It is maintained that when a person has only the first vision of God, he still retains his own individuality, in which there are likes and dislikes and limitations, but when such a person becomes more and more merged in God, then many of his human aspects drop off. A little remains of them, but they become so transformed that rarely can you call him an ordinary human being. You may call him a saint, if you use the word saint to imply that he or she has had the direct vision of God. We Hindus have many other words to designate such a person. For example, you are well acquainted with the term mahatma, the term that was applied to Mahatma Gandhi. Mahatma means great soul’ that is to say, one who has shed the limitations of an ordinary individual and has become maha, great’. Maha indicates not only greatness of quality but also greatness of dimension; there is a largeness about such a person, and it is that intangible largeness that is specifically indicated by this word maha. It does not always mean noble soul’, as it is sometimes translated. It means great soul’, because that soul is great, literally great.
There is another term, however, which seems to be more appropriate and is more commonly used. It is mahapurusa. Mahapunisa literally means great man’, but it conveys the sense that the person has become infinite; having become related to this infinite Being, God, he is no longer a small individual, a small purusa. We apply this title to a person who, we know, has become more or less united with God. His very appearance indicates that there has taken place within him a profound transformation. We notice his ways: his needs, his appetites, his likes, his ways of sleeping and eating all these things have changed, they no longer have any similarity to those of an ordinary person.
We find, however, that amongst these maha-purusas, these saints or great souls, there are some who seem to enjoy a position that is given to them not so much by men as by God. For instance, in the Semitic tradition a prophet is not merely a saint; he has a divine function to fulfil. He is, as it were, the messenger of God to His children; he is inspired, and he brings something from above for the good of the people amongst whom he is born. They have a spiritual authority, these prophets: people seem to take to them and to their teachings almost spontaneously; there is no coercion about it. In India, also, we have recognized amongst our saints and sages some who seem to have a special function.
Shankara, for example, was a great philosopher, probably the greatest born in India, and at the same time he was a very great saint; he was a unique combination of the highest spiritual experience and the highest philosophical genius. Yet he is looked upon not as an Incarnation, but as a saint with authority, one who was born for the good of mankind. He lived just thirty-two years, and then, his mission fulfilled, he passed on.