modern times has the general term "the Theosophical Movement." This includes work done by the Theosophical Society and very much more. Their activities affect many in ways unknown to them, inspiring them with great thoughts and noble ideas which come they know not whence. From time to time the Great Lodge of Masters has established societies through which they could help the world. Some were unknown to all but their own members; others were made public. One of the latter is the Theosophical Society, which was founded under the direction of the Masters by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, in New York, in 1875. Its importance is proved by the fact that Theosophical teachings have profoundly affected the world of thought, and that the Movement as a whole has become more securely established during the last half-century, in which so many time-honored institutions and modes of thought have been shaken to their foundations.

The work of this modern Messenger, H. P. Blavatsky, was to restore long-forgotten truths to the world and to arouse the spirit of brotherhood in man. To do this she made known the teachings of the Ancient Wisdom-Religion, once universal, and the only enduring basis upon which men can unite. She presented conclusive evidence of the single origin of all the great religions and philosophies, which alike taught a common birth-right of divinity for men and a common destiny. Their interests, spiritual and material, being identical, interdependent, and interwoven, from first to last, prove that brotherhood is a fact in Nature. This needs but to be recognised and acted upon to increase our welfare and happiness to a degree hitherto unknown. It is the magic word to make for ideal human relations — both between individuals and nations. The Theosophical Society, founded by the Masters, is unsectarian and non-political and is wholly free from the creeds and dogmas which hitherto have separated man from man. In such a Society whose chief aim is practical world betterment, the acceptance of the principle of Universal Brotherhood is naturally the only prerequisite to membership.

To the matter-of-fact Occidental mind the Theosophical Mahatmans often seem like unreal figures, because their existence was unheard-of in the West before H. P. Blavatsky announced that her Teachers were members of the Great Brotherhood. But in the East it is different. In modern India, for instance, though today it is suffering from superstitions resulting from degeneration of the ancient religions, yet the unbroken tradition of these great men has come down from remotest antiquity, and is common knowledge and belief. There the Mahatmans, or "Rishis" as they are generally called, are not looked upon as Saviors but as Guides and Teachers who help their younger brothers to bring forth their own inner divinity. These great men show by example what lies ahead on the Path for all men, even as the Nazarene said: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life." In fact, in the East, the relation of teacher and pupil is regarded as something sacred, for, indeed, the passing on of Light is a sort of intellectual and spiritual parentage. Special deference is accorded even to the teacher of children.

To the introspective, devotional Orientals, the Mahatmans stand as examples of the highest living ideals. While the native mystical tendency to cultivate inner development appears in various crude and erratic forms among the fanatical yogis, yet the rare spiritual type of "holy men" is recognised and reverenced even by the royal Hindu rulers.

The Masters of Wisdom are not to be confused with the familiar type of yogis or sadhus or so-called "Mahatmas" of India. The word commonly spelled "Mahatma," is a title like "Mr." or "Sir," or "Baron," or "Count." It is a mere title, which a very old Indian custom still gives to anyone holding a public position of respect or veneration. The name implies certain special intellectual and spiritual attainments; but, as with any title of distinction, it may be held by those who do much, or those who do little honor to it.

The question is often asked: Where do the Mahatmans live? While their main seats are in Asia, they also have minor centers elsewhere, in quiet and secluded places where they can be undisturbed in their work, free from the unrest and confusion of crowded places, and surrounded by those who can understand their methods and aims and who are fitted to help. However, they are intensely active all the time, and they even travel to far countries when conditions require their presence. Mme. Blavatsky met her Teacher in London, in 1851; and another Master, "K. H.," with whose sister she lived for a time in Tibet, had been a student in European Universities. This Master, "K. H.," wrote most of the famous Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, in which the reader may get interesting sidelights on their methods of work, and on the importance they gave to the future of the Theosophical Society.

Westerners often say: Why do the Mahatmans not come out in public and show themselves? Why should they show themselves? one may reply. They have nothing to gain by going on exhibition; it would be a waste of time and energy on their part, and it would serve no good purpose to gratify public curiosity. To them, the world's prizes of fame, fortune, admiration, etc., matter not at all. Those things which appeal strongly to ordinary men they have discarded lives agone for the greater treasures of their own enlarged, enriched, and liberated nature. They are eager to give of their priceless knowledge to whomsoever is ready to open his mind and heart to receive it, and to step out on the path that they have trod. As to proof of their existence, we all know that there are men of outstanding ability in every department of life. It is only natural to suppose that a few have gone far ahead by lives of intensive spiritual and intellectual growth, and have thereby attained to what the majority will reach only in the far distant future.

