What is Spiritual Initiation? There is a lot of talk these days about spiritual initiation, enlightenment, Ascended Masters, Masters of Wisdom, Mahatmas, etc… but what does it all really mean?  Is immediate enlightenment possible as advertised by several ‘New Age’ groups, or, is there a long slow road stretching ahead to spiritual achievement as many ancient traditions tell us?


In The Ancient Wisdom, initiation is generally used in reference to entering into this long and winding road to the sacred wisdom under the direction of initiates in schools specially dedicated to this type of learning – The Mystery Schools. By the process of a series of tests, a student or candidate for initiation quickens the natural journey of spiritual evolution. The candidate thus anticipates the growth that will be achieved by ordinary humanity at a much later time, but at the price of discipline and strength of character beyond the reach of the majority of people at this stage of spiritual development.


He or she unfolds from within their latent spiritual and intellectual powers, thus raising individual self-consciousness, and helping raise world consciousness thereby, to a higher level. The induction of such a candidate into the various and increasing grades or degrees was aptly spoken of as a ‘new birth’.


The Times of the Major Spiritual Initiations: the preparation for the major initiations is a continuous process of unfolding the potentials of the inner god within us all. We experience this process as living up to the best of ourselves in daily life. These qualities were/are recognized so to speak at the times of the major initiations which were/are determined by the earth’s orbit around the Sun, its orientation with the Sun, the other planets, and the Moon. The reason for this is essentially to facilitate the flight of the ‘inner man’ to various ‘worlds’ where initiatory experiences are available.


The four major initiations were held at the Solstices (December and June) and the Equinoxes (March and September) being the ‘stations’ along the elliptical orbit of the Earth around the Sun. No doubt other astronomical influences from outside the solar system, such as our position in relation to the different constellations of the Zodiac, also played a part in the timing of initiation ceremonies.


Major Christian festivals, principally Christmas and Easter, coincide with the ancient times of spiritual initiation.


What About Us in the Southern Hemisphere? The information on the Solstices and Equinoxes refers to the Northern and Southern hemispheres of the Earth at the time they experience their seasons, ie. at the opposite times of the year to each other. This is because initiation has to do with how the Sun is affecting any part of the earth and all the life forms inhabiting that part of the earth.  So the spiritual “currents” from the Sun depend on how the Sun is affecting the earth and nature at the time these currents are felt on any particular part of the Earth.


So, in my view, for the Southern Hemisphere, we could say: Birth at the Winter Solstice (June 21st), the beginning of the year; Adolescence — trials and their conquest — at the Spring Equinox (September 21st); Adulthood, full-blown strength and power, at the Summer Solstice (December 21st), representing a period of initiation when the Great Renunciation is made; Death: and then closing with the Autumnal Equinox (March 21st), the period of the Great Passing.”


The mystic year contains four seasonal points, and that these four seasons in their cycle are symbolic of the four chief events of progress of initiation. We’ll look at these in greater detail soon but in summary:


Winter Solstice: the ‘Great Birth’: First, that of the Winter Solstice, which event is also called the ‘Great Birth’, when the aspirant brings to birth the god within him and, for a time at least, becomes temporarily at one therewith in consciousness and in feeling; a birth which indeed is the birth of the inner Buddha born of the spiritual solar splendour, or the birth of the mystic Christos.


At the time of the Winter Solstice, there are two main degrees which neophytes or initiants must pass through: The fourth, and the seventh degree, or last: the fourth for less great men, although they are great men nonetheless; and the last or seventh initiation, coming at rare intervals being the birth of the Buddhas and of the Christs.


The Fourth Initiation: During the initiation of those individuals of less grandiose spiritual and intellectual capacity than is the human material out of which the Buddhas are born, during this fourth initiation, the postulant is taught to free himself from all the trammels of mind and from the lower four principles of his constitution; and being thus set free he passes along the magnetic channels or circulations of the universe, even to the portals of the Sun, but there and then he stops and returns. Three days usually are the time required for this, and then the man arises a full initiate, but with a realization that ahead of him are still loftier peaks to scale on that lonely path, that still path, that small path, leading to divinity.


The Seventh Initiation: This occurs in a cycle lasting some 2,160 human years, the time which it takes for a zodiacal sign to pass through a constellation backwards into the next constellation.


