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Chela (devanāgarī: चेल cela) is a Sanskrit word that literally means "servant" or "slave". In Hinduism the term is used to denominate the religious student or disciple of a spiritual master or guru. In Theosophy the term is frequently used to refer to a person that has become a disciple of one of the Masters of Wisdom, being thus a candidate for initiation into the Esoteric Philosophy. Generally, speaking, there are three degrees of chelaship--that of a lay chela, a probationary chela, and a regular or accepted chela.[1] Some synonyms frequently found in the Theosophical literature are "Disciple" and "Lanoo".

Master and chela in Mountains and Clouds," Nicholas Roerich

General Description

H. P. Blavatsky

According to H. P. Blavatsky, a Chela or Disciple:

. . . is one who has offered himself or herself as a pupil to learn practically the "hidden mysteries of Nature and the psychical powers latent in man." The spiritual teacher to whom he proposes his candidature is called in India a Guru; and the real Guru is always an Adept in the Occult Science.[2]

The period of chelaship typically involves several incarnations and a number of initiations. During this stage the aspirant will develop power and attain knowledge to become a helper of the Master's work for humanity. This is why a prerequisite to be accepted as a chela is selflessness and love for humanity. Master M. wrote:

It is he alone who has the love of humanity at heart, who is capable of grasping thoroughly the idea of a regenerating practical Brotherhood who is entitled to the possession of our secrets. He alone, such a man - will never misuse his powers, as there will be no fear that he should turn them to selfish ends. A man who places not the good of mankind above his own good is not worthy of becoming our chela - he is not worthy of becoming higher in knowledge than his neighbour.[3]

Accordingly, the Master's attention is attracted to a person by his or her acts of service and the development of purity and selflessness. This was explained to C. W. Leadbeater in the first letter he received from Master K.H.:

To accept any man as a chela does not depend on my personal will. It can only be the result of one's personal merit and exertions in that direction. Force any one of the “Masters” you may happen to choose; do good works in his name and for the love of mankind; be pure and resolute in the path of righteousness (as laid out in our rules); be honest and unselfish; forget your Self but to remember the good of other people – and you will have forced that “Master” to accept you.[4]

Lay chela

An aspirant attracts the attention of a Master before he or she is fit to start a personal relationship with the Master as an accepted chela. A person under the observation of a Master is regarded as a lay chela. Mme. Blavatsky described it as follows:

A Lay Chela is but a man of the world who affirms his desire to become wise in spiritual things. Virtually, every member of the Theosophical Society who subscribes to the second of our three "Declared Objects" is such; for though not of the number of true Chelas, he has yet the possibility of becoming one, for he has stepped across the boundary-line which separated him from the Mahatmas, and has brought himself, as it were, under their notice. The joining is then, the introduction; all the rest depends entirely upon the member himself, and he need never expect the most distant approach to the “favour” of one of our Mahatmas, or any other Mahatmas in the world should the latter consent to become known—that has not been fully earned by personal merit. The Mahatmas are the servants, not the arbiters of the Law of Karma. LAY CHELASHIP CONFERS NO PRIVILEGE UPON ANYONE EXCEPT THAT OF WORKING FOR MERIT UNDER THE OBSERVATION OF A MASTER.[5]

A. P. Sinnett

In order to attract the Master's attention, however, this desire to become "wise in spiritual things" has to reach deeper than the mere exercise of the intellect. It must touch the person's spiritual consciousness. As Master K.H. wrote in one of his letters to A. P. Sinnett:

He [the aspirant] may create irresistible attractions and compel their [the Masters'] attention, but they [the attractions] will be spiritual, not mental or intellectual. . . . Once separated from the common influences of Society, nothing draws us to any outsider save his evolving spirituality. He may be a Bacon or an Aristotle in knowledge, and still not even make his current felt a feather's weight by us, if his power is confined to the Manas. . . . Manas, pure and simple, is of a lower degree, and of the earth earthly: and so your greatest men count but as nonentities in the arena where greatness is measured by the standard of spiritual development.[6]

Mme. Blavatsky describes the qualifications of a perfect chela, adding that a lay chela should acquire these qualities to some extent before he can expect to be accepted by a Master of Wisdom:

From Book IV of Kiu-ti, chapter on “the Laws of Upasana,” we learn that the qualifications expected in a Chela were:

1. Perfect physical health;
2. Absolute mental and physical purity;
3. Unselfishness of purpose; universal charity; pity for all animate beings;
4. Truthfulness and unswerving faith in the law of Karma, independent of any power in nature that could interfere: a law whose course is not to be obstructed by any agency, not to be caused to deviate by prayer or propitiatory exoteric ceremonies;
5. A courage undaunted in every emergency, even by peril to life;
6. An intuitional perception of one’s being the vehicle of the manifested Avalokitevara or Divine Atman (Spirit);
7. Calm indifference for, but a just appreciation of everything that constitutes the objective and transitory world, in its relation with, and to, the invisible regions.

Such, at the least, must have been the recommendations of one aspiring to perfect Chelaship. With the sole exception of the first, which in rare and exceptional cases might have been modified, each one of these points has been invariably insisted upon, and all must have been more or less developed in the inner nature by the Chela’s UNHELPED EXERTIONS, before he could be actually put to the test.[7]

Once the lay chela develops the necessary spiritual qualities to a certain extent, he or she may be put on probation by a Master, thus becoming a "probationary chela". If he passes this stage successfully he can become an "accepted chela".


