Opened in 1905 by the Vedanta Society, founded by Swami Vivekananda, the architecture of the temple purposely embraced Western and Eastern, Hindu and Muslim influences. Called the Old Temple, it is still in service with a message that all paths to God are valid.
Looking to do some sightseeing in San Francisco, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this city with a thousand tech startups is also home to the first Hindu temple in the Western world. Learning its history and paying a visit to the temple not far from downtown revealed more of its fascinating facets.
It is currently called the Old Temple by the Vedanta Society of Northern California which built it in 1905. After an overhaul in 2017, which included a new foundation and earthquake-proof features, it looks new enough. However, the Vedanta Society built their New Temple nearby in 1959 for their growing activities. The Old Temple building is now a monastery and holds Friday night lectures and Sunday school classes.
None other than Swami Vivekananda founded various chapters of the Vedanta Society in America soon after his sensational address to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893. That simple episode heralded the advent of Hinduism in America and turned him into an international spiritual celebrity. The books he went on to publish like Raja Yoga led the way to the ubiquitous yoga studios today.
The oldest Hindu temple outside Asia was built by Swami Trigunatitananda, who was sent by Swami Vivekananda to head the San Francisco chapter of the Vedanta City. Accounts of the history of the temple say that he came from India with a mission and single-mindedly got down to planning and designing the temple, and had it built in just six months.
The temple is a corner building in a quiet neighborhood. You notice that its exotic looks highlighted by the tourism literature and local media are not exaggerated. Here is a breathless account from the San Francisco Chronicle: “A strange mélange of Eastern and Western design elements, the building features a spectacular arcaded balcony with Mogul arches supported by Moorish columns on Doric bases, topped by a European castle-like crenelated tower, a double bulb-shaped dome that recalls Bengal temples, and a dome in the style of the Taj Mahal.”
An architectural tour de force, or a confounding mishmash, the exotic features were actually added in 1908 to symbolize the harmony of all religions. The pointed arches and domes stand for the aspiration of the spiritual seeker for a higher truth. In all, it is the ecumenical spirit of Vedanta made concrete.
We know that Swami Vivekananda based his mission on the teachings of his master, Sri Ramakrishna, who practiced Vedanta, the most prominent of the Six Orthodox Schools of Indian philosophy. Ramakrishna’s version, known as Advaita Vedanta, professes the oneness of God. He proclaimed the world’s various religions as so many paths to reach the same goal. For him, it was not mere theorizing, but a felt reality. He was initiated into disparate religious paths including Islam and Christianity, each culminating in the realization of God, says his Wikipedia profile.
Swami Trigunatita had dedicated the temple at its opening to “the service of God … for persons of all faiths … to discover and realize that we are one; we are the children of one father. …” He called it the first ‘Universal Hindu Temple in the West’. The word Universal was added for a reason – you do not find any idol of a deity inside.
Inside the building too, you notice the openness to diverse cultural and religious influences that the Vedanta Society epitomizes. In the lecture hall, on one side of the dais is a huge portrait of Sri Ramakrishna; keeping him company is a painting of Jesus Christ in the lotus pose rendered by a devotee. On the other side, you see a picture of Lord Buddha next to one of Swami Vivekananda.
The day I went to the temple in early May, the Minister-in-Charge, Swami Tattwamayananda, was giving a lecture on the Bhagavad Gita – a verse from chapter 15 to be exact – as part of his Vedanta Scripture Class. He said the core message of the Gita is that to be at peace we should live in the world but without world-mindedness to be at peace. Yet, we should do our duty efficiently. Writing elsewhere, the Swami called Vedanta, to which Mahatma Gandhi adhered, ‘Higher Hinduism.’ The system based on the Vedas influenced a generation of prominent American intellectuals such as Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, Joseph Campbell, and J.D. Salinger – all of them received mentoring from Vedanta Society swamis.
The Old Temple has been a local landmark for over a century. Writing in an art history journal in 2013, Arijit Sen pointed out, “In 1915, during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the temple became an urban landmark, and its exotic architecture became the very symbol of San Francisco’s claim as the gateway to the Orient.”
The temple survived the San Francisco earthquake and fire of April 1906. Even during its renovation to bring it up to current standards, the historic character of the building was not compromised. Swami Vedananda, of the Vedanta Society, was quoted as saying by local media, “There was a small foundation, and it had deteriorated with time. Now there is a reinforced concrete foundation, following all the latest earthquake codes of the city.” To allow digging for the foundation, the entire building was temporarily supported by steel beams. The cupolas, earlier galvanized steel, are now made of copper.
The history of the Vedanta Temple also includes an episode symptomatic of the troubled world we live in and the lofty perch of forgiveness that is still possible. In December 1914, Swami Trigunatita was giving a Sunday service when a mentally ill former student named Varvara hurled a crude bomb at the pulpit. The student was killed and Trigunatita was mortally wounded. On the way to the hospital, the Swami, who was in excruciating pain, asked about the student, saying, “Where is Varvara, poor fellow?” The Swami died a few days later.
Called the Old Temple now, it is in the northern part of San Francisco, CA. For details, sfvedanta.org
Photos of the temple exterior courtesy SF Vedanta Society.