Tag Archives: SF

The Meditation Cabin at the Shanti Ashrama in San Antonio Valley, CA.

My Annual Pilgrimage to Shanti Ashrama in San Antonio Valley

I have been making a trip to the Shanti Ashrama every year on the last Saturday of April for nearly 15 years now.  Vedanta Society of Northern California organizes a retreat there every year on this day, which, I am told, they have been doing for the last 45 years or so. And I never tire of it.  In fact, I really look forward to it.

Many consider Shanti Ashrama as one of the iconic centers of the Ramakrishna Vivekananda Movement in the United States of America, at par with the Hall in Chicago where delivered his lecture in 1893.  The importance of the place may be appreciated all the more by the fact that a replica of the wooden Meditation Cabin in Shanti Ashrama is prominently displayed in the Ramakrishna Museum adjacent to the Belur Math.

The location is a 160-acre area in the San Antonio Valley between San Francisco and San Jose.  The area is desolate and surrounded by hills all around.  The unique setting lends itself wonderfully for the retreat, in which several eminent Swamis deliver their uplifting lectures.  There is also a Puja for Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi, Swami Vivekananda, and others.  And there is also a tour of this place.  A joyous atmosphere prevails all around, for which my writing and photographic skills are surely limited.  But I will try, beginning with the unique background history of the place.

Inside the Meditation Cabin at the Shanti Ashrama.
Inside the Meditation Cabin puja area at the Shanti Ashrama.

Background History

It all started in the year 1900 (imagine!) during Swami Vivekananda’s second trip to the USA.  His lectures, particularly his ideas of renunciation and ashrama had fired up a number of his disciples.  They longed for a personal experience of this in their lives.  As providence would have it, one of them, Ms. Minnie Boock, had just inherited this property in California from her father and wanted to donate it to Swamiji.  It was a godsend.  But Swami Vivekananda was scheduled to go back to India soon.  Perhaps by divine premonition, he saw signs of his mortal life coming to an end and he still had things left to do.  So, he deputed Swami Turiyananda (Hari Maharaj), one of his brother monks (one of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa’s sixteen monastic disciples) to lead the effort.  Vivekananda had brought Turiyananda to New York earlier in the year to help him out.  Swami Turiyananda was the most austere of Sri Ramakrishna’s sixteen monastic disciples but he lacked Swami Vivekananda’s flamboyance and oratorical skills.  His command of the English language was also nowhere near Swami Vivekananda’s.

At first, Swami Turiyananda was very reluctant.  But Vivekananda with his proverbial persuasion skills prevailed when he invoked the name of Holy Mother Sarada Devi to whom Turiyananda was totally devoted.  Swami Vivekananda also appealed to Turiyananda’s sentiments by bringing up, “Haribhai, I have ruined my health doing Mother’s work.  Won’t you help?”.  And when Turiyananda brought up his doubts regarding his proficiency in English and his oratorical skills, Vivekananda assured him saying, “I have lectured to them enough.  Now you give them the demonstration on how to lead a true Vedantic life”.  

The surrounding location of the Shanti Ashrama.

Vivekananda left for India soon after and Turiyananda left for the Shanti Ashrama with a group of twelve disciples.  Their journey was interesting, bordering on the comical.  They went by train from San Francisco to San Jose.  From there, they had a caravan of horses with riders, and a covered horse-drawn cart with Turiyananda in it to cross over Mount Hamilton.  On the way, a lady fell sick and the Swami had to give up his spot and was put on a horse.  He looked clumsy, more so with his uncharacteristic coat and trousers.  And then when they reached their destination, the situation overwhelmed him.  There was nothing there except a wooden cabin and a toolshed.  Seeing his predicament, one brave lady disciple, Mrs. Agnes Stanley, assured him with the admonishment, “Swami, you are a devotee of the Holy Mother.  Does it befit you to lose heart at this?  Don’t worry.  We will take care.”  The Swami was impressed and named her Shraddha (Faith). And take care they did.  After all, most of these disciples were from the pioneer stock.  Soon they built log cabins and other amenities and did not have to sleep in the open, beside haystacks.

