“Lead the life necessary for the acquisition of [the] knowledge and powers [of an Adept], and Wisdom will come to you naturally.”—Secret Doctrine 1:167
“Prepare thyself, for thou wilt have to travel on alone. The Teacher can but point the way. The Path is one for all, the means to reach the goal must vary with the Pilgrims.”—Voice of the Silence
Evolution and the Ascending Arc
The Secret Doctrine teaches the fundamental identity of all Souls with the Universal Over-Soul . . . and the obligatory pilgrimage for every Soul—a spark of the former—through the Cycle of Incarnation (or “Necessity”) in accordance with Cyclic and Karmic law, during the whole term. In other words, no purely spiritual Buddhi (divine Soul) can have an independent (conscious) existence before the spark which issued from the pure Essence of the Universal Sixth principle,—or the over-soul,—has (a) passed through every elemental form of the phenomenal world of that Manvantara, and (b) acquired individuality, first by natural impulse, and then by self-induced and self-devised efforts (checked by its Karma), thus ascending through all the degrees of intelligence, from the lowest to the highest Manas, from mineral and plant, up to the holiest archangel (Dhyani-Buddha). The pivotal doctrine of the Esoteric philosophy admits no privileges or special gifts in man, save those won by his own Ego through personal effort and merit throughout a long series of metempsychoses and reincarnations. (The Secret Doctrine 1:17)
The Path of Adeptship—of which Chelaship (discipleship) encompasses the initial steps—is intimately connected with the theosophical teachings on Evolution. In those teachings, the general outline is that evolution proceeds in a helicoidal manner, i.e. following progressive cycles, in spiral fashion, like the threads of a screw. Each cycle includes a “descent” from spirit into matter, reaching the bottom of an arc, at which time the process reverses, “ascending” from matter back to spirit. The downward process involves the development of a series of vehicles or forms in which the indwelling monad (spiritual soul) becomes embodied. As the bottom of the arc is neared, the lowest or most material vehicle (our physical body) becomes complex enough for self-consciousness to arise. This is poetically phrased as the “lighting up of manas (mind).” Once self-consciousness is established in the lowest vehicle, the possibility of self-induced and self-devised efforts arises, and we begin to take a more active, conscious and deliberate role in our own evolution. The ascending arc can then begin, during which Man begins to unfold his latent powers and faculties, along with refining and “spiritualizing” his vehicles.
Under normal, or average conditions, this process of unfolding will take place over vast periods of time, through a great number of reincarnations. Within each life, a little progress is made in this or that direction, and gradually humanity collectively unfolds its inner nature. The Path of Adeptship may be understood as a speeding up of this process for a single individual.
“It has been often put forth in various theosophical and other occult writings that the only difference between an ordinary man who works along with Nature during the course of cosmic evolution and an occultist, is that the latter, by his superior knowledge, adopts such methods of training and discipline as will hurry on that process of evolution, and he thus reaches in a comparatively short time that apex to ascend to which the ordinary individual will take perhaps billions of years. In short, in a few thousand years he approaches that type of evolution which ordinary humanity attains in the sixth or seventh round of the Manvantara, i.e., cyclic progression.” (Blavatsky, “Is the Desire to Live Selfish?”)
Because we are self-conscious, our will-power is beginning to become more deliberately active. The implication of this is that on the ascending arc, individuals do not necessarily progress at the same rate. With determination, discipline, and a focused will-power, one may take the reigns of their development into their own hands and progress at a much faster rate than the bulk of humanity. This is what makes the Adept possible. In short: an Adept is simply one who has unfolded more of their inner nature than the bulk of humanity, and thus is today what humanity will collectively be at some point in the future. In this sense, an Adept is a kind of window into our future possibilities.
Even though it is possible to speed up our development, this does not imply that it is possible to skip any necessary steps in that unfolding. Thus, the Adept must pass through all the developmental stages that would normally occur over millions of years, but in a few short lives. The obvious implication is that the Path of Adeptship is one of extreme difficulty. When a plant grows, it must do so gradually, so as to unfold itself without damaging its constitution. Man under normal conditions is the same, but the possibility exists to greatly speed up that process, while enhancing instead of damaging his constitution. That which is being developed or unfolded in us, is our entire nature—from the physical to the emotional, mental and spiritual parts of ourselves—and thus the challenges faced are physical, emotional, psychological, moral, spiritual. It is said that the blossoming of an Adept is extremely rare, a once in a generation occurrence, because of the great difficulty of the endeavor. The reward of success is a more fully realized Self and a more complete manifestation of our inner potential.
