Remembering Elva Linnea Nelson

by Steven F. Walker

Elva Linnea Nels\on died this year (2013) at the age of 91, after having been a beloved member of the Boston Vedanta Society for almost sixty-five years. She was a student of Swami Akhilananda, whose teacher was Swami Brahmananda. Her book A Monk for All Seasons: Akhilananda, His Life of Love and Service (2007) is a wonderful token of her devotion to her guru.

Akhilananda was a brilliant participant in the intellectual life of Boston, that most intellectual of all American cities, and an effective advocate of interfaith understanding. Elva’s painstaking use of archival materials resulted in a richness of detail that brings his career during the period of the Cold War and the Nuclear Age to life in fascinating detail. In her book she pointed out that:

Although it may seem that Swami was pessimistic in pointing out the inadequacies in our culture, his outlook was that this is a great time to be alive. No one came away from his lectures feeling discouraged. Or depressed. Rather encouraged and uplifted.

Elva herself was a quiet but friendly person, who always radiated love, serenity, and cheerfulness. She worked for many years as librarian at the Winchester Library, and she did good work organizing and caring for the Boston center’s library. She was also a poet and found in poetry a rich medium for expressing her deeper feelings. Until later in life, when she had to curtail some of her activities, she was a welcome presence at the Boston center, where her sunny temperament inspired many people, including me. It was she who encouraged me to ask for initiation from Swami Sarvagatananda—something I would not have thought of by myself, since at that time I did not know what initiation was or what it entailed. Needless to say, I am eternally grateful to her!

After Swami Akhilananda died in 1962, the transition period was fraught with difficulties. When a misguided and obstreperously determined student of Akhilananda decided to make things as difficult as possible for the junior swami to assume his duties, it was Elva who, along with a small group of fellow devotees, helped to resolve this crisis. From then on she was a steadfast friend and supporter of Swami Sarvagatananda, and an iconic presence at the Boston center for all who came thereafter, as she stood at the front door greeting people and handing them the printed copy of the prayer used during the services. It was hard to think of the center without thinking of Elva!

Elva, like many of the devotees, had a great fondness for the center’s Marshfield summer retreat, with its Green Road, forest paths, and rustic cabins in the forest. It is there that I like best to remember her, now that she has left us for the Ocean of Bliss: her serene and cheerful image framed by the green peacefulness of a wooded hilltop not far from the crashing waves of the Atlantic.

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Editor’s Note: We have included two of Elva’s poems with this article:

This Is How It Is
The One, That Energy

Additionally, in her final published work, she applied her gifts as a poet with spiritual insight in rendering selected sayings of the Master into verse. Remembering Ranakrishna: His Words was released by Vedanta Press, Hollywood, in 2009.

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