Ananda Ashrama Today – Part 3
La Crescenta’s Ananda Ashrama went through some changes after its founder and leader Swami Paramananda died in 1940. Vedanta, a branch of Hinduism and Ananda Ashrama’s philosophical base, had its parent order in India. Although it was a gender inclusive philosophy – both sexes are ordained – traditional Indian culture reserved leadership for men. Swami Paramananda had ignored that and had prepared women in his order to take over for him at his death. As I related last week, those women were faced with a dilemma – to carry on their founder’s wishes, thus angering their parent order, or to accept a new male Swami from India. They honored Paramananda’s wishes, assumed leadership themselves, and were dispossessed by the Ramakrishna Math, the spiritual organization that forms the core of the Vedanta movement. Under female leadership they have grown and strengthened as an independent Vedanta order, and are perhaps the only Hindu sect run by women.
Their leader today is Sudha Ma, an American woman with roots in La Crescenta. Sudha Ma, also known as Dr. Susan Schraeger, had always had a strong attraction to spiritual issues. Early in life she was an Episcopalian, even becoming a nun. She left that church to continue her schooling, gaining a Ph.D in education. She worked in the Glendale school system, becoming an administrator at Clark Junior High. She heard about the Ananda Ashrama from the students there, who described it variously as an evil cult, a hippie commune or a nudist colony. Curious, and still attracted to the spiritual, she decided to check it out. What she found there she immediately recognized as her true faith, and also recognized the Ashrama’s leader Gayatri Devi as her teacher.
She moved to the Ashrama in 1982, and took her monastic vows in 1985, taking the name of Sudha Ma. Before Devi died in 1995 she chose Sudha Ma as her successor to lead the Ashrama. Since assuming this role she has ambitiously achieved many goals. She has expanded the Ashrama’s two schools in India, now serving 6,000 impoverished children. She travels between La Crescenta, the Ashrama in Boston and another two Ashramas in India, teaching and leading services. She has overseen the restoration of the buildings at Ananda Ashrama, and has managed the financial resources of her order carefully. Like many churches, they are not endowed, and rely on donations and volunteers to continue their work.
Despite the changes in the leadership of Ananda Ashrama, the physical aspects haven’t changed since it was established in the 1920s. It is still an oasis of peace and tranquility in a busy world. Nestled between a quiet residential neighborhood and the national forest, its 120 acres offer quiet reflection in a natural setting. Many lifelong CV residents have never heard of the Ashrama, and of those that have, few have visited it. Yet it is freely open to all those who respect the peace of the place.
I often visit the grounds myself, making sure I honor the Ashrama’s tranquility by leaving my dog at home and keeping my volume down. Driving up Pennsylvania to the intersection where it turns right and becomes Markridge, I take a left into the Ashrama’s driveway, located between two stone pillars. The long driveway winds through trees and meadows, where I invariably spot deer grazing. The driveway loops through the property, through orchards and tended gardens, passing by the many small cabins where some Ashrama members live. One can park in the parking lot, and wander up to the beautiful temple. To see the glorious interior of the church and its monuments to the world’s religions, all are welcome to their Sunday 11 o’clock services.
The message they give is simple – there are many paths to God. Swami Paramanada said, “My idea is not to bring here a Hindu creed or a Christian creed or a Buddhist creed, but to take the best out of all and embody the universal aspect of all. That is my dream.”
The dreamer has moved on but his dream is alive here in La Crescenta. Ananda Ashrama is truly a treasure.