Tag Archives: #parthasircar

The Historical Old Temple of Vedanta Society In San Francisco

The Old Temple of the Vedanta Society in San Francisco somehow made me think about the little poem below by Rabindranath Tagore. I have appended my (admittedly poor) translation below the poem.

বহু দিন ধরেবহু ক্রোশ দূরে

বহু ব্যয় করিবহু দেশ ঘুরে

দেখিতে গিয়েছি পর্বতমালা

দেখিতে গিয়েছি সিন্ধু।

দেখা হয় নাই চক্ষু মেলিয়া

ঘর হতে শুধু দুই পা ফেলিয়া

একটি ধানের শিষের উপরে

একটি শিশির বিন্দু।।

“Over many many years, I traveled many many miles, spent a fortune, and visited many distant lands to enjoy the majestic beauty of great mountain ranges and seashores. But I just did not spare the time to merely step outside my front door and open my eyes to the simple beauty of a drop of dew glistening on a blade of grass in a paddy field.”

We travel to London, Paris, Rome, Greece, Egypt to see the Buckingham Palace, Notre Dame, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Acropolis, and the pyramids. We travel east to visit the famous Borobodur and Angkor Wat in Indonesia and Cambodia, Beijing’s Summer Palace, and the Great Wall of China. We take time to visit the famous temples of Kedar/Badri, Varanasi, and Tirupati.  

But how many among us have noticed the Old Temple of the Vedanta Society of Northern California – a rather unusual structure – at the southwest corner of Webster and Filbert Street in San Francisco?  How many of us even knew about it?

Replica of Benares Temple and Swami Vedananda (Image by Partha Sircar)

The Old Temple has its own unique history.  It is the oldest universal Hindu temple in the western world.  It was completed in 1906, just before the great San Francisco earthquake. It somehow survived the earthquake and the fire that followed – some may think it was divine intervention. The temple was built under the leadership of Swami Trigunatitananda, who at the time was in charge of the Vedanta Society of San Francisco (founded by Swami Vivekananda himself in 1900). Swami Trigunatitananda was a brother disciple of Swami Vivekananda, one of Sri Ramakrishna’s sixteen monastic disciples.  Incidentally, he died in 1915 resulting from the injuries from a bomb thrown at him by a deranged disciple, while he was speaking from the pulpit of his beloved temple – the first martyr of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Movement.

Swami Trigunatiatnanda had grandiose visions of the temple. He wanted it to reflect an architectural representation of the message of religious harmony, the central theme of his Guru Sri Ramakrishna’s message to the modern world, as so ably expounded by Swami Vivekananda. Therefore it is not built like an Indian temple. Each of its four towers on the roof and the small tower at the entrance to the auditorium is architecturally unique. They have echoes of the Shiva temples of Bengal, the Varanasi temple, a medieval Christian church, the Taj Mahal, and a Muslim mosque. The veranda running along the north and east sides of the building on the third floor is lined with sculpted arches in Moorish style.  In addition to the auditorium, the temple housed monk’s quarters and administrative offices. With time came requirements for additional space.

Old Temple Auditorium in the Old Vedanta Temple (Image by Partha Sircar)

Major activity was shifted to the New Temple which was built in 1959 at the northwest corner of Vallejo and Fillmore Streets, a few blocks from the Old Temple. 

The Old Temple was recently subjected to a major renovation, including seismic retrofit, to bring it up to the current Building Code requirements. A  Re-Dedication Ceremony for the Old Temple took place on October 29 (Kali Puja Day) and October 30, 2016, graced by a senior monk from Belur Math and about a dozen monks from all over North America.  

Perhaps now some of us will take a closer look at the Old Temple and try to find out more about it. And that also includes me.

Epilogue

The article above was written about four years ago. Since then, the renovations, including seismic retrofit of the structure, for which the temple was closed for a while, have been completed. A guided tour of the temple was arranged by the Vedanta Society on October 13 and 14, 2018 to mark the reopening after the renovation and seismic retrofit.  As usual, it was conducted by Swami Vedananda, the elderly, very learned American monk, of the Society. I took advantage of the tour on its very first day. 