Life in the Ashrama revolved around daily chores and spiritual upliftment.  They woke up early with the melodious chanting from the Swami.  After a bath, they all gathered for meditation in the Meditation Cabin.  Then they would break up for their daily chores: the cooking to women, while the men kept busy bringing fuel, planting the garden, and building cabins.  Scriptural classes and more meditation followed for the rest of the day on a fixed schedule, including a one-hour Bhagavadgita class every day.  Incidentally, a vegetarian diet was the rule, but fish, eggs, and cheese were allowed.

Swami Turiyananda ruled the place with love.  He attended to each disciple’s needs individually.  The Swami brought up Ramakrishna and Sarada Devi often in his conversations.  And he insisted on self-surrender as the ultimate goal.  He advised reading only those books written by realized souls.  The constant association with the Swami was itself a spiritual training for the students.  His thorough knowledge of the scriptures and other masterpieces made it easy for him to impress upon them.  He had explained the classic Vivekchudamani by Shankaracharya strictly from memory.  Ida Ansell, a young lady disciple and a stenographer by training, took down his discourse.  It has survived as a classic.

After a year, Swami Turiyananda took a break to lecture in San Francisco for about half a year, before returning to Shanti Ashrama for five months.  He was tired from all the work and needed a change.  He also was eager to meet Swami Vivekananda, who, he had heard, was not keeping good health.  He decided to leave the Shanti Ashrama and America, never to come back. But he was somewhat uncomfortable, as he felt he was disobeying the Holy Mother’s wish. He left Shanti Ashrama at the end of May 1902.  On his last day, he left instructions for his disciple Gurudas (see later) and walked the perimeter of the Ashrama.  He had reportedly said, “This place will last for another fifty years”.  Unfortunately, by the time Turiyananda reached India, Swami Vivekananda had passed away.

Swami Trigunatitananda (Sarada Maharaj) came in Turiyananda’s place in 1903.  Unlike Turiyananda, he was a doer.  He was the founder-editor of Udbodhan, the flagship Bengali magazine of the Ramakrishna Mission, established by Vivekananda.  The magazine is still around and is the longest-running Bengali magazine.  Trigunatita decided to move his operations to San Francisco, away from the Shanti Ashrama.  He visited there two months every year with a group of his students.  He built several new cabins and dug several wells for the supply of water.  He cut a path to the top of Dhuni Hill, the highest point within the property.  The devotees practiced meditation on top of the hill under a campfire.  Things proceeded in this manner till his tragic death in 1915 from a bomb thrown at him by a deranged disciple in the San Francisco Vedanta temple.  Swami Prakashananda, who replaced Trigunatita carried on essentially the same tradition till his death in 1927.  The ashes of Swamis Trigunatitananda and Prakashananda are buried on top of Dhuni Hill. 

After Prakashananda’s death, the place fell into disuse and out of everyone’s eye.  Then, a heavy fire broke out in 1952 taking almost everything with it.  Only two or three cabins survived, including the Meditation Room.  Was this a fulfillment of Turiyananda’s premonition? Who knows!

The story of the Shanti Ashrama will not be complete without Cornelius Heijblom (Swami Atulananda, Gurudas Maharaj).  A Dutch immigrant to New York, he came under the sway of the Vedanta Society and followed Swami Turiyananda to the Shanti Ashrama. He was a capable handyman and was at the forefront of all activities there.  When Turiyananda left for India, he left Gurudas Maharaj in charge of the Ashrama.  Gurudas was there throughout, except for his brief visits to India.  In one of the trips, he was initiated by Holy Mother Sarada Devi herself.  Gurudas Maharaj finally left to settle in India in 1922 and died there in Almora in 1966 at the age of 96.  He had the unique distinction of having met all but two of Thakur Ramakrishna’s sixteen direct disciples.  To me his book, With the Swamis in America and India’ is a must-read.  It has some wonderful accounts of the Shanti Ashrama from the earliest days.

