It should never be forgotten that Occultism is concerned with the inner man, who must be strengthened and freed from the dominion of the physical body and its surroundings, which must become his servants. Hence the first and chief necessity of chelaship is a spirit of absolute unselfishness and devotion to Truth; then follow self-knowledge and self-mastery. These are all-important; while outward observance of fixed rules is a matter of secondary moment. — H. P. Blavatsky, Lucifer, Vol. 4, p. 348n
The teaching about mahatmas is one the most important in the whole range of theosophical study. The reason for this lies in the fact that to attain the state of mahatmaship is the object of human evolution and its culmination. Understanding something of what a mahatma is will show what we are going to be in the future ourselves. For the aim of man's evolution is to transform the ordinary human being into a perfected spiritual man, a mahatma. The word is a combination of two Sanskrit words: maha, "great;" and atman, "soul." Thus the word mahatma means literally "a great soul."
If we look around us even in ordinary life we see that men are everywhere unequally developed. There are always the leaders in every department of human activity. In the business world there are those who are sometimes called "captains of industry," leaders in the development of industrial and economic life. The same is true in the world of politics, art and religion, in education and the realm of science. It is a universal law that the organization of the lesser elements in any field under enlightened and active leadership is the basis of success. Even among poets and painters, whose work depends upon individual freedom of expression, we find that they have their associations to promote their common objects and authority. How much, too, we owe to the great geniuses of the human race, such characters as Galileo, Shakespeare, and Florence Nightingale, and many others whose vision and power stand out above the common level of humanity as dazzling examples of what one may accomplish by leadership in the pursuit of truth.
This same basic law holds good in the field of human evolution. Even the elder Huxley, one of the pronounced materialists of the 19th century, admitted that there must be in the universe beings as much higher than man as man is higher than the black beetle. Such a belief springs logically and inescapably from the facts of evolution. But theosophical teaching shows that such perfected human beings are actually living now on this earth and that they can be known and sometimes contacted.
Questions that spring at once to the mind of the inquirer will naturally be: What are such people like? What are they doing and where do they live? To the first question we answer in the words of G. de Purucker:
The Mahatmans are highly evolved men, controlling powers over Nature's forces which they have gained through self-directed evolution during many, many lives in the near and distant past. Now they are become Masters of life; in former ages they were men like you and me. — The Masters and the Path of Occultism, p. 9
In this short passage a number of important expressions are used. We may note that Dr. de Purucker calls the mahatmas "Masters of Life," for that is what a mahatma is. He is a graduate in nature's great university of evolutionary development with its immense ranges of knowledge — knowledge founded upon experience and "self-directed evolution." Thus, the mahatma is the perfect flower of human evolution.
The existence and nature of the mahatmas show how and why our evolution is worthwhile. To become mahatmas is our goal, and theosophy indicates the scientific path to achieve this goal. This goal is the result and reward for that student who will practice the lofty ethics and develop the rounded and perfect character which are necessary to attain it.
One of the first things we associate with the nature of a mahatma is the possession of great spiritual powers, and to understand the work of the mahatmas we must know a little about what these powers are. And in order to understand what these powers are like and how they have been acquired, we must examine more closely the real nature of human beings and of the universe which surrounds us.
We have referred already to our cosmos as a great university of evolutionary experience, but most of us have a very limited idea of what the universe consists of. We think of it generally as merely physical phenomena — the rocks and the ocean, the trees and mountains, the stars, the solar system and the galaxies. But if we turn to something closer to ourselves we get a different picture. Consider for a moment some friend we love. What are real friends? Their body and physical appearance? No, for they may be quite plain, even unprepossessing. Nor is it these outer things that remain in the heart when death comes, as we think, to take them from us. What remains with us to cherish, what we love, are their qualities — their power to love and give, their intelligence, originality, goodness, or charm. These are all intangible qualities which cannot be seen, weighed, or measured. We can only feel and love them by means of our own intangible perceptions and sympathy. After their death, the picture in our minds of our friends' physical appearance may grow dim with the lapse of time, yet their character — the real person — never fades away from our hearts.
So we see how it is that the physical is not the real. The human body is governed by physical laws, but the mind and soul are governed by psychological and spiritual laws. Can it be different with the universe of which we are a part? Can the part be greater than the whole? Can there be something in the flower which was not latent in the seed? Can the seed of a thistle produce a fig tree? And can the universe produce a soul if it is itself soulless?
From this point of view we realize that the most important parts of the universe around us are invisible and cannot be contacted by our physical senses. Indeed, the universe is like a human being, who is a miniature universe, a microcosm of the macrocosm. In both there are ranges or planes of being which we can know only by the faculties within ourselves, perceptions belonging to those various ranges of being.
Like us, the universe has first a physical aspect with which we are familiar. Then, within this and blending with it in its lowest levels, is the astral or ethereal world. Above and within this are finer and still more ethereal worlds. Here the psychological energies that imbody the laws and activities corresponding to our mental and emotional life have their activity and sway. Beyond and within the psychological realm is the spiritual plane where dwells and is active our own atma-buddhi or divine-spiritual self. Here on this immensely high and powerful plane of the universe are celestial beings whose unseen energies and activities govern all the planes and worlds below them.
We can now perceive how undeveloped we are. All we know of ourselves and the universe around us is a limited knowledge of the physical world of our senses plus a still more limited and ineffectual perception of our mental and emotional life. Of our astral, ethereal, or spiritual ranges of inner being we know practically nothing, while to the average person and to scientists, the higher realms of the universe remain a sealed book at present.
For the mahatmas it is far different, although theosophy tells us that within all people lie sleeping organs of perception belonging to these unknown planes of their being. Through these now latent perceptions, if developed, we might become conscious of these inner worlds where we might be as much at home as we are on this physical plane. The mahatmas are men and women who have awakened and developed these sleeping faculties, and it is from their training of these faculties that they derive their transcendent powers.