A great soul, from mahā (great) and Ātman (soul). In theosophical literature, the term is used to refer to ADEPTS or those beings who have attained human perfection. It must be noted that in India, Mahātma is a general reverent title for great or holy people, such as Mahātma Gandhi. This article uses the word in the first sense, which corresponds to the Arhats of Buddhism and the Rishis of Hinduism.
In theosophical literature, the title Mahātma is frequently used to address two personages, the Mahātmas KOOT HOOMI and MORYA, who also initiated and inspired the founding of the Theosophical Society (TS) in 1875.
Helena P. BLAVATSKY wrote that “A Mahatma is a personage, who, by special training and education, has evolved those higher faculties and has attained that spiritual knowledge, which ordinary humanity will acquire after passing through numberless series of re-incarnations during the process of cosmic evolution” (CW VI:239).
A distinctive characteristic of a Mahātma, she adds, is the transformation of the mind or Manas as compared to ordinary individuals. Through successive births, he “has less and less (in each incarnation) of that lower Manas until there arrives a time when its whole Manas, being of an entirely elevated character, is centred in the higher individuality, when such a person may be said to have become a Mahatma. At the time of his physical death, all the lower four principles perish without any suffering, for these are, in fact, to him like a piece of wearing apparel which he puts on and off at will. The real Mahatma is then not his physical body but that higher Manas which is inseparably linked to the Atma and its vehicle (the 6th principle) — a union effected by him in a comparatively very short period by passing through the process of self-evolution laid down by the Occult Philosophy” (ibid., 239-240).
Blavatsky states that Mahātmas have physical bodies, and while they have conquered the limitations of death, they are nevertheless mortal. “They are living men, not ‘spirits’ or even Nirmānakāyas. . . . Their knowledge and learning are immense, and their personal holiness of life is still greater — still they are mortal men and none of them 1,000 years old, as imagined by some.”
The Mahātmas belong to a worldwide brotherhood of adepts scattered in various regions of the world. Some of these locations mentioned in theosophical literature are Tibet, India, Egypt, and Europe. The names of some of them were made public after the founding of the Theosophical Society: MAHĀ-CHOHAN, MORYA, Koot Hoomi, SERAPIS, NARAYAN, HILARION, POLIDORUS ISURENUS, Robert MORE, “OLD GENTLEMAN,” DJUAL KHUL.
Alfred P. SINNETT, the English journalist who was a recipient of letters from the Matātmas Koot Hoomi and Morya from 1880 to 1886, wrote that these Mahātmas belong to any of the seven types of Adepts. Each of these types is headed by a Chohan or a superior Mahātma (Esoteric Buddhism).
The existence of the Mahātmas of theosophical literature have been independently attested to by various individuals such as Ramaswami AIYER, William T. BROWN, MOORAD ALI BEG, and Damodar MAVALANKAR. Those who corresponded or received letters from them include Allan O. HUME, Laura HOLLOWAY, Annie BESANT, Mary GEBHARD, Dr. William Hubbe-Schleiden, Franz HARTMANN, Major General Henry R. Morgan and many others. The letters have been published in several books: The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom, Series I and II, and Blavatsky Letters to A.P. Sinnett.
Two sets of portraits of the Mahātmas Morya and Koot Hoomi were painted by Hermann SCHMIECHEN in 1884 in London with the paranormal cooperation of the two Mah€tmas who were not physically present in the studio. One set of these paintings is now in the international headquarters of the Theosophical Society.
Later theosophical writings added more names to the list of the known adepts, a few of whom are the VENETIAN, JESUS, Count of ST. GERMAIN, MAITREYA, the MANU, and the BUDDHA.
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