When the planets Mercury and Venus, and Sun and Moon and Earth are lined-up then the freed monad of the lofty neophyte can pass along the magnetic pathway through these bodies and continue direct to the heart of the Sun. For fourteen days the man left on Earth is as in a trance, or walks about in a daze, in a quasi-stupor; for the inner part of him, the real part of him, is peregrinating through the spheres.


Two weeks later, during the light half of the lunar cycle or month, that is, when the moon stands full, his peregrinating monad returns rapidly as flashing thought along the same pathway by which it ascended to Father Sun, retaking to itself the habiliments which it dropped on each planet as it passed through it.


Then for a while, the neophyte’s whole being is irradiated with the solar spiritual splendour, and he is a Buddha just “born.” All his body is in flaming glory, as it were; and from his head, and from back of his head especially there is an aura or rays of glory like a crown. It is because of this that crowns in the Occident and diadems in the East were formerly worn by those who had passed through this degree, for they are Sons of the Sun, crowned with the solar splendour.


The Spring Equinox: The Great Temptation: Then, second, comes the period or event of esoteric adolescence at the Spring Equinox, when in the full flush of the victory gained at the Winter Solstice, and with the marvellous inner strength and power that come to one who has thus achieved, the aspirant enters upon the greatest temptation, except one, known to human beings, and prevails; and this event may be called the Great Temptation. With this initiation at the time of the Spring Equinox the Avataras are particularly concerned, forming as they do one of the lines of activity — a god-line, in fact — of the Hierarchy of Compassion and Splendour, although the Avataras are outside the circle of temptation except insofar as concerns the human portion of them.


The initiations which take place at the time of the Spring Equinox include:


  • the passing through trials and an ultimate resurrection from the personal man of the god within and an ascension into the spiritual realms, at least for a time, of the initiant’s percipient consciousness.


  • the descent of the neophyte-initiant, however grand his spiritual stature may be, into the Underworld, into those very real but to us utterly invisible realms of space which have their being in cosmic reaches still more material than our gross sphere of physical substance.


Just as at certain times in the progress of cosmic destiny a certain divinity leaves its own luminous realms in order to “descend,” or more accurately to transfer a portion of its own divine essence, into the world of men for the purpose of aiding and helping erring mankind,(the descent of Avataras) so exactly does the neophyte-initiant descend or transfer his percipient consciousness into the Underworld in order to learn and also to help the denizens of those gloomy spheres.


What the gods from their lofty height do in this connection to help us, this do likewise these great men in spheres below our own.


Summer Solstice, The Great Renunciation: Following the initiations of the Winter Solstice and Spring  Equinox comes the event of the Summer Solstice, at which time the neophyte or aspirant must undergo, and successfully prevail over, the greatest temptation known to man just referred to; and if he so prevail, which means the renouncing of all chance of individual progress for the sake of becoming one of the Saviours of the world, he then takes his position as one of the stones in the Guardian Wall.


Thereafter he dedicates his life to the service of the world, without thought of reward or of individual progress — it may be for aeons — sacrificing himself spiritually in the service of all that lives. For this reason the initiation at this season of the year has been called the Great Renunciation.


Why a ‘Great Renunciation’? This initiatory cycle is called the Great Renunciation because it involves the giving up of all personal progress for the sake of helping our suffering world. Such initiants become members of the ‘Hierarchy of Compassion’ comprising the ‘Guardian Wall’ protecting humanity from the results of its unthinking invoking of cosmic forces which might possibly destroy us in an instant. Such service includes the ‘damming back’ of humanity’s accumulated karma, defending us against physical and psychic threats to the planet including invasion by ‘rivers of lives’ circulating around the solar system on the inner planes which could threaten our existence.


It must never for a moment be supposed that the Great Renunciation implies an abandonment of any single part of the manifested universe in order that the neophyte or aspirant may devote himself only to following the sole pathway of light. This in itself is a subtly spiritual selfishness which is the spirit governing the career of the Pratyeka Buddhas. It is necessary for the neophyte or chela who desires to pass through even the first gateway of the initiation leading to the Great Renunciation to understand that instead of abandoning the world he remains within it, in order, as he grows greater and stronger, wiser and loftier, to serve ever more largely in the cause of all things that are.


The Hierarchy of Compassion: There are many grades of those who take the path of the Great Renunciation:


  • first, the loftiest ones, the very gods themselves who lean from their azure thrones, so to speak, and who communicate with those of the same hierarchy but who are less than they.
  • the Buddhas of Compassion;
  • the Masters of Wisdom and Peace;
  • the high chelas;
  • the chelas of lower degree;
  • ordinary men and women who feel within themselves the upsurging force of the mighty fire of compassionate love which, at times at least, fills their hearts with its flame.


