It is well now to say, more definitely than I have as yet, a few words of the two classes of beings, one of which has been much spoken of in Theosophical literature, and also by those on the outside who write of the subject either in seriousness or in ridicule. These two classes of exalted personages are the Mahatmas and Nirmanakayas.
In respect to the Mahatmas, a great many wrong notions have currency, not only with the public, but as well with Theosophists in all parts of the world.
In the early days of the Theosophical Society the name Mahatma was not in use here, but the title then was “Brothers.” This referred to the fact that they were a band of men who belonged to a brotherhood in the East. The most wonderful powers and, at times, the most extraordinary motives were attributed to them by those who believed in their existence.
They could pass to all parts of the world in the twinkling of an eye. Across the great distance that India is from here they could precipitate letters to their friends and disciples in New York. Many thought that if this were done it was only for amusement; others looked at it in the light of a test for the faithful, while still others often supposed Mahatmas acted thus for pure love of exercising their power. The Spiritualists, some of whom believed that Mme. Blavatsky really did the wonderful things told of her, said that she was only a medium, pure and simple, and that her Brothers were familiar spooks of seance rooms. Meanwhile the press in general laughed, and Mme. Blavatsky and her Theosophical friends went on doing their work and never gave up their belief in the Brothers, who after a few years came to be called Mahatmas. Indiscriminately with Mahatma, the word Adept has been used to describe the same beings, so that we have these two titles made use of without accuracy and in a misleading fashion.
The word Adept signifies proficiency, and is not uncommon, so that, when using it, some description is necessary if it is to be applied to the Brothers. For that reason I used Theosophical Adepts in a previous paper. A Mahatma is not only an Adept, but much more. The etymology of it will make the matter clearer, the word being strictly Sanskrit, from maha, great, and atma, soul — hence Great Soul. This does not mean a noble-hearted man merely, but a perfected being, one who has attained to the state often described by mystics and held by scientific men to be an impossibility, when time and space are no obstacles to sight, to action, to knowledge or to consciousness. Hence they are said to be able to perform the extraordinary feats related by various persons, and also to possess information of a decidedly practical character concerning the laws of nature, including that mystery for science — the meaning, operation and constitution of life itself — and concerning the genesis of this planet as well as of the races upon it. These large claims have given rise to the chief complaint brought forward against the Theosophical Adepts by those writers outside of the Society who have taken the subject up — that they remain, if they exist at all, in a state of cold and selfish quietude, seeing the misery and hearing the groans of the world, yet refusing to hold out a helping hand except to a favored few; possessing knowledge of scientific principles, or of medicinal preparations, and yet keeping it back from learned men or wealthy capitalists who desire to advance commerce while they turn an honest penny. Although, for one, I firmly believe, upon evidence given me, in all that is claimed for these Adepts, I declare groundless the complaint advanced, knowing it to be due to a want of knowledge of those who are impugned.
Adepts and Mahatmas are not a miraculous growth, nor the selfish successors of some who, accidentally stumbling upon great truths, transmitted them to adherents under patent rights. They are human beings trained, developed, cultivated through not only a life but long series of lives, always under evolutionary laws and quite in accord with what we see among men of the world or of science. Just as a Tyndall is greater than a savage, though still a man, so is the Mahatma, not ceasing to be human, still greater than a Tyndall. The Mahatma-Adept is a natural growth, and not produced by any miracle; the process by which he so becomes may be to us an unfamiliar one, but it is in the strict order of nature.
Some years ago a well-known Anglo-Indian, writing to the Theosophical Adepts, queried if they had ever made any mark upon the web of history, doubting that they had. The reply was that he had no bar at which to arraign them, and that they had written many an important line upon the page of human life, not only as reigning in visible shape, but down to the very latest dates when, as for many a long century before, they did their work behind the scenes. To be more explicit, these wonderful men have swayed the destiny of nations and are shaping events today. Pillars of peace and makers of war such as Bismarck, or saviors of nations such as Washington, Lincoln and Grant, owe their elevation, their singular power, and their astonishing grasp upon the right men for their purposes, not to trained intellect or long preparation in the schools of their day, but to these very unseen Adepts, who crave no honors, seek no publicity and claim no acknowledgment. Each one of these great human leaders whom I have mentioned had in his obscure years what he called premonitions of future greatness, or connection with stirring events in his native land.
Lincoln always felt that in some way he was to be an instrument for some great work, and the stray utterances of Bismarck point to silent hours, never openly referred to, when he felt an impulse pushing him to whatever of good he may have done. A long array of instances could be brought forward to show that the Adepts have made “an ineffaceable mark upon diverse eras.” Even during the great uprising in India that threatened the English rule there, they saw long in advance the influence England and India would have in the affairs of the world through the very psychic and metaphysical changes of today, and often hastened to communicate, by their own occult and wonderful methods, the news of successes for English arms to districts and peoples in the interior who might have risen under the stimulus of imaginary reports of English disasters. At other times, vague fears were spread instantly over large masses of the Hindus, so that England at last remained master, even though many a patriotic native desired another result. But the Adepts do not work for the praise of men, for the ephemeral influence of a day, but for the future races and man’s best and highest good.