The Gnosis Archive

Gnosis Archive | Library | Bookstore | Index | Web Lectures | Ecclesia Gnostica | Gnostic Society


Wise Men from the East

Angels following the Wise Men, by Gustave Moreau

Is there a secret brotherhood of masters who direct the spiritual progress of humankind?

by Stephan A. Hoeller

There is a strange and persistent legend that probably originates in the East. It proposes that in some hidden locations on the earth (generally the highlands of Central Asia, particularly Tibet, although other sites, such as the Andes and even some mountains in the U.S., such as the Grand Tetons and Mt. Shasta, are mentioned at times), there exists a group of persons who possess both exceptional powers and a highly perfected character and consciousness. They are known variously as the Hierarchy of Adepts, the Great White Lodge, the Great White Brotherhood, the Masters, or simply the Hierarchy.

While most sources emphasize the Eastern (particularly Indian and Tibetan) nationality of these persons, Western embodiments of the legend are not unknown. Some have suggested that portions of this legend traveled westward during the Crusades or even earlier and that their sources are thus primarily to be found in secret and semisecret Islamic traditions.

Beginning with the publication of the mysterious Rosicrucian document Fama Fraternitatis in 1614, the existence of certain "unknown superiors" or "Brothers of the Rosy Cross" who live and work in secret and yet direct much of the spiritual destiny of the world became a part of the beliefs of many Western esotericists. To these transmissions may be added diverse strands of legends connected with Arabian poetry, wise men wandering among the troubadours, the fabled kingdom of an adept priest-king names Prester John in Africa, alchemical masters of an elusive and potent aspect led by Elias Artista, as well as the Templars and the esoteric Freemasons. By the nineteenth century, the foundations for a major unfolding of the adeptic myth were laid. This unfolding took place by way of the Theosophical movement, without which the entire myth would probably have remained forever in obscurity.

Blavatsky and Her Masters

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky

The position of current wisdom about the Masters is well-stated by one of the better popularizers of esoterica, Richard Cavendish, who calls it "a glamorous simplification of the tradition common to both East and West from time immemorial, of the searching spirit who asked: 'Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life'"1

This question, of biblical origin, is not without poignancy. As Jesus was regarded as a master of things relating to the life beyond earthly existence, so the Theosophical tradition of the last 120 years has looked to personages of superior insight and power to assist mortals in gaining consciousness of a greater life. Not only did it proclaim the existence and availability of such personages, but it also regarded them as the fount and origin of its teachings.

In one of the very first academic treatises on the subject, published in 1930 in a series sponsored by Columbia University, Alvin Boyd Kuhn wrote:

Theosophists tell us that before the launching of the latest "drive" to promulgate Theosophy in the world, the councils of the Great White Brotherhood of Adepts, or Mahatmas, long debated whether the times were ripe for the free propagation of the secret Gnosis; whether the modern world . . . could appreciate the secret knowledge, without the risk of serious misuse of high spiritual forces, which might be diverted into selfish channels. We are told that in these councils it was the majority opinion that broadcasting the Ancient Wisdom over the Occidental areas would be a veritable casting of pearls before swine; yet two of the Mahatmas settled the question by undertaking to assume the karmic debts of the move, to take the responsibility for all possible disturbances and ill effects.2

These two Mahatmas eventually became known as Morya and Koot Hoomi (or Kut Humi), and their contact person par excellence was Helena Petrovna Blavatsky.

The story of the colorful, controversial, erudite, and intuitive Mme. Blavatsky has been told many times, most recently and accurately by Sylvia Cranston.3 The issue of her involvement with her adeptic inspirers has also been thoroughly investigated by a most valiant researcher, K. Paul Johnson.4 Johnson's work merits some comment here because in certain ways it represents a novel development of the treatment of the subject. It is Johnson's thesis that the Adepts and Mahatmas of Blavatsky were all historical figures living in her lifetime, for whom she found suitable disguises in mysterious personae and a set of equally mysterious pseudonyms, under which they entered the mythos of Theosophy and of all modern occultism.

According to Johnson, Morya was a Maharajah of Kashmir by the name of Ranbir Singh, while Koot Hoomi is identified with a Sikh spiritual leader, Sirdar Thakar Singh Sadhanwalia. Johnson also identifies other adeptic figures of Blavatsky's, such as "the Chohan" (or Maha Chohan) and the "Master Djual Kul" (later publicized by Alice Bailey), with Sikh and Muslim gurus and leaders of the time.

