Monday, October 5, 2009

Thoughts About the Masters

I recently completed reading a fabulous book entitled “The Masters Revealed - Madame Blavatsky and the Myth of the Great White Lodge”, written by K. Paul Johnson and published by SUNY Press. Needless to say, I believe that Mr. Johnson has finally written something that made sense about the whole issue of the masters, known also as ascended masters, secret chiefs, or as Blavatsky referred to them, the Mahatmas or Great Souls. These are the ubiquitous semi divine immortal master adepts who invisibly guide and direct the historical progress of the whole human race. Of course they must be very subtle indeed, since the history of our modern epoch is rife with wars, death, destruction and suffering on a massive global scale.

Many occult traditions believe in the masters and that includes the Western tradition of ceremonial magic. The Golden Dawn supposedly had its mysterious secret chiefs who gave legitimacy and continuity to its lore and teachings. Other organizations that are descended from the Theosophical Society also believe and venerate them, such as the followers of the voluminous channeled writings of Alice A. Bailey, the church promoted by Elizabeth Claire Prophet, and numerous others.

While previous writers have either completely debunked the myth of the masters or completely accepted their reality without question, Paul Johnson takes a completely different approach. According to his theory, the masters are a complex combination of literary creation and real men whose identities Blavatsky wished to conceal. Her desire to conceal the identities of these men was based on a need for discretion, since such a disclosure could have caused some or even most of them to be persecuted. India and the Middle East were not places where even powerful men could publically state progressive spiritual beliefs, since colonial and local tyrannies ensured that religious beliefs remained in the grip of a conservative orthodoxy. In some of these locations this is still true today. Blavatsky may also have wanted to obscure the sources of her new spiritual doctrines so as to give them the illusion of uniformity and legitimacy.

Paul Johnson believes that Blavatsky was strongly influenced by some of the greatest minds in Europe, the Middle East and in India. One could say that Theosophy was the product of a distillation of a myriad of sources - the beliefs and writings of the most remarkable of men. Paul Johnson also manages to identify the individuals or inspirational sources for nearly all of the mahatmas, and this includes an even larger cast of individuals who also powerfully influenced Blavatsky, though not later mythologized as mahatmas. All of these remarkable men, however, were quite mortal, and all have long since passed away in the almost 130 years since Blavatsky started to write and talk about them.

Paul Johnson has restored to us the names of these great men, who are once again known as the teachers, friends and sponsors of the founders of the Theosophical Society. The names and characteristics of these great men were used to fabricate mythological personages who became the reputed authors and instigators of the Theosophical Society. Blavatsky’s literary creation of the mahatmas was used to obscure their true identities and to mythologize them for all time. However, she left behind numerous clues and sometimes even went so far as to print variations of their true names. Yet these clues have not been scrutinized either by those who sought to disprove them or who firmly believed in their existence. Paul Johnson is the first researcher to propose a historical background to these fascinating individuals. I would like to present his list of the mahatmas, or at the very least, their probable source inspirations.

One master who was not named or barely referenced in Blavatsky’s writings was Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, who was a charismatic Sufi and eastern Freemason. Some of his writings and teachings found their way into the early formation of the T.S. Another eastern spiritual teacher and intellectual was Paolos Metamon, who became known as the master Serapis Bey, and there was the mysterious individual who Blavatsky called Hilarion who likely was known to history as Ooton Liatto, another multi-cultural free thinker and spiritual teacher.

The two greatest mahatmas who probably wrote most of the letters that later became the body of the lore of masters in the T.S. were called by Blavatsky, Koot Hoomi and Morya, also known by their initials K.H. and M. These two individuals were most likely the actual historical individuals known as Tharkar Singh Sandhanwalia and the Maharaja Ranbir Singh of Kashmir, respectively. Some of the letters were probably written by them or ghost written by Blavatsky, but these two great individuals were part of the notables of the Sikhs in the Punjab area of India in the 1880's. Both of these individuals quietly supported the T.S., including offering monetary support and unique sources of eastern spiritual teachings and rare translations of eastern mystical literature.

