Who Are the Masters?

Originally printed in the Summer 2011 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Richard Smoley. "Who Are the Masters?
." Quest  99. 3 (Summer 2011): 90 - 95.

An Interview with Joy Mills

Theosophical Society - Joy Mills was an educator who served as President of the Theosophical Society in America from 1965–1974, and then as international Vice President for the Theosophical Society based in AdyarJoy Mills, who celebrated her ninetieth birthday in October 2010, is one of the most admired and beloved figures in the Theosophical Society. She has dedicated her life and career to the Society in a way that few others have. She joined the Milwaukee Lodge at the age of twenty, and from that time on has been active in innumerable aspects of the TS. In 1960, she became vice-president of the American Section under president Henry Smith, and in 1965 she became president of the American Section herself, serving until 1974. In that year she became vice-president of the international Society and served in that role until 1980. Starting in 1980, she worked as director of the Krotona School of Theosophy in Ojai, California, a post she held until 1992, when she became president of the Theosophical Society in Australia for nearly three years. In 1996, she returned to Krotona, where she lives and teaches today.

     In addition, Joy has written many lectures and articles on Theosophy, and is the author of a number of works, including One Hundred Years of Theosophy: A History of the Theosophical Society in America; The One True Adventure: Theosophy and the Quest for Meaning; and, most recently, Reflections on an Ageless Wisdom: A Commentary on the Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett.

     This last work is the fruit of decades of Joy's study of the Mahatma Letters, and provides a rich, detailed, letter-by-letter analysis of these mysterious texts. In view of her knowledge of the subject, I conducted an e-mail interview with her about the Masters in the fall of 2010.

—Richard Smoley

Richard Smoley: The idea of the Masters is one of the most influential and most controversial concepts to have come out of Theosophy. How do you see the Masters of the Mahatma Letters? Do you regard them as living human beings who communicated directly with H. P. Blavatsky, A. P. Sinnett, and the others?

Joy Mills: First of all, the concept of Mahatmas or Masters needs to be seen as an integral part of the whole Theosophical worldview. It cannot be treated in isolation. One has to see the whole before one looks at the parts.

If we postulate an evolutionary journey by means of which humanity grows in consciousness toward full self-realization or enlightenment, as it's called in the Buddhist tradition, then we have to acknowledge that there are individuals, whatever you may call them—saints, seers, bodhisattvas, liberated ones, great souls, Mahatmas—who have moved beyond our present stage of understanding toward a wider or deeper knowledge. It's not knowledge in the ordinary sense but a knowledge of the principles or laws that underlie existence.

You say this is a controversial idea, but in every sacred or religious tradition this concept of the Masters—by whatever name they may be called-is present. They may be revered as founders of a particular religion—Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, and so on. Even the indigenous religious traditions acknowledge that there are elders, wise ones, who embody the knowledge, the wisdom. They may be called shamans, or some other name may be given to them. But they embody this wisdom of the clan, of the group, of the ages, in their lives. Their lives therefore reflect a purity. One has to see that this idea, while it's been influential in many directions, is an ancient one.

There's another point that I would make. According to Theosophy, the evolutionary journey upon which we're embarked is not just a biological, physical evolution, but a moral evolution. There's an evolution in consciousness. There is a spiritual evolution. To understand this fully, one has to recognize that the human being is multidimensional. He is more than the physical body. We have emotions, we have a mind that thinks, and there is a spiritual aspect to our being. The Theosophical philosophy posits a human constitution composed of various aspects: spiritual, intellectual, moral, as well as physical. It also posits that we live successive lives—the concept of reincarnation. There is a lawfulness in this whole process. You can't take just the concept of the Masters, or the Mahatmas, without seeing it in its context in the entire Theosophical philosophy.

People may wonder if the Mahatmas introduced by the TS were living human beings. Of course they were living human beings. They themselves wrote, "We are men, not Gods." But they are wiser, they have come to a deeper knowledge. From that period we have a number of testimonies of individuals who saw these Mahatmas and had direct intercourse with them-Colonel H. S. Olcott, for example, the founding president of the Society. He testified to their existence, to seeing them. And there are many others. At least twenty-five people in those early days received some kind of communication, a letter or direct visits from them, as Blavatsky did.

Mr. Sinnett, to whom the bulk of The Mahatma Letters were written, did not see them physically. He longed to but never did. He certainly accepted their existence. Certainly I do. The Letters to me breathe of another world. They have an aura and a wisdom in them, a knowledge that is to me a wonderful understanding of many aspects with which the Letters treat.

Smoley: The historian of esotericism K. Paul Johnson, in The Masters Revealed and other works, described historical figures who, he believed, were the figures behind the Mahatmas. What do you think of Johnson's views?