The word chela is Sanskrit (चेल, cela, rel. to ceṭa), and means literally “servant, slave.” It is the word used by the Brothers (Adepts, Mahatmas) for their direct disciples or students, i.e. those who have entered into the preliminary stages of the path of Adeptship under their direct supervision. In the context of their relation with their chelas, the Brothers are often referred to as “Masters.”
There are several ways we can contextualize the meaning of the term chela as “servant, slave.” The simplest is that the chela becomes the servant of his teacher, or Master. We see this in the attitude of Blavatsky and others in regards to their Masters, and in the chela’s willingness to follow their Master’s orders without fail. We can understand the “slave” aspect of the meaning in the idea that the chela puts his personal self, his lower self, in the position of a “slave” to his own higher nature. In that context, his “Master” stands as a kind of representative of that higher nature, since the Master has unfolded that nature in himself.
“[A Chela] finds himself left more alone in the world than those who are not Chelas, and his path is surrounded by dangers which would appall many an aspirant, were they depicted in natural colors, so that instead of accepting his Guru and passing an entrance examination with a view to becoming Bachelor of the Art of Occultism under his master’s constant and friendly guidance, he really forces his way into a guarded enclosure, and has from that moment to fight and conquer—or die. Instead of accepting he has to be worthy of acceptance. Nor must he offer himself. One of the Mahatmas has, within the year, written—‘Never thrust yourself upon us for Chelaship; wait until it descends upon you.’”—Blavatksy, “Chelas”
Chelaship is a voluntary endeavor, never imposed from outside of the chela himself. It is driven by the chela’s own higher aspiration.
Blavatsky and her teachers make it clear that the path of adeptship is an active, self-induced path, wherein each chela must struggle upwards under their own strength, and guided by their own gradually unfolding wisdom. The path is not a passive one, in which an outside savior or guru will do the work for us, or impart upon us unearned wisdom and enlightenment. On this subject, see “Are Chelas Mediums?”
“The fact is, that to the last and supreme initiation every chela—(and even some adepts)—is left to his own device and counsel. We have to fight our own battles, and the familiar adage—‘the adept becomes, he is not made’ is true to the letter.” (ML 92)
As outlined above, the Path of Adeptship is one in which the individual unfolds their inner nature, and the faculties and powers that currently lie latent in humanity. Chelaship is the first stage on this path, wherein the aspirant is tested by their life-circumstances, by the karmic tendencies in their own nature, etc., under the supervision of an established Adept.
During the early Theosophical Movement there were known to be lay chelas, probationary chelas, and accepted chelas, each connected to the Masters or Brothers.
“A Lay Chela is but a man of the world who affirms his desire to become wise in spiritual things. Virtually, every member of the Theosophical Society who subscribes to the second of our three ‘Declared Objects’ is such; for though not of the number of true Chelas, he has yet the possibility of becoming one, for he has stepped across the boundary-line which separated him from the Mahatmas, and has brought himself, as it were, under their notice. In joining the Society and binding himself to help along its work, he has pledged himself to act in some degree in concert with those Mahatmas, at whose behest the Society was organized, and under whose conditional protection it remains. The joining is then, the introduction; all the rest depends entirely upon the member himself, and he need never expect the most distant approach to the ‘favor’ of one of our Mahatmas, or any other Mahatmas in the world—should the latter consent to become known—that has not been fully earned by personal merit. The Mahatmas are the servants, not the arbiters of the Law of Karma. Lay-Chelaship confers no privilege upon any one except that of working for merit under the observation of a Master. And whether that Master be or be not seen by the Chela makes no difference whatever as to the result: his good thoughts, words and deeds will bear their fruits, his evil ones, theirs. To boast of Lay Chelaship or make a parade of it, is the surest way to reduce the relationship with the Guru to a mere empty name, for it would be primâ facie evidence of vanity and unfitness for farther progress. And for years we have been teaching everywhere the maxim “First deserve, then desire” intimacy with the Mahatmas.”—Blavatsky, “Chelas and Lay Chelas.”
