Sunday services at Ananda Ashrama in La Crescenta begin with a harp, then a guitar, then a short English refrain: “In solitude, in stillness, there is a sacred shrine.” High windows with stained-glass inserts let morning light in and the scent of flower offerings lingers near the altar. After silence falls, the community’s leader approaches the altar and turns to deliver this week’s message.
Sudha Ma begins with a very slow, soft Sanskrit chant. The community closes its eyes to receive it. Then she begins an extemporaneous sermon about each member’s individual responsibility to seek holiness. She speaks not just here, but on a global stage: She’s the only woman in the world at the head of a Hindu sect.
How did this come to pass? “I just wanted to join a meditation group,” Sudha Ma said.
She was a vice principal in Glendale when she visited Ananda Ashrama for the first time in April 1980. There, she met the woman who would become her guru. “I met Mataji, and I recognized her immediately as my teacher. It was the culmination of everything I had sought all my life. I remember her saying to me, ‘You have a very important role to play.’ But I thought that meant she was going to let me sell books in the bookstore upstairs.”
Sudha Ma’s Hindu monastic order is the only one with a woman at the helm. Historically, Hindu women oversaw religious practice in their homes by caring for family altars and performing rituals with children. They occasionally became ascetics within male orders or of their own accord. But the Ramakrishna movement ordained women publicly for service and teaching.
“This has been a consistent line of demarcation and debate,” said Arvind Sharma, a professor of comparative religion at McGill University. “Even the firsts texts mention a debate around this point. We could say that, in ancient India, women did not have the right to sannyas [monastic vows], but that would be misleading because there are some exceptions.”
That debate continues within the Vedanta tradition, to which Sudha Ma belongs. Sri Ramakrishna founded his monastic order in Kolkata, India, in the 1880s. Swami Vivekananda, the most famous of Ramakrishna’s students, and his followers became the Vedanta Society and built hospitals and schools in India and spiritual education centers in the U.S.
Vivekananada ordained both men and women before his death in 1902. But when Vivekananda’s youngest disciple, Paramananda, died in 1940, he gave the highest leadership roles in his temples to women. But the Ramakrishna order still required Indian men to lead every temple.
Paramananda’s successors “Really agonized because, they said, ‘Swami Paramananda trained us to do all these things. Do we honor them more by taking a swami and giving up everything he’s trained us to do and becoming housekeepers? Or do we continue with everything he’s trained us to do?’” Sudha Ma said.
The women chose the latter course, and they formally split from the Ramakrishna order in 1940. Sudha Ma chose monastic life for the first time not much later, in 1959, when her name was still Susan Schraeger.
She became an Episcopalian nun at age 17. Ten years later, she left that order following a disagreement about money management. She earned a Ph.D. in education from USC and began working as a vice principal in Glendale, but never lost her desire for monastic life.
“There were limited opportunities for women. You had the choice of getting married and having babies or doing something big with your life by becoming a nun. Always in the back of my mind there was a little bit of that monastic thing,” Sudha Ma said.
In 1982 Sudha Ma moved into a house at Ananda Ashrama to serve as a householder for Gayatri Devi, her predecessor — whom she affectionately calls Mataji Ma. She prepared food and cleaned and performed small rituals around the sisters’ house. In 1985 Mataji Ma let her take sannyas, or monastic vows. The two women served together for 10 years before Mataji Ma’s death in 1995.
“I expected I would feel this grief like you would with anyone, even bigger than family, because a guru is so big in our lives,” Sudha Ma said. “But I can’t describe it. I never felt grief for her. It was amazing to me, and still is. Through all the painful transitional stages, it kept us at our posts.”
As the community’s grief passed, Sudha Ma began leading. She opened daily services, once reserved for monks and nuns, to the public. She oversaw the growth of the order’s schools in India, which now teach 6,000 children. Her assistant, a CPA, installed a strict bookkeeping system. Though she travels among her order’s Vedanta centers in La Crescenta, Boston and Kolkata, Sudha Ma even delivers sermons on Sundays, usually to crowds of about 150 people.
“She’s a teacher, a pure teacher,” said Darsani, a householder who spends one day each week caring for the ashram. “It’s an honor to have her with us.”
Sudha Ma’s day-to-day life is not so different from her sisters in the other branch of Vedanta, whose temples are still run by men. Saradeshaprana, a nun at Hollywood’s Vedanta temple, travels the country to speak at interfaith conferences; her sisters plan retreats, translate texts and run temple services. They just can’t make the Society-changing decisions Sudha Ma does.
“My favorite part of the day is the early morning, praying in silence,” Saradeshaprana said. “It’s a full life and a happy one.”
Sudha Ma’s biggest concern now, and one Saradeshaprana doesn’t share, is choosing a successor. She’ll turn 72 in June. But, she said, Mataji was in her late 70s when they met, so perhaps divinity is just holding out.
“As long as this work is doing what it’s supposed to be doing, and it certainly seems to be now, it’s touching a lot of lives and making a difference in peoples lives,” Sudha Ma said. “As long as it does that, the work will go on.”
This story is one in an occasional series of reports by students taking part in a class of the USC Annenberg Knight Program on Media and Religion, headed by Diane Winston. Thanks to a grant from the Luce Foundation, Annenberg students have covered global religion, culture and politics for the past four years. This spring, students will report and write on Southern California's Indian community and travel to Pune and Mumbai in March, where they will cover religion, economics and politics.