Mills: I knew Paul. I read his book many years ago. Many years ago, I had a little correspondence with Paul. I knew that he made every effort to identify those individuals we know as the Mahatma Morya and the Mahatma Koot Hoomi. Of course there are others: Djual Kool, Hilarion, and various others have been identified by name.

I'm not sure that Paul really did identify them as individuals in an historical way. As I recall, there were a number of gaps and flaws, and he sometimes stretched things to make them fit his hypothesis rather then taking what evidence there might be.

But the point is they were or are living human beings. They made no bones about that. They were seen by a number of individuals at various times and in various places.

From my point of view, the important thing is not who they were, historically speaking, but the teaching that they gave. That is really the essential part of The Mahatma Letters—the teaching, not who gave it or where it derives from.

I prefer not to go in to any analysis of Paul's work. I read it when it first came out. He made his contribution, and there it stands. If people want to know who these individuals were, maybe Paul had something, maybe not.

Smoley: Do you believe that the Masters who were alive in HPB's time are likely to be alive in any physical form today?

Mills: There's a very interesting article in volume 8 of HPB's Collected Writings, titled simply "Helena Petrovna Blavatsky." It's quite a long article, and is actually an account of a conversation she had with Charles Johnston, who married one of her nieces. One of the questions Johnston asks about the Mahatmas is whether they have discovered the elixir of life. HPB responds that that's not a fable; that it's a veil hiding a real occult process that wards off age and dissolution for periods which would seem to us to be quite amazing. She goes into it in some detail.

That much said, it is quite likely that the Mahatmas are not in the same physical vehicles they were in the 1880s. It doesn't mean that they may not be in physical incarnation or have taken or constructed vehicles that are similar in appearance.

There's an interesting episode that's recorded in The Mahatma Letters where the Mahatma KH appears to the English medium William Eglinton on board ship. How did he get there? How did he appear in the form that Eglinton would recognize from having seen a picture of the Mahatma KH? One of the occult powers, it is said, is that the Mahatma can create a vehicle, a mayavi-rupa, an illusory form that is recognizable by the individual seeing it. I don't want to go into a lengthy description of that process, but I would say that it's possible that they would use a physical form if necessary—that they might have incarnated, taken another physical form today.

Smoley: What role do the Masters play in the current Theosophical movement?

Mills: They play no role whatsoever in the Society. They never did other than to suggest certain directions, certain modes of action, to Olcott. They themselves say that they do not guide the Society.

Many members today accept their existence and feel that they may be inspired by them. For example, I have often felt that I dedicated my work in the Society to the Masters and to the work that they did in inspiring the formation of the Society. But that's a personal matter. One can accept their existence or not. There are many members who probably don't even think about them. There are other members who are deeply committed to the ideals that the Mahatmas expressed in their letters, even though these letters were written over a century ago.

But as to any role, no. Every member is free to accept their existence, free to deny it, free to accept any of the concepts that are presented, to interpret those ideas in their own way. There is complete freedom of thought in the Society.

Smoley: Do you agree with the idea that the Masters communicate with living people from the inner planes? If so, how are the living people likely to experience this?

Mills: Yes, I think this is quite possible. One has to be very cautious, however. I know there are individuals who claim to be in touch with the Mahatmas or with high spiritual beings of one kind or another. But I think it's easy to delude oneself that you're in touch with some high spiritual entity when it may be only your own wishful thinking.

It is possible, of course, to be in contact inwardly if one is quiet. I think there are certain ways in which you can determine whether you are receiving an authentic inner message. One very important way is that the communication is completely impersonal. If it is personal, if it plays on your vanity, your ego, your sense of importance, if it makes you feel you've been designated as unique to receive this, beware, because that's building up the personal ego. The Mahatmas do not do that. Their communications are impersonal in that sense.

There are individuals who have been inspired in some way, who report an incident in their lives when they felt a tremendous inspiration, when they were helped. I can only say for myself that in some of my writing and in some of my lecture tours around the world there have been moments when something seemed to inspire me beyond my own knowing. I can vouch for that. I'm not attributing it to one or another of the Mahatmas, because I really don't know. It may be my own higher self coming through, my own interior self or spirit or whatever you want to call it.

But if you're quiet, if you are really seeking understanding, if you're really wanting to know the truths of life, you may have an experience when something seems to break through.

I think that everyone is capable of having that kind of experience. I'm no authority on this, but I do think that one sees it in what results. There's a lot of self-help books out there that claim to be from some divine source. Maybe yes, maybe no. You have to judge it for yourself. You have to judge the experience for yourself. Does it make you feel inflated, important, significant, or did it inspire you to live a better life? I think that is the key question. Am I better for the experience? Do I live a better life? Am I kinder, gentler, more understanding? Ask yourself that question.

Smoley: What can a person today expect to learn from The Mahatma Letters?

