Every country has its own methods of preserving the knowledge and tradition of the Mysteries. The degrees are variously reckoned, sometimes four, five, seven, or even ten; but whatever the divisions, during the days of their purity they all honored the one divine purpose of consummating the spiritual marriage of the higher self with the awakened human soul, from which union springs the seer, the adept, the master of life. Through the ravages of time and priestcraft, and the tangle of intrigue and ignorance in which exoteric rites are enmeshed, one perceives the venerable tradition.
(5) “friendship and interior communion” with divinity — this was considered the highest and most solemn mystery of all, the complete assimilation of the enlightened mind with the divine self — (Theon of Smyrna, Mathematics Useful for Understanding Plato + Isis Unveiled).
In Persia during the time of Mithraism, when the sun god was honored above earthly things, seven were the degrees, the candidate receiving a name relevant to each stage of interior growth. Using the Graeco-Latin names that have come down to us, the first-degree neophyte was called Corax, “raven” — the dark bird, one in whom the light of wisdom had not yet awakened in great measure. It signified likewise a servant: one who gives of his heart totally before receiving admission into the second degree which was termed Cryphius, “occult”: one accepted as a disciple of esoteric lore; the third was Miles, “soldier,” one who had received sufficient training and purification to become a worker for good. The fourth — Leo, “lion,” emblem of solar power — has reference to the fourth initiation in which the candidate begins the conscious solarizing of the nature through instruction and specialized training. The fifth degree was known as Perses, “Persian,” signifying to the Persians of the time one who was becoming spiritually human — manasaputrized, that is, mind-born. The sixth, Heliodromus, “messenger or runner of Helios (the sun)” is a reference to Mercury or Budha, as messenger between the sun in the cosmos and the sun in man: the bloom of buddhi. The final and seventh was called Pater, “father,” the state of a Full Initiate — (Esoteric Tradition 2:864).
The Hindus likewise had various names for their disciples as they passed from one degree to another. For instance, in one school the candidates received the names of the ten avataras of Vishnu. The first degree neophyte was termed Matsya, “fish”: one yet low in the scale of spiritual mastery. The second was Kurma, “tortoise”: one step higher in evolutionary development. The third degree was called Varaha, “boar,” a further advance in individualization, while the fourth was termed Nara-simha, “man-lion.” This fourth stage marks the turning point between the preliminary degrees of the Lesser Mysteries and the advanced degrees of the Greater Mysteries. This title of man-lion points to the choice demanded of the aspirant between dominance of animal soul qualities and the supremacy henceforth of the truly human attributes. Success in the fourth degree insured the entrance into the fifth called Vamana, “dwarf,” in which the candidate assumed the robes of occult humanhood, though such humanhood was as yet infantile compared to full mastery. Parasu-Rama, “Rama with an axe,” name of the sixth-degree neophyte, suggests one capable of hewing his way with equanimity through the worlds of both spirit and matter. In the seventh degree the disciple becomes fully humanized, receiving the name of Rama, hero of the Ramayana, an important epic of Hindustan. The last three degrees, the eighth, ninth, and tenth, are called respectively: Krishna, the avatara whose death ushered in the Kali yuga some 5,000 years ago; Buddha, whose renunciation of nirvana brought light and peace to a sorrowing world; and the final and tenth, Kalkin or Kalki, the “white-horse” avatara who is yet to come. As noted in the Vishnu Purana, he is destined to appear at the end of the Kali or Iron Age, seated on a white horse, with a drawn sword blazing like a comet, for the destruction of the wicked, the renovation of creation, and the restoration of purity. In ancient symbology the horse also symbolized the sun, hence the tenth avatara will come riding the steed of solar glory to usher in the New Age clothed with the sun of spiritual illumination.
While seven were the degrees usually enumerated in the Mysteries, hints have been given of three higher degrees than the seventh. But so esoteric would these be that only the most spiritualized of humanity could comprehend and hence undertake these divine initiations. Rare indeed are those who become avatara-like; rarer still, “as rare as are the flowers of the Udumbara-tree” are the Buddhas. As for the tenth and last — such has been left unmarred by description.