She Touched God: Sister Lalita’s Association with Swami Vivekananda   by Pravrajika Brahmaprana

 

 This article was previously published in Prabuddha Bharata, March 2011. Pravrajika Brahmaprana presented it  with a slideshow in the afternoon program of Swami Vivekananda’s puja at the Hollywood Temple.

Sister Lalita and Swami Prabhavananda offer breakfast to Swami Vivekananda in the 1940s.

Sister Lalita and Swami Prabhavananda offer breakfast to Swami Vivekananda in the 1940s.

 

During the 1970s, as a young nun at the Sarada Convent in Santa Barbara, I heard many stories about Sister Lalita from Swami Prabhavananda and senior nuns who had lived with her. These stories inspired me and made me feel privy to a rich oral tradition of our early Vedanta movement in America.

I would like to share some of those stories that describe a saintly woman, whose life of quiet strength became a role model for those sisters who had lived with her. To them, Sister Lalita was also not only one of the few then-living followers of Swami Vivekananda, but by inviting Swami Prabhavananda to open a Vedanta center in her home at 1946 Ivar Avenue, she made it possible for an important Vedanta work in Los Angeles to take root. For these reasons her story is an important contribution to the early history of the Vedanta Movement in America.

Sister Lalita, or Mrs. Carrie Wyckoff, lived from 1859 until 1949. She was one of the three Mead sisters whose family hosted Swami Vivekananda at its rented South Pasadena home—now the Vivekananda House—during the winter of 1899–1900, which was during Vivekananda’s second visit to the West. Swami Turiyananda, who also visited the Mead sisters for two weeks in the summer of 1900, initiated Carrie Wyckoff in the rose garden of the Pasadena house, and later Swami Trigunatita gave her the name Sister Lalita.[1] “But,” as Pravrajika Prabhaprana, explained, “to those who knew her in her later years, she was simply ‘Sister.’”[2]

In fact, this affectionate term of endearment, “Sister,” best encapsulates Sister Lalita’s greatness: her unassuming nature and natural humility. Though she had associated intimately with three direct disciples of Ramakrishna, in December 1929, turned her home over to Swami Prabhavananda, along with a hefty monthly annuity, and donated $10,000 of the $12,000 necessary to complete the Hollywood temple’s construction, Sister Lalita never put herself forward or assumed any airs of ownership. When, in the summer of 1941, Phoebe Nixon (later Pravrajika Prabhaprana) first came to the Hollywood center, she remembered how she “saw an elderly, white-haired lady bending over from the waist, weeding, and tending the plants.”[3] This was Sister—quiet, productive, and self-effacing.

To those who knew Sister Lalita, her love for gardening was more than a hobby. It was her passion, her worship. Roses were her favorite flowers, and she insisted that they be watered separately. Even in her eighties, Sister tended her garden so that flowers were always available for the daily worship in the shrine. Jnanada, or Anne Lowenkopf, who was a resident at the Vedanta center during Sister’s life, reminisced how she was completely ignorant and had been “a grumbling conscript” in her mother’s garden, until she met Sister. “Serving Sister Lalita was a joy,” Jnanada wrote to me.

All I had to offer was a strong back, ignorance, and pleasure in being with her.  I wish I could convey the delight on her face [and] in her gestures as she’d plan, saying. “We’ll make a fairy land of flowers.”  She infused me with her delight.  It’s with me till this day.

 

Following in the footsteps of his Master, Swami Brahmananda, Swami Prabhavananda used to instruct his monastics at the center to garden at least one hour every day. Working with the soil, the swami explained, cultivates honesty and simplicity—necessary prerequisites for spiritual life. These qualities were embedded in Sister’s character. “Be pure, be true, and be strong”[4] were the teachings she had received from Vivekananda and his brother-disciples, and they were the precepts she lived by.

