Founded in 1939 by Swami Ashokananda (Ramakrishna Order, India)

Swami Prasannatmananda (current Swami-in-Charge/ President)

March 29, 2019

About

History of the Vedanta Society Berkeley

Swami Vivekananda taught Vedanta to the San Francisco Bay Area in the year 1900 when he was visiting USA for the second time. Swami was invited to participate in a local Congress of Religions by Reverend Benjamin Fay Mills, the Minister of First Unitarian Church of Oakland. Rev. Mills had attended the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago and was moved by Swami Vivekananda’s stirring speech. When he learned that the Swami was lecturing in Southern California, Rev. Mills sent an invitation to him. He knew that the Swami would be extremely popular among spiritual aspirants in Northern California. Swami accepted the invitation and visited the Bay Area from February 22 to May 29, 1900 for a period of three months. During his stay in the Bay Area, the Swami lectured and taught the transformative universal ideas of Vedanta at multiple locations.

During his first visit to USA, the Swami founded Vedanta Society of New York (1894), and during his second visit, he founded Vedanta Society of San Francisco (1900). It was during his second visit when the seeds of the Vedanta Society Berkeley were sown. His riveting lectures touched and inspired many western hearts in the Bay Area. After he left the Bay Area, a small group of invigorated and devoted followers nurtured, contributed, and strove to propagate the teachings of Vedanta. One such devotee was Sarah Fox of Berkeley, a highly spiritual woman, who heard Swamiji’s lecture for the first time in the First Unitarian Church of Oakland (Feb 25, 1900), and who later became a disciple of Swami Saradananda, a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. Swami Saradananda shaped her life in the mould along the principles of Vedanta and gave her an Indian name Premika. Sarah Fox became a driving force in the establishment of the Berkeley center and was also the founder President of the center from 1939 to 1949. She donated several books to the center’s library which was inaugurated on December 24, 1941, and was dedicated to Swami Saradananda which is known as Saradananda Library.

After Swamiji left the San Francisco Bay Area in May 1900, Swami Turiyananda and Swami Trigunatitananda, both brother disciples of Swami Vivekananda, continued teaching Vedanta in San Francisco, Oakland, and other parts of the Bay Area. A small group of devotees, mostly who heard Swamiji when he was lecturing in the Bay Area, like Sarah Fox and her sister Rebecca Fox, Mr. Rhodehamel and others formed a Vedanta study and discussion group in Oakland. Cornelius Heijblom later became Swami Atulananda (Gurudas), a Dutch disciple of Holy Mother and spiritually trained by Swami Turiyananda, took the baton and started giving classes to the Oakland devotee group at the house of the Fox family. This kept Swami Vivekananda’s teachings vibrant and alive in the East Bay. These were the pioneering devotees who laid the foundation of the Vedanta Society in the neighboring city of Berkeley.

Swami Ashokananda took over the reins of the Vedanta Society of San Francisco in 1931 from Swami Vividishananda, and began classes at various rented facilities in East Bay area. Swami Ashokananda was not happy with the ambience of those facilities and strongly felt that the nearby university town of Berkeley would be a better option for the congregation and dissemination of Vedanta teachings because of the international reputation of the University of California at Berkeley. With a committed group of followers like Sarah Fox, Mrs. Lindley Huey, Mrs. C.H. French, Mrs. Gladys Harvey, Mrs. S. Wright, Mr. E.T. Elliott, Mr. Charles E. Martin, Mr. R.P. Utter, Mrs. Edith Soule, Anna Webster and others, Swami Ashokananda started searching for a house in Berkeley from April of 1938. The next 18 months were as dramatic as anyone could imagine: from finding an appropriate location for the Society, to applying for the City permits, fighting against a concerted effort of several local detractors in Berkeley, to litigating in the court, and finally the formal recognition of the Vedanta Society, it was an extremely arduous task! The small group of supporters like Sarah Fox, Mrs. Harvey, Mrs. Watkins, Mr. and Mrs. Martin, Bob Utter, Douglas Sole, Mrs. Edith Soule (Ediben), Anna Webster and others painstakingly and tirelessly worked, campaigned door to door to remove all obstacles, including fighting legal battles, and finally obtained the building permit from the City of Berkeley in January 1939.