While the definition above is rather general, in the early theosophical movement the term lay chela was openly applied only to a few people, the most prominent among them being A. P. Sinnett. The Mahatmas point out that Sinnett was not ready to take on the full life of a chela, and he himself had a distaste for the requirement of probation; furthermore, his life situation and certain habits further restricted him. Yet, despite all of that, he was taught directly by two of the Brothers and so was accepted as a lay chela (see The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett). Throughout his life and work in the movement Sinnett exemplified many chela-like qualities—devotion, independent-thinking, self-induced effort. In the early movement, he stands out as a relative exemplification of a devoted lay chela.
As we see, lay chelaship is not the same as probationary chelaship. A lay chela may be a “man of the world,” living a life relatively indistinguishable from those around him, and yet be watched over and gradually progress towards acceptance onto the path.
“No one comes in contact with us, no one shows a desire to know more of us, but has to submit being tested and put by us on probation.” (ML 92)
The initial step in chelaship requires a period of probation. The candidate must prove themselves worthy of direct or accepted chelaship, and this is done by facing and rising above all their own faults, whether already known or still hiding latent. But this proof of worthiness is not some artificial standard concocted by a teacher in isolation. It is built on the basis of our own nature, and we are told that the Brotherhood has certain standards and rules that have been established due to countless centuries of experience. Chelaship will bring with it certain intense inner challenges, which the Brothers knows well from their own experience of having passed through those trials. We are told that if one is to be successful, they will need to have risen above certain lower tendencies and built up certain higher or more spiritual faculties, along with the spiritual will to pass through the challenges. Thus, before they can be brought into real chelaship, they must succeed through their own naturally-arisen probation.
“To be accepted as a chela on probation—is an easy thing. To become an accepted chela—is to court the miseries of ‘probation.’ Life in the ordinary run is not entirely made up of heavy trials and mental misery: the life of a chela who offers himself voluntarily is one long sacrifice. He, who would control hereafter the events of his life here and beyond, has first of all to submit himself to be controlled, yet triumph over every temptation, every woe of flesh and mind. The Chela ‘on probation’ is like the wayfarer in the old fable of the sphinx; only the one question becomes a long series of every day riddles propounded by the Sphinx of Life, who sits by the wayside, and who, unless her ever changing and perplexing puzzles are successfully answered one after the other, impedes the progress of the traveller and finally destroys him.” (LMW2 68)
There is much said about chelaship and the probationary stage by Blavatsky and the Brothers. Here are two selections from letters written by a Brother to A. P. Sinnett:
“Every human being contains within himself vast potentialities, and it is the duty of the adepts to surround the would-be chela with circumstances which shall enable him to take the ‘right-hand path,’—if he have the ability in him. We are no more at liberty to withhold the chance from a postulant than we are to guide and direct him into the proper course. At best, we can only show him after his probation period was successfully terminated—that if he does this he will go right; if the other, wrong. But until he has passed that period, we leave him to fight out his battles as best he may; and have to do so occasionally with higher and initiated chelas such as H.P.B., once they are allowed to work in the world, that all of us more or less avoid. More than that . . . we allow our candidates to be tempted in a thousand various ways, so as to draw out the whole of their inner nature and allow it the chance of remaining conqueror either one way or the other. What has happened to Fern [one who failed probation] has befallen every one else who has preceded, will befall with various results every one who succeeds him. We were all so tested; and while a Moorad Ali—failed—I, succeeded. The victor’s crown is only for him who proves himself worthy to wear it; for him who attacks Mara single handed and conquers the demon of lust and earthly passions; and not we but he himself puts it on his brow. It was not a meaningless phrase of the Tathagata that ‘he who masters Self is greater than he who conquers thousands in battle’: there is no such other difficult struggle. If it were not so, adeptship would be but a cheap acquirement.” (ML 92)
A chela under probation is allowed to think and do whatever he likes. He is warned and told beforehand: you will be tempted and deceived by appearances; two paths will be open before you, both leading to the goal you are trying to attain; one easy, and that will lead you more rapidly to the fulfilment of orders you may receive; the other—more arduous, more long; a path full of stones and thorns that will make you stumble more than once on your way; and, at the end of which you may, perhaps, find failure after all and be unable to carry out the orders given for some particular small work,—but, whereas the latter will cause the hardships you have undergone on it to be all carried to the side of your credit in the long run, the former, the easy path, can offer you but a momentary gratification, an easy fulfilment of the task.” (ML 74)
