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Chapter XIV: The Enlightened Person

The term 'mahatma'

Enlightenment Sickness, A Fallen Yogi, The Blades of a Fan, Self-Realization/Self-Actualization, The Self-Actualized Person.

Moderator: milarepa

The term 'mahatma'

Postby Andrew » Mon Aug 17, 2015 10:28 am

Hi All,

Just a query on the use of the term 'Mahatma' - part of a little project that I am working on.

For a lot of people, in the West particularly, they think 'Mahatma' is Gandhi's first name. (They are frequently surprised to know that it was Mohandas.) The term seemed to gain some public attention in the late 19th/early 20th century owing to the popularity of the Theosophical Society. However, the use of the term within theosophical tradition has a different connotation in that it suggests not only an 'enlightened' being but one in possession of highly developed 'siddhi' abilities.

(By way of full disclosure, I am a member of the TS and actively involved in the theosophical movement which was my entrance to Vedanta.)

Although the TS seemed to spread the term, they certainly didn't invent or claim to invent it and it must have existed previously. I resorted to that roulette wheel of scholarship (Wiki), and they have it roughly cognate to the Christian notion of a 'saint' which, is not something I especially agree with. Given that Canonization within the Catholic world is a lengthy bureaucratic process decided by a governing body committee (Vatican) and I don't believe there is a Hindu equivalent to that.

So, I guess my question is:

(a) How is the term used and understood within Hindu culture generally?
(b) Does 'mahatma' have any different usage within traditional Vedanta or is it the same as (a) above?

Listening to James' Gita lectures (Vedanta audio course), he refers to Swamis Chinmayananda, Dayananda and Paramartananda as 'mahatmas'. My sense was that they are 'mahatmas' for being such great teachers and scholars of the tradition whereas I believe Gandhi's 'mahatmaship' rests on social reform and Indian Independence.

Thoughts, questions, comments, tomatoes etc received gratefully!

Andrew
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Re: The term 'mahatma'

Postby Mira » Mon Aug 17, 2015 4:16 pm

Hi Andrew,
Sounds like an interesting project--would love to hear more!
Mahatma translates to "great soul". And therefore could be applied to great teachers (like the Swamis you mentioned) and great leaders (like Gandhi). It is a term of deep reverence and affection and not one to be used lightly. BTW, Gandhi (from what I understand) was a karma yogi and vedantin. Mira
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Re: The term 'mahatma'

Postby Vinay » Wed Aug 19, 2015 8:53 am

Hi Andrew,

I'm an Indian, so I'll give you the Indian view.

(a) How is the term used and understood within Hindu culture generally?


For the general Indian public, as Mira said, "Mahatma" means a "great soul" or a "great person". So the term "Mahatma" can apply to a great political leader like Gandhi as well as to a spiritual teacher. But there is a slight spiritual connotation as well. Gandhi was a religious person and believed in non-violence. He was considered to be pure of heart. So maybe that was also one of the reasons why he was called Mahatma.

(b) Does 'mahatma' have any different usage within traditional Vedanta or is it the same as (a) above?


I believe when Vedantins call someone Mahatma, it means the person is not only enlightened, but also possesses a pure mind. So you'll call people like Sw. Chinmayananda, Sw. Dayananda, Sw. Paramarthananda's as Mahatma's because they are not only Jnani's but through years of dedicated Self Inquiry also possess a pure mind, which shows in their behavior and in the clarity of their teachings.

Vinay
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Re: The term 'mahatma'

Postby Andrew » Fri Aug 21, 2015 4:24 pm

Thank you Mira & Vinay for your replies.

Vinay, your post was especially helpful. I am glad to have an 'insider' perspective. It is very easy for people outside a culture to think they know how terms are used and have really no idea of proper meaning or context. You only have to see Western "yoga" :shock:

Feel like I have a clearer idea now.

Andrew
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