The title of Jedi Master was the highest formal rank obtainable by a member of the Jedi Order. Reserved for those who had shown exceptional devotion and skill as well as balance in the Force and often combat, only individuals who had been given the rank of Master could sit on the Jedi High Council, with few exceptions (such as the case of Anakin Skywalker), or any of the three other Councils.
The rank of Master was a title bestowed upon very few Knights in every generation. As such, Masters made up the smallest percent of the Order's membership. The most common path to this rank was to train and elevate several Padawans to the rank of Knight, typically one right after the other, and have them all successfully pass their Jedi Trials. If one did not wish to train several students, a Knight could choose to undergo a modified version of the Trials of Knighthood, or gain attention for their service to the Republic. Each of these feats could gain the High Council's acknowledgment and result in a promotion to the rank of Master. When Luke Skywalker reformed the Order following the Great Jedi Purge, he promoted his students to the rank of Master based on their degree of mastery of the Force. As the Order began to grow, most Masters were promoted based on the extraordinary deeds they performed for the New Republic. One well known example was the promotion of Jedi Knight Kyle Katarn following the defeat of the Dark Jedi Desann at his blade.
A practice strongly discouraged by the High Council and little seen during the Golden Age of the Old Republic was the idea that a Knight could judge him or herself and assume the rank of Master without the Council's approval. This was not uncommon practice during the Old and New Sith Wars as the Order was not centrally controlled during the period and many saw their victories against the Sith a sign of their skills and achievements. One well-known example of this practice was the ascension to mastery by Jedi Jorus C'baoth; indeed even his clone, Joruus C'baoth, would also claim himself a Jedi Master. Luke Skywalker was forced to promote himself due to the simple fact that there were no senior Jedi alive to grant him the rank formally.
Those Jedi Masters whose talents were extremely superior were asked to join the ranks of the Jedi Councils, their promotion was often based on their specialized knowledge or skill sets, or vast experience in the field. As a member of a Council, a Master was given great responsibility within the Order, and often was seen at the Coruscant Temple or satellite facility instructing Initiates in the basics of the Order's techniques. The members of the Council were not necessarily the most skilled with a lightsaber or even those possessed of the greatest range of Force powers. Instead, membership was reserved to those Masters who could see through a situation or add insight the best swordsmen could not ever perceive.
It should be noted that the Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker, who may have surpassed all the Masters on the Council in raw power, was never granted the level of Master— despite the Supreme Chancellor Palpatine's special appointment of him to the High Council during the Clone Wars; something that had never been done in the history of the Order. Other Masters, such as Qui-Gon Jinn were members of what was known as the Old Guard, or those Jedi that were under consideration for appointment to one of the Councils. In Master Jinn's case however, some members considered him too radical to sit on the esteemed body.
While Master was the greatest of the formal ranks of the Order, the High Council would select a Master who possessed the strongest mind, the greatest leadership qualities, and incomparable mastery of the Force and name them Grand Master, the undisputed leader of the Order. It should be noted that in the Order's earliest years, several Grand Masters were appointed, though this practice was abandoned following the Ruusan Reformation. In addition to the Grand Master rank, the High Council and the Council of First Knowledge appointed a leader to guide discussion and moderate debates. In the case of the High Council, the Master of the Order was a rank often held by the Grand Master himself. The First Knowledge Council was led by the Caretaker, who at one point shared the title of Chief Librarian of the Librarian's Assembly.
While there were generally no locks at the Temple on Coruscant, there were a few chambers sealed to non-Masters. The Holocron Vaults in the Jedi Archives were sealed off to all but those members of the High Council, as was the Treasury located under the High Council Chamber. This was to ensure that the treasures of the Order did not fall into the wrong hands, especially the dangerous Sith holocrons found in the Archives Vaults.
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