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 religious groups, or, is there a long slow road stretching ahead to spiritual achievement as many ancient traditions tell us?

A ‘new birth’: In Theosophy, 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’.

When were initiations held? The times of the major initiations 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. Theosophical teacher, Dr G de Purucker, summarizes these four sacred seasons:

“…You will remember that 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: 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.

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.

 Then, third, 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 guerdon 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.

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….” – G de Purucker: The Four Sacred Seasons, pages 42-45.

What about the timing of initiations in the Southern Hemisphere? It is my understanding in the above quote, that Dr de Purucker is referring to both 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, for the Southern Hemisphere, we could interpolate the first passage from The Four Sacred Seasons: “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; and then closing with the Autumnal Equinox (March 21st), the period of the Great Passing.” – page 3.

Where were these initiations held? the places of initiation 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, and theosophy tells us that the Great Pyramid at Gizeh in Egypt (pictured above) was used in ancient times for this purpose.

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 Theosophy, the process of spiritual initiation is usually configured as Seven Degrees as follows:

1st, 2nd, and 3rd Degrees: these were preparatory, consisting of discipline of the whole nature: moral, mental and physical. Particular stress was placed on balancing the emotions, overcoming fear, and seeing the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ experiences of life equally without extremes in either direction. Instruction in the basics of esoteric philosophy, in addition to ordinary academic knowledge, was offered by teachers. At each stage the neophyte had to pass through a carefully graded series of tests in order that he/she might prove his inner strength and capability to proceed. At least in the early stages, the student might be completely unaware of his status as a student of the mysteries, and might largely bring himself through these initial stages by his own unguided efforts doing what he felt was innately right according to his own situation and circumstances of life.

4th Degree: at this stage the candidate advances beyond simply learning from others and must now journey into the realms of his own inner being. The powers of his Inner God having by now become at least partially active in his daily life and consciousness, he was enabled to begin the experience of passing into the other planes and realms of life and of being, and thus to know by becoming them. In this way he acquired first-hand knowledge of the truths of nature and of the universe about which he had previously been taught by others.

5th Degree: called in ancient Greece, 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 at one with it. The experience of Epiphany, such as Saint Paul is said to have had on the road to Damascus, might be considered a minor form of Theophany.

6th Degree: Theopneusty – the ‘inbreathing’ or ‘through-breathing of a God or divine inspiration. With this initiation, the candidate becomes the vehicle of his own Inner God, for a time depending on the neophytes own powers of retention and observation, so that he is then inspired with the spiritual and intellectual powers and faculties of his Higher Self.

7th Degree: Theopathy – the ‘suffering’ of a God or ‘suffering’ oneself to be one’s own inner God. The candidate’s personal self has become permanently at-one with his Inner Divinity. The successful passing of the seventh trial resulted in the initiate’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 ‘Buddhahood’ 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 Buddhahood. – edited from G de Purucker: Encyclopedic Theosophic Glossary:

A return to the ‘world of men’: Essentially the initiation process represents the conquest of the last shape assumed by the Ego and identification with the Higher Self within in our daily lives. In ancient Egyptian terms, the initiate wins free to Wisdom, joining the company of the ‘Aakui – the ‘Creatures of Light and Mind’, a ‘Son of the Sun’. It is important to remember that such an exalted person does not sit in a spiritual ‘ivory tower’ remote from the lives of ordinary people. He chooses from his boundless compassion to return once again to the human world to help alleviate the suffering in the world caused by ignorance of spiritual truth. The initiate returns with his ‘Table of Offerings’, before him, being the special faculties and qualities he has perfected within himself for the sake of serving suffering humanity.

Does all of this matter for our daily lives? The initiations described above for very spiritually advanced people were/are for those following the rapid path to enlightenment. What about the rest of us ordinary folk following the path through the ‘underworld’ of daily life experience? The same qualities of the Higher Self manifest in everyday ‘householder’ life are required, viz: humility, patience, understanding, emotional control, physical and mental discipline, compassion and love – all these representing what is generally recognized the world over as being the finest of human qualities. Essentially this means for us to live outside the demands of our own Ego fulfilment and becoming less personal as spiritual awareness grows. We should turn our energies and desires ‘upwards’ towards compassion, rather than ‘downwards’ towards desires for personal benefit. We should generally become ‘other-centred’ rather than ‘selfish’ in our daily behaviour.

This effort does not mean abandoning our responsibility of looking after ourselves or our family. In Hinduism this responsibility was one of the four ‘Purusasthas’ or ‘aims’ in life, called ‘Artha’, or material welfare. It also does not mean that we abandon criticism of others when we perceive there to be wrong-doing, or others are being unjustly attacked – known as the power of spiritual discrimination, or ‘Viveka’.

Our efforts either aid or damage humanity:  the attempt to lift our state of consciousness also helps with uplifting Humanity generally as we are all connected at an inner level of our composite nature. As theosophical founder, 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.

We have the opportunity everyday in our interactions with other people to express the qualities of the ‘Higher Self’ that will make sure we keep to the ‘Path of Compassion’. This spiritual path, trod by those Masters of Wisdom before us who are dedicated to helping humanity with their knowledge, rather than just using such knowledge and powers for their own personal salvation – the latter known by Buddhists of the Mahayana school as ‘Pratyeka Buddhas’. One day, if we run the race of spiritual development aright, we may perhaps stand ourselves at the entrance to the Temple of Initiation. ­- Andrew Rooke, Melbourne, Australia, with thanks to Jim Belderis of the Theosophical University Library in Pasadena for some information included in this article.

More detailed information on spiritual initiation is available in Grace Knoche’s book: The Mystery Schools, available from our library or at: and in G de Purucker’s book, The Four Sacred Seasons, at:

“Compassion is the Law of Laws.” – HP Blavatsky: The Voice of the Silence.