Celestial Buddhas, Dhyani-Buddhas, Manushya-Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Masters, Chelas, Inferior Chelas, and Great and Noble Men and Women — there in brief is the line or ladder of being which forms the Hierarchy of Compassion.


It must never be supposed that the Great Renunciation implies that, once taken, this debars one from further initiation. The Great Renunciation implies, rather, that the entity so devoting himself consecrates himself to a series of further and ever loftier initiations, but with the sole and single purpose of rendering himself ever more fit for transmitting the divine light to others less advanced than he, and for that purpose alone.


Autumn Equinox: The Great Passing: Then, finally, comes the fourth and last period of the cycling mystical year, the event of the Autumnal Equinox, which perhaps is the most sublime … because in the initiation of the Autumnal Equinox the neophyte or aspirant passes beyond the portals of irrevocable death, and returns among men no more.


One line of this activity, lofty and spiritual but yet not the line of the Hierarchy of Splendour and Compassion, is that followed by the Pratyeka Buddhas. Aeons will pass before these Pratyeka Buddhas reawaken to take up anew the evolutionary journey, the evolutionary pilgrimage. The Autumnal Equinox is likewise straitly and closely related to the investigation, during the rites and trials of the neophyte, of the many and varied and intricate mysteries connected with death. For these and for other reasons it has been called The Great Passing.


Of all the four sacred initiatory seasons of the year, none perhaps is so difficult to describe as the events and trials and success that belong to the initiation of the Autumnal Equinox, technically called the Great Passing – the recondite and in some cases dread mysteries of death.


This is the time of the final choice between becoming a Pratyeka Buddha and spending aeons in the bliss of Nirvana, or, to become a Buddha of Compassion (Amrita Buddha) returning to a suffering Humanity on Earth such as the Christs and Buddhas do and lending a helping hand.


The Ultimate Choice: There are two distinct but not conflicting elements of the teaching regarding the Autumnal Equinoctial Initiation:


  • All the greater initiants must pass through this initiation, but they return. They taste in it of death and vanquish it; and in the words of the Christian scripture they may say: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” because the initiant rising successfully as an initiate has truly conquered death, and its mysteries in all their various phases are to him mysteries no longer.


  • The second element of the teaching is the fact that armies, multitudes, crowds, of human beings, at some time in their evolutionary pilgrimage, choose this initiation with deliberation for the sole purpose of passing out of the world and ken of men, to return no more. Such are the Pratyeka Buddhas, and those who, like them, prefer the bliss of individual nirvana to the self-sacrificing but sublime life and destiny of a Buddha of Compassion


Understanding the Upper Worlds: The Great Passing is the fourth and concluding initiation which every Master of Wisdom must go through, and the glories of which he must renounce. In this initiation leading to complete Masterhood, the initiant must indeed, as in the preceding three initiations, pass through the Underworld; but his goal this time is principally the mastery of, the Upper Worlds.


Here then, in this initiation, are learned all the intricate and very mysterious secrets connected with Death, some of them sublimely beautiful, and some of them dreadful beyond any ordinary human imagination. The entire framework of the constitution of the initiant must be ruptured and torn apart for the time being, so that the divine part of him may wander the stars of our galaxy.


The divine monad returns to its own parent star and passes from star to star, ranging and wandering among them, familiarly and fully at home. What takes place in the case even of the ordinary human being when he dies, and which to such ordinary individual is blank unconsciousness because he has not evolved far enough to understand what he is undergoing, must to the freed divine monad of the master-initiant be made fully conscious and clear.


Every phase of the process of death that takes place in ordinary human beings is undergone by the initiant at this time: sheath after sheath of the soul is dropped and abandoned, cast aside and for the time being forgotten, until the naked divinity stands alone, a living fire of energy in self-consciousness and self-cognizing memory.


Where Were/Are These Initiations Held? The places of initiation are/were often situated on mountains which, because of this, were regarded locally as holy mountains. Often rocky caves or recesses in mountains were chosen for their inaccessibility, and used as initiation crypts or chambers.


Examples would be the Himalayan Mountains and the Nilgiri Hills in India, parts of the Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory of Australia, and man-made structures such as the Elephanta Caves in India, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Great Pyramid at Gizeh in Egypt.