Another remarkable Sikh from India who was probably the model for another master was Sirdar Dayal Singh, a journalist and spiritual leader from Lahore. Dayal became known to the members of the T.S. as Djual Kul or D.K., a supposed Tibetan master who was the impetus for the channeled writings of Alice A. Bailey. Dayal was another important individual behind the scenes in the formation of the T.S. in India. 

Although Blavatsky wrote that her masters were Tibetans residing in Shigatse, she never made it to that distant and mysterious location. However, she fictitiously claims to have done so in the late 1860's. Tibet was actually closed to all Europeans and many Asians, and was ruled by the exclusive religious hierarchy of the Dalai Lama. However, one of the members of the T.S. did manage to stay in Tibet for over four years and brought back copies of many rare and unknown Buddhist texts, although the prime minister and many others were cruelly punished for allowing this intrusion. These texts became accessible to Blavatsky and potently influenced her final writings, such as the Secret Doctrine.  That man was a Bengalis explorer named Sarat Chandra Das, who was a student of the Tibetan language and a converted Buddhist. He was also functioning as a British informant. So it can be stated quite accurately that most of Blavatsky’s masters were Freemasons, Sufis, Sikhs or followers of Vendanta - none were Tibetan.

Blavatsky’s conversion to Buddhism probably occurred in 1880, when she and Olcott (the other co-founder of the T.S.) visited Ceylon and personally met Sumangala Unanse, the district High Priest. Sumangala was a Buddhist of the southern branch of Buddhism, and although Blavatsky preferred the northern branch (which included Tibet), she none-the-less converted and learned the Buddhist faith from this man. Although not given a mahatma characterization, Sumangala was an important far eastern supporter of the T.S. organization, and helped to give it a very distinctive eastern flavor.

Fictional masters were brought into the T.S. lore, such as St. Germain (Prince Ragoczy), Cagliostro and Christian Rosenkruetz. Others were posthumously made into masters, such as Jesus, Apollonius of Tyanna, Akhenaton and Zoroaster. Legendary masters were just as valid as historical masters, since both were thoroughly mythologized. Who could argue with such characterizations, since all knowledge of these personages had long since vanished? Often it seems that legendary individuals are quite mutable, since they appear to adapt to whatever belief or opinion characterizes them. If one believes that Jesus was a magician, then there can be assembled a body of proof that seems to support that theory, or if one believes that he was a rabbi or teacher, or a revolutionary, or a philosopher, one can attempt to prove these opinions, too.

As you can see, the list of masters is endless, but many of them have been associated with possible historical figures by Paul Johnson. I could probably say without too much prejudice that almost all of the so-called masters were actually mythologizations of the amazing men that Blavatsky met on her more than forty years of traveling the world, searching for spiritual wisdom. One could almost say that the greatest mahatma or secret master of the T.S. is Madame Blavatsky herself, who skillfully and brilliantly distilled the wisdom of the world into a modern system of spirituality that bridges both East and West. Blavatsky popularized the myth of the masters, but she did not invent it. Both Europe, with its Myth of the Magus, and the East, with its immortal gurus, have believed in the ageless and undying masters who shepherd mankind through times of crisis. Perhaps this is a comforting belief, but it is one that cannot be relied upon, since human spiritual crises must be resolved by real flesh and blood human beings.

What this revelation does is create a historical context for the T.S., and for Blavatsky’s writings, but it also makes dubious claims that the masters are still transmitting spiritual knowledge through proxies for public consumption. Those individuals and groups who have claimed that they are acting as agents for the living masters are also likely perpetrating the illusion that such individuals are real. While they certainly were real to Blavatsky, they were also historical individuals who she actually met and knew. If we acknowledge this fact, then we have to judge the claims that certain individuals have either channeled or are being otherwise directed by ascended masters. This opens the derived teachings of such individuals to the scrutiny of rational minds and practicality, since such teachings can no longer be considered sacred writ.

