We have partially answered the second question, "What are the mahatmas doing?" The answer is further implied in the above heading. The mahatmas are our elder brothers in point of evolution and spiritual relationship. Therefore, a great part of their work consists in watching over and stimulating spiritually the life of the human race. In The Ocean of Theosophy by William Quan Judge we are told that mankind has never been without a friend. It has always had
. . . a line of elder brothers who continually watch over the progress of the less progressed, preserve the knowledge gained through aeons of trial and experience, and continually seek for opportunities of drawing the developing intelligence of the race . . . to consider the great truths concerning the destiny of the soul. These elder brothers also keep the knowledge they have gained of the laws of nature in all departments, and are ready when cyclic law permits to use it for the benefit of mankind. They have always existed as a body, all knowing each other, no matter in what part of the world they may be, and all working for the race in many different ways. — p. 3
The nature of their work may be better understood if we take the expression above quoted, "they have always existed as a body, all knowing each other," and consider all that the words imply. The "body" referred to is what is known in theosophy as the Brotherhood of Compassion or sometimes as the Lodge. Theosophy tells us that from the very earliest ages of humanity on this earth, there has always existed an organization or brotherhood of advanced souls. These advanced souls, the mahatmas, became perfected human beings in former periods of evolution, for this Earth and everything connected with it is a reimbodiment of a former and less developed world. In that world we who are now human were passing through lower stages of life. But there lived then — as there live now and always will — those further along on the course of evolution. They had already reached perfection as humans when our earth and everything on it came to be reimbodied in this present globe at the beginning of the immense period of evolution through which everything is passing now.
At the beginning of this present period the human race was but an infant humanity, and like all infants needed constant care, help, and guidance, and this help and care came from these advanced souls, mahatmas who had become perfected human beings in that former world. So they were ready to act as teachers of humanity; just as our teachers in ordinary life are men and women who have completed their education in periods of schooling preceding our own.
In those early ages the mahatmas lived among men, guiding and helping them openly. But the life of the race is very much like that of every child. The time comes when youth must begin to think and act for itself, use its own initiative, cultivate its own willpower, and make its own mistakes. When that time comes, young people generally rebel against the council of their elders. As they lack experience, self-knowledge, and wisdom, they go wrong in ways that they often find it impossible to remedy in one life.
It happened very much like this with early mankind At that time humanity was far more ignorant than the peoples of today. This was only to be expected, for mankind was then just beginning to learn the moral lessons that many of us today find are instinctive in our characters at birth. Present day men and women have been learning through the experience and suffering of many incarnations, but in those early times the great majority were still undeveloped as human beings. They were blind and greedy and willful, so that great wrongs were committed. War, and what we call sin, appeared, and H. P. Blavatsky description in The Secret Doctrine of the Atlanteans gives a picture of how dark and wicked were some of the early civilizations which mankind developed in those forgotten, prehistoric times. At last people grew so selfish and material that the mahatmas were no longer sought as guides and teachers by the great mass of humanity.
It was then that the Brotherhood of Compassion, to which these great sages and seers whom we call the mahatmas belonged, retreated into the background and began their occult or hidden work for the race — work which up to that unhappy time they had been able to do openly, moving more or less freely among mankind. The chief reason for their withdrawal lies of course in the danger of entrusting their occult knowledge to people who would selfishly misuse it and so bring disasters upon themselves and others. Unfortunately, the same restriction still prevails, for though people have progressed enormously, they have not yet learned the folly and the dangers of selfishness.
The mahatmas, then, in those far-off times, began special work with individuals here and there who were more promising than humanity in its unevolved masses. For, of course, at that time there was also the same inequality of development among human beings that holds everywhere today. Some egos are older than others and therefore more developed in character and intelligence. It was these advanced egos that the mahatmas singled out and gathered into schools or colleges in different parts of the world. Every country in antiquity had one or more of these occult schools for the study of the spiritual sciences, called in theosophical writings the Mystery schools.