For years after the fire, there was little interest in the place.  Then in the 1970s in one of his visits to India, Swami Prabuddhananda, Minister-in-Charge of the Vedanta Society of Northern California (in San Francisco) came to meet an elderly monk of the Ramakrishna Order.  The elderly monk put this idea into Prabuddhanandaji’ mind.  “Think of doing something for the Shanti Ashrama,” the monk reportedly said.  And hence started this new era around 1975 – the Resurrection.

Modern day - we hike up Dhuni Hill every year for the views.
Modern-day, we hike up Dhuni Hill every year for the views.

The Present

From San Francisco, you come to Livermore and then travel through an extremely windy road to get to the site.  The area is desolate.  The scenery along the way is gorgeous with high mountains and deep gorges.  Then, suddenly a gate appears with a sign on it.  The gate opens to a dirt road with signs to the location.  After driving along, you see a parking sign.  Upon parking, you see a large tent.  The tent is connected to the Meditation Cabin, which is also the shrine, the heart of the whole place

As I said earlier, the place is desolate, barring a few wooden cabins.  That is all that survived the place after the fire.  There is no water supply, no electricity, and out of range from phone connections.  It is really an ASHRAMA!

I am not aware of a regular caretaker for the place.  The volunteers from the Vedanta Society of Northern California have, every year, put in a tremendous effort to get the place ready for this one day.  They put up the large tent, bring in portable toilets, and make arrangements for the water and the food.  They also put up a little tent displaying numerous photographs over time.  There are some very interesting photos, including some showing how it was here in 1900.  All this is done under the tutelage of Swami Vedananda, an elderly American Monk attached to the San Francisco Center.  He reputedly has a Doctorate in Physics from the University of California at Berkeley.  The arrangements are essentially the same every year.  

Our program every year starts at around 10:00 AM with a Puja followed by a flower offering from the disciples.  Each one of us gets to enter the iconic Meditation Cabin which houses the photos of the triumvirate: Thakur Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi, Swami Vivekananda, and also Jesus Christ. 

Then it is lunchtime.  We are encouraged to bring our own lunch.  The organizers supplement it with fruits, cookies, juice, and beverages.  Then comes for me the most attractive portion.  The elderly Swami Vedananda leads a guided tour around the area and points out some of the important locations that were lost by the fire of 1952.  We get to see the location of Swami Turiyananda’s cabin, separated out from the center of the humdrum of activities.  We also see the location of the caretaker’s tent and other interesting spots.  All along Swami Vedananda keeps us entertained with various stories related to Shanti Ashrama.  

After this, some of us climb up Dhuni Hill, probably the highest spot on the property.  It is quite a steep climb and it has been getting harder for me every year.  But reaching the top is so rewarding, and not just for accomplishing the feat.  The breathtaking scenery from the top is simply unforgettable.  In addition, at the top, there is a small, enclosed area marking the location of where the ashes of Swami Trigunatitananda and Swami Prakashananda, are buried.  After spending some time on top of Dhuni Hill, it is time to descend.  Sometimes coming down is more difficult. 

Anyway, it is time for lectures by the Swamis and some musical interludes from the mission choirs.  Usually, four Swamis speak.  In general, one of the speakers is from outside the area and the three others are from San Francisco, Berkeley, or Sacramento.  Over the years, we have been treated to some memorable lectures. I specifically remember one by Swami Tyagananda of Boston.  The lectures are followed by tea and snacks.  Then the day’s program comes to an end and people start to depart.  A few stay on a little longer to meditate in the tent. 

All in all, most agree that it was a day very well spent.


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.


 

Agni Whips You Into the Environmental Crisis Overtaking Bay Area Landscapes

The world premiere of Bay Area Based Chitresh Das Institute’s (CDI) short Kathak film, “Agni” is on Earth Day, April 22, 2021, at 7:30 pm PDT. The video premiere will be followed by a Q&A panel discussion moderated by India Currents.