The Masters regard the whole world as their country, and they are very much alive to its conditions and to its most vital problems. Most of their work is behind the scenes, nor will it ever be publicly known. Their freedom from all personal ambition and national bias gives them unusual insight into the motives of men and nations. Their superior knowledge, and their power to read the meaning, and to foresee the outcome, of unfolding world-events, enable them to work with equal wisdom and justice for the welfare of all. From them individually, and as an organized body, there constantly radiates a potent influence of hope, inspiration, and protection for humanity. This silent and invisible stimulus has even been the source of intuitive "hunches" on the part of some of our great modern scientists and inventors. Such practical help is attracted naturally by large-hearted men of genius whose work will help men to realize a more spiritual view of the Universe, and so make for more brotherly relations in human affairs.

The Masters are Teachers also, because as custodians of the ancient truths it is their duty to pass on the light they have received. They have become what they are because they have learned how to develop their innate spiritual and intellectual faculties and powers, which can be done safely only under the guidance of true Teachers. In turn, they become Teachers to their pupils, who are called chelas — the devoted few whose one desire is to become perfected helpers in the service of humanity. Chelaship is training for Mastership. It is the age-old method of speeding up individual evolution. The chela is not only taught an all-around philosophy of life, but he is made to prove it for himself. In testing it by application to his own daily life, he learns many mysteries of his dual nature — higher and lower — and finds mighty, hidden meanings in his relation to others and to the world around him. He is not lured on by any promise of selfishly acquiring unusual knowledge and psychic powers. He learns that the deeper, hidden truths about man and the Universe are to be gained by great purity and holiness of life, and especially by an all-embracing love for mankind as a whole. Becoming spiritually-minded opens the nature to spiritual truths.

The chela's training begins with a system of self-discipline that calls for long and arduous tests of sincerity, determined will, and unselfish devotion to humanity. The true system has no place for ascetic abuse or torture of the body, which is held to be a sacred "temple of the living god" within. All the powers and faculties that make for enlightened, strong, and noble manhood are stimulated to rapid growth. The result is a balanced gain in physical, psychical, intellectual, and spiritual power. A Master of Life is one who has learned the laws of Nature and works with them.

Since the Theosophical Society made the existence of the Masters known in the West a number of would-be teachers have boldly advertised themselves as connected with the Great White Lodge of the East. They offer instructions for acquiring "personal powers," "vital force," "material success," "magnetic attraction," all this and more, to prospective followers or to anyone who will pay the price for lessons, regardless of their moral fitness. They appeal frankly — often with high-sounding sentiments — to the selfish side of human nature — to personal ambition, to mere intellectual curiosity, or to the sinister desire to get control over others. The venturesome Westerners, eager for any novel experience, little realize that the price too often paid for dabbling in strange, psychic forces is loss of health or sanity, if not of life itself. Moral fitness and self-control are the prerequisites for genuine Occultism.

H. P. Blavatsky saw that an increasing number of "sensitives" in the West were attracting attention by reporting their vague clairvoyant glimpses into the shadowy astral world. She explained the rationale of the strange phenomena which materialistic science said could not exist. But she knew too well the subtil, unknown dangers into which all those concerned were drifting, and she repeatedly warned against the perils of attempting to cultivate "psychic powers."

The question is often asked: How can I meet the Mahatmans? The surest way is to become like them. Obviously, then, the first thing to do is to answer their call for helpers in their work for humanity, whose sufferings mostly result from ignorance of its duality and of the laws of life and spiritual growth. This work is so world-wide and varied that there is room and a place for any and every one who is willing to sacrifice pet weaknesses, as the first step toward Mastership. Everyone can help spread these ancient teachings which, and which only, can change the minds and hearts of men, and so solve the menacing problems of modern civilization. The way to begin is to show the ennobling influence of Theosophical ideals in one's own everyday life: a living example is an unanswerable argument. People today demand something more than mere sermons and theories: they need practical demonstration of a working plan of life.

The organized work of the Theosophical Society offers special opportunities for its members to find their way, step by step, on the same path that the Mahatmans tread. The path to the heights calls for all our courage and determination; but it is one of ever-increasing peace of mind and spiritual power. As Dr. G. de Purucker says: "The way to forget one's own pains and sorrows is to help others. . . . In genuine spiritual service lies the only lasting happiness that man knows." The power to give, to help, increases by its use, just as a muscle or a faculty grows by exercise. The way to attainment for us in the matter-of-fact West is the path of practical mysticism — a working out, with unselfish motive and firm will, of whatever the day may bring. In this way, each one's inner powers of mind and soul come forth as naturally as the flower opens to the sunlight; and one enters that spiritual current of life in which the Mahatmans live, work, and grow ever greater.

Theosophical University Press Online Edition