Partha Sircar has a BE in Civil Engineering from Bengal Engineering College in Shibpur, India, and a Ph.D. in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a 53-year resident of the United States, including the last 36 years in California. He has worked in several engineering organizations over the years and is now retired for over eight years. He loves to write.

Featured image from Wikimedia commons.

India’s Military Campaigns Beyond Her Boundaries

We often hear that Indian rulers throughout history never invaded other countries – never established colonies in foreign lands.  The above statements are made, no doubt, to extol the virtues of our Hindu/Buddhist civilization – its emphasis on high philosophy, a penchant for peace, and deep-rooted spiritual (as opposed to materialistic) values. History generally bears out the validity of these statements. There are, however, some very notable exceptions.

The earliest example of foreign invasion (to Lanka) comes from Ramayana, whose historicity is, at best, questionable. But we cannot deny that the ethos for foreign invasions clearly finds favor in Ramayana. Of course, gods like Rama are judged differently from mere mortals like us. Then, there is in a famous Bengali poem, the legend of Vijaysingha, a prince from Bengal, subjugating the same Lanka (a favorite whipping boy, it seems) and rechristened it Simhala. A similar legend, I am told, exists in Sri Lanka that Prince Vijay came from somewhere in India and conquered Lanka. The historicity of this conquest, I gather, has not gotten universal approval from established historians. However, reverence for his exploits have withstood the test of time, thereby indicating our support for such endeavors, quite at variance with the ethos of non-aggression outside our borders.

Moving down in time, and based on firmer historical evidence, we find the great Maurya Empire of Chandragupta, Bindusara, and Asoka (322 BCE to 232 BCE) extending in the northwest into what is now Afghanistan and Balochistan and into the borders of Persia (Iran). In 305 BCE, Chandragupta Maurya led a series of campaigns to capture the satrapies left behind by Alexander the Great when he returned westwards. Seleucus I Nicator fought to defend these territories. Both sides made peace in 303 BCE with a treaty that gave Chandragupta control of the regions he sought, while Seleucus was given 500 highly valued war elephants in exchange. A map of Chandragupta’s empire in 320 BC (Figure 1) indicates that it included the entire present-day Balochistan under Pakistan and extending up to the southeastern end of present-day Afghanistan, including Gandhara, Kandahar, and Kabul Valley.  

Chandragupta Empire (Figure 1) from mapsofindia.com

King Asoka the Great made further additions to his empire in the northwest. A map of Asoka’s empire in 265 BCE (Figure 2) shows it to include entire present-day Afghanistan encroaching into the southeastern reaches of present-day Turkmenistan. Also, his empire expanded further across the Pakistani border in Balochistan into the eastern reaches of present-day Iran.  

Ashoka’s Empire (Figure 2) from mapsofindia.com

Thereafter, there is a mention of Hindu Shahis as rulers of Gandhara and Kabul Valley from 850 to 1026 CE.  There is little mention of Hindu Shahis in Indian history about their origins. It appears that the dynasty was set up by a minister of the Kabul Shahi dynasty by usurping its existing ruler. The Hindu Shahis had a tenuous existence with the local Saffarids and Samanids.  The Samanids captured Kabul around 900 CE, but the Hindu Shahis continued in the Gandhara till they were conquered by Mahmud of Ghazni.  