The short film is directed and voiced by Filmmaker – Alka Raghuram, choreographed by CDI’s Artistic Director – Charlotte Moraga, composed by musician – Alam Khan, and shot by cinematographer – Anjali Sundaram.

To purchase tickets for the event, head on over to ODC Dance website:

Tickets are $10 before the day of the event

https://t.co/Yw2IfPqjYH?amp=1

Be sure not to miss the event this Thursday!

Here are some sneak peeks about the film when we spoke to the director and producer, Alka Raghuram. 

What was the inspiration to make this film?

Before getting into that, I want to give some context of my association with Chitresh Das Institute. I had worked with Pandit Chitresh Das for his last performance for a live Kathak Flamenco production named “Yatra,” where I was doing the audiovisual element part of it. Initially, Charlotte wanted to create a live show called “Mantram” based on Panchabhoota, five basic elements of cosmic creation. Due to pandemics, live performances are not happening.

We tried to bring out a collaborative effort for “Agni,” the element that brings out the fire’s force or ferocity. Fire is a destructive force but also creates fertile ground for rejuvenation. This film was very much a response to the wildfire burning in California and the social and political wildfires of social injustice in the spring and summer of 2020. Earth’s perspective on fire and what our role is to play in it. It is a collaborative effort to tell the story through different mediums. Charlotte tells the story through dance, and me through film, poem, paintings, and Alam through music. It is the plant’s seed, i.e., the actual live show coming up in the near future. We are going to do a series of short films like this in each of the elements. 

How is watching this film different from a live dance show (watching from the front)?

Projecting a painting is usually static. Watching a show as an audience is a different experience altogether but watching a movie is dynamic. I filmed the dancers from various angles so that they are dancing in other ways. That helps viewers to witness as an insider. Even the side wings of the auditorium stage have the same three-dimensional visual effects. We took a creative decision to make this film distinct that way from watching a show from the front. 

Can you tell us about the poem used in the film?

I wrote the poem to highlight the environmental aspect of the story. The artistic process is iterative by nature. Your vision evolves and gets refined as the work progresses. The first cut of the film was eye-catching and beautiful but we were missing the allusion to the wildfires of the last couple of years. Which led us to experiment with text that would complement the visuals and bring out that dimension without sensationalizing it in any way. We wanted the whole piece to be cut from the same cloth

The poem in the film is complimenting what is already there rather than underlying it. The poem is also another culpable way here to ask whose fault it is. Dance and visuals say whose fault is this, and the verse is also saying that through words. It is giving a hint to the audience about what is going to come. I recited it as well. 

Music is one of the critical elements of this production. We noticed no particular raaga or taala associated with it, like traditional Indian Classical performances. Can you give some background about the creation of this unique music?

Alam Khan created the music piece, and Charlotte made the bols and rhythmic composition. The taal is a complex five and half-beat taal. Charlotte Moraga notes that it’s like fire, it is quick, exciting, and unpredictable! Alam adds that the music is not based on any particular raga. The music is a continuation of Alam’s contemporary approach in blending Indian classical instruments with other instrument types. He has been doing this for many years now and feels his style in this vein continues to grow. We wanted to do something musically out of the box for Kathak and push the limits of what we are accustomed to. 

Can you tell us about the artwork and paintings used in the film? it is an integral part of this film. Is it digital? Can you tell us a little more background of it?

Those are hand-painted, and I used ink. I am a painter too, and the idea was to use those paintings projected in the auditorium during the performance. In the film, the backdrop is not so much focused. I painted blue woods and redwoods and took pictures of tree barks and fire. I needed to rearrange, superimpose, and layered all of these during editing in such a three-dimensional way, telling a dynamic cinematic story altogether. Paintings are also done in a way to interpret it globally, not so region-specific. I used a blue color tone in paintings overall. Blue represents the hottest and the most intense part of the fire’s flames. Blue is also the calm part of it before the fire starts. 

