In Theosophy and traditions descended from it, a person who, after many cycles of reincarnation and spiritual growth, transcends the physical plane but remains active in the world as a teacher and initiator of others on the spiritual path. The Masters are also known as ascended masters or mahatmas. The concept of the Masters derives partly from Buddhist teachings about bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who refuse to enter into Nirvana until all other sentient beings are saved; partly from nineteenth-century ideas about occult initiates who secretly shape world events and pass on their teachings to a chosen few; and partly from alternative visions of Christianity that identify Jesus, not as a divine being come to earth, but as a very advanced human soul. These latter commonly treat Jesus’ ascension into heaven as his most important act, showing his transcendence of human limits. The broadening of this idea to high spiritual adepts of all cultures played a crucial role in creating the concept of the Masters. See Theosophical Society.
Lists of known or suspected Masters vary widely. Jesus is almost always counted among them, and often ranks as the Master of Masters, while Kuthumi (Koot Hoomi) and El Morya – the spiritual masters credited by Theosophy’s founder Helena Blavatsky as the source of her teachings – also rank high on the list. Djwal Khul, “the Tibetan,” who inspired Alice Bailey’s voluminous occult writings, also makes the short list in most accounts, and so does the Comte de Saint-Germain. Beyond this core the list broadens considerably, sometimes taking in unlikely candidates. Dion Fortune’s Fraternity (later Society) of the Inner Light considered Euclid, the ancient Greek mathematician, to be one of the Masters, while some twentieth-century American groups gave the same status to George Washington. See Arcane School; Jesus of Nazareth; Saint-Germain, Comte de; Society of the Inner Light.
Critics of modern occultism have had a field day with some of the more overblown descriptions of the Masters, but an experiential reality lies behind the colourful beliefs. Most practitioners of occult disciplines have had the experience of contact with disembodied entities that have distinct personalities and intellectual powers of their own – sometimes going far beyond those of the people they contact. Many of these entities claim to have been human at particular points in the past, and their speech and knowledge tends to be consistent with their claims. Thus whether the Masters exist or not, as Aleister Crowley famously said of spirits, the universe appears to behave as though they do.
At the same time, the astral cloak of the Masters has more than once served as a veil for incarnate human beings. According to K. Paul Johnson, a historian of Theosophy, Blavatsky’s Masters themselves may have been Indian political and religious leaders with whom she worked in the early 1880s. Johnson has argued that the Master Koot Hoomi was actually Thakar Singh Sandhanwalia, a liberal Sikh leader of the time, while El Morya was Ranbir Singh, Maharajah of Kashmir, a Hindu who campaigned for religious tolerance; both men were closely associated with Blavatsky and helped support the Theosophical Society. Theosophists have sharply criticized Johnson’s claims but his arguments have proven hard to refute. See Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna.
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006