For instance, we can longer believe that Djual Kul is the hidden inspiration for the books written by Alice A. Bailey, and this means that these works are not holy nor infallible - they can examined and used or not based on their own merit. If these writings are useful to a significant body of occultists, then this says much more about Alice Bailey and her extensive knowledge and teaching skills than does it about some mysterious, possibly fictional, master. One could say the same about the writings of Elizabeth Claire Prophet and many others. The glamor of the masters gives writings and teachings an authenticity and legitimacy that they might otherwise completely lack.

When I was a teenager and began to study magic and the occult for the first time, I believed that there was a body of master magicians who were sworn to secrecy, and who from time to time revealed themselves to worthy candidates and brought them into their secret society. This secret society contained the great secret teachings of all ages and was led by enlightened men and women who discretely and almost invisibly sought to change the world for the good. I believed that if I worked very hard and excelled at my occult studies, and learned to master my art of magic that one day one of these great initiates would seek me out and induct me into their secret order of master magicians.  I often wondered as I walked the streets at night or visited occult book stores, if perhaps some stranger that I happened to pass was indeed one of these masters in disguise, watching me and patiently waiting for my true genius to be awakened.

That was what I thought when I was a young man, and that belief drives the aspirations of many occultists to this day. However, I must admit that I no longer carry this belief, that I have outgrown it, realizing that the most incredible and remarkable human beings that walk the earth are ordinary occultists like myself. I don’t believe in masters, but I do believe in humanity learning to master their lives and overcome their issues - and what stories and teachings do such remarkable men and women have to tell!

Frater Barrabbas


  1. One of the things that makes me wonder about the idea that Blavatsky was in contact with real Buddhist masters from India or Tibet and simply obscured their identities is that no Buddhist would ever sign on to the way that Theosophy seems to interpret the idea of karma. In Buddhism karma simply refers to events that are tied together by the laws of cause and effect. For example, if you are careless working in a shop and wind up losing a finger the karma of your carelessness is that you no longer have a finger.

    Modern Theosophists that I have met, on the other hand, subscribe to a more superstitious view. The idea is that there are "good actions" and "bad actions" and that if you take a "bad action" the result will be that some unrelated bad thing will happen to you. For example, if you shoplift a can of soup from a store the karma of that action could be that your car won't start the next day. New Agers also seem to have picked up the same ridiculous idea.

    It might be interesting to go through Blavatsky's work and see if this view of karma is present in her own writing or if it came in later due to the influence of people like Besant and Leadbeater. If Blavatsky was really promulgating this idea I think it unlikely that she was in contact with any Buddhist masters, though it is possible that her contacts were mystics from other schools such as Sufism who had limited knowledge of Buddhist concepts.

  2. Blavatsky did not have any real substantive contact with Buddhists until the last decade of her life. The Secret Doctrine doesn't contain any real Buddhist religious philosophy, however, the Secret Doctrine does. I believe that Blavatsky and Olcott both understood karma and reincarnation as easterners understood it. The real problem is that Besant and Leadbeater both determined the popular doctrine of the T.S., and they did not receive the teachings that the founders did.

  3. Thank you very much for the kind words and even more so for conveying the message of the book. I just want to point out the major omission in the book, someone "hidden in plain sight." Emma Hardinge Britten was a co-founder of the TS with at least as much credibility in terms of distinguished mentors as Blavatsky. But she has been written out of Theosophical history after leaving the TS in protest of HPB's mythical Mahatmas. The "Orphic Circle" and "Chevalier Louis" of Emma's books were mostly nonfictional, which I didn't know 15 years ago but which has been well established since. A website by a biographer working on a bio of Emma is very enlightening at


  4. Blavatsky's claim to have visited Tibet in the late 1860s always makes me think of Alexandra David-Néel, who performed this trip in reality fifty years later, and met the Panchen Lama in Shigatse. She had already met the 13th Dalai Lama twice, and later travelled to Lhasa.
    David-Néel was the first European woman, and also (I believe) the first western Buddhist to have entered Tibetan territory, and her buddhist background allowed her to access and make sense of teachings and traditions that would have been closed to most Westerners. Her book Magic and Mystery in Tibet is a great read. She describes seeing some pretty magical things going on!