Pioneer Women of Vedanta

Pioneer Women of Vedanta

Vedanta is the philosophy of the ancient spiritual wisdom of India and refers to universal values. Vedanta has produced many great saints and teachers whose lives embody these teachings, including Sri Sarada Devi, the Holy Mother (1853-1920) and Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902).

During her tour of the United States in August, 1996, Pravrajika Vivekaprana, a senior sannyasin of the Ramakrishna Sarada Math and Mission and the head of a Retreat Center at Pangot, India, stated:

We hear about women becoming great sages, or great discoverers in our Vedic literature. And in between you find that women in India as well as all over the earth, became an inferior race due to various reasons.... In the 19th Century, Sri Ramakrishna was born in India, who pointed to the feminine power behind this visible universe calling it the Mother and praying to it to become awakened. He worshipped his own wife (Sri Sarada Devi, the Holy Mother). He accepted a woman as his guru, giving tremendous reverence to the feminine form, which had vanished in India also, though we do have tremendous reverence for goddesses. But to the visible form of a woman, this respect was not given and he has reinitiated this in India.

As the interpreter of Sri Ramakrishna's life, Swami Vivekananda felt that the time has come when the woman everywhere on this earth has to stand up and accept a very difficult role, the role of a teacher-mother. Because it is the woman who brings up the next generation and it is because the woman thought herself inferior that the world is what it is today, a sad place. And it is the woman who needs to become aware of her inner compassion as well as inner level of greatness so that she can give it back to the child and so that society can improve. This was his grand idea.

Through this Pioneer Women of Vedanta project, Samiti members and friends interview women who have practiced Vedanta for 25 or more years. A pioneer woman of Vedanta is a disciple of an early spiritual teacher and has made a significant contribution to the spread of Vedanta in the West. We feature some of the women here as a tribute to their dedication to personal spiritual evolution and the welfare of all. Their lives are a source of inspiration for us.



Miss Phianna Sutten (1901- 2005) was a long time Vedantin. She met her spiritual teacher in 1929 at the age of 28. Swami Ashokananda, the head of the Vedanta Society of Northern California. She commented, "In my heart was Vedanta....My life has been bound all around with Sri Ramakrishna."

Phianna graduated from Des Moines University in 1924 and later completed a library sciences degree at the University of Illinois Library School in Urbana. During her professional years as a librarian at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, she drove alone each year to San Francisco to spend her vacation and experience holy company with her teacher and spiritual companions. She ordered each volume of the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda and studied them carefully before ordering the next volume.

Miss Sutten had already learned Latin, when Swami Ashokananda told her that Sanskrit is the language of God. She took this comment to heart and began to study the ancient Sanskrit language on her own while in Wyoming so that she could speak God's language.

When she later moved to Sacramento, she worked at the University of California Library at Davis and thereafter at the Sacramento City-County Library. She joined the Vedanta Society of Sacramento, which was established by Swami Ashokananda. She also served as a gardener at the Vedanta Society and worked tirelessly in the hot summer sun and the cold rains of winter. When asked how she could bear the severe extremes of weather, she commented, "I did repeat my mantram. It was highly uplifting. I never felt the heat."

Miss Sutten was fearless, fiercely independent and self-reliant. She graciously opened her home to many women devotees who lived far away and wanted to be close to the Vedanta Society. Some described her as the mother of our Vedanta community and her home was Mother's house.

Miss Sutten was a vegetarian most of her life of 103 years. Around the time of her birth in 1901, the Holy Mother, Sri Sarada Devi, was spending most of her time in Jayrambati and Kolkata. Swami Vivekananda had just stirred the souls of thousands at the 1893 Worlds' Parliament of Religions. And he chose to leave his body on July 4th, 1902 in conjunction with the American Independence Day. Miss Sutten's life bridged not only two centuries, but also two millennia. She witnessed the transformation of a primarily rural, agricultural economy in the United States to a technological, information-based society in a world economy. She was clear minded and well-spoken until the end of her dedicated life.

Back to Top

Marie Louise Burke (1912-2004) was later known as Sister Gargi and Pravrajika Prajnanaprana. She was an acclaimed researcher on Swami Vivekananda. Her six volume work, Swami Vivekananda in the West: New Discoveries, is highly regarded in India and in Vedanta circles worldwide.

She also wrote a soul-stirring biography of her mentor and spiritual teacher, Swami Ashokananda (1893-1969). In A Heart Poured Out, Sister Gargi told the story of her illustrious teacher of the Ramakrishna Order who spent much of his life expanding the Vedanta movement in northern California while training his American students to lead authentic spiritual lives.

In Shafts of Light: Selected Teachings of Swami Ashokananda for Spiritual Practice, Sister Gargi and Dr. Shelley Brown compiled more than 800 spiritual instructions expressed in Swami Ashokananda's own engaging language. "These illuminate the path to Self-knowledge and bring Vedanta's eternal truths to the modern mind."

Sister Gargi's own spiritual memoir was presented in A Disciple's Journal. Her diary entry on Lord Buddha's birthday, June 18, 1950:

I have never seen the altar more beautiful or Swami more beautiful. I was overwhelmed that I was alive, that this beauty existed, and that I was my particular self to see it just as I saw it. Buddha surely was there and because of that it was so extraordinary. I was seeing something of him.

Later I spent the afternoon in the Temple, reading Swami Vivekananda and meditating. My mind is calming down now, and I feel like the fish swimming in blissful waters.