Two important points should be brought out here. One is that even among the mahatmas themselves there are many grades of development. Some of them — just as in every other phase of evolution, spiritual or otherwise — are of higher degree than others, for the Brotherhood of Compassion is a hierarchy. We quote here a passage explaining this hierarchical principle of being:
Thus it is that the great sages or masters form one stage or degree on the evolutionary scale just above men of average development. There are other still greater beings on the ladder of life, who are the teachers of these great sages and who are more highly evolved men than the great sages themselves are. Higher even than these are yet others still more fully evolved, who may with propriety be called human gods; they are nature’s controllers, governors, of our own planet earth. — G. de Purucker: The Esoteric Tradition, 3rd & rev. ed., p. 507
It will readily be seen that many of these godlike beings are too far beyond our plane of consciousness to be conceivable to us. And being so, they cannot directly influence us. This brings us to another of the services our elder brothers, the mahatmas, perform for humanity. That service consists in "stepping down" or transforming the vitalizing energies of these celestial beings so that they can be assimilated by human nature. A transformer is an apparatus for reducing or stepping down a high voltage current to a lower one when that higher voltage might be too great for the small apparatus to use. It operates this way between with the gods and humanity. To be brought into direct contact with the energies of the gods would burn us up, so to speak, as in the mythological tale of the youth who ventured to raise the veil of Isis in order to look directly upon the face of the goddess and was slain by a vision he had not power to sustain. So our elder brothers act for us in the nature of benign transformers and step down for us the vitalizing currents of the celestial beings who, in the background of visible creation, govern and sustain our universe.
The second point to be marked by the student is the fact that we should not confuse the Brotherhood of Compassion with the Mystery schools. The latter are related to the Brotherhood of Compassion itself much as a preparatory school is related to a university. The Mystery schools are lower in grade because composed of chelas or students in occultism. The teachers in a genuine Mystery school must all have passed certain tests and undergone definite occult training, but in this day and age are not mahatmas, though in the earliest prehistoric Mystery schools they often were conducted by the mahatmas themselves. Today the mahatmas are in the background and watch over this work. It is the privilege of students in a Mystery school to participate in spirit in the great initiatory periods which still take place during certain sacred seasons of the year at favored points somewhere on our earth. All human beings are related through their spiritual principles to this Brotherhood of Compassion — for we derive the higher aspects of our being from a common divine source — but the chelas of a Mystery school are in training under their adept teachers, and this training will enable them ultimately to become consciously an active part of that Brotherhood as the mahatmas and their agents already are.
In the Mystery schools, first founded as described in past ages, the mahatmas in those early days taught their pupils the truths of the archaic wisdom-science called by such titles in history as the secret doctrine of the ages, the esoteric tradition, and other such designations, which we today know under the name of theosophy. This has been defined by Dr. de Purucker as follows:
It is, as a body of doctrines, the formulation in human language of the essential truths of the Universe. It comprises the facts regarding the nature of the Universe, visible and invisible, spiritual, intellectual, psychical, ethereal, astral, and physical. It comprises also the teachings regarding the structure and operations and laws of the Universe. It also includes teaching a man to find himself, i. e., to discover and uncover from its enshrouding veils, the god within him. — The Masters and the Path of Occultism, p. 39
The teaching and training of these pupils, however, was but one phase of their work, for they were also the founders of the world religions. From time to time they sent out from their midst some of the highest among them. These great souls incarnated in different races and eras, when they taught anew the ethical laws upon which all life must be based if it is to endure. It is characteristic of the human race to forget its divine origin. People become so engrossed in the pursuit of personal and selfish ends and the treasures of this world that every religion grows dim as the centuries pass away. The purity of the founder's teaching becomes clouded and fades in human memory. When the religion deteriorates and becomes a vehicle for the ambitions and power of priests and theologian it becomes necessary again and again for these ethical fundamentals to be restated in a fresh form.
The earliest of these teachers sent out by the great Lodge of which history speaks is Krishna in India. He struck anew for the world of his day the keynote of these same ethical teachings. They are imbodied in the Bhagavad-Gita and other scriptures of the Hindu religion. About 2,500 years later Gautama the Buddha came to correct the abuses which had crept into Hinduism and to give the ethics of life a simpler expression, one the common people could easily understand. A little after him came Sankaracharya. To Persia was sent Zoroaster who did the same for mid-Asia. To China were sent Lao-Tse and Confucius, and to the Mediterranean and European world Jesus the Christ. All these great souls taught the same fundamental ethical truths, but in each case adapted to the characteristics and the points of view of the people and the period they came to teach. The basic doctrines of all world religions are identical, because they are all but different expressions of the same wisdom-religion.
