by Pravrajika Vidyaprana
Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata
Hardcover US $21.95 424 pp. 2013
This is the first, long overdue biography of one of SwamiVivekananda ’s foremost female, western disciples, Mrs. Charlotte E. Sevier. Until now she has remained in relative obscurity, but thanks to this work of love, her biography now belongs alongside those of Sister Nivedita (Margaret Noble), Tantine (Josephine MacLeod) and Mrs. Sara Bull. These women together advanced the mission and message of their master on the world stage decades beyond his premature passing at the age of thirty-nine.
The author traveled to England and India over a period of several years to do original research, unearthing documents hitherto unrecorded in the history of the Ramakrishna Movement.
This research yielded several significant facts which are a testament to Charlotte Sevier’s character. First of all, she and her husband Harry purchased the hill in the Himalayas which was to be named Mayavati. But her husband died shortly after the establishment of Advaita Ashrama. Nevertheless she continued on alone at the age of fifty three, undeterred for the next fourteen years, the only white woman surrounded by Indian monks, hired workers and villagers. During that period, in addition to the monthly magazine Prabuddha Bharata, she worked with the monks on the first edition of Swamiji’s Complete Works and The Life of Swami Vivekananda by His Eastern and Western Disciples.
Secondly, the conditions in the mountains were primitive and she was in an isolated spot which made travel difficult. Every single thing that they needed had to be brought up on horseback, printing press and paper included. Nevertheless she managed to visit Belur Math (headquarters of the Ramakrishna Order near Kolkata) several times, return to England twice and purchase the site of a second ashrama at Shyamla Tal, fifty miles from Mayavati.
Due to her large-hearted generosity and level-headedness, she came to be known as Mother, and she signed her letters so to Swamiji, calling him “My Dear Son.”
Managerially she thought of everything. For example, she started a homeopathic dispensary for the local people, made sure that the monks had what they needed for their nutrition and occasionally held parties at her own expense for the monks and workers. Even during her final period at the ashrama, she arranged everything so that the monks would not be inconvenienced by her absence later, especially in relation to female guests.
Charlotte became the president of the Advaita Ashrama and attended trustee meetings of Advaita Ashrama at Belur Math, the only woman in the history of the Ramakrishna Order to do so. She passed away in England at the age of eighty-three. A memorial service was held for her at the Math headquarters—the only other woman (that the author is aware of) aside from the Holy Mother, Sri Sarada Devi, to be shown this esteem.
Her biography is followed by reprints of her well-written articles that appeared in the early years of Prabuddha Bharata magazine. The bulk of them are reports of her international travels with Swami Vivekananda. But the others reveal her highly intuitive mind and grasp of both the Vedanta philosophy and the difficulties facing India, which she refers to as “our country.” My personal favorite is the tribute to Swami Swarupananda after his passing.
Included also is her correspondence with Swamiji, his brother monks and his other western women followers. Also, the unusually high quality photographic reproductions are a joy to view.
This hardcovered book has an attractive dust jacket and a handy index. Although there is quite a bit of repetition in the narrative, I found it difficult to put down, especially the biographical portion. It is like discovering a missing link in the story of the Ramakrishna Movement, and it is quite thrilling. The degree of her intimacy with the entire Ramakrishna family is unexpected and quite striking. We look forward to additional titles from Dr. Amrita Salm.
Pravrajika Vidyaprana is a nun of the Vedanta Society of Southern California.