Sister Gargi traveled to India on a regular basis to conduct her research on Swami Vivekananda and to write. She was thoroughly familiar with the spiritual atmosphere there in contrast to American life in San Francisco and New York. A diary entry in 1951:

In India, where often the disciple never again sees the initiating teacher, the age-old traditions of the country support and guide him or her. The entire continent is geared to spiritual life, and there is no one who does not sympathize with what a spiritual aspirant is trying to do. There is no strong current opposing a newborn seeker.

In the West, on the other hand, a spiritual tradition does not permeate the air, the water, and the dust. It is not as natural to the people as breathing, or as expected as the next beat of the heart. The only place in the West where one can learn the ways of spiritual living and devote oneself to adapting to those ways is in the company of the holy- preferably, if one is so lucky, in the company of the teacher himself, or herself, who knows one's quirks inside and out. The teacher takes the place of a millennia-old culture of spiritual thinking and living, of spiritual being.
Back to Top

Dr. Leta Jane Lewis (1918-2009) was a student of Vedanta philosophy for over fifty years. A university professor with specialization in German. Professor Lewis met her spiritual teacher in 1951 and became a disciple of Swami Prabhavananda, the longtime head of the Vedanta Society of Southern California. She was highly regarded as a teacher, mentor, writer, and speaker. She introduced Vedanta philosophy to many.

In her book, The Ultimate Love Affair: Vedanta and the Search for God, Dr. Lewis explains the fundamentals of Vedanta. She also introduces the classic Indian scriptures. The provocative title of her book is derived from a Sufi parable in which a lover is not admitted into his sweetheart's chamber until he fully identifies himself with her. The spiritual search for complete identification with the Beloved Lord or Mother is comparable to human love and longing.

"A lover knocked on his sweetheart's door. 'Who is it?' she called. He answered, 'It is I.' The door remained closed, so he knocked again. 'Who is it?' 'It is your lover.' Since the door still did not open, he knocked a third time. 'Who is it?' 'It is thyself.' The door opened at once." Adapted from Sufi mysticism.

Through her compassion and human understanding, Dr. Lewis introduced Vedanta and the swami teachers of the Ramakrishna Order to many of her students. She writes in The Ultimate Love Affair (page 165):

The average spiritual seeker begins his spiritual life groping alone in the dark. But if he is sincere, a little light will eventually appear to guide him. Somewhere, somehow, perhaps in a church, a temple, or a mosque, at home or on the job, a glimpse of spiritual light will come to him. Then his deepening prayer will be for light, more light, and if he persists, this prayer for greater inspiration is sure to be answered. Perhaps a guide who has already taken the path ahead of him and knows the dangers will come to give him a hand up rocky inclines and a push back onto the path when he strays.

Her inspiring talks at the Vedanta Society of Sacramento, California were folksy, humorous, and personal. She shared herself fully and embodied the ideals in which she believed. On January 24, 2010, she gave a lecture on "Why I am a Vedantist".

....Because they believe in reincarnation and the divinity of man, Vedantists do not need to use the word 'salvation' to refer to the afterlife. Whatever their present state of confusion, all human beings, good or evil, have the same divine destiny, the eventual realization that the true Self is divine Existence, Consciousness, and Bliss.

This is where reincarnation comes in. Unlike Christians, Vedantists don't expect to experience the Ultimate immediately after death. Although everyone has been assured of reaching the superconscious state, it rarely happens overnight. We are all involved in an evolutionary process, which takes us through incarnation after incarnation, through countless struggles and learning experiences, until a ray of light miraculously comes. It comes as a gentle sweetness, which is none other than a vague preliminary experience of one's highest Self. It gradually intensifies until finally, we become aware of ourselves as divine Existence, Consciousness, and Bliss.
Back to Top

Satyamayi, Cleo Anderson (1924-2015) was a long time Vedantin. She met her spiritual teacher, Swami Shraddhananda, the head of the Vedanta Society of Sacramento in the late 1960's and served as his personal secretary for more than 35 years. She also managed the Vedanta Society Bookstore and introduced many people to Vedantic teachings through her sincere dedicated life.

Her spiritual name given by the Swami was Satyamayi meaning full of Truth. She was especially fond of the Upanishads and memorized many of the original Sanskrit verses. Among those she often quoted was the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad , "This Self is honey to all beings, and all beings are honey for this Self."

In 1993, following the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago, Satyamayi served as host to Most Revered Amalapranaji, the current General Secretary of the Sri Sarada Math and the Ramakrishna Sarada Mission headquartered in Dakshineswar, India. She had previously met Most Revered Ajayaprana and Revered Pravrajika Dhirapranaji of the Math in 1983 on their way to Australia to establish an ashram in Sydney.

With Swami Shraddhanandaji's encouragement and blessings, Satyamayi traveled the length and breadth of India staying at many of the ashrams of the Sri Sarada Math. She deeply loved India and spent nearly six years of her life there. While at the Institute of Culture in Kolkata, she studied Bengali and deepened her understanding of Sanskrit.

In 1997 when Revered Amalapranaji returned to Sacramento to offer inspiring retreats including "Prayer and Its Efficacy" and "God as Mother", our Sri Sarada Mahila Samiti of Northern California was seeded. Our first shrine was in Satyamayi's apartment where ten to fifteen Vedanta women met monthly for holy company, contemplation, and mutual spiritual encouragement. We gradually formed a nonprofit corporation and were established through the State of California in 2002. That seed for a women's spiritual circle of our own has taken root and blossomed in many ways over the years.

An interview was conducted by Satyamayi's friend and Vedanta sister, Claudine Stahlek, around 2004. One can gain a glimpse of Satyamayi's love for Vedanta which continued over a period of forty-five years.

Satyamayi, Cleo Anderson

Back to Top