The word "Lanoo" is often used by H. P. Blavatsky as a synonym for "disciple" or "chela." However, seems to indicate that is a disciple engaged in "practical Esotericism":

Lanoo is a student, a chela who studies practical Esotericism.[8]

In fact, in an article, she limits the term to an initiated disciple:

Be it remembered that all "Chelas," even lay disciples, are called Upasaka until after their first initiation, when they become lanoo-Upasaka.[9]

Relationship with the Master

Master and disciple; from Rosicrucian work

Accepted chelas are in touch with one of the Masters and are being trained by him. However, this does not mean that they are automatically put beyond error. Referring to this, Mme. Blavatsky wrote:

What are Chelas, and what are their powers? Have they faults, and in what particular are they different from people who are not Chelas? Is every word uttered by a Chela to be taken as gospel truth? . . . Some persons have gone so far as to say that when a man is a Chela he is at once put upon a plane when each word that he may unfortunately utter is taken down as ex cathedra, and he is not allowed the poor privilege of talking like an ordinary person. If it be found out that any such utterance was on his own account and responsibility, he is charged with having misled his hearers. Now this wrong idea must be corrected once for all.[10]

What a chela writes or says, therefore, comes from his own understanding, except in rare occasions:

It may happen with them, as it does with any author occasionally, that they evolve either true or beautiful utterances, but it must not be therefore concluded that during that utterance the Guru was speaking through the Chela. If there was the germ of a good thought in the mind, the Guru’s influence, like the gentle rain upon the seed, may have caused it to spring into sudden life and abnormally blossom, but that is not the master’s voice. The cases in fact are rare in which the masters speak through a Chela.[11]

The influence of the Master on the disciple is a natural result of the close connection that gradually grows between them, and this influence is reciprocal. In the words of Master K.H.:

It is a familiar saying that a well matched couple ‘grow together’, so as to come to a close resemblance in features as well as in mind. But do you know that between adept and chela—master and pupil—there gradually forms a closer tie; for the psychic interchange is regulated scientifically, whereas between husband and wife unaided nature is left to herself. As the water in a full tank runs into an empty one which it is connected with; and as the common level will be sooner or later reached according to the capacity of the feedpipe, so does the knowledge of the adept flow to the chela; and the chela attains the adept level according to his receptive capacities. At the same time the chela being an individual, a separate evolution, unconsciously imparts to the master the quality of his accumulated mentality. The master absorbs his knowledge. . .[12]

It is important to keep in mind that the training a chela undergoes does not necessarily resemble the common idea of training. For example, it does not involve a constant conscious communication with the Master, where the disciple is always guided by him and told what to do or not to do. Mme. Blavatsky wrote:

Krishna and Arjuna

In fact the Chela is an unfortunate man who has entered upon “a path not manifest,” and Krishna says that “that is the most difficult path.” Instead of being the constant mouthpiece of his Guru, he finds himself left more alone in the world than those who are not Chelas, and his path is surrounded by dangers which would appal many an aspirant, were they depicted in natural colours, so that instead of accepting his Guru and passing an entrance examination with a view to becoming Bachelor of the Art of Occultism under his master’s constant and friendly guidance, he really forces his way into a guarded enclosure, and has from that moment to fight and conquer—or die.[13]

A similar statement can be found in a letter from Master K.H.:

We never guide our chelas (the most advanced even); nor do we forewarn them leaving the effects produced by causes of their own creation to teach them better experience.[14]

According to A. Besant and C. W. Leadbeater

Dr. Annie Besant described a disciple in the following way:

A "disciple" is the name given, in the occult schools, to those who, being on the probationary path, are recognized by some Master as attached to Himself. The term asserts a fact, not a particular moral stage, and does not carry with it a necessary implication of the highest moral elevation. . . . Discipleship implies a past tie between Master and disciple, and a Master may recognise that tie, growing out of past relationship, with one who has still much to achieve; the disciple may have many and serious faults of character, may by no means—though his face be turned to the Light—have exhausted all the heavy Karma of the past, may be facing many a difficulty, fighting on many a battlefield with the legions of the past against him. The word "disciple" does not necessarily imply initiation, nor saintship; it only asserts a position and a tie—that the person is on the probationary path, and is recognised by a Master as His.[15]

According to C. W. Leadbeater the stage of accepted disciple includes two degrees--"Acceptance" and "Sonship". During the acceptance the astral and mental bodies of the disciple are brought into union with those of the Master. The stage of Sonship involves the union of the causal body also:

We have already spoken of the close relation between an accepted pupil and his Master; all the time this intimacy has been steadily growing, and it usually happens that when the pupil is approaching the portal of Initiation the Master considers that the time is ripe for Him to draw the chela into a still deeper union. He is then called the Son of the Master, and the link is such that not only the lower mind but also the ego in the causal body of the pupil is enfolded within that of the Adept, and the latter can no longer draw a veil to cut off the neophyte.[16]

See also

Online resources

Articles & Pamphlets


  1. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. X (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1991), 469.
  2. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. IV (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1991), 607.
  3. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 33 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 100-101.
  4. Curuppumullage Jinarājadāsa, Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom First Series No. 7 (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1988), 28.
  5. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. IV (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1991), 610-611.
  6. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 111 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 374-375.
  7. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. IV (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1991), 607-608.
  8. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 71.
  9. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. IX (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1974), 160.
  10. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. VI (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1989), 285.
  11. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. VI (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1989), 286.
  12. Curuppumullage Jinarājadāsa, Letters from the Masters of the Wisdom First Series No. 43 (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1988), 92-93.
  13. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Collected Writings vol. VI (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1989), 285-286.
  14. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 95 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 333.
  15. Besant, Annie, Discipleship And Some Karmic Problems (Adyar Pamphlets, No 195, Adyar, Madras: Theosophical Publishing House, March 1935),3-4.
  16. Charles Webster Leadbeater, The Masters and the Path, (Adyar, Madras: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1992), 63.