It is explained by Blavatsky and her Teachers that, despite the above definition of “servant or slave,” chelaship is not a path of blind obedience to any outside authority. Chelaship requires the individual to become a truly independent thinker, to arouse and develop their own inherent spiritual will, and to become truly sovereign and fully responsible for themselves. On this subject, there is a fascinating statement made by one of the Brothers that is well worth thinking over:
“The chela is at perfect liberty, and often quite justified from the standpoint of appearances—to suspect his Guru of being ‘a fraud’ as the elegant word stands. More than that: the greater, the sincerer his indignation—whether expressed in words or boiling in his heart—the more fit he is, the better qualified to become an adept. He is free to, and will not be held to account for using the most abusive words and expressions regarding his guru’s actions and orders, provided he comes out victorious from the fiery ordeal; provided he resists all and every temptation; rejects every allurement, and proves that nothing, not even the promise of that which he holds dearer than life, of that most precious boon, his future adeptship—is unable to make him deviate from the path of truth and honesty, or force him to become a deceiver.” (ML 74)
Blavatsky gives some vivid and powerful descriptions of the challenges of probation, as for example the following:
“No man or woman knows his or her moral strength until it is tried. Thousands go through life very respectably, because they were never put to the pinch. This is a truism doubtless, but it is most pertinent to the present case. One who undertakes to try for Chelaship by that very act rouses and lashes to desperation every sleeping passion of his animal nature. For this is the commencement of a struggle for the mastery in which quarter is neither to be given nor taken. It is, once for all, ‘To be, or Not to be’; to conquer, means Adeptship; to fail, an ignoble Martyrdom: for to fall victim to lust, pride, avarice, vanity, selfishness, cowardice, or any other of the lower propensities, is indeed ignoble, if measured by the standard of true manhood. The Chela is not only called to face all the latent evil propensities of his nature, but, in addition, the whole volume of maleficent power accumulated by the community and nation to which he belongs. For he is an integral part of those aggregates, and what affects either the individual man, or the group (town or nation) reacts upon the other. And in this instance his struggle for goodness jars upon the whole body of badness in his environment, and draws its fury upon him. If he is content to go along with his neighbours and be almost as they are—perhaps a little better or somewhat worse than the average—no one may give him a thought. But let it be known that he has been able to detect the hollow mockery of social life, its hypocrisy, selfishness, sensuality, cupidity and other bad features, and has determined to lift himself up to a higher level, at once he is hated, and every bad, or bigoted, or malicious nature sends at him a current of opposing will power. If he is innately strong he shakes it off, as the powerful swimmer dashes through the current that would bear a weaker one away. But in this moral battle, if the Chela has one single hidden blemish—do what he may, it shall and will be brought to light. The varnish of conventionalities which “civilization” overlays us all with must come off to the last coat, and the Inner Self, naked and without the slightest veil to conceal its reality, is exposed. The habits of society which hold men to a certain degree under moral restraint, and compel them to pay tribute to virtue by seeming to be good whether they are so or not, these habits are apt to be all forgotten, these restraints to be all broken through under the strain of chelaship. He is now in an atmosphere of illusions—Maya. Vice puts on its most alluring face, and the tempting passions try to lure the inexperienced aspirant to the depths of psychic debasement. This is not a case like that depicted by a great artist, where Satan is seen playing a game of chess with a man upon the stake of his soul, while the latter’s good angel stands beside him to counsel and assist. For the strife is in this instance between the Chela’s Will and his carnal nature, and Karma forbids that any angel or Guru should interfere until the result is known. With the vividness of poetic fancy Bulwer Lytton has idealised it for us in his Zanoni, a work which will ever be prized by the occultist; while in his Strange Story he has with equal power shown the black side of occult research and its deadly perils. Chelaship was defined, the other day, by a Mahatma as a ‘psychic resolvent, which eats away all dross and leaves only the pure gold behind.’”—“Chelas and Lay Chelas”
Probation is thus portrayed as extremely difficult to pass through successfully, as it tries every aspect of our nature and requires the chela to stand firm on his own two feet, as they say. A number of early theosophists were given the opportunity to apply for probationary chelaship. Of those who were accepted as probationers, many were noted to have failed, a few to have succeeded. A letter from one of the Brothers to a member of the early T.S. puts the great difficulty into context:
“Sigh not for chelaship; pursue not that, the dangers and hardships of which are unknown to you. Verily many are the chelas offering themselves to us, and as many have failed this year as were accepted on probation. Chelaship unveils the inner man and draws forth the dormant vices as well as the dormant virtue. Latent vice begets active sins and is often followed by insanity. Out of 5 lay chelas chosen by the Society and accepted under protest by us, 3 have become criminals and 2 are insane. Throw a glance around, make an enquiry at Bareilly and Cawnpore, and judge for yourself. Be pure, virtuous, and lead a holy life and you will be protected. But remember, he who is not as pure as a young child better leave chelaship alone.”
