During one of the largest religious gatherings on Earth, Lalita Shree Maa, stood with nine others in a small room as several male Hindu gurus placed a garland of flowers around their necks. The religious teachers then rubbed a powder on each person’s forehead, a moment when all barriers of “human limitation” disappeared.
Shree Maa had just become one of the first women to lead the Vishnuswami lineage, a Hindu sect, as a teacher, with the title of Mahamandaleshwar Mahant 108.
“It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life,” said Shree Maa, 34
A Boulder native, Shree Maa felt a connection to India ever since she visited the country at the age of 18, during the summer after her last year of high school. During Kumbh Mela, a mass Hindu pilgrimage of faith on Feb. 8, Maa, along with three other women, became some of the first to hold a position of teacher in the lineage, which for so long had been dominated by men. Having broken such barriers, Shree Maa said it is “empowering” when female leaders rise.
“All over the world we’re seeing this movement of the feminine rising,” Shree Maa said. “We each have that masculine and that feminine. And when they come into balance, we are more whole and powerful.”
Mahamandaleshwar translates to “great lord of the circle,” according to religious professor at CU Boulder Loriliai Biernacki, who studies Hinduism.
The title is more symbolic than one that bears imparts power or authority, Biernacki said. Still, Shree Maa’s claim of the title as a woman, and especially as a westerner, is “interesting.”
“It’s great,” Biernacki said, adding that it shows “open mindedness” within the Hindu sect.
Maa was invited to the take the title by her longtime mentor, Sai Maa, a spiritual leader and the first woman to hold the title of Jagadguru in the Vishnuswami Lineage. Sai Maa is known for her programs across North America, Europe and Asia in which her students travel to practice andteach spirituality and meditative healing. Shree Maa has spent many years under Sai Maa journeying across the globe to lead spiritualworkshops with others.
Though Boulder and India are thousands of miles apart and vastly different in culture, they share a common sense of nature and spirituality, for Shree Maa. As a child, she spent her time outside, learning art and playing music. Her parents raised her with an awareness of spirituality, but not in adogmatic sense. She instead sees it as a way to lift up others.
“I have no desire for titles and that is not why I did this,” Shree Maa said. “It’s really about serving humanity.”
For her, without spirituality there is “nothing.” It’s what helps her make the struggles of her life seem less prevalent. It embodies the “fullest expression of life” as she said.
Matt Lawrence, a Boulder resident and student of Shree Maa, remembers being asked by her “Would you leave your house without brushing your teeth? You would probably feel gross.” That’s the approach she taught him to take when it comes to meditation. It was not until after he met Shree Maa in 2016 that Lawrence began to meditate on a daily basis. For Lawrence, Shree Maa changed his frame of mind when meditating.
“What we really do in meditation is we are getting aligned to who we are,” Lawrence said. “We are getting to know the part of yourself that is a joy and a privilege to be with.
And Shree Maa’s teaching is not fixed. As Lawrence put it, Shree Maa “provides the tools” for different meditative practices, but leaves it “open-ended” to her students to find the best way to practice.
When Shree Maa returned from India with her new title, Lawrence said it was like meeting a “different person.” To him, Shree Maa had a greater sense of “understanding.”
“There’s something there today with Lalita that expands who I am as a person,” Lawrence said. “When I’m having a conversation with Lalita, I just feel more open and more joy to be with her.”
Shree Maa’s goal is to meet people “where they are.” She said she feels aware of the “Boulder bubble,” believing it is easy to stay stuck in easy-going Boulder life, but that it is important to break out and have new experiences.
“We have so many differences in culture but it all comes down to the same things,” Shree Maa said. “I really strive to meet people where they are.”
Now back in Boulder, Shree Maa has big plans for the future to meet and engage with new communities, both in Boulder and internationally.
“I think a global perspective is very important,” Shree Maa said. “When we come together, everything expands so much faster.”