Another aspect of this work as time flowed on was the establishing of more Mystery schools throughout the world. The clearest historical picture we have of these Mystery schools of antiquity is in ancient Greece, Orpheus being the traditional Savior or great teacher of the Mediterranean peoples. He appeared in archaic or prehistoric times and is credited with the Mysteries of Eleusis near Athens. Another was the celebrated one at Crotona established by a messenger from the Lodge, Pythagoras. Still another was the Mystery school at Samothrace. Like their parent-school, the Lodge of mahatmas, these schools sent out in turn their agents, men like Plato with his Academy at Athens in the fourth century BC. Plato too was an initiate and has had an immense spiritual influence upon both ancient and modern thought. Some of the worthiest dramatists of Greece, such poets as Aeschylus and Sophocles, were students of these Mystery schools, and their dramas are true Mystery-plays depicting the trials of the human soul in its pilgrimage to perfection. Similar Mystery schools are heard of in all the countries of antiquity. Plato, for example, is said to have visited and studied at one in India, the members of which were called Gymnosophists, and Herodotus, the Greek historian and traveler, is said to have visited the one in Egypt.
The work of the mahatmas is thus not only to watch over and inspire and stimulate the progress of humanity, but to keep us in touch with the divine energies of the cosmos. They are also teachers and personal guides to all who are ready for the intensive and arduous training in the occult life. As the proportion of people who are ready bears a ratio of about one in ten million of ordinary people, their actual pupils are very, very few. Sooner or later all pupils of a mahatma will become teachers in their turn and then seek out others whose souls are awakened to listen and learn. Thus the work and influence of the mahatmas is not confined to the spiritual thought-currents, but follows more individual and definite channels, reaching out in particular and special ways through the work of their agents to inspire and guide any who are looking to higher and better things for the world, for there are thousands of bewildered hearts now seeking for some way out of the sorrows and miseries oppressing all classes and peoples.
Another aspect of the mahatmas' work consists in safeguarding occult truth from exploitation and misuse by the evil and ignorant. Only such portions of the archaic science are openly taught as will prove of benefit to mankind. Today some of the scientists realize the mischief that can and has been unfortunately done by the use of scientific knowledge for destructive and cruel purposes, and scientific bodies are beginning to take steps towards arousing public conscience in this matter through the channels of education.
The forces physical science has put into mortal hands, powerful as they are, are but feeble when compared to the powers and energies of occult nature, so that the knowledge of them must be guarded from the insatiable curiosity and selfish use of the undisciplined. We must first learn, as scientists admit, to develop our ethical and social conscience, to become a selfless power for good in the world, before we can be safely trusted with secrets of occult power. One has only to look into the dangers of dabbling even in the lower psychic forces such as clairvoyance, clairaudience, mediumship and the like. H. P. Blavatsky's writings and The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett contain material illustrating this point. When the student has thought seriously about the matter he will realize what the consequences would be to most of us if the control of the secret and mighty forces of occult nature were to become available to unscrupulous ambition.
All down the ages the great seers and sages have protected mankind against itself, as far as that is possible without interfering with the freedom of the human will, and this phase of their work can be done by no other agency. Now we begin to see an outline of the great spiritual hierarchy of beings who link the human race by graduated stages of consciousness to the supreme hierarch of our own solar universe, the cosmic god at the invisible spiritual heart of our sun. Every planet has in its turn a celestial ruler or hierarch who imbodies the summit of consciousness on that planet, which is equally true of the earth. The ruler or hierarch of our planet Terra is the head and heart of the Brotherhood of Compassion which as a body cares for and oversees the evolution and well being of all earth's creatures. The mahatmas we are now thinking about are the perfected human beings who link the mass of humankind with this Brotherhood of Compassion doing its beneficent work as the elder brothers and spiritual teachers of the human race.