Probably the most stunning examples of campaigns outside the traditional borders of India are the naval exploits of the Chola kings of South India, Raja Raja Chola (reigned 985-1014), and his son Rajendra Chola (reigned 1014-1044). Raja Raja Chola’s naval forces captured the northern part of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and also subjugated the Maldive Islands. His son Rajendra’s naval campaigns were even more impressive.  He captured the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and brought the whole island of Ceylon under his control by imprisoning their king, Mahinda.  In 1025 CE, Rajendra led Chola forces across the Indian Ocean and invaded the Srivijaya kingdom, attacking several places in Malaysia and Indonesia.  This was surely a unique event in the annals of Indian history. The Cholas sacked Kadaram (the capital) and Pannai in Sumatra and Malaiyur in Indonesia. Rajendra also invaded Tambralinga, the Langkasuka Kingdom in modern Malaysia, and south Thailand. The Chola forces captured the last ruler of the Sailendra Dynasty, Sangrama Vijayatunggavarman. The Chola invasion engendered the end of the Srivajaya empire, whose maritime power declined under Chola attack. After this, the Cholas conquered large portions of Srivijaya Kingdom, including its ports of LigorKedah, and Tumask (now Singapore).  For the next century, Tamil trading companies from southern India dominated Southeast Asia. A map showing the Chola kingdom in 1030 CE is presented in Figure 3.

Chola Empire (Figure 3) from Wikimedia Commons

The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s disastrous encounters with the Uzbeks in 1645-1647 should perhaps be mentioned. The Emperor was possibly driven by his dreams of recapturing the Mughals’ ancestral homelands in those parts. It was the only time in recorded history that an India-based power ventured across the Hindu Kush to annex a Central Asian territory. Shah Jahan himself moved to Kabul to oversee the operations and two of his sons, Murad and Aurungzeb were involved in various phases. The war ended in a status quo with the Hindu Kush remaining as the western border of the Mughal empire. The Mughals suffered heavy losses in the campaigns, both financially and in manpower, a lot of it due to severe weather conditions.

Finally, there was the Sikh empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839 CE), which extended from Khyber Pass in the west to western Tibet in the east.  Ranjit Singh had several encounters with the Afghans in the borders, starting from 1823 with the defeat of a large army of Yusufzai north of the Kabul River. The Battle of Jamrud and his march through Kabul in 1838, in cooperation with the colonial British army stationed in Sindh, became the last confrontation between the Sikhs led by him and the Afghans. It helped extend and establish the western boundaries of the Sikh Empire. In 1838, Ranjit Singh with his troops marched into Kabul to take part in the victory parade along with the British after restoring Shah Shoja to the Afghan throne at Kabul. The Maharaja’s general, Zorowar Singh, after successful campaigns to Ladakh, Gilgit, and Baltistan, marched into Tibet in 1841 at the head of a large army and fought successfully with the Chinese Qing forces. Within six months, he had conquered territory to the northwest of the Mayyum Pass.  But then a strong Tibetan army descended down from Lhasa. He fought many a pitched action in the vicinity of Lake Manasarovar and was killed in the last one of these on December 12, 1841. A map showing the Sikh Empire from 1799 to 1849 is presented in Figure 4.

Sikh Empire (Figure 4) from mapsofindia.com

I contend that there are many more reasons for the relatively small number of incidences of Indian invasions beyond traditional borders other than our Hindu/Buddhist ethos. One principal reason could be that over the years, India, unlike China, has had few very powerful kings with large empires. It is self-evident that unless one’s kingdom reached the borders of India, the intervening territory had to be subjugated before venturing across the borders. Besides, the kings were kept busy fighting their neighboring kings as well as usurpers in their own kingdoms.

India’s geography – the high mountains in the north and seas around the peninsular south – there was a further deterrent to potential ambitions of Indian kings regarding campaigns beyond the borders. The high altitudes of the Himalayas and the very cold climates for much of the year were always formidable obstacles to overcome. And campaigns across the seas required significant development of naval technologies yet to come. It is perhaps no accident that the great European colonies of Britain, France, Holland, Portugal, and Spain in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, all sprouted after the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries with the advent of newer naval developments.


Partha Sircar has a BE in Civil Engineering from Bengal Engineering College in Shibpur, India, and a Ph.D. in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley.  He is a 53-year resident of the United States, including the last 36 years in California. He has worked in several engineering organizations over the years and is now retired for over eight years.  He loves to write.