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For other uses, see Mahatma (disambiguation).

Mahatma (Mə-HÄT-mə) is Sanskrit for "Great Soul" (महात्मा mahātmā: महा mahā (great) + आत्मं or आत्मन ātman [soul]). It is similar in usage to the modern Christian term saint.[1] This epithet is commonly applied to prominent people like Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Lalon Shah and Jyotirao Phule. Rabindranath Tagore is said to have accorded, or popularized, this title for Gandhi.[2]


The word, used in a technical sense, was popularized in theosophical literature in the late 19th century, when Madame Helena Blavatsky, one of the founders of the Theosophical Society, claimed that her teachers were adepts (or Mahatmas) who reside in Asia.

According to the Theosophical teachings, the Mahatmas are not disembodied beings, but highly evolved people involved in overseeing the spiritual growth of individuals and the development of civilizations. Blavatsky was the first person in modern times to claim contact with these Adepts, especially the "Masters" Koot Hoomi and Morya.

In September and October 1880, Blavatsky visited A. P. Sinnett at Simla in northern India. The serious interest of Sinnett in the Theosophical teachings of Mme. Blavatsky and the work of the Theosophical Society prompted Mme. Blavatsky to establish a contact by correspondence between Sinnett and the two adepts who were sponsoring the society, Koot Hoomi and Morya.

From this correspondence Sinnett wrote The Occult World (1881) and Esoteric Buddhism (1883), both of which had an enormous influence in generating public interest in theosophy. The replies and explanations given by the Mahatmas to the questions by Sinnett are embodied in their letters from 1880 to 1885, published in London in 1923 as The Mahatma Letters to Sinnett. The Mahatmas also corresponded with a number of other persons during the early years of the Theosophical Society. Many of these letters have been published in two volumes titled Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom, Series 1 and Series 2.

There has been a great deal of controversy concerning the existence of these particular adepts. Blavatsky's critics have doubted the existence of her Masters. See, for example, W.E. Coleman's "exposes". However, more than twenty five individuals testified to having seen and been in contact with these Mahatmas during Blavatsky's lifetime.[3] In recent years, K. Paul Johnson has promoted his controversial theory about the Masters.

After Blavatsky's death in 1891, numerous individuals have claimed to be in contact with her Adept Teachers and have stated that they were new "messengers" of the Masters conveying various esoteric teachings.[4] Currently various New Age, metaphysical, and religious organizations refer to them as Ascended Masters, although their character and teachings are in several respects different from those described by Theosophical writers.[5][6]

Divine Light Mission

The Divine Light Mission (DLM) was a Sant Mat-based movement begun in India in the 1930s by Hans Ji Maharaj and formally incorporated in 1960. The DLM had as many as 2,000 Mahatmas, all from India or Tibet, who taught the DLM's secret meditation techniques called "Knowledge". The Mahatmas, called "realised souls",[7] or "apostles", also served as local leaders.[8] After Hans Ji's death in 1966 his youngest son, Prem Rawat (known then as Guru Maharaj Ji or Bagyogeshwar), succeeded him. The young guru appointed some new Mahatmas, including one from the United States. In one incident, a prominent Indian Mahatma nearly beat a man to death in Detroit for throwing a pie at the guru.[9] In the early 1980s, Prem Rawat replaced the Divine Light Mission organization with the Elan Vital and replaced the Mahatmas with initiators. The initiators did not have the revered status of the Mahatmas, and they were drawn mostly from Western followers.[7] In the 2000s, the initiators were replaced by a video in which Rawat teaches the techniques himself.

In popular culture

W.C. Fields used the pseudonym Mahatma Kane Jeeves when writing the script for The Bank Dick (1940), in a play on both the word "Mahatma" and a phrase an aristocrat might use when addressing a servant, before leaving the house: "My hat, my cane, Jeeves".



  • Dutta, Krishna and Andrew Robinson. Rabindranath Tagore: An Anthology. Picador/Macmillan: London, 1997.

External links

  • The theosophical Mahatmas and Their Letters
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