Success in the “fiery ordeal” of probation leads to accepted chelaship.
One very interesting account, written by a Chela, was quite popular among early theosophists, and is worth highlighting here. See: “How a ‘Chela’ Found His ‘Guru’.”
As we come to the subject of accepted chelaship there is less that can be said, as the exact nature of chelaship and its challenges are not openly or publicly discussed.
“There are Chelas and Chelas, just as there are Mahatmas and Mahatmas. There are Mahatmas in fact who are themselves the Chelas of those who are higher yet. But no one, for an instant, would confound a Chela who has just begun his troublous journey with that greater Chela who is a Mahatma. . . .
“The powers of Chelas vary with their progress; and every one should know that if a Chela has any ‘powers,’ he is not permitted to use them save in rare and exceptional cases, and never may he boast of their possession. So it must follow that those who are only beginners have no more or greater power than an ordinary man. Indeed the goal set before the Chela is not the acquisition of psychological power; his chief task is to divest himself of that overmastering sense of personality which is the thick veil that hides from sight our immortal part—the real man. So long as he allows this feeling to remain, just so long will he be fixed at the very door of Occultism, unable to proceed further. . . . His work is hard, his road stony, the end far away.”—Blavatsky, “Chelas”
During the early theosophical movement, there were several publicly known accepted chelas (i.e. H. P. Blavatsky, H. S. Olcott, W. Q. Judge, T. Subba Row, Damodar K. Mavalankar, among others), but their public attention and work is more of an exception, rather than the rule, and was due to the efforts of their Master’s work in the world at that time. It would appear that in general those who are accepted chelas are not publicly known as such, nor do they necessarily work openly in the public eye. Thus, the few pieces of information we have about the lives of the accepted chelas in the early theosophical movement may not necessarily be applicable to the general bulk of accepted chelas.
Several statements by the Mahatmas hint towards levels or degrees of accepted chelaship, with terms such as “high chela” being used for some, but exact details as to such degrees were not openly discussed by them.
Ethics, Rules and Restrictions:
Enquirer: Have you any ethical system that you carry out in the [Theosophical] Society?
Theosophist: The ethics are there, ready and clear enough for whomsoever would follow them. They are the essence and cream of the world’s ethics, gathered from the teachings of all the world’s great reformers. Therefore, you will find represented therein Confucius and Zoroaster, Laotze and the Bhagavat-Gita, the precepts of Gautama Buddha and Jesus of Nazareth, of Hillel and his school, as of Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, and their schools. (Blavatsky, The Key to Theosophy, pp. 48-49)
Enquirer: But are not the ethics of Theosophy identical with those taught by Buddha?
Theosophist: Certainly, because these ethics are the soul of the Wisdom-Religion, and were once the common property of the initiates of all nations. But Buddha was the first to embody these lofty ethics in his public teachings, and to make them the foundation and the very essence of his public system. It is herein that lies the immense difference between exoteric Buddhism and every other religion. For while in other religions ritualism and dogma hold the first and most important place, in Buddhism it is the ethics which have always been the most insisted upon. This accounts for the resemblance, amounting almost to identity, between the ethics of Theosophy and those of the religion of Buddha. (Blavatsky, The Key to Theosophy, p. 14)
The preliminary training, which applies from the very beginning of one’s probation, is highly ethical in nature. As noted in the above quotes, such ethics are widely and easily available to the student, long before they may be ready for actual probation. It is the practice of the ethical injunctions that prepare the aspiring student for their first steps on the path. For such ethical rules of conduct, see, for instance: the Buddhist Eightfold Path, Paramitas, and other Buddhist Ethics; the Vedanta (see “Qualifications for Chelaship”); Krishna’s teachings in the Bhagavad Gita; the Yogic “Restraints,” or Yamas and Niyamas (see Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras); the Pythagorean and Platonic Virtues; the Ancient Iranian and Zoroastrian Morals; the Tao Te Ching; Confucian Ethics; the Sermon on the Mount and Ethical teachings of Jesus; Hillel’s Ethics (see Pirkei Avot, Shabbat, etc.); and so on.