What is the concluding message of this production from the environmental aspect? Can you tell our audience about it a little more? 

The film communicates from the perspective of the Earth and speaks about who is culpable for it. It asks the question and includes everyone. Towards the end, the dancers stare at viewers and say whose fault it is. Then there is smoke, and the Earth’s mouth is filled with ash. Earth speaks with grief. Then there is ash in the landscape, and birds are disappearing. It is like Earth’s lament through the poem, dancer’s expressions, and visuals – Why is this happening? Who is to blame? Our deeds are recorded in the time ledger how we acted so far caused us to come to this point. Agni is raging and destroying. It brought us to think brink for our deeds. This film visually takes us on the journey from sparks to the raging fire. 


Piyali Biswas De is an accomplished Bharatnatyam and Non-classical dance exponent, guru, and well-known choreographer in the Greater Seattle region. When she is not dancing, Piyali works as an IT professional in Seattle and spends time with two beautiful daughters who seem eager to follow in her footsteps. 


 

Odes to Bay Area Beauties

Any San Francisco, Bay Area resident can vouch for their fondness and love for living in this area. Being the Silicon Valley of the world and a Technology hub, it draws thousands to its fold every year. People flock to the area for the jobs but stay for the sheer number of outdoor options available within a short drive, offering a distinct lifestyle as compared to any other parts of the country. The miles of beaches by the Pacific Ocean are as easily accessible as the skiing haven of Tahoe. For anyone who loves wilderness and mountains, the allure of Yosemite is an easy draw. And if you are a wine lover, Napa and Sonoma are a must-visit destination.

I was similarly swayed by the pull of the region when I decided to immigrate from India, more than a decade back. Since then, I have spent a considerable amount of time in the Bay Area outdoors exploring its serene beaches, county parks, golf courses, biking trails, hiking trails, mountains, and wilderness within the area’s vicinity, a short drive away.

Over the years, I have been captivated by the abundance of natural beauty in the area and after every jaunt, I have come back rejuvenated. Sometimes, those feelings found utterances in a free verse or poetry – can you expect any better from a creative heart (figuratively speaking)? That said, you will find below a set of three poems inspired by my hikes to Monterey, Yosemite, and Lake Chabot.      

Before we move onto the poetry section, let’s remind ourselves that we are blessed to live in this region of nature’s bounty. The environmental issue of climate change is real and poses enormous threats to the health of the Bay Area and its ecology – perhaps the last year’s raging wildfires were a manifestation of this threat. Conserving and protecting the forests and their habitat is imperative for sustainable development and for the future writers/poets to emerge from this area in the footsteps of John Muir, Jack Kerouac, or Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  

***

Lake Chabot in Oakland, California.

Overlooking Lake Chabot 

The white velvet 

spread across the azure sky,

The gently undulating green slopes

Rolling hills and a deep blue oasis

flowing through the turquoise landscape.

 

The gentle breeze swaying my grown hair,

The feel of cool on my bare skin,

The panorama of the striking beauty

Soothing my tired eyes.

 

The climb across the overlook point,

And the gentle exertion of the legs, 

The calmness of the surroundings 

Radiating the stillness that calms the mind.

 

It’s in these Nature that,

the Zen of mind resides.

It’s in these outdoors that, 

the sense of well-being pervades.

***

Monterey Bay in Monterey, California.

At Monterey 

The setting sun casts

a golden streak

on the azure, transparent water.

The distant horizon

kisses the vast expanse of oceanic water.

 

The green vegetation doting the hillside,

swaying in the cool breeze

hustles sweet nothings in the ears.

The feel of the cool sand

beneath the feet 

pleases every pores.

 

The waves lapping against the shore

rising and falling in a crescendo,

beckons me to its lap.

I plunge forth at their invitation,

wading through knee-deep water.

 

The gentle frothy waves

rhythmically caressing my body

elevates my senses to paradise.

My mind in magical ecstasy;

experiences a cool tranquility.

The evening at Monterey

is a sheer delight.

