Mother of Mayavati: the Story of Charlotte Sevier and Advaita Ashrama
by Amrita M. Salm, Advaita Ashrama; August 2013, 424 pages.
Reviewed by Judy Howe Hayes
he story of Charlotte Sevier, whose meeting with Vivekananda in London in 1896 set her life on a course she could never have imagined as a 19th-century upper-class Englishwoman, is told with an inclusion of details and letters not previously brought to light. Thus, it is truly a revelation of the fruits of a life of loving and devoted service. Through her courageous spirit and dedication to the message of Vedanta that Swamiji brought into her life, Charlotte overcame many obstacles in order to manifest his vision of a center in the Himalayas dedicated to the teachings of advaita. After meeting Charlotte and her husband, Captain James Henry Sevier, in England, Vivekananda and his new students traveled to India. While they were together in the alpine snows Swamiji cried out:
I long for a monastery where I can retire from the labors of my life and pass the rest of my days in meditation. It will be a center for work and meditation, where my Indian and Western disciples can live together. I shall train them as workers, the former to go out as preachers of Vedanta to the West and thelatter to devote their lives to the good of India.
It is reported he may have first envisioned that center being somewhere in the region of Almora. After traveling in the area, the land for the Himalayan ashrama was found and purchased by Charlotte and Henry—an old tea plantation about 50 miles from Almora. Immediately the work of planning, clearing, and building began despite the harsh winter climate and the remoteness of the area, which was inhabited by tigers and other wild animals. Although it was Swamiji’s vision that inspired, it was Charlotte who became the driving force behind the building and development of what became Advaita Ashrama. Captain Sevier died just less than two years after their arrival. Due to his own declining health and early demise, Swamiji was only able to visit once for a short stay after the ashrama was established. Charlotte possessed courage and steadfastness, qualities she would need during the 16 years she spent building up the center and maintaining the spirit of hospitality in the face of many dangers and hardships. In telling of the early years after the couple had sold all their possessions and left England for their life in India, the author writes:
How dramatically their lives changed at Mayavati! Now they lived in the midst of majestic snow-covered mountains, in a secluded forest region with only bridle trails and no roads. Yet they were braced by the respect, love and affection of a young band of hardworking, self-sacrificing, enthusiastic and idealistic monastics. All the monks were disciples of Swami Vivekananda and like the Seviers wanted to satisfy their guru’s desire to build a place at the heights of the Himalayas where Easterners and Westerners together could strive to realize their oneness with the Ultimate Reality. It was to be a center that would emanate and spread spiritual thoughts to humanity.
Many of Charlotte’s own articles published in Prabuddha Bharata are included. These writings of her travels and on Vedanta philosophy reflect intelligence and spiritual sensitivity. Reading of her inner experiences predating her meeting Swamiji we discover a mature understanding of spiritual life, which prepared her for the work ahead. In the article The Music of the Unseen, she reports that one day while seated in the corner of a grand old cathedral she heard a delivery from a biblical text stating, “Ask and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you; empty thyself, and I will fill thee.” She continues:
These gracious words soothed my mind, and very calm did I become, my environment being entirely free from restlessness or distrac- tion…the fettering consciousness of outward limitations fell away, and my soul seemed freed from the bondage of sense…The veil was lifted, and there flowed through my spiritual vision a glorious illumined consciousness which filled and overflowed me. I do not know how long I was gladdened and enraptured by the peaceful vibrations of the celestial spheres, but often I feel spiritually refreshed when I recall the divine light and holy influence which remained with me long after that beauteous glimpse into the Unseen.
When reflecting upon this experience, she asks, “Why cannot we realize in our lives some of those best and highest aspirations which are inspired by the notes vibrant within us?”
As the story unfolds, we also get a glimpse into the personalities of Swamiji’s brother monks and Charlotte’s relationship with other dedicated women who were regular visitors to Mayavati, including Sister Christine, Nivedita, and Tantine. They all shared a mutual respect for one another, bound together by their dedication to the principles of Vedanta and love for their teacher. When visiting the Ashrama all were cared for with the motherly love and attention of Charlotte. Advaita Ashrama continues today as an important center of the Ramakrishna Order, publishing books and journals that are a voice for Vedanta worldwide. Charlotte is a beautiful example for women today, inspiring us with her mystic vision, dedi- cated work, devotion, courage, and unflagging zeal, made possible only by putting one’s own comfort aside for the sake of a greater good and love for the cherished Ideal. As she cared for the local villagers, visitors, and the young swamis in residence, she became known simply as “Mother” Sevier by Swamiji, the senior monks of the Order, and those who knew her.