Mills: To understand The Mahatma Letters one needs to know a little bit about their background. The majority of them were written to Mr. Sinnett; about his life one can read very easily. Some of them were to his colleague, A. O. Hume.

The letters weren't always dated, and consequently when they came into the possession of Mr. Sinnett's executrix, Maud Hoffman, after Sinnett's death, she turned them over to a man by the name of A. T. Barker for possible publication.

They were in a rather mixed-up condition, many of them not dated, as I said. Barker decided to organize them in accordance with the subject matter, but that wasn't always easy because some letters contained comments on more than one subject. Many of the letters seemed a little bit chatty, perhaps even gossipy. I've had friends say to me that they felt that the Masters seemed very personal at times, very sort of picky about flaws in individuals, very un-Mahatma-like.

The first editions of The Mahatma Letters were therefore arranged according to the way in which Barker had organized them. It didn't always make sense. It was a bit confusing because you would read in one letter something that wasn't explained; the background wasn't explained until a later letter.

Various people tried to develop a chronology of the letters. Several chronologies were published: one by Mary K. Neff, another by Margaret Conger. There were other chronologies, or attempts at them. Finally a colleague of mine, Virginia Hanson, began working with George Linton and others. She looked at the various events referred to as well as doing a tremendous amount of research into the journals of that period, such as The Theosophist. Virginia developed a chronology that is generally considered the most accurate to date. She consulted all the published chronologies as well as others that were supplied to her that had not been published. Comparing them all, she developed a chronology which the majority of the students felt was accurate. That chronology was used in the edition published by the president of the Society in the Philippines, Vicente Hao Chin. Vic, as we know him, used the chronology developed by Virginia.

My work on the letters follows that chronology. I think it makes it much more logical to use the chronological edition because while some of the letters are diffuse and some of the events are hard to follow, in the chronological edition there are explanatory notes about various events that occurred during the period that the letters were being received.

What can a person reading them today expect to learn? You can learn the history of the Society during that amazing period when the Society was establishing its headquarters in India. It mainly concerns the work that was being done in India at that time. So you can read them simply for history.

There are also a great number of passages in them about the life of a pupil, a student, known as a chela, a pupil of one of the Masters, someone who is determined to live the spiritual life and to be of service to humanity. You can learn a great deal about what is involved in becoming a student or a chela, as it was called in those days. We don't speak of chelaship much any more. If you are a student of the teachings, there is a great deal that can be learned about the kind of life that is necessary to be lived in order to come to the state of the Mahatma himself.

One can also learn a great deal about the Theosophical philosophy as it was presented in that period. The letters were received during the period before HPB had written The Secret Doctrine. There are a great number of teachings with regard to the philosophy. So there's much can be learned.

You can also learn a great deal about the Mahatmas themselves, at least about the two who indulged in the correspondence, KH and Morya. For example, you can learn that Morya really didn't like to write letters, whereas KH seemed to enjoy it and wrote at great length.

Smoley: Figures like Morya and Koot Hoomi are now invoked in a wide number of contexts, including, for example, the Church Universal and Triumphant of Elizabeth Clare Prophet. How do you see this use of the Masters? What relation, if any, do they have to the Theosophical figures?

Mills: There are many books out there that claim to have messages or even to have been written by individuals such as Morya and Koot Hoomi and others—Hilarion, St. Germain. Certainly there's been a use and abuse of the Mahatmas' names, often for very selfish ends, to glorify the individual, who feels very unique in having received some special message.

I don't really want to comment on any of these. I think that using the idea of the Masters for selfish purposes is very sad because it leads people astray. Sometimes some of these works are what I call pabulum. I don't think any Mahatma would speak that way. Then that's a judgment that I'm making myself.

I think every individual has to decide for themselves whether the message is inspiring, whether it is helpful. Does it make you a better person, a kinder person, more brotherly, more understanding, more open and generous? Does the message give you some kind of inner peace and understanding? Or does it just make you feel special? You have to judge it for yourself.

So far as I'm concerned, the majority of these so-called channeled messages today have nothing to do with the teachings that were given by the Mahatmas to Mr. Sinnett and Mr. Hume. It's very easy to say, "I received a message from Koot Hoomi and he said, ‘You must learn to be good'." Now that's really nonsense; the Master has more important things to do than telling me to be good.

Judge it by the teaching, not by the source. If there is something that expands on your understanding, that gives a new insight, a new way of interpreting the teaching, if it is a new teaching, then perhaps it comes from a Mahatma. Don't be concerned with the source; be concerned with the teaching. This, I think, is the way in which to judge these various outpourings that are coming through many different individuals.

Smoley: Some contend that the Theosophical Society has passed its prime, with an aging, dwindling membership. How, in your opinion, does this jibe with the esoteric function of the TS as a nucleus for a new world religion? Is the TS succeeding or failing?

