“Charlotte Sevier played a crucial role, both spiritual and financial, in the early history of the Ramakrishna movement. She became the “Mother” of the Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, which she and her husband founded, and spent the remainder of her working life guiding it and writing extensively on Advaita Vedanta for Prabuddha Bharata. Amrita Salm’s fascinating book about the life and work of Charlotte Sevier is a delight to read and contains over two hundred pages of her articles and letters, an amazing anthology of material for those interested in the early years of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission.”
Amrita M. Salm, Ph.D. (University of California, Berkeley), has been a student of Vedanta for nearly forty years and has made pilgrimages and research trips to India. She has written numerous articles and co-edited the English translation of the epic poem Sri Sri Ramakrishna Punthi, published as The Portrait of Sri Ramakrishna. Dr. Salm is active as a volunteer for several organizations serving youth and addressing social issues.
We are glad to place before our readers the biography of Mrs. Charlotte Elizabeth Sevier, one of the foremost Western disciples of Swami Vivekananda. In the Indian spiritual tradition, there is no dearth of instances of a disciple totally offering his or her life to the service of the Guru. It is axiomatic that in such surrender and dedication lies the way to the attainment of the supreme spiritual goal of human life. In Mrs. Sevier’s life we again find an illustration of this principle.
From the time Swami Vivekananda stepped on American soil till the end of his life, and even later, he and his Mission received the ardent support of many Westerners. Some of them became lifelong champions of his cause. Even from a distance they helped him financially and also in other ways. But there were a few who offered to dedicate their entire lives for their Guru and his Mission. Miss Margaret Noble, who later became Sister Nivedita, Mr. J. J. Goodwin, Sister Christine, and Mrs. Charlotte Elizabeth Sevier, along with her husband, belong to this latter blessed category.
Except for the Sevier couple, the biographical sketches of all these personalities have been written and are in circulation for a long time. For this reason, among the devotees and admirers of Swami Vivekananda there has always been a long-felt need of an exhaustive life-story of Mrs. Charlotte Elizabeth Sevier and her husband. In the present book, a groundbreaking work by Dr. Amrita Salm, this need has been fulfilled. It is the first detailed biography of Mrs. Charlotte Elizabeth Sevier and her husband. But there is also something more. As Capt. and Mrs. Sevier were the founders of Advaita Ashrama at Mayavati, the book also tells us many things about the founding of the Ashrama and its early days, and how Mrs. Sevier became the Mother of Mayavati.
Following the biographical section, the book has five appendices. These present documents related to the Seviers and the Mayavati Ashrama, as well as articles and letters written by Mrs. Sevier. If the biographical section, presents us the spiritually-inspiring story of Mrs. Sevier’s total sacrifice, purity, and dedication, in her articles we get to see the brilliance of her intellect. Regarding her letters, however, one point should be mentioned. In the letters we have reproduced here, the readers will find words wrongly spelt and sentences with no proper punctuation; also there are underscored as well as struck-out words. These have been intentionally retained to present her letters just as she had written them.
We are thankful to the author for the praiseworthy work she has done and are sure that the devotees and admirers of Swami Vivekananda will find this work informative, interesting, and inspiring.
Among Swami Vivekananda’s many western disciples, Mrs. Charlotte Sevier was extraordinary. By command of her guru Swami Vivekananda, Mrs. Charlotte Sevier left her own home in England, came to India with her husband, Capt. Sevier, and devoted her life to establish and nurture the Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, a remote place of the Himalayas in 1899. In her commitment to the practice and propagation of Advaita Vedanta’s non-dualistic teaching, she embodied the qualities of a true disciple. Full of hope, intelligent and strong in body and mind, she was unfailingly intent in her dedication to Vivekananda and his mission.
Mother of Mayavati: The Story of Charlotte Sevier and Advaita Ashrama is the first biography of this dedicated English disciple of Swami Vivekananda, who led an austere life in a remote region days away from any semblance of even British India.
The author, Dr. Amrita Salm, has done extensive research on Mother Sevier’s childhood, the influences of Victorian England, the early days of the ashrama, and the struggles she faced, including the death of her husband Capt. Sevier, her guru Swami Vivekananda and Swami Swarupananda, the first President of Advaita Ashrama, with whom she worked closely.
Charlotte Sevier became “the Mother” of Mayavati. As the author discovered, even Holy Mother referred to her as Mother Sevier. She truly became a mother to all-monastic workers, staff and village people of Mayavati, and from the revered direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna to the young band of monks who became the torchbearers of Vivekananda’s ideology of “service of God in man”.
Dr. Amrita Salm, a long-time initiated devotee of our Vedanta Society of Southern California in Hollywood, USA, is a scholar who has shown her ability to delve deeply into the subject. She discovered the subject’s maiden name and family history and was able to trace Charlotte in her historical and cultural context. Many unknown incidents and the history of the early days of the Ramakrishna Order came to light. The book explores how these influences and the power of Vivekananda transformed an upperclass British woman of the nineteenth century into a spiritual dynamo. Through the use of unpublished letters, ashrama diaries and archival material from India and England, the story of the Mother of Mayavati unfolds in a well-written narrative about one of the founders of Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, the Himalayas.
As we celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda, it gives me great pleasure to present Dr. Salm’s groundbreaking research, which underscores the struggles, achievements and convictions of one of Swami Vivekananda’s foremost Western disciples.
