Anyone who has come to appreciate the essence of a philosophy or religion will likely realize that there is more to nature and man than mere physical existence. There is order and purpose on the cosmic level and on the human, learning, attainment of knowledge, and the quest. Once the fire of such thinking is alight in us we are never quite the same again. We are inspired by the ideal of service to humanity and strengthened by the challenge to temper our own character into one that is truly more generous, charitable, and humble. We begin to enjoy and understand our relationships with family and friends in a way previously unknown. These qualities and experiences infill our new-found self with a resolve to probe further the mysteries and wonders of nature. While pursuing these ends we become aware, soon and all too painfully, of the duality in ourselves and in the world we live in. On the one hand there is the outer, the phenomenal; on the other, our recently discovered spiritual nature. In our hearts we long to devote our entire purpose for living to the study and service of mankind. In our minds we recognize a sense of duty and responsibility to that life in which we are presently engaged. It is at this point that the question of chelaship will often arise. What is it really? Might we possibly be a fit candidate? Can we partake of such a life while still maintaining a worldly existence?
Chelaship, in its traditional sense, is usually a formal relationship between teacher and disciple. Historically our most immediate ideas about the rigors of chelaship have been shaped by Eastern traditions of abstinence, self-denial, and long hours of meditation. Today, many of these techniques can seem outdated or inappropriate and generally unappealing. We may, in part, be allowed such reactions based on cultural distinctions, but a great deal of what we may attribute to these differences merely exposes our own lack, both as individuals and as society at large. Honest feelings of reverence and respect, a sincere sense of loyalty, unashamed humility, and a complete absence of greed, are all characteristics that befit a chela. We need to rebuild these qualities which have for too long now gone unfostered.
Considering this, is the experience of chelaship then out of reach, beyond hope? No, I don't believe so. For as long as man has been incarnating, chelaship has been a part of the human experience, and no cultural bias can keep a true aspirer from the door of knowledge. While formal chelaship may always be reserved for those who have broken through the personal barriers of self and cannot help but forge ahead of the majority of the race, for the novice aspirant, the spirit of chelaship can be a practicable and fulfilling way to live. This is not a compromise perspective, but rather an attempt to implement real philosophical values and principles into our everyday living.
The average person seeking to discover the truth of nature is not necessarily ready, nor is it needful for him, in terms of social standing and spiritual development, to become a chela in the style of Eastern asceticism. However, the identical feelings of inspiration and the sense of challenge that are the chela's can, in truth, be ours as well. The principles of honesty, charity, and self-forgetfulness taught by the world's great teachers, are the very same rules by which the neophyte lives while training and refining his behavior and perceptions. Just as the apprentice to a fine craftsman will use the same tools as his master, so too have the tools to create a better life always been available to us. There is not a person on this earth, no matter what the outer circumstances of his life may be, who cannot acquire some measure of true knowledge or wisdom. We put obstacles in our way by preconceiving what we think a correct atmosphere or lifestyle should be, meantime wasting innumerable opportunities to make the kind of headway we desire.
The Bhagavad-Gita, as much as any ancient or modern text, stresses over and over that the fulfillment of one's own duty is the road to the Supreme. It is our expectation that spiritual glories reside outside the common run of things; however, the path to such attainment certainly lies in the arena of action we find familiar and ordinary. Once we make a pledge within ourselves to live more humanely and prove it by our deeds, the floodgates of experience will be thrown open. All the challenge and excitement one might ever imagine could be ours if we simply direct our hearts and motivations along the high road of altruism instead of the blind chasms of selfishness.
The spirit of chelaship is no watered-down concept; it is in every way an opportunity to develop our potential as fully as we can. Our fast-paced technological era is the perfect setting to put that resolve to the test. We need to cooperate, interact, and develop charity and goodwill towards others so that, together, we can contribute meaningfully to what is becoming a world community. Without the discipline, compassion, and tolerance that philosophy gives us, our future together could be filled with horrors. Yet, with nothing more than an honest effort to work towards our goals, we and our world might just find ourselves at peace.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1989. Copyright © 1989 by Theosophical University Press)