Mills: It is true that the membership in the Society right now has unfortunately dipped to a rather low level. I'm not sure it's an aging membership, because we really have no specific figures. Certainly there are some national Sections of the Society where there are a great number of young people and certainly very active young people. I think this is encouraging. And there are some Sections that are actually growing in membership and growing because younger people are coming in at a faster rate than the older people are dying off.

Overall the Society has dwindled mainly, I think, because the ideas that it presented were new and startling over a century ago but are generally accepted today. There's a much wider acceptance of the ideals for which the Society stands. That doesn't mean that the Society doesn't still have a mission to perform or work to do—I think it does—but that's another question.

I don't think it's past its prime. I personally think the Society has a wonderful future. I don't think it will change its teachings, because the teaching is essentially the same in all ages; it is an ageless philosophy, but it may need to change its methods. It may need to be put in a new language and use new techniques, but that's for the Society's officers and administration to determine.

When you speak of its esoteric function, I presume you are referring to a statement in one of the letters in which the Mahatma says that the Society was intended to be the foundation of a future religion of humanity. It's not a new world religion but a future religion of humanity. I think that future religion is the message that is at heart of the work of the Society. It's a message of brotherhood; it's a message of true understanding of each other and of real brotherhood, which alone brings about peace while still permitting every individual to seek the highest in accordance with his own or her own path.

I don't think the Society has failed by any means, but then I am an optimist. I think the Society may be struggling, neither succeeding or failing. It may be struggling to find the best way to get the message out. For example, in regard to this debate that is going on now in New York City over a Muslim center close to the site of the destruction of the World Trade Center: to immediately say that an Islamic center should or shouldn't be there is based on personal prejudice, personal views, personal concerns, not on understanding what Islam is all about or its relation to Christianity and Judaism. These are the three religions of the book, as they're called. Do we really understand how they're interconnected? How can we have brotherhood if we shut our eyes to the paths that may be taken by others who are our brothers?

It's not a new world religion, but it's the future religion of humanity, which is the religion of brotherhood, I suggest. We may struggle to discover how best to present it using modern technology, such as the World Wide Web. But there is an inner web that unites us all, and that is what we have to come to realize.

Smoley: One idea that has fascinated seekers in the West for centuries is that of the secret Brotherhood. Could you give your thoughts on this Brotherhood, whether it exists, and if so, what it is and does?

Mills: Yes I'm convinced there are such Brotherhoods. There may be several so-called secret Brotherhoods. There are the Rosicrucians of the seventeenth-century Rosicrucian manifestos, there is the Masonic order. There are a number of so-called Brotherhoods, secret or at least private; I prefer that word. Yes, they may have secrets by which you recognize them. There may be signs and symbols by which you recognize the members of such a fraternity.

As for me, I do feel there is a Brotherhood of adepts, a Brotherhood of Mahatmas, a fraternity. In their letters they speak of such a Brotherhood. They perform different functions. Not all of them are teachers, as I think KH was preeminently. Certainly Morya took on that role in terms of the letters. But not all of them are teachers. They may be involved in other aspects of service to the world, helping the world, inspiring individuals who are open to their influence.

Yes, there is a Brotherhood of adepts, a Brotherhood of Mahatmas. They themselves speak of it. There are other Brotherhoods, as I say. A Brotherhood of adepts serves to preserve the teachings, the ageless wisdom, keep it alive at inner levels even when it is obscured in the world about us. I think that's one of its functions. It is always alert to any seeker who genuinely desires to be of service to humanity. And so inspires and helps in some way that seeker. They may be involved in healing services.

I think they have various functions within the Brotherhood. Not all of those functions can be named in a sense that we're accustomed to—labeling what people do. Their main purpose is to be of service; to aid the awakening of humanity; to give encouragement to those individuals who are struggling towards deeper understanding, deeper service. I think that's their key word.

Smoley: There is a certain amount of interest in the Esoteric Section of the TS, although there is comparatively little said about it publicly. Could you talk about the ES and its current state and role?

Mills: In 1888, HPB was living in London and published The Secret Doctrine there. Many of the individuals around her pressed her for a way in which they could come together for a deeper study. It was at that time that she established what is today called the Esoteric School of Theosophy, the ES. It has been in existence since HPB's time. It is open to any member of the Society who has been a member for at least two years and follows a certain discipline in one's life. In one sense it is quite independent of the Society, but to belong to it one must be a member of the Society. Its headquarters in the United States are at Krotona in Ojai, California. It is not so much a secret school as a private one. We meet together and study some of the Theosophical books.

It's a body of seekers who meet together on a regular basis and live a certain mode of life that is in harmony with their spiritual aspirations. While I am a member, there is very little I can say about it, but if anyone is interested they can always write to the headquarters of the Esoteric School here in Ojai. There is literature, there are brochures that explain the function. Each member is free to determine if that's the way they wish to go.