The following quote from one of the Brothers addresses some additional tools and methods that may be employed by those aspiring towards adeptship.
“The truth is that till the neophyte attains to the condition necessary for that degree of Illumination to which, and for which, he is entitled and fitted, most if not all of the Secrets are incommunicable. The receptivity must be equal to the desire to instruct. The illumination must come from within. Till then no hocus pocus of incantations, or mummery of appliances, no metaphysical lectures or discussions, no self-imposed penance can give it. All these are but means to an end, and all we can do is to direct the use of such means as have been empirically found by the experience of ages to conduce to the required object. And this was and has been no secret for thousands of years. Fasting, meditation, chastity of thought, word, and deed; silence for certain periods of time to enable nature herself to speak to him who comes to her for information; government of the animal passions and impulses; utter unselfishness of intention, the use of certain incense and fumigations for physiological purposes, have been published as the means since the days of Plato and Iamblichus in the West, and since the far earlier times of our Indian Rishis. How these must be complied with to suit each individual temperament is of course a matter for his own experiment and the watchful care of his tutor or guru. Such is in fact part of his course of discipline, and his guru or initiator can but assist him with his experience and will power but can do no more until the last and Supreme initiation. (ML 20)
For another aspect of preliminary training, see “The Elixir of Life.”
Having prepared oneself through the practice of the highest ethics, and passed through the probationary stage of chelaship, one may be ready for more practical training. At such a point, more specific and detailed rules begin to be applied.
In the preface to The Voice of the Silence, H.P.B. gives some context for the methods and rules of the occult school to which she and her Teachers belonged:
“It is well known that, in India, the methods of psychic development differ with the Gurus (teachers or masters), not only because of their belonging to different schools of philosophy, of which there are six, but because every Guru has his own system, which he generally keeps very secret. But beyond the Himalayas the method in the Esoteric Schools does not differ, unless the Guru is simply a Lama, but little more learned than those he teaches.”
In regards to the current condition of esoteric teachings in the world, she adds:
“How the pristine purity of these grand revelations [of Buddha] was dealt with may be seen in studying some of the so-called ‘esoteric’ Buddhist schools of antiquity in their modern garb, not only in China and other Buddhist countries in general, but even in not a few schools in Tibet, left to the care of uninitiated Lamas and Mongolian innovators.” (SD 1:xxi)
“The Arhats began by following the policy of their Master [Buddha] and the majority of the subsequent priests were not initiated, just as in Christianity; and so, little by little, the great esoteric truths became almost lost.” (Key to Theosophy, p. 80)
“[After] the downfall of the mysteries . . . began the disappearance and final and systematic elimination from the memory of men of the real nature of initiation and the Sacred Science.” (SD 1:xl)
Here and elsewhere, Blavatsky and her Teachers clarify that the Esoteric or Occult school to which they belong is distinct from the known “esoteric” schools of the various world traditions, whether Brahmin, Buddhist, Qabbalistic, etc. Each of those schools is said to have originally arose out of an effort by the one Brotherhood, but whenever such a school is outwardly founded, it gradually drifts from the fountain-source over time. Thus, the so-called “esoteric” or initiatory schools known within each of the world’s major religious traditions, including Masonry and other such system, are said by Blavatsky and her teachers, to no longer contain the genuine esoteric knowledge.