While visiting the Vivekananda Ashrama in Shyamla Tal, located in the Himalayas of India, for the first time in 2009, I realized that there was no book about Charlotte Sevier, the person who had purchased their ashrama and was the founder and “mother” of the Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati. How could that be? There are books about many of Swami Vivekananda’s Western disciples including Sister Nivedita, Sara Bull, Josephine MacLeod (Tantine) and booklets about J.J. Goodwin and Sister Christine, but with the exception of one article little was known about Charlotte Sevier. So began the adventure that culminated in this first biography of Charlotte Sevier.
It soon became clear to me why no book about Charlotte Sevier had been written. As early as the 1970s when Marie Louise Burke (Sister Gargi) was doing research on Vivekananda’s visits to London, Charlotte’s niece died. The last link seemed to have died with her. No decendants were found in 2010, nor any personal diaries located. No one in India knew her maiden name.
With the assistance and cooperation of several monks of the Ramakrishna Order, letters, photographs, and archival materials (ashrama diaries, sale deed for Mayavati property, Charlotte’s will, trust deed, and other documents) were made available to me. Finding the name of James Henry Sevier’s bride solved some of the missing pieces of the puzzle and allowed me to study her family. I began to feel like a private investigator. A trip to England and another one to India gave me more information and materials to digest and incorporate.
The material for this book has been gathered from various sources. The principal ones being: archival materials from Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati and its Kolkata branch, letters and photographs from Vivekananda Ashrama, Shymla Tal, Unpublished letters and photographs provided by Swami Prabhananda, General Secretary of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission Museum and Archives, Belur Math and the Vedanta Society of Northern California. Frequently cited are the original diary, which is no longer available due to its fragile condition (I was able to read many sections of it in 2009), and Extracts from the Mayavati Diary, a shortened summary of the original diaries prepared by Swami Satyapriyananda in 1999. An Account of the Advaita Ashrama, a handwritten, unnumbered, approximately fifty-page document, was also helpful in finding details that were not available elsewhere and occasionally the dates varied from other sources. These archival materials give a vivid picture of Charlotte’s role in the formative years of Mayavati. Various books and journals published by the Ramakrishna Order, in particular the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, The Life of Swami Vivekananda and Swami Vivekananda in the West: New Discoveries, were frequently used as reference tools, along with British Census records, parish records, library and other archival materials found in England. Research on the Victorian era and her family and city of birth were also utilized to study Charlotte’s life and contributions.
This study of Charlotte Elizabeth Lingwood Sevier, a British woman living in nineteenth century England and India, reflects the struggles of women during that period, the joy of finding a philosophy that satisfies the soul and allows one to take on challenges that would otherwise be unthinkable. It demonstrates the power of spiritual practices in finding balance, meaning, and purpose to life.
It is my hope that this book will be the beginning of many other biographies of people who knew or were influenced by Swami Vivekananda’s life and teachings.
During The spring of 1896, Charlotte Elizabeth Sevier and her husband, James Henry, attended talks given in London by the Hindu monk, Swami Vivekananda. The philosophy the swami expounded, the oneness of existence, known as Advaita Vedanta, so attracted them that within a short time their lives changed dramatically. They lost all interest in a comfortable, cultured social life without a spiritual focus; now they wanted to experience the very depths of their souls.
Married for nearly twenty years, the Seviers had no children or work obligations when they met the swami. At that time the West was in a period of spiritual awakening with heightened interest in religious thought, Transcendentalism and Spiritualism. German scholars were translating ancient Indian scriptures, including the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. Many educated and enlightened people were seeking meaning and purpose in life. The Seviers were among those seekers.
Although thousands of people met Swami Vivekananda in America and Europe and were impressed with his ideas based on the ancient Indian philosophy of Vedanta, few chose to give up their privileged life, move to a foreign country to establish an ashrama based on the principles he espoused, and practice them under severe physical conditions. The Seviers were among those few.
The ashrama they founded was located in the Himalayas, 6,400 feet above sea level and 60 miles from the closest railroad station-a four-day journey by horse, since no roads went to this remote region. Food and other supplies, brought in from a great distance, arrived only twice a year. The nearest habitation was a mile and a half away, and the ashrama property was cut off from the outside world on three sides by a wall of imposing forests filled with wild animals that often made their presence known.
As the story unfolds, we will examine Charlotte’s life and come to appreciate the extraordinary qualities she manifested-her determination, wisdom and commitment to fulfill her teacher’s dream and how, in this process, she became the mother of the ashrama. Her integrity and fearlessness, together with her compassion toward people and animals, is a model for those on the spiritual journey.
The narrative will consider life in Victorian England and the Sevier’s subsequent move to India to found the ashrama that would be a meeting place of East and West. It will reveal how, after becoming a widow, Charlotte remained in India as the sole woman among a group of young Indian monks, providing stability and continued inspiration for the project through her dedication to the ideals of Vedanta and her devotion to her teacher, Swami Vivekananda.
Research for this book has revealed previously unpublished facts and incidents from that period (1896-1930) of the Ramakrishna movement, through the use of unpublished letters and archival materials. It casts new light on the founding of two centers in the Himalayas by Charlotte Sevier: the Advaita Ashrama at Mayavati and the Vivekananda Ashrama at Shyamla Tal.
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