The Living Masters

It is not without interest that Johnson should pick so many Sikh personages as the models for Blavatsky's occult Masters. The variety of Indian spirituality that is most comparable to modern Theosophy is perhaps the Sant tradition, which some scholars regard as a close relative of Western Gnosticism. This tradition has been allied with the Sikhs since the time of Guru Nanak in the sixteenth century. Its latest embodiment, the Radhasoami movement, had just appeared on the scene in Blavatsky's time in the person of Shiv Dayal Singh (1818-78), who was well-known in Indian religious circles and certainly came to the attention of the Theosophists.

The Sant tradition has innumerable doctrinal similarities to Theosophy, including the teaching of the "living masters" who are the chief agents of the initiatory redemption of their followers.5 It is regrettable that in spite of recognizing the Sikh connection, Johnson failed to trace it to the Sant tradition, where he might have found a far more valuable model for Blavatsky's concept of the Masters. The subject is still in great need of exploration. We shall do so briefly here.

For a Westerner the term "saint" denotes a person in whom the ordinary human virtues have been exercised to a heroic degree. The ancient Greeks may be credited with having first established a category of humans known as heroes, who stood between mortals and the immortal gods. The Sant tradition recognizes persons of a similar kind. They are usually called sants ("saints" or "men of truth") or satgurus ("true teachers"). Such persons have merged their own spiritual core with the Supreme Identity to the extent that they are no longer subject to any illusion or any sense of ego apart from the Divine.

As one contemporary researcher says, "What we are confronted with in the [sat]guru is a classic hierophany: a profane object which manifests the sacred."6 The satguru is an embodied being, a human, not a disembodied god of angel and for this reason is known as a "living master." Neither is it sufficient in this tradition to follow a teacher who has died:

According to the Sant tradition . . . one must follow a living guru. It is said that past Sants cannot take the soul back to God. This is due to two main reasons: (1) the original message of the Sants is believed to be misconstrued after the Sant passes away, while the teachings of a living Sant are pure and charged; and . . . devotion to one's guru aids one's spiritual progress; (2) it is believed to be easier to love someone alive and tangible than someone who has been dead for centuries.7

Let us compare this with some statements concerning the Theosophical Mahatmas. According to Blavatsky,

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 reincarnations during the process of cosmic evolution . . . The real Mahatma is then not his physical body but that higher [mind] which is inseparably linked to the [spirit] and its vehicle.8

We also have statements to this effect from what would appear to be the Mahatmas themselves. During Blavatsky's residence in India after 1879, the Anglo-Indian journalist A.P. Sinnett became interested in her teachers. In 1880 he instituted a correspondence with Morya and Koot Hoomi. The replies to Sinnett's letters have been preserved in the British Museum in London and have also been published in book form. In one of these letters, Koot Hoomi writes:

An adept - the highest as the lowest - is one only during the exercise of his occult powers . . . Whenever these powers are needed, the sovereign will unlocks the door to the inner man (the adept), who can emerge and act freely, but on condition that his jailer - the outer man - will be either completely or partially paralyzed.9

Allowing for certain differences in psychological orientation, such a statement could have readily come from a "living master" of the Sant tradition.

Adepts Embodied and Disembodied

These considerations leave little doubt that Blavatsky's mysterious teachers were regarded as living human personages, albeit of a highly unusual order. At the same time it is also necessary to recognize that along with the mythos of the embodied Masters another mythos played an important part in the development of the idea of the adeptic Hierarchy. This was nineteenth-century Spiritualism, a movement that attracted great numbers and much publicity in its day.

Today Spiritualism is largely confined to the practice of attempting contacts with rather nondescript spirits. Professed Spiritualists are not very numerous and their social and intellectual standing is on the whole unremarkable. Yet another kind of Spiritualism has become much more prominent: the phenomenon of channeling. Here we primarily find attempts to disseminate occult information, often pertaining to humanity or the cosmos as a whole. Channelers in general do not have the personalistic preoccupations of Spiritualists, who often seem largely concerned with the exploits of their dead relatives in non-physical realms. Channelers' utterances are frequently doctrinal, prophetic, even at times archetypal.

It would be fair to say that Spiritualism has always possessed two sides, one personalistic and consequently shallow, the other revelatory and touching upon the numinous. The origins of the Theosophical adeptic myth are connected with the latter. At the time of the founding of the Theosophical Society in 1875, there was a spirit entity who made frequent appearances in Spiritualist gatherings in America and England and who identified himself as "John King." Blavatsky seems to have thought quite highly of this entity and said he was in some way connected with her adeptic superiors.