In regards to the genuine Occult Schools, there are several rules and restrictions for Chelaship mentioned by Blavatsky and her teachers. See, for instance the following list:
From Book IV of Kiu-te, Chapter on “the Laws of Upasans,” we learn that the qualifications expected in a Chela were:—
1. Perfect physical health;
2. Absolute mental and physical purity;
3. Unselfishness of purpose; universal charity; pity for all animate beings;
4. Truthfulness and unswerving faith in the law of Karma, independent of any power in nature that could interfere: a law whose course is not to be obstructed by any agency, not to be caused to deviate by prayer or propitiatory exoteric ceremonies;
5. A courage undaunted in every emergency, even by peril to life;
6. An intuitional perception of one’s being the vehicle of the manifested Avalokitesvara or Divine Atman (Spirit);
7. Calm indifference for, but a just appreciation of everything that constitutes the objective and transitory world, in its relation with, and to, the invisible regions.
Such, at the least, must have been the recommendations of one aspiring to perfect Chelaship. With the sole exception of the 1st, which in rare and exceptional cases might have been modified, each one of these points has been invariably insisted upon, and all must have been more or less developed in the inner nature by the Chela’s unhelped exertions, before he could be actually put to the test. (Blavatsky, “Chelas and Lay Chelas”)
In addition to the above rules, which relate mostly to the constitutional condition of the applicant, there are several general rules mentioned that relate more to the circumstances of the applicant’s life and their lifestyles and habits.
One of the first-mentioned, and repeatedly highlighted rules is that of Silence and Secrecy. The would-be chela must make a vow of absolute secrecy in regards to the teachings and instructions received, as also to the details of their status, their Master, etc. A commonly known exemplification of this rule is found in the structure and conditions of the school founded by Pythagoras (who is said to have belonged to the Brotherhood of Adepts), wherein silence was placed at the forefront of the rules for probationers. It seems that all genuine occult schools place this as one of the foremost rules for entry. In The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky gives us one of the poetic “Rules of Initiation” on this subject:
“This [teaching] is a secret which gives death: close thy mouth lest thou shouldst reveal it to the vulgar; compress thy brain lest something should escape from it and fall outside.” (SD 1:299)
Another example of restrictions to chelaship are rules on marriage, parenthood and other worldly responsibilities. In several places, Blavatsky and her teachers make clear that an Adept cannot be married (see Adeptship), and many have been refused Chelaship because of having been married and/or having children, with some few exceptions. They also clarify that Chelaship does not require one to abandon their worldly duties.
“[Is a] would-be-theosophist-occultist . . . required to abandon his worldly ties and duties such as family affection, love of parents, wife, children, friends, etc.?
“We emphatically answer, no . . . No follower of theosophy, least of all a disciple of the ‘Masters of Theosophy’ (the chela of a guru), would ever be accepted on such conditions. Many were the candidates, but ‘few the chosen.’ Dozens were refused, simply because married and having a sacred duty to perform to wife and children.* None have ever been asked to forsake father or mother; for he who, being necessary to his parent for his support, leaves him or her to gratify his own selfish consideration or thirst for knowledge, however great and sincere, is ‘unworthy’ of the Science of Sciences, ‘or ever to approach a holy Master.’
“* We know but two cases of married ‘chelas’ being accepted; but both these were Brahmins and had child-wives, according to Hindu custom, and they were Reformers more than chelas, trying to abrogate child-marriage and slavery. Others had to obtain the consent of their wives before entering the ‘Path,’ as is usual in India since long ages.”
(Blavatsky, “Answers to Queries”)
W. Q. Judge seems to have been an additional exception to this rule during the early theosophical movement, as he was married with a child when he became a chela (around 1875), though no mention of the reasons for this exception were publicly made.
Blavatsky established several rules and recommendations for her own students (those of her “Esoteric School” and “Inner Group”) which also apply to chelaship. Among these, for instance, are several rules in regards to lifestyle. Three such rules placed in prominence are: abstinence from alcohol, a vegetarian diet, and sexual abstinence.
“The exposition of ‘Occultism’ in these columns [of The Theosophist] has been clear enough to show that it is the Science by the study and practice of which the student can become a Mahatma. The articles ‘The Elixir of Life,’ and the Hints on Esoteric Theosophy are clear enough on this point. They also explain scientifically the necessity of being a vegetarian for the purposes of psychic development. Read and study, and you will find why Vegetarianism, Celibacy, and especially total abstinence from wine and spirituous drink are strictly necessary for ‘the development of Occult knowledge.’” (“Pertinent Questions”)
Alcohol was strictly prohibited even for the most probationary or preliminary degrees of Blavatsky’s E.S.:
“The use of wine, spirits, liquors of any kind, or any narcotic or intoxicating drug, is strictly prohibited. If indulged in, all progress is hindered, and the efforts of teacher and pupil alike are rendered useless.” (E.S. “Book of Rules”)
Among general esoteric students vegetarianism was not enforced but was encouraged. Among the more advanced students it was enforced. Sexual abstinence or chastity was also strictly enforced among Blavatsky’s advanced students.
