Theosophical University Press Online Edition
What appears to the Western mind to be a very strange superstition prevails in India about wonderful persons who are said to be of immense age, and who keep themselves secluded in places not accessible to the ordinary traveler. So long has this been current in India that the name applied to these beings is well known in the Sanskrit language: "Mahatma," a compound of two words, maha, great, and atma, soul. The belief in the existence of such persons is not confined to the ignorant, but is shared by the educated of all castes. The lower classes look upon the Mahatmas as a sort of gods, and think most of their wonderful powers and great age. The pundits, or learned class, and educated Hindus in general, have a different view; they say that Mahatmas are men or souls with unlimited knowledge of natural laws and of man's history and development. They claim also that the Mahatmas — or Rishees, as they sometimes call them — have preserved the knowledge of all natural laws for ages, not only by tradition among their disciples, but also by actual records and in libraries existing somewhere in the many underground temples and passages in India. Some believers assert that there are also stores of books and records in secluded parts all over that part of Tibet which is not known to Europeans, access to them being possible only for the Mahatmas and Adepts.
The credence given to such a universal theory grows out of an old Indian doctrine that man is a spiritual being — a soul, in other words — and that this soul takes on different bodies from life to life on earth in order at last to arrive at such perfect knowledge, through repeated experience, as to enable one to assume a body fit to be the dwelling-place of a Mahatma or perfected soul. Then, they say, that particular soul becomes a spiritual helper to mankind. The perfected men are said to know the truth about the genesis of worlds and systems, as well as the development of man upon this and other planets.
Were such doctrines held only in India, it would be natural to pass the subject by with this brief mention. But when it is found that a large body of people in America and Europe hold the same beliefs, it is interesting to note such an un-Western development of thought. The Theosophical Society was founded in New York in 1875, with the avowed object of forming a nucleus for a Universal Brotherhood, and its founders state that they believe the Indian Mahatmas directed them to establish such a society. Since its foundation it has gained members in all countries, including people of wealth as well as those in moderate circumstances, and the highly cultured also. Within its ranks there flourish beliefs in the Mahatmas of India and in Reincarnation and its twin doctrine, Karma. This last holds that no power, human or divine, can save one from the consequences of acts performed, and that in this life we are experiencing the results due to us for all acts and thoughts which were ours in the preceding incarnation.
This has brought out a large body of literature in books and magazines published in the United States, England, India, and elsewhere. Newspapers are published in the interest of the new-old cult in the vernacular of Hindustan and also in old Ceylon. Even Japan has its periodicals devoted to the same end, and to ignore so widespread a movement would bespeak ignorance of the factors at work in our development. When such an eminent authority as the great French savant, Emile Bournouf, says that the Theosophical movement must be counted as one of the three great religious influences in the world today, there is no need of an excuse for presenting its features in detail to readers imbued with the civilization of the West.