Although for some years she engaged in an uneasy cooperation with the Spiritualists and had been ordered to break with them by her superiors in 1875, her relationship with "John King" remained close. Eventually she identified him squarely as a messenger of the adepts who inspired her to found the Theosophical Society.10 It would seem that a disembodied spirit - and one who was, moreover, active in Spiritualist séances - could be an associate of the embodied adepts, who generally disapproved of the Spiritualists and their "spooks," as Blavatsky called them.

Another interesting episode inspired the launching of a major esoteric revival in French occult circles which still exists and has spread to several continents. Blavatsky had a friend living in France who was quite influential in the occult revival there. Her maiden name was Mary, Lady Caithness, and she was married to the Duc de Pomar. She resided in a large palace in Paris, complete with an ornate chapel in which occult activities were carried out.

In the fall of 1889, a former Catholic seminarian, high-grade Freemason, and visionary poet named Jules Doinel was visited in this chapel by the spirit of the Cathar Bishop Guilhabert de Castres accompanied by the spirits of other medieval Cathars. The spirits, speaking through a seeress, commissioned Doinel to revive the Gnostic Church, of which he became the first Patriarch. Detailed instructions for the organization of the Gnostic Church were given to Doinel at this time. This event marked the beginning of the Eglise Gnostique Universelle (Universal Gnostic Church, also known under other names), which became closely associated with the Martinist Order under Papus. The church has many branches in France, Haiti, and other countries.11

Doinel's founding of the modern Gnostic Church may be taken as an instance of a certain kind of adeptic inspiration, not entirely unlike that of Blavatsky, and possibly even known to her. Yet the messages here profess to come from disembodied beings who are of a different order from the entities encountered at most séances. As such they may be likened to some of the more valuable forms of contemporary channeling such as A Course in Miracles.

The notion of spiritual guides who might or might not be associated with each other in some sort of mystical fraternity became widely accepted in many quarters. Even C.G. Jung, who was skeptical about many aspects of Theosophical and related teachings, was not immune to such ideas. In his Memories, Dreams, Reflections he wrote at great length about a mysterious "phantasy figure" whom he called Philemon and from whom he received much instruction. He also recounted a conversation he had with a "highly cultivated elderly Indian, a friend of Gandhi's," who, after informing Jung that his own guru was Shankaracharya, the long-deceased founder of Vedanta, went on to say, "Most people have living gurus. But there are always some who have a spirit for a teacher." Jung said he was immediately reminded of Philemon.12

Jiddu Krishnamurti

A curious convergence between the Theosophical lore of embodied Masters and the channeling phenomenon occurred in 1972, when the British painter and medium Benjamin Crème, greatly influenced by Alice Bailey's modified version of the Theosophical hierarchy of the Masters, began to channel messages stating that the appearance of the Lord Maitreya was imminent. (Maitreya, who is regarded in Buddhism as the coming Buddha, has been incorporated into the Theosophical hierarchy; early in this century Jiddu Krishnamurti was said to be Maitreya's vehicle.) Crème fixed 1982 as the year of the reappearance of Maitreya. It was foretold that the event would be accompanied by various technological miracles, including the use of all public media in the world by the returning savior. Although the phenomenon failed to occur, devotees are still undaunted.

Secret Directorate or Archetypal Myth?

In the biblical legend of the Three Wise Men from the East we have an archetypal prefiguration of the myths and speculations about the mysterious adepts who are involved with the fate of the world. The term "Secret Directorate" was coined in this regard by British author Ernest Scott, who, drawing primarily on Islamic sources, has made an impressive plea for the reality of an assembly of men known in some Middle Eastern circles as the "Friends of God" or "People of the Secret"13 Although the Theosophical dispensation of esotericism may have brought the subject into prominence, even now, when Theosophy functions mainly as a "grandfather movement" to innumerable teachings and organizations, the idea of the Adepts is far from outmoded.

In this still quite vital idea of a hierarchy of adepts, we are faced with a mystery that no one has succeeded in solving. Recent efforts, such as K. Paul Johnson's, have shed light on a few dark corners but have failed to illumine the whole subject. While new dimensions have been opened up, others remain obscure. The following thoughts are offered as feeble attempts to penetrate the mystery.

First, is there evidence that the events of cosmic or terrestrial development, particularly the affairs of humankind, are subject to direction by a hierarchy of superhuman intelligences and that these intelligences have made contact with humanity at certain times? The answer, it would seem, is no. The sorrowful course of history, the fierce expressions of a "blind world-creating will" (to use Schopenhauer's words) do not intimate the handiwork of such intelligences. If there is an "inner government" or a "secret directorate," it would have to be a rather ineffectual one.