***

Firefall in Yosemite Valley, California.

At Yosemite: a brush with life itself

Miles of verdant wilderness

The panorama of snow-capped hills

The majestic half-dome rising in splendor

Across the delightful Curry village.

Fluffy, velvety clouds

breezing across,

the cool zephyr

rustling through,

the humming alpine butterflies

wafting in thin air,

a herd of ‘mule deer’

galloping into the distant wood,

majestic waterfall in its vicinity

rushing through in all its grandeur,

the redolent ambience,

the unbridled silence

(except the ‘voices’ of nature)

nestling in the wilderness-

lentissimo drizzle

soaking me wet;

I stand alone

transfixed, mesmerised

experiencing

my inner self;

body in complete harmony

mind in immaculate peace,

spirit in blissful ecstasy;

Rejuvenated

I breathe again,

I can feel

the pulse of life

coursing through my veins.

After days of jejune existence,

I can sense again

the lightness of my being.


Lalit Kumar works in the Technology sector but retains an artist’s heart. He likes to read and write poetry, apart from indulging in outdoor activities & adventure sports. Recently, he started curating famous works of poetry (and occasionally his own).


 

Mosaic Silicon Valley’s ‘Femina’: Find the Divine in India, Cambodia, & China

Making The Mosaic – A column that dips into the disparate, diverse palette of our communities to paint inclusively on the vast canvas of the Bay Area by utilizing Heritage Arts. 

Nine different (sub) cultural histories and traditions from around the world were co-presented by Mosaic Silicon Valley and Guru Shradha, in a program called Femina. It was a call for the world to step out of their cultural silos and experience the vibrancy of the Bay Area, the dynamism of the feminine, and the unifying power of the Arts to build a gender-balanced world.

As the program director, it was fascinating for me to delve into the compositions and choreographies and see the astounding common threads emerge, golden and self-evident. We’ll explore these findings through the first act of the program called Divine | Awaken featuring Indian, Cambodian, and Chinese art forms. Femina’s Divine | Awaken was an ode to the celestial and mythological – It was a call for all of us to find our divine and enlightened selves.

Guru Shradha’s Niharika Mohanty urged us to make room for, submit, and surrender to the divine feminine energies of Durga. Along with her Odissi students, Mohanty beautifully re-incarnated the superb sculptures from Indian temples, the forms manifesting god-like in the blue-light of the stage. One journeyed back in time – and saw the sculptors drawing upon their spiritual energies to carve the goddesses in stone. Art is a journey, one realizes, to an inner destination – familiar or invented, real, unreal, or fantastical. One cannot connect to the outside world without having connected within and art accelerates these connections.

Cambodian Classical Dancer, Charya Burt, emulates Cambodian Gods.

The Goddess was visited again by master choreographer and dancer, Charya Burt in the Cambodian Robam Chun Por or The Wishing Dance. It is typically in an opening ceremony, Devada Srey, that is used to convey blessings to the audience through flower petals. I was fascinated by the obvious Indian influences – Deva in Sanskrit is God, for starters. The Cambodian temple, Angkor Wat, is dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu; indeed, there exists a version of Ramayana in Cambodia. Contrastingly though, while Indian classical dance uses movement, percussion, and melody to impress the divine upon us on Earth, Cambodian dance is designed to transport us to the heavens; the movements are soft and un-creature-like – Burt seemed to glide, buffeted by centuries of mysticism.

A dancer of the Hai Yan Jackson Compnay recreates art from the Dunhuang Caves.

The Chinese arts reclaimed history, thus solidifying the connection between the Divine and the Human. The Hai Yan Jackson Company presented “Flying Apsaras from Dunhuang.” This dance and its costumes were inspired by the discoveries at Dunhuang Caves which were believed to have been walled up in the 11th century and contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art. Dunhuang was established as a frontier garrison outpost by the Han Dynasty and became an important gateway to the West, a center of commerce along the Silk Road, as well as a meeting place of various people and religions such as Buddhism. My “Indian” radar picