Enough has already been said about the mahatmas and their disciples to give some idea of what chelaship means. The Sanskrit word chela is used because it has a more specific significance than the words "pupil" or "disciple" as understood today. To be a chela implies a peculiar degree of loyalty to one's chosen teacher and to the principles underlying his teachings. It also, and more particularly, implies a realization of the sacredness of the bond between the chela and his spiritual teacher, or to use again the Eastern word, his guru. We might helpfully quote a few passages in this connection:
To the earnest Disciple his Teacher takes the place of Father and Mother, for, whereas they gave him his body and his faculties, its life and casual form, the Teacher shows him how to develop the inner faculties for the acquisition of the Eternal Wisdom. — From the Book of Discipline in the Schools of 'Dzyan'
Now this relation is an extremely sacred one, because . . . the Teacher, the Guru, the Master . . . acts as the midwife, bringing to birth, helping to bring into the active life of the disciple, the hid part of the disciple, the soul of the man. — G. de Purucker, Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy, pp. 527-8
Even a teacher of ordinary subjects has a responsibility to his pupils in his influence upon their developments and ideals, while the pupils have an obligation of gratitude to one who has been an inspiration and perhaps opened to him doors of vision and resolve. But how much deeper is this bond of responsibility and gratitude between pupil and spiritual teacher — one who can show us how to solve all our apparently unsolvable problems and how to recreate ourselves and our lives. Yet such a spiritual relationship goes deeper even than this, since an occult teacher is one who can open for us the inner realms of being. It is not so-called religious instruction that he gives, though ethics and morals are the foundation of all genuine spiritual teaching. He does what religion as we moderns know it can never do. He not only gives knowledge but actually quickens the human soul, much as the flame of mind was quickened in the early races of mankind by the manasaputras or Promethean light-bringers. In a sense, a real spiritual teacher literally raises his chela from the dead, for unless we are born again we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. And as Jesus said, the Kingdom of Heaven is within us.
There are two broad divisions in chelaship. There are, first, lay or probationary chelas. Second, those chelas who through long self-discipline, perhaps in many former incarnations as well as in this one, have proved themselves worthy. They are then accepted by the mahatmas themselves for intensive occult training. Lay chelas, or probationers, train themselves. They are given the fundamental doctrines of the wisdom-religion, particularly those that explain the scientific basis of ethics. The degree of earnestness and devotion with which they study and apply these teachings constitutes the first test on the chela path. To the extent that the student sincerely applies himself to determined self-training and self-discipline in the practice of ethics and brotherhood will the period be longer or shorter which leads to his being accepted by the mahatmas as a chela pledged irrevocably to the service of humanity. Every sincere and devoted student is in this sense a probationary chela. He may not be conscious of it, but his real progress in impersonal devotion to family and friends, to his fellows, and to work for humanity will be registered karmically. As this good karma accumulates, the chela will be led ever nearer to the presence of the mahatmas.
There is an ancient saying that discipline precedes the Mysteries, and when we consider the real nature and objects of a Mystery school we understand why this must be so. The teachings in a Mystery school comprise a knowledge of the actual and tremendously powerful laws upon which the universe and life are built. To be able to smash the atom and release titanic forces, with all the dangers which attend such power, gives a faint idea of the potencies and possibilities for either good or evil which a knowledge of occult nature bestows. So, necessarily, moral and spiritual discipline of a most serious kind must precede the student's admission into this sacred arcana. Besides, unlike what is popularly known as science, the occult teachings are not experimental. They never veer and change from guess to guess, and from theory to theory.
Why is this? From whence do the Mystery schools derive their certain knowledge about these hidden things? The following passage answers:
Great intellects, titanic spiritual Seers, have sent their consciousness behind the veils of the outward seeming deep into the womb of invisible Nature and have brought back what they have seen, and have formulated their knowledge into a grand system of thought. This system of thought we today call Theosophy. It is the Mother of all the great religions and great philosophies of the past time, and will be so of those of the future; for this reason: that every one of these other great systems of thought has been founded upon the teaching of some great spiritual Seer and Sage. — G. de Purucker, The Masters and the Path of Occultism, p. 19
What are some of these deeper teachings revealed to chelas in the Mystery Schools? For a detailed description the student is recommended to read The Esoteric Tradition by G. de Purucker. But a brief outline of a few of them may here be given. They are taught among other things the real origin of their spiritual nature, their spiritual heredity, so to speak. They learn how and why they are actually children of the cosmic gods. The door to the inner worlds of being is opened for them and they are gradually introduced to a knowledge of the circulations of the cosmos and the journeys of the spiritual monad along those cosmic highways into the "vast and inner and invisible Worlds and Spheres," to quote from the above mentioned book. Two further paragraphs are quoted here:
One of the main objectives of such training is the stimulation of the moral sense to become so strong in the life of the disciple that the voice of conscience becomes the instant and relatively unerring monitor indicating which path at any moment the disciple should follow. Coincident with this is the training of the intellect to become keen, instant in action and, under the guidance of the moral sense, virtually unerring in judgment. — p. 570, 3rd & rev. ed.
The whole attempt of inner training is to attain self-identification in progressive and ever-enlarging stages with the great spiritual powers on which the universe itself is constructed and with which it is molded. — pp. 569-70, 3rd & rev. ed.
This expression about the "spiritual powers" refers to the cosmic and solar gods from which our immortal self is radiated or, more correctly, emanated. Chela training under a mahatma opens to the chela the path to self-conscious union with his spiritual parent, his own inner god. And when the pledged chela has been well prepared by his guru or spiritual teacher and is ready for the supreme trial he then embarks upon the sacred and wonderful adventure of initiation.