C. G. Jung's ex libris with the motto that appears on his gravestone: Called or not called, the god will be there.

By the same token, it is possible that some people possessing a high form of gnosis may indeed labor in concert, not as a hierarchical government but as a band of enlightened and compassionate helpers. Some of the statements purporting to have come from such personages (notably in connection with Blavatsky) would point to this possibility. Notions of godlike, omniscient beings pulling the strings of history from their secret residences may be inspiring to some of us, but they have little warrant in reality. Certainly Blavatsky's Masters never claimed to be of that species. (Schools of occultism, such as the Alice Bailey movement or the descendants of the "I Am" movement of the 1930s, who insist most strenuously on the deific and all-powerful of such beings are generations removed from the original impulse of these teachings.)

On the other hand, the image of the adept, whether as a living master or as a disembodied spiritual instructor, carries definite connotations of what might in Jungian terms be called an archetypal being. Some might counter that such a description is tantamount to substituting one mystery for another. Still it is undeniable that behind all science and mysticism, behind all the approaches of West and East, there is but one area of reality and realization: the human psyche. Whatever preternatural realities might make themselves known to us, they must do so by way of the psyche or else go unnoticed.

The psychic reality of archetypes may thus be taken to be of great relevance to the subject at hand. Archetypes possess many of the characteristics of numinosity, authority, and commanding power attributed to the Adepts. When indicating to her disciples how they might come closer to the greater mysteries of being, Blavatsky once stated that she "could tell them how to find those who will show them the secret gateway that opens inwardly only." Is it so difficult to imagine that those who open such inner gateways must dwell at least in part, if not wholly, in the inward recesses of the psyche?

And if the assembly of archetypal being resides largely within us and not in the Himalayas or on some secret plateau in Afghanistan, might it not also be present in the immediate environment of our lives? Certainly some have thought so. One was the French poet and esotericist Maurice Magre, who, in the epilogue of his book The Return of the Magi, wrote:

There have been men whose names are unknown because they cared little for fame, and truth radiated from them without knowing it. There have been revealers who were unaware of the revelation that was in them; modest sages who mingled their wisdom with their daily life . . . We have all of us met, at least once in our lives, one of these unheralded initiators, and received from them a priceless gift, by a kindly word, a certain look of sadness, a sincere expression in the eyes.14

It is in this direction that we might direct our inquires if we desire the greatest reward. Be that as it may, the myth of the adeptic assembly may still have secrets to disclose that might benefit us beyond measure.


  1. Richard Cavendish, Encyclopaedia of the Unexplained: Magic, Occultism, and Parapsychology (London: Routledge, 1974), p. 286.
  2. Alvin Boyd Kuhn, Theosophy: A Modern Revival of Ancient Wisdom (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1930), p. 2.
  3. Sylvia Cranston, H.P.B.: The Extraordinary Life and Influence of Mme. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the Founder of the Theosophical Movement (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1992; reviewed in GNOSIS #29).
  4. K. Paul Johnson, The Masters Revealed: Mme. Blavatsky and the Myth of the Great White Lodge (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1994) An earlier version of this work was In Search of the Masters: Behind the Occult Myth (South Boston, Va.: Privately published, 1990; reviewed in GNOSIS #20). See also Johnson's article "Imaginary Mahatmas" in GNOSIS #28.
  5. Andrea Grace Diem, The Gnostic Mystery: A Connection between Ancient and Modern Mysticism (Walnut, Calif.: Mt San Antonio College Press, 1992).
  6. Ibid., p. 24.
  7. Ibid., p. 25. Emphasis here and in other quotes is in the original.
  8. H.P. Blavatsky, Collected Writings, vol. 6 (Los Angeles: Blavatsky Writings Publication Fund, 1954), pp. 239-41.
  9. A.T. Barker, ed., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett, second edition (London: Rider & Co., 1948), p. 180.
  10. C. Jinarajadasa, ed., The Golden Book of the Theosophical Society (Adyar, Madras, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1925), pp. 15-16.
  11. Massimo Introvigne, Il Ritorno dello Gnosticismo (Carnago, Italy: SugarCo Edizioni, 1993), pp. 106-08.
  12. Aniela Jaffe, ed., Memories, Dreams, Reflections by C.G. Jung (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), p. 184.
  13. Ernest Scott, The People of the Secret (London: Octagon Press, 1983).
  14. Maurice Magre, The Return of the Magi, trans. Reginald Merton (London: Sphere Books, 1975), pp. 223-24.
The article first appeared in Gnosis: A Journal of Western Inner Traditions (Vol.36, Summer 1995),
and is reproduced here by permission of the author.
Gnosis Archive | Library | Bookstore | Index | Web Lectures | Ecclesia Gnostica | Gnostic Society