There has been so much abuse of sacred names and personages that it has become difficult for the Theosophist of the present generation to speak candidly and fully about Gurus or Great Souls. Yet the subject is of such practical importance, of such priceless value, that the very purpose of the Cause we serve would be partly frustrated if the Ideal, at least, were not held up for the enlightenment and guidance of the student and the inquirer. Details of facts are of inspiration only to those who have in some measure realized the reality of the Ideal. Enough for lay people to know that Great Souls, Mahatmas, exist in our day and age. They are Masters of Wisdom, because they are masters of their own mind, they are Lords of Compassion, because they are the rulers in the Kingdom of the Heart.
What is this Ideal which Theosophy puts forward about Living Mahatmas, not Personal Gods, but God-Men, Men who have by self-effort realized their own divinity and who continue to live in material bodies for the service of the human family, for which reason they are called Elder Brothers?
H. P. Blavatsky was the first person who openly spoke in the Western world of the existence of Living Mahatmas, Adepts in knowledge, possessing supernormal powers. In the very first sentence of her very first book, Isis Unveiled, she informed the public that what she was chronicling and recording was the result of study under Eastern Adepts with whom she was intimately acquainted. Since then, many claimants have talked of Mahatmas and Masters—till the world laughs and the genuine Theosophist is sick at heart. At the very outset, it is most necessary to make clear one thing—Theosophy recommends that each pronouncement, every book claiming Mahatmic origin, should be judged on its own intrinsic merit. The fundamental to keep in mind is—"from the teaching to the teachers." Judge Theosophy, and all its tenets and doctrines, by a careful study of what H. P. Blavatsky herself gave out. We are in a cycle when it is easier than ever to pose as a guru, because on the one hand the real Gurus and Mahatmas, their standing and status, are not known, and on the other there has been loose talk and degradation of the Ideal. Even in India, the true facts about real Gurus have become obscured, with the result that it is said: "At every street-corner you meet a Guru!" Mahatma means "Great Soul," but what is a Great Soul, who is he, how has he become great, why does he not come out and proclaim and prove himself? These are questions not studied. In the Seventh Discourse of the Bhagavad-Gita we come across a description, however curtailed, of a soul who becomes great—Maha—and the very word Mahatma is used. It is said: "Such a Mahatma (Great Soul) is difficult to meet." (verse 19)
Who are these Mahatmas whom H. P. Blavatsky called her Gurus, or Teachers? People generally progress and evolve in ignorance, without understanding and appreciating the details of the process of growth. Man makes his destiny in ignorance and suffers. He can rule his own stars by knowledge, and experience and express true joy, true bliss. So human evolution takes place because of the laws of Reincarnation and Karma. The difference between the genius and the savage, between the normal person and the congenital idiot, between the soldier and the saint, is the result of reincarnation. We are made today by what we did yesterday. Next, Theosophy proceeds to draw a logical deduction, one that Prof. Huxley drew in the last century, that there must be beings in the universe whose intelligence is as much beyond ours as ours exceeds that of the black beetle, and who take an active part in the government of the natural order of things. This is indeed so.
While it may be, and is, difficult for the ordinary mind to understand the nature, character and powers of such highly evolved Intelligences or Great Souls, it is not difficult to perceive that human evolution must lead to the production of rare Intelligences; as a matter of fact, our history teaches us that Great Souls, though rare, have existed. Look at a Krishna, a Buddha, a Shankara, a Jesus. Both tradition and history indicate that these, and there are others, were Great Souls, Mahatmas, the rare efflorescence of a generation of seekers after Wisdom. If the human soul, by self-effort, gains immortality, then we may naturally conclude that such Immortal Ones must exist.
Of such human souls who have gained Immortality, there are two kinds. Theosophy teaches that there are beings who by self-effort have emancipated themselves from the bondage of flesh and the sorrows of embodied existence. Having conquered the round of birth and death, they are enjoyers of soul-freedom, of spiritual liberty, living in the infinitudes of space. They are those who have walked the Path of Liberation mentioned in The Voice of the Silence, and are named Pratyekas, Buddhas of Selfishness. The second class are also emancipated beings, but they are Lords of Renunciation—Tyaga-Rajas, in Sanskrit. They are so called because, having won their spiritual freedom, they renounce it so that they may live and labour for the race from which they evolved. Not only do they renounce the Peace of final liberation; having obtained it, they from the very start of their spiritual careers have walked that Path which is called the Path of Renunciation, the Path of Noble Souls, the Sacrificers, those who don the Robe of Service for eras and ages. The orange robe of the Hindu sannyasi and the Buddhist Bhikkhu is but a symbol of this Robe of Sacrifice which the Renouncers put on for the benefit of the whole race.
This other class of liberated souls who live with humanity to render soul-service, all belong to a single school, called the Great Fraternity of Adepts. From that School, called Maha-Shala in the Upanishads, all light and guidance come, for those who need the light and are seeking for guidance. Next, of the body of those Lords of Renunciation, Theosophy speaks of two types—Nirmanakayas and Buddhas, in Buddhist terminology; Videhi-Muktas and Rishis, in Hindu terminology. Nirmanakayas or Videhi-Muktas are those Great Souls who live and labour for humanity without wearing a physical body of flesh and blood. These Renouncers live in the purified, radiant vestures of subtle matter, called Astral, because that substance shines like the stars. Collectively, they protect and watch over humanity in the mass.
The second class of Renouncers are those who take bodies of flesh and blood, and to them is given the title of Rishis and Sages, Mahatmas and Adepts. This class of Renouncers has among its missions the task of teaching individual human souls. They are the Real Gurus who accept chelas, to train them for human soul-service. Their knowledge and virtues, their powers and faculties, cannot be fully realized by us, save and except as each of us makes himself or herself consubstantial with them. The best way to get some idea of their grandeur and glory is to begin at our human end and see what chelaship means; for it is the chela who in course of time becomes the Adept.
As one of the important items of the programme and policy of the Fraternity of these Lords of Renunciation is to keep alive in the world the Flame of Knowledge so that those who desire and aspire may learn and ultimately join their ranks, they naturally keep an agent or agents in the public world, through whom the Flame is kept burning. Sometimes these agents and messengers labour in secrecy; at other times, openly and publicly. Of such secret agents, we may name the great Comte St. Germain, Paracelsus, Jacob Boehme, Mesmer and Louis Claude de St. Martin. These agents and messengers are the torch-bearers of Truth and they light a fire for those who aspire, those who are seeking the light so that they may perceive, and are seeking the fire of devotion so that they may warm themselves and throw off their soul-numbness.
Approaching that Flame of Light and Warmth, the seeker and the aspirant learns the first lesson—that within the sanctum of his head is that power which will enable him to produce his own light; that within the chamber of his heart there is fragrant fuel which will enable him to kindle his own fire. And unless he does this twofold work of lighting his mind and heart, he cannot proceed. This is the first step towards chelaship. Study of the great philosophy and application of its principles to himself, transform the aspirant and prepare him for further progress. Without proper study, without adequate application, progress is not possible. This initial lesson is the first step on the path of Impersonality. The aspirant does not kindle his own light and fire at the hearth of any personality, but at the Impersonal Hearth of Wisdom. The true Agents and the true Messengers never claim anything. H. P. Blavatsky always said: "I am but the window through which the light comes." That is the position, and there is no other for any true Agent or Messenger. He but points to the Wisdom, eternal and constant. So each one of us must take the first step of seeking out that aspect of Wisdom, at thich we can light our own light, kindle our own fire.
Naturally, study and application awaken in us the longing to be of the other world—the Occult world. When philosophical and metaphysical facts are grasped and we know what is worthwhile and what is worthless, when we realize that wealth and fame and power over humans and a hundred other things are earthy and ephemeral, then we feel like leaving them, running away from them. We long to abandon the world of mortals and yearn to enter the Occult world.
Our response to this yearning is the first test which follows the first step—of study and application. Many fail, by going away from their own sphere of congenital duties. H. P. Blavatsky taught: "The first duty taught in Occultism is to do one's duty unflinchingly by every duty. He who plays truant in one thing will be faithless in another. No real, genuine Master will accept a chela who sacrifices anyone except himself to go to that Master." Why is this? The Masters are Lords of Renunciation and their science and philosophy teaches that none can learn to make the Great Renunciation unless he trains himself from the very start to renounce his own betterment in the service of others. So anyone desiring to be a chela of the real Gurus has to learn not to leave the world but to serve it. At that early stage, service of the world implies performance of duty—to do our duty by every duty. This is the second step.
When we take this step of service which is due to others, we find out the meaning of duty, that which is due to others. At this stage arises what is known as the conflict of duties. A hundred things in life cause questioning—this way or that? Each time, in the performance of duties we seek the guidance of the philosophy we are studying. The obligation of the student and the aspirant to his own philosophy, which he is trying to practise, is called the second test. No one from outside tests him; it is his response to his own life-problems that tests him several times a day. This second step calls upon him to face the second test; by self-examination, maintaining what is called the chela's life ledger, he must keep watch over himself, pass judgment on himself.
What is the guidance principle of this life of service and duty? In one word, Sacrifice. Does the aspirant perform his dharma or duty without bothering about his own comfort, his own position, always bent on helping others to help themselves? This is the test, which if passed develops in him the virtue of dispassion, Vairagya. Disinterestedness is learnt; for, in the performance of duty he has always to forget his own self, his own inclinations, his own attractions and aversions. In each instance, at every turn, he has to ascertain what is the right course of action, and in taking that course he learns not only to be unselfish, but to expand his efforts, and see that those who come in his contact do not get from him opportunities to be selfish. This is difficult. A good man sacrifices himself for the sake of those he loves; but the spiritual man has so to sacrifice and so to serve that others, friends or relations, acquaintances or strangers, are not strengthened in their selfishness, their pride and prejudices.
This brings us to the difference between affection and compassion. Affection binds; compassion sets free the soul. Therefore when we act with compassion, we truly help the soul. The aspirant is learning the method of spiritual service—serving the soul; not body-service without mind-service and soul-service, nor mind-service without soul-service, but soul-service which includes both mind and body-service.
This practice of compassion in which self-sacrifice and real discrimination are strengthened and developed, at last brings the aspirant his reward. He has successfully walked the Path of Becoming and has prepared himself "to be made over." His duties discharged according to knowledge, in sacrifice, and by compassion, have sufficiently enlarged the Flame of his Being, and that Flame attracts the attention of the Great Ones, those Renouncers who are ever on the watch for approaching pilgrims. Having reached the acme of evolution, they watch, from that supreme height, the dark alley of this earth below. And they never fail to catch the radiance of the flame of knowledge, sacrifice and compassion that any one of us may kindle. Therefore, in occult parlance they are called the Sentinels of Light. By their own Great Light they keep watch and ward over those who are bearers of the little lights in this world of darkness.
The aspirant is rewarded with the gift of an inner feeling which grows into inner perception and flowers into inner conviction or faith that "to be made" is different and superior to "becoming." This is real Baptism, which purifies the soul from egotism and pride—ahamkara. This gift enables him to recognize himself as a mediator, alert and active, handling the forces of virtue and wisdom which belong to the world of the Spirit. Aided by this inner feeling, he learns the method of more efficient service, developing just compassion for all, and patience in everything. He learns how to turn every force of evil to good and to deal with the mind of the race as he finds it. It is at this stage that he is named a "chela on probation." The state of man in this world is probationary; but the chela on probation knows how and why life is probationary. Not only worldly life, but the Occult world too tests him. That test of the Occult world may be generally described; it is, in reference to the world of form and appearances, very beautiful and attractive, and this glamours the chela. He has to pass the test and learn not only to be unaffected by his senses and desires and fancies, but to see that his psychic and mental faculties, his emotional impulses, do not glamour him. Just as we find out that our eyesight glamours us and that the sun never rises or sets, and we learn by mental understanding how the earth rotates on its axis and revolves round the sun, causing this optical illusion, so also the probationary chela learns that his impulses, his fancies, even his imagination, all belonging to his psychic nature, glamour him. Withdrawing still inwards, behind and beyond his psychic nature, he learns to live more and more in the innermost recesses of his heart, in that which The Voice of the Silence calls the Hall of Wisdom. More and more he separates himself, not from the world, but from the worldly atmosphere; more and more he endeavours to pull his fellows, or rather helps them to pull themselves, to this attitude of detachment and compassion which makes all our actions sacrifices. In that Hall of Wisdom, he at last meets the Guru face to face.
Seek for him who is to give thee birth, in the Hall of Wisdom, the Hall which lies beyond, wherein all shadows are unknown, and where the light of truth shines with unfading glory.
In these few words the whole discipline of chelaship, the programme of discipleship, is given. Not only is there a difference of degree between the evolution of the ordinary man and the chela, who is trying to become an "extraordinary" man; there is a difference in kind. The soul of the merchant is in his business; the soul of the statesman is in state affairs; the soul of the mechanic is in his machine; the soul of the housewife is in her home; the soul of the artist is in his picture. But the soul of the chela is not even in his work and in his service of others; it is centred, ever and always, in the Star, who is his Guru and whose ray he is. The Guru is the Star, the chela the ray of the Star.
All Great Gurus are Stars—distant, and yet near, for their light touches the Earth. The Fraternity of Adepts is like unto the starry firmament: there is Lucifer, the herald of a new dawn for the soul; Mars, the great General who instructs us how to fight our passions and prides; Mercury, the Wise Enlightener, very difficult to find; Jupiter, who teaches us how to teach others; the regenerating Sun, who wakes us up and keeps us alive; and Hesperus, the Evening Star, who "points out the 'Way'—however dimly, and lost among the host—to those who tread their path in darkness."
Such are they, always watchful to respond to the call of the earth, to the cry of mortals, to the yearnings of humanity. They are the soul of all knowledge, and their efforts through cycles and millennia make it possible for us to waft over the Way of Light to them who are the Great Lights. We can try, and trying with faith born of knowledge, we cannot but have one success after another, till we ourselves shine with the glory of our destiny fulfilled, and know that we are verily divine. Then we too can live like "the Great and Peaceful Ones who live regenerating the world like the coming of spring."
We are at the bottom of a cycle and evidently in a transitory state. Plato divides the intellectual progress of the universe during every cycle into fertile and barren periods. In the sublunary regions, the spheres of the various elements remain eternally in perfect harmony with the divine nature, he says; "but their parts," owing to a too close proximity to earth, and their commingling with the earthly (which is matter, and therefore the realm of evil), "are sometimes according, and sometimes contrary to (divine) nature." When those circulations—which Eliphas Levi calls "currents of the astral light"—in the universal ether which contains in itself every element, take place in harmony with the divine spirit, our earth and everything pertaining to it enjoys a fertile period. The occult powers of plants, animals, and minerals magically sympathize with the "superior natures," and the divine soul of man is in perfect intelligence with these "inferior" ones. But during the barren periods, the latter lose their magic sympathy, and the spiritual sight of the majority of mankind is so blinded as to lose every notion of the superior powers of its own divine spirit. We are in a barren period....The divine intellect is veiled in man; his animal brain alone philosophizes.