“As to diet: The eating of meat is not prohibited, but if the student can maintain health on vegetables or fish, such diet is recommended.” (E.S. “Book of Rules”)
“If you are ready to comply with the following conditions, H.P.B. is prepared to admit you as a Probationer into the ‘Inner Group’ of the E.S.: . . . [Rule No.] 3) That you abstain from meat-eating and preserve absolute chastity.” (See Inner Group Teachings of H. P. Blavatsky)
For an occult explanation of the power of reproduction, related to the rule of sexual abstinence, see “The Future Occultist” by Blavatsky.
Another rule highlighted by Blavatsky is that regarding the use of inner powers or faculties. In the Rules for her students she explains that those who may have been born with some inner powers or faculties already awakened are required to never use those powers, at least until they have reached a certain stage on the path.
Further rules established for Blavatsky’s students, which apply to chelaship, are, for instance, abstention from groundless condemnation or slander of others, and general injunctions towards truthful speech. Aspirants are also cautioned against pride, vanity, jealousy and other traits which must be mastered before entering the path.
An interesting subject broached by W. Q. Judge (himself an accepted chela) is the idea of an upper age limit as a kind of “natural barrier” to success as a chela.
“Just as there are natural barriers everywhere in life, so there are in the field of secret nature. It is hard to enter through the gate, and it is only accomplished after several lives of conscious, unselfish work, but in no life is it possible for the ordinary person—meaning thereby those who in fact have never gone very far, and now for the first or second time have seriously thought of the matter—to succeed in that life if they have begun after the age of forty-four. This is a natural barrier.” (Echoes of the Orient 3:461)
The above gives an outline and demonstrates the strictness involved in Chelaship, but is not exhaustive of the rules and conditions that the Chela must abide by, the exact details of which are not necessarily made public.
Primary Sources for further reading on the path of Chelaship and Adeptship:
Selected Writings on Chelaship and the Path of Adeptship
- A Great Riddle Solved
- Answers to Correspondents—Mr. “Joseph Wallace”
- Answers to Queries
- Answers To Questioners
- Are Chelas Mediums?
- Can Females Become Adepts?
- Can The Mahatmas Be Selfish?
- Chelas and Lay Chelas
- Do the Rishis Exist?
- Existence of the Himalayan Mahatmas
- Hints on Esoteric Theosophy [1-2]
- How a “Chela” Found His “Guru”
- Letter from Col. Olcott to Mr. H— X—
- Letters That Have Helped Me (Vol. 2)
- Letters That Have Helped Me [Vol. 1]
- Madame Blavatsky on “The Himalayan Brothers”
- Mahatmas and Chelas
- On Rahatship
- Pertinent Questions
- Projection of the Double
- Qualifications for Chelaship
- Questions About Esoteric Theosophy Answered
- Rotation—Individual Evolution
- Seeds and Seedlings: The Doctrine of Perfectibility
- Sham Asceticism
- Spiritual Progress
- The Application of Theosophical Theories
- The Future Occultist
- The Himalayan Brothers—Do They Exist?
- The Metaphysical Basis of “Esoteric Buddhism”
- The Occult World
- The Voice of the Silence
- The “Blessing” of the Brothers
- The “Occult World” and the “Spiritualist”
- Western “Adepts” and Eastern Theosophists
- [Answers to Questions on Adepts]
- [Dhyana & The Company of Mahatmas]
- [Evidence of the Existence of Mahatmas]
- [Notes on Evolution and Perception]
- [Notes on the Origin of Freemasonry and the Presence of Adepts in India]
- [Notes on “Fragments of Occult Truth” 1-3]
- [Notes on “Who are the Aryas and the Buddhists”]
- [On Adepts Living Apart from Society]
- [On Sufis and Mahatmas as Non-Religious]
- [On the “Brothers” and Real Adepts]
- “The Theosophical Mahatmas”