The property identified for the Society was at the corner of Haste and Bowditch Street. It had a ramshackle house with a tall deodar tree. The University students used the place for parking. Mr. and Mrs. Soule, who were from a prominent East Bay family, knew Mr. Henry Gutterson, a renowned architect at that time. He was engaged to draw up the plans for the new building that would match the neighborhood style at that time. Mr. Gutterson was well-known for architectural designs of various Christian churches, schools and houses in the northern Bay Area. Some of his notable works include the Jefferson School, Civic Center Park Fountain, Berkeley High School Community Theater, and the cottages and duplexes on Rosewalk.

Helen Sutherland was a member of the Vedanta Society. She was one of the first women to graduate from University of California Berkeley in the field of architecture. She and her colleague Josephine Stanbury were interior decorators. Interestingly, the University campus, at that time, was not immediately next door, but Swami Ashokananda always desired that the temple one day be at the doorsteps of the University. At that time, he had no idea that the University would buy up all the land around the Berkeley temple. The temple building was completed on June 25, 1939. In October 1939, the worship of Mother Durga was performed in the newly built Berkeley temple from October 19 to October 22, 1939. On October 20, 1939, Ashtami (eighth) day, the Berkeley Temple was formally dedicated, and on Sunday, October 22, 1939 the first formal Sunday service was initiated. Swami Prabhavananda, and Swami Devatmananda performed the worship. Swami Vividishananda and Swami Ashokananda were present. The Berkeley center was initially established as an East Bay center of the Vedanta Society of Northern California. On Dec 1, 1970, the Berkeley center became an independent entity and was known thereafter as the Vedanta Society Berkeley.

During the construction of the Temple, Swami Ashokananda would spend significant amount of time at the site. Even after rains, he would walk through the mud over every inch of the lot holding photographs of Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother and Swami Vivekananda. He consecrated the whole property with these photographs before the construction began. He watched the excavation, the erection of walls, the laying of floors, the raising of the roof and the designing of the altar. Swami also supervised the planting of trees and the verdant garden as well.

In summary, the spiritual calling evoked by Swami Vivekananda in the Bay Area in 1900 aroused an intellectually charged group of East Bay devotees to establish the Vedanta Society Berkeley at 2455 Bowditch Street in 1939. With continued zeal and spiritual guidance of the Swamis of Ramakrishna Order and the Swami-in-Charge, the Society continues to inspire numerous devotees from all walks of life. The Society today is involved in a variety of intellectual, spiritual and devotional programs: spiritual retreats, meditation camps, prominent interfaith guest lectures, classes on Vedanta, ancient scriptures, Holy Trio and world religions, and other religious and spiritual celebrations. Thus, the visceral calling of the Vedantic spirit, ignited by Swami Vivekananda’s soul-stirring lectures of 1900, found a permanent abode in the Vedanta Society Berkeley.

In 1975, Swami Swahananda, the first Swami-In-Charge of the independent Vedanta Society Berkeley founded a satellite center in San Jose called San Jose House of Vedanta Society Berkeley. Its background, and history are described in the San Jose section of the Society’s website.


Vedanta Society Berkeley, 2455 Bowditch Street
Berkeley, CA, 94704. (510)848-8862, society_AT_berkeleyvedanta.org

 

We have five annual Puja
Sri Ramakrishna’s birthday
Sri Ma Sarada Devi’s Birthday
Swami Vivekananda’s Birthday
Sri Sri Durga Puja
Mahashivaratri

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Entire Puja event
Flowers and garland
Food for offering (Naivedya)
Dinner for devotees (Prasad)

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