Seven Degrees of Initiation: Various countries and traditions have different numbers and names for each degree. Essentially it is the same process – an accelerated evolutionary journey to overcome the power of the Ego/Lower Self, and by degrees grow closer to the Higher Self/Inner God within us all.


The ancient Egyptians had three degrees/stages with several sub-stages, personified under the ‘Three Guardians of Fire’ in their mystery tradition.

In the Greek/Roman system the process of spiritual initiation was usually configured as Seven Degrees as follows:


1st, 2nd and 3rd Degrees: Probation: are preparatory, consisting of discipline of the whole nature: moral, mental, and physical and balancing of the emotions. At each stage, the neophyte has to pass through a carefully graded series of tests or trials in order that he/she may prove his/her inner strength and capabilities to proceed.


4th Degree: First Self-Conscious Encounter With Other Planes of Reality: the powers of his/her inner god having by now become at least partially active in his daily life and consciousness, he/she is enabled to begin the experience of passing into other planes and realms of life and of being, and thus to learn to known them by becoming them. In this way he/she acquires first-hand knowledge of the truths of nature and of the universe about which he previously has been taught.


5th Degree: First Direct Meeting With The Inner God: Theophany (the appearance of a god), the candidate meets, for at least a fleeting moment, his own spiritual ego face to face, and in the most successful of these cases, for a time actually becomes one with it. Epiphany signifies a minor form of theophany.


6th Degree: Taken Over By The Inner God For a Time: Theopneusty (in-breathing or through-breathing of a god, divine inspiration), the candidate becomes the vehicle of his own inner god, for a time depending on the neophyte’s own power of retention and observation, so that he/she is then inspired with the spiritual and intellectual powers and faculties of his/her higher self.


7th Degree: Permanently At One With The Inner God: Theopathy (the suffering a god — suffering oneself to be one’s own inner god), the personal self has become permanently at-one with the inner divinity. The successful passing of the seventh trial resulted in the initiant’s becoming a glorified ‘Son of the Sun’ as the ancient Egyptians would say, to be followed by the last or ultimate stage of this degree known in Buddhism as achieving Buddha-hood or Nirvana.


Since limits cannot be set to attainment, however, still loftier stages of spiritual and intellectual unfolding or initiation await those who have already attained the degree of Buddha-hood.


Does This All Really Matter For Our Daily Lives Here and Now? The attempt to lift our state of consciousness also helps with uplifting Humanity as we are all connected at an inner level of our composite nature. As HP Blavatsky reminds us:


‘It is an occult law, moreover, that no man can rise superior to his individual failings, without lifting, be it ever so little, the whole body of which he is an integral part. In the same way, no one can sin, nor suffer the effects of sin alone. In reality there is no such thing as ‘Separateness’. ” The Key to Theosophy: page 203.


The greatest and simplest preparation for all the various grades of initiation is our daily life. Here one can prove what he is made of; here he can show the stuff that is in him; here he can strengthen his character, evoke his will, enlarge his understanding, expand his heart- life.


The Masters judge, or rather test, a beginner, a neophyte taking his first steps, by the way in which he acts in daily life and reacts to the temptations and trials that daily life puts upon him. Life is the great school, and that all the initiations, without a single exception, are but higher grades, the reaching of higher classes, in the school of life — life terrestrial and life cosmic.


All Initiation Is  Essentially Self-Initiation: We have the opportunity everyday in our interactions with other people to express the qualities of the Inner God that will make sure we keep to the ‘Path of Compassion’ and one day perhaps, stand ourselves at the entrance to the Temple of Initiation, as did those brave souls in days long gone and, do even today, at the threshold of the Temples of Initiation in hidden places around the world.


Some Further Reading:


  • More information on the qualities Theosophy encourages us to develop in our daily lives can be found in G de Purucker’s book ‘The Path of Compassion’.
  • Information on the cycles of spiritual initiation throughout the year can be found in G de Purucker: ‘The Four Sacred Seasons’.
  • Detailed information on the initiation ceremonies of the ancient world can be found in Grace Knoche’s book: ‘The Mystery Schools’.
  • All of these books are available from our Melbourne library, or free online at:
  • http://www.theosociety.org/pasadena/ts/tup-onl.htm



Condensed from G de Purucker’s book  ‘The Four Sacred Seasons’ available free on line at: http://www.theosociety.org/pasadena/4sacsea/4sacsea.htm

with additional comments by Andrew Rooke, Melbourne, Australia.

If you wish to contact the condenser of this book please email: andrewrooke@hotmail.com