Mahatma (Mə-HÄT-mə) is Sanskrit for "Great Soul" (महात्मा mahātmā: महा mahā (great) + आत्मं or आत्मन ātman [soul]). It is similar in usage to the modern Christian term saint. This epithet is commonly applied to prominent people like Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Lalon Shah and Jyotirao Phule. Rabindranath Tagore is said to have accorded, or popularized, this title for Gandhi.
The word, used in a technical sense, was popularized in theosophical literature in the late 19th century when Madame Helena Blavatsky, one of the founders of the Theosophical Society, claimed that her teachers were adepts or Mahatmas who reside in Asia.
According to the Theosophical teachings, the Mahatmas are not disembodied beings, but highly evolved people involved in overseeing the spiritual growth of individuals and the development of civilizations. Blavatsky was the first person in modern times to claim contact with these Adepts, especially the "Masters" Koot Hoomi and Morya.
In September and October 1880, Blavatsky visited A. P. Sinnett at Simla in northern India. The serious interest of Sinnett in the Theosophical teachings of Mme. Blavatsky and the work of the Theosophical Society prompted Mme. Blavatsky to establish a contact by correspondence between Sinnett and the two adepts who were sponsoring the society, Koot Hoomi and Morya.
From this correspondence Sinnett wrote The Occult World (1881) and Esoteric Buddhism (1883), both of which had an enormous influence in generating public interest in theosophy. The replies and explanations given by the Mahatmas to the questions by Sinnett are embodied in their letters from 1880 to 1885, published in Londo] in 1923 as The Mahatma Letters to Sinnett. The Mahatmas also corresponded with a number of other persons during the early years of the Theosophical Society. Many of these letters have been published in two volumes titled Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom, Series 1 and Series 2.
There has been a great deal of controversy concerning the existence of these particular adepts. Blavatsky's critics have doubted the existence of her Masters. See, for example, W.E. Coleman's "exposes." More than twenty five individuals testified to having seen and been in contact with these Mahatmas during Blavatsky's lifetime. In recent years, K. Paul Johnson has promoted his controversial theory about the Masters.
After Blavatsky's death in 1891, numerous individuals have claimed to be in contact with her Adept Teachers and have stated that they were new "messengers" of the Masters conveying various esoteric teachings. Currently various New Age, metaphysical, and religious organizations refer to them as Ascended Masters, although their character and teachings are in several respects different from those described by Theosophical writers.
Divine Light Mission 
The Divine Light Mission (DLM) was a Sant Mat-based movement begun in India in the 1930s by Hans Ji Maharaj and formally incorporated in 1960. The DLM had as many as 2,000 mahatmas, all from India or Tibet, who taught the DLM's secret meditation techniques called "Knowledge". The mahatmas, called 'realised souls', or "apostles", also served as local leaders. After Hans Ji's death in 1966 his youngest son, Prem Rawat (known then as Guru Maharaj Ji or Bagyogeshwar), succeeded him. The young guru appointed some new mahatmas, including one from the United States. In one notable incident, a prominent Indian mahatma nearly beat a man to death in Detroit for throwing a pie at the guru. In the early 1980s, Prem Rawat replaced the Divine Light Mission organization with the Elan Vital and replaced the mahatmas with initiators. The initiators did not have the revered status of the mahatmas and they were drawn mostly from Western followers. In the 2000s, the initiators were replaced by a video in which Rawat teaches the techniques himself.
Rarity of mahatmas 
Vedas say, that association of great soul is very rare: "the association of a mahatma is very rare, and yet it is available to a sincere seeker." Krishna also speaks about this in Bhagavad-Gita: "After many births and deaths, he who is actually in knowledge surrenders unto Me, knowing Me to be the cause of all causes and all that is. Such a great soul is very rare."
- "Mahātma". New International Encyclopedia. 1905.
- Dutta, Krishna and Andrew Robinson, Rabindranath Tagore: An Anthology, p. 2
- A Casebook of Encounters with the Theosophical Mahatmas
- Madame Blavatsky & the Latter-Day Messengers of the Masters
- Leadbeater, C.W. The Masters and the Path. Adyar, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1929 (Reprint: Kessinger Publishing, 1997).
- Partridge, Christopher ed. New Religions: A Guide: New Religious Movements, Sects and Alternative Spiritualities Oxford University Press, USA 2004.
- Price, Maeve (1979): The Divine Light Mission as a social organization. (1) Sociological Review, 27, Page 279-296
- Levine, Saul V. in Galanter, Marc (1989). Cults and New Religious Movements: A Report of the American Psychiatric Association. American Psychiatric Pub., Inc. ISBN 0-89042-212-5.
- Bartel, Dennis (November 1983). "Whos's Who in Gurus". Harper's. p. 55.
- The association of great souls is rarely obtained, difficult to understand, and infallible. ... Another proof of the power of the mahatma is his ability to convert non-devotees into saintly persons. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura stated that a Vaisnava can be tested by seeing how good a "touchstone" he is -- by seeing how many Vaisnavas he has made during his life. Lord Caitanya desired that as many persons as possible should repeat the message of Krsna and convince others to take up Krsna consciousness, following in the footsteps of Narada Muni and other great acaryas. In conclusion, the association of a mahatma is very rare, and yet it is available to a sincere seeker. Upon contacting a great soul, one should realize one's good fortune, and with a joyful but serious attitude one should surrender unto his lotus feet. Narada Bhakti Sutra 39
- bahunam janmanam ante jnanavan mam prapadyate vasudevah sarvam iti sa mahatma su-durlabhah / bahunam -- many; janmanam -- repeated births and deaths; ante -- after; jnana-van -- one who is in full knowledge; mam -- unto Me; prapadyate -- surrenders; vasudevah -- the Personality of Godhead, Krsna; sarvam -- everything; iti -- thus; sah -- that; maha-atma -- great soul; su-durlabhah -- very rare to see. ... The living entity, while executing devotional service or transcendental rituals after many, many births, may actually become situated in transcendental pure knowledge that the Supreme Personality of Godhead is the ultimate goal of spiritual realization. Bhagavad-gita As It Is 7.19
- Dutta, Krishna and Andrew Robinson. Rabindranath Tagore: An Anthology. Picador/Macmillan: London, 1997.
|Wikisource has the text of the 1905 New International Encyclopedia article Mahātma.|