Once as Sister Lalita was preparing food in the Pasadena house, Swami Vivekananda, who was pacing back and forth in the kitchen, suddenly asked her, “Were you happily married?” Sister Lalita hesitated, then answered, “Yes, Swamiji,” whereupon he remarked dryly, “I am glad that that there was one happy marriage.” The moment passed, but Sister never forgot it, and years later she became known as “a stickler for truth.”[5]

Truthfulness is purity, and purity is strength. Sri Ramakrishna used to say that truthfulness is the austerity of this age. To speak without embellishment, self-aggrandizement, or injury to others is a test of one’s mental clarity, egolessness, and even mindedness. But Sister always adhered to Sri Ramakrishna’s signature teaching to tell the truth, but never a harsh truth. Once, a woman came to the center proudly wearing a rather garish hat. When asked how she liked it, Sister softly replied, “That’s a beautiful ribbon on the band.”[6]

Swami Vivekananda once said, “As I grow older I find that I look more and more for greatness in little things. I want to know what a great man eats and wears, and how he speaks to his servants.”[7] In this sense, Sister Lalita’s greatness shone most brightly. Swami Turiyananda had once told her: “You will have a work to do, but it will be a quiet work.” “You had to discover Sister Lalita,” one devotee remarked:

 

It was very easy to pass her by and go where all the activities were, but if you paused and got to know her, the least little thing you did for her made you feel rewarded. I don’t know how to explain it, but you felt good if you did anything for Sister.[8]

 

How many of us can make others feel good, not to speak of, blessed? But Sister could—that was her strength—to transmit goodness and strength to those around her. I asked Jnanada what it was like to live with Sister. “I got to serve her morning tea,” Jnanada wrote back.

 

Never a grumpy word, even when I was late.  Instead her enthusiasm for the day ahead.  Never once in all the time I was in her [company] and despite all my many shortcomings did she scold. I’ve never known anyone who reported being scolded by her.  She could disapprove.  There was a certain regret in her voice when she spoke of [a particularly flamboyant member of the Vedanta household], but backbiting gossip was foreign to her.[9]

 

Jnanada went on to write: “I don’t know anything about her spiritual life except that I felt it whenever I was near her.  She blessed me, not with words but with love and being, blessings that hold me still.” Jnanada wept as she wrote those words.

From where did Sister Lalita’s greatness come? Sister herself once confided to Sudhira (Helen Hall) a telling incident. “At the house in Pasadena, the bedrooms were on the second floor. Steep, narrow steps connected the first and second floors,” Sudhira reported.

One morning they were all coming down to breakfast, and Sister was right behind Swamiji. Suddenly, she got a little unsteady on those steep stairs, and she reached out in front of her using Swamiji’s shoulder to brace herself. According to Sister, the whole world just went away. She was in another place, in another consciousness, and she never remembered getting down the rest of the stairs. But somehow he got her into the dining room and seated her, and then he took over. And he was so charming, and so entertaining, and so much fun that nobody noticed that Sister was all blanked out; that she was in another place. Just touching his shoulder had taken her there. From that moment on, Swamiji was God to Sister.[10]

 

Sudhira recalled how those who heard this story were moved by Sister’s reverence when she stated, “He is God.”[11] Undoubtedly, Sister Lalita’s inner experience on the staircase, hidden from the view of those who were present, was what nourished her later spiritual life. The sheer memory of that experience alone would undoubtedly have fueled her daily meditations and lifted her consciousness to a place where others, such as Jnanada, could feel a special sense of “being”[12] or, as one nun expressed, a “radiant serenity” emanating from her. Still another verified: “I always felt in her presence something quite wonderful.”[13]

Sister was regular in her meditations. Even in her eighties, she went to the shrine three times a day. Prabhaprana remembered how she would come into the shrine “like a feather, and sit cross-legged for an hour without moving.”[14] Christopher Isherwood, who was living at the Vedanta center in the early days, used to marvel at seeing Sister in the shrine room, “She had an air of unobtrusiveness,” Isherwood wrote, “which was somehow majestic.”[15] Once, Sister Lalita apologized to Swami Prabhavananda for taking too long to prostrate before sitting for meditation. Sometimes it took longer for the Light to appear, she explained, assuming that everyone else also saw the Light when prostrating in the shrine.[16]

On Swami Vivekananda’s Puja day, Sister Lalita would offer a special breakfast in the shrine, which has since become a tradition at the Vedanta Society of Southern California. However, when Sister served the breakfast, it was as though she were back in time at 309 Monterey Road, serving Swamiji his American breakfast, consisting of orange juice, two fried eggs, two strips of bacon, two pieces of toast and marmalade, and two cups of coffee with milk and sugar, the second one of which he would always enjoy with a cigarette. Those who attended this morning service related how they felt that it was not simply a ritual. Vivekananda was there.

On the last Vivekananda Puja celebration that Sister Lalita attended, she left the temple and went to see Swami Prabhavananda, who was too ill to attend. According to Abhaya (Mrs. Kemp Driver), who was the swami’s nurse, Sister “entered the room, took his hand, and said, ‘They’re all there.’ The swami nodded in assent.”[17]

Though Sister Lalita knew that she had touched God, undoubtedly her memories of her day-to-day relationship with Vivekananda during his four-weeks’[18] stay with her family and his personal teachings to her also kindled her inner life and infused her karma yoga with mindfulness, meaning, and joy. “When she was cooking,” one resident remembered, “the tiniest seed had to be removed from the grapefruit, and she didn’t rush around and drop things like most people do.”

Sometimes we’d be running late to get food cooked for offering and we’d think it would never get done on time. Still Sister didn’t rush, and still everything was done exactly on time, and it was good![19]

 

Sister Lalita loved to reminisce about her days with Vivekananda, and though retiring by nature, at those times, she would become especially animated. To her, he was a living presence.[20] Sister Lalita’s early relationship with Swamiji was far from formal or remote. It was that of a close sibling. “He was just like a brother,” Sister remarked. When asked what it was like to live with Vivekananda, she responded, “He raised our consciousness up so we didn’t feel while we were with him anything but just love and joy. And he was so much fun!”[21] But, no matter how informal and intimate her relationship with Swamiji was, it was not without awestruck moments when she and her sisters would suddenly realize that Christ himself was living in their midst.[22]

When Swami Vivekananda came to live at 309 Monterey Road, the small two-story, three-bedroom Victorian-style house was filled with the Mead household: Mr. Jesse Mead, his three daughters (Helen Mead, Alice Hansbrough, and Carrie Wyckoff—“The Three Graces,” as Swamiji called them), and Dorothy and Ralph, who were the children of Alice and Carrie, respectively, plus the housekeeper, Miss Fairbanks. And for a few days during Swamiji’s visit, Miss Josephine MacLeod also stayed with the Meads as their house guest.

Swamiji, who had his own room upstairs, felt relaxed within this household. Every morning he would come downstairs to breakfast, hair wet and tousled from his bath, and wearing a “worn black-and-white herringbone-tweed bathrobe, tied at the waist.”[23] Before breakfast, he would take a walk in the garden behind the house or in the driveway at the side of the house—sometimes lost in thought or sometimes he would chant or sing aloud. Breakfast, which Sister prepared, was leisurely, and if there was no ten o’clock morning class in Pasadena, the swami would play with the children, read a book, or take another morning stroll in the garden. Swamiji was present at all meals and would sometimes invite students who had attended his morning classes—such as Miss Josephine MacLeod and her sister, Mrs. Francis Leggett—to come to lunch. Mealtime conversations were always lively, with talk of India or some spiritual topic. However, the sisters’ favorite lunches were picnics on the knoll behind their house, attended by regular students of his morning classes. At those meals, Mrs. Hansbrough related, “The air would become surcharged with a spiritual atmosphere.”[24] On one of these occasions, the swami talked uninterruptedly from ten o’clock in the morning until four in the afternoon. By the time he finished, Mrs. Hansbrough remembered, “the air was just vibrant with spirituality.”[25]

The sisters cherished those moments as much as the swami’s cozy, casual downtime when he would relax on the couch after a meal, calling out to Mrs. Wyckoff, “You work so hard that it makes me tired. Well, there have been some Marthas, and you are a Martha.”[26] Years later, Sister would reflect: “To think that I didn’t sit and talk with Swamiji when I could have!” [27] But Vivekananda had patience with all of them. As Alice Hansbrough related, “He took away any feeling that he was superior to us.”[28] In the afternoons, Swamiji would often write letters, stories, or poetry, such as “Who Knows How Mother Plays.” Occasionally he would give private interviews or sit for tea with family guests—sometimes in silence. Once when this happened, the departing visitor turned to the sisters and asked, “Does this gentleman speak English?”[29] But by late afternoon Swamiji was ready to help Mrs. Wyckoff prepare dinner. Sometimes he prepared chili-hot curries, hand-grinding the spices as he sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor.[30] Then the swami would fry the spices in butter so hot their eyes would smart from the smoke that arose from the stovetop. These were the times when Swamiji was at his merriest. “Here comes grandpa!” he would call out. “Ladies are invited to leave.”[31] Such choice episodes undoubtedly played themselves over and over again as some of Sister’s most cherished memories. The Vivekananda lila in South Pasadena was the fortress of Sister’s inner life.

Once Vivekananda asked Sister if she liked one of his spicy dishes. “Yes,” she answered. But the swami was not to be fooled, “Was it true or just for friendship’s sake?” he asked.

“I am afraid it was for friendship’s sake” came the reluctant response. In simple ways such as these, the swami changed those whose lives he touched.

After dinner, the table would be cleared, a fire lit and the swami would gather with the family and an occasional guest such as Miss Josephine MacLeod. He would discuss a variety of subjects from philosophy and religion, to history, science, and politics, or read aloud from various books. Once to punctuate a discussion on Advaita Vedanta he read from his poem, “The Song of the Sannyasin.” Another time he read from his lecture on “The Need of a Guru” until Helen Mead offered him his bedroom candle. “Does that mean I must go to bed?” Swamiji asked. “Well,” Helen replied, “it is eleven o’clock.” The sisters long remembered this. How could they have ignored his invitation for discipleship? But, in their case, initiation was not a necessary formality. “I have known all three of you before,”[32] Vivekananda once told them. And in the summer of 1900, he wrote to Mrs. Hansbrough, “You three sisters have become a part of my mind forever.”[33] What greater expression of acceptance could a teacher have conveyed to his disciples?

It is curious to see how, in Sister Lalita’s life, strength and humility went hand in hand. The first words that Sister ever heard from Swami Vivekananda’s lips were those of strength. On December 8, 1899 the three Mead sisters attended the world famous swami’s first Los Angeles lecture, in Blanchard Hall. “God cannot be known to the external senses,” Vivekananda stated then.

 

The Infinite, the Absolute, cannot be grasped. Yet although it eludes us, we may not infer its non-existence. It exists.

 

Then he went on in jnani fashion to assert in no uncertain terms what, how, and where God the Absolute exists:

 

What is it that cannot be seen by the outward eye? The eye itself. It may behold all other things, but itself it cannot mirror. This, then, is the solution. If God may not be found by the outer senses, turn your eye inward and find, in yourself, the soul of all souls….

 

“When I have realized that I myself am the Absolute,” Vivekananda continued, “for me there is no more death nor life nor pain nor pleasure, nor caste nor sex.”[34] At the end of the lecture, he chanted in his baritone voice: “I am Existence Absolute, Knowledge Absolute, Bliss Absolute.”[35]

Sister Lalita had tasted that ocean of Existence, Knowledge and Bliss when she touched Vivekananda on the staircase in her home. She had touched God, and such a vast ocean of consciousness had swelled up deep within her that she lost normal consciousness. No doubt that experience served as a witness by which she was later able to measure all the events of her life. It was also undoubtedly the same source of strength by which she was able to see equality and spiritual strength in all those around her. Why else would she be sometimes prompted to step aside for even those younger than she to enter a room first?[36] Sister Lalita knew, after all, that the ocean of consciousness that manifest within her was also present within all.

That experience also gave Sister a working strength. She never hid behind a false sense of perfection. It seemed effortless for her to simply admit her foibles with a humorous “Well, I needn’t do that again,” and then get on with her life. This sense of humor—a mark of her detachment—made her a natural peacemaker. “Just relax,” she would say when tensions would build up between residents at the center. “Don’t hurry. Don’t rush. Five minutes one way or the other won’t make a difference.”[37] And people would listen. Pravrajika Baradaprana wrote me: “Sister was sweet at all times and totally self-effacing. She walked so softly you could hardly hear her. But at the same time she had strength of character and conviction.”[38]

A charmed life is not what made Sister Lalita great. She understood tragedy and loss. In 1925, Ralph, her only son, was buried in a landslide, and, seriously injured, he lingered for three days afterwards. On the third night, Mrs. Wyckoff dreamt that Swami Vivekananda, knee-deep in ocean water, was walking towards the shore, carrying Ralph in his arms. When she awoke, she realized that Ralph had died.[39] Carrie Wyckoff was devastated, and her health suffered from the shock and grief of her loss.

However, this was not the first time that she had endured unbearable suffering. One day in 1900, after a severe bout of depression, Carrie Wyckoff reached for a pipe that Vivekananda had left behind on the mantel of the Pasadena house as a keepsake. “I always leave behind something wherever I go,” the swami had said. “I am going to leave this pipe when I go to San Francisco.”[40] As soon as Mrs. Wyckoff picked up the pipe, she heard Vivekananda’s voice: “Is it so hard, madam?” For some reason she rubbed the pipe across her forehead, and her suffering was transformed into a feeling of well-being. That pipe now belongs to the Vedanta Society of Southern California.

However, with Ralph’s death in 1925, Sister Lalita’s grief was finally assuaged in a different way. It must have been about three years later in 1928 that Sister met Swami Prabhavananda of the Vedanta Society of Portland, who was lecturing in California at the time. She felt drawn like a mother to this young swami. Because Sister also revered Prabhavananda as a teacher, she asked to help with his Vedanta work, first in Portland; then a year later, she invited the swami to accept her home in the Hollywood Hills as a Vedanta center in Los Angeles. “Yes,” Swami Shivananda, the-then president of the Ramakrishna Order, wrote to Swami Prabhavananda, “I give you permission to open a center in Los Angeles.”[41] In December 1929, Swami Prabhavananda moved in to Sister’s home, the Green House at 1946 Ivar Avenue.

Though Sister Lalita was in her seventies, she took over the cooking, cleaning, and gardening and later performed a five-item worship[42] in a small shrine room which was built onto the original house. Swami Prabhavananda took charge of the maintenance and ministry. During the Depression, times were so hard that they ate only popcorn and milk for supper.

But once Sister Lalita deeded her home to the Vedanta Society, there was no turning back. Swami Prabhavananda used to say, “Sister and I lived together for more than twenty years, and there was never a harsh word between us.”[43] Once he stipulated that all residents must first ask permission before leaving the compound, a rule by which Sister Lalita also complied. “Sister, you don’t have to ask my permission,” Swami Prabhavananda protested. But such was Sister’s humility that she insisted, “Swami, I’d like to ask permission if the others have to.” Sister Lalita’s greatness was that she never put herself above others.

So close was the relationship between the swami and Sister that when, in 1935, they traveled to India together, Prabhaprana noted that Prabhavananda’s mother, Jnanada, “felt a certain jealousy seeing her son with Sister.” To Sister, the swami undoubtedly filled the void that Ralph’s death had left her. But, according to Prabhaprana,

 

the two women developed a sweet relationship even with the language barrier. On the last day they were together, the Swami’s mother placed his hand in Sister’s, turning him over to her.[44]

 

While in India, Swami Prabhavananda and Sister Lalita associated with two direct disciples of Ramakrishna: Swamis Akhandananda and Vijnanananda, the president and vice-president of the Ramakrishna Order. “Isn’t Sister Lalita wonderful!” Swami Vijnanananda remarked to Swami Prabhavananda. He had accompanied the swami and Sister to Kamarpukur and Jayrambati. “We traveled in the same car for so many hours, and she never said a word. How quiet!”[45] Sister’s quietude was extraordinary. Unprompted by shyness, rather, it came from being completely at peace with herself.

In July 1949, Sister Lalita contracted pneumonia while staying in the Santa Barbara convent. Those who nursed Sister felt privileged to serve her. By just looking at her face, one would feel joy well up within, one resident remembered. Sister was always dainty and “oh so feminine,” Jnanada remembered. “”I loved to look at her.”[46] Even though bedridden, she would ask that a ribbon be first put in her hair before the doctor came. But Sister was never demanding. When the nuns noticed that her bedsocks were worn and asked why she had not asked that they be replaced, she gently offered, “Oh, I was planning to go into town to buy them.” [47]

Prabhaprana noticed that as the end approached, Sister “was detaching herself and withdrawing into another world.”[48] Another nun also observed, “You could feel during those last days that Swamiji was with her. She would sometimes gesture as if she were trying to touch something,”[49] A few days before Sister Lalita passed away, Prabhaprana remembered,

Swami Prabhavananda gave her Ganges water, and she repeated after him the names of Ramakrishna, Holy Mother, Swamiji, and Maharaj (Swami Brahmananda) and [Swami] Turiyananda.

 

She went on to say, “Jnanada was in her room early in the morning of 23 July 1949.”

A little sigh from Sister caused her to look up. Sister quietly slipped out of this world, as quietly as she had lived in it.[50]

 

For, after all, hers was “a quiet work,” but for those who had the privilege to know her, what a great work it was.

[1] Pravrajika Anandaprana, A Historical Record, (undated), 93.

[2] Pravrajika Prabhaprana, “Sister Lalita,” The Vedanta Kesari (May 1988): 178.

[3] Prabhaprana, “Sister Lalita,” 178.

[4] Prabhaprana, “Sister Lalita,” 179.

[5] Marie Louise Burke, Swami Vivekananda in the West, New Discoveries: A New Gospel, V, (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1987) V, 262.

[6] Linda Prugh, “Sister Lalita: A Great Teaching,” Prabuddha Bharata (January 1985), 20.

[7] Swami Vivekananda The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols., (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1976), 2:380.

[8] Prugh, “Sister Lalita”, 16.

[9] Email to Pravrajika Brahmaprana from Anne Lowenkopf (April 15, 2007).

[10] Prugh, “Sister Lalita,”18.

[11] Prabhaprana, “Sister Lalita,” 179.

[12] Lowenkopf (April 15, 2007).

[13] Prugh, “Sister Lalita,” 23.

[14] Prabhaprana, “Sister Lalita,” 179.

[15] Christopher Isherwood, My Guru and His Disciple, (New York: Farrar, 1980), 110.

[16] Prabhaprana, “Sister Lalita,” 179.

[17] Prabhaprana, “Sister Lalita,” 180.

[18] Burke, New Discoveries, V, 243-44.

[19] Prugh, “Sister Lalita,” 19

[20] Brahmacharini Usha, “Swamiji in Southern California,” Vedanta and the West, 158 (1962), 60.

[21] Prugh, “Sister Lalita,” 18.

[22] Prabhaprana, “Sister Lalita,” 170.

[23] Burke, New Discoveries, V, 252.

[24] Burke, New Discoveries, V, 258.

[25] Burke, New Discoveries, V, 258.

[26] Burke, New Discoveries, V, 259-60.

[27] Prugh, “Sister Lalita,”18.

[28] Burke, New Discoveries, V, 258.

[29] Burke, New Discoveries, V, 261.

[30] Prugh, “Sister Lalita,” 18.

[31] Burke, New Discoveries, V, 262.

[32] Burke, New Discoveries, V, 265.

[33] Burke, New Discoveries, V, 265.

[34] Burke, New Discoveries, V, 186.

[35] Burke, New Discoveries, V, 189.

[36] “Vedanta in Southern California,” Vedanta and the West (Hollywood, Vedanta Press, 1956), p. 47.

[37] Prugh, “Sister Lalita,” 23.

[38] Letter to Pravrajika Brahmaprana from Pravrajika Baradaprana (April 23, 2007).

[39] Pravrajika Brahmaprana’s reminiscences of Pravrajika Prabhaprana.

[40] Burke, New Discoveries, V, 258.

[41] Anandaprana, “Historical Record,” 94.

[42] Prugh, “Sister Lalita,” 21.

[43] Anandaprana, “Historical Record,” 94.

[44] Prabhaprana, “Sister Lalita,” 180.

[45] Anandaprana, “Historical Record,” 101.

[46] Lowenkopf (April 15, 2007).

[47] Prabhaprana, “Sister Lalita,” 179.

[48] Prabhaprana, “Sister Lalita,” 180.

[49] Prugh, “Sister Lalita,” 38.

[50] Prabhaprana, “Sister Lalita,” 180.

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She Touched God: Sister Lalita’s Association with Swami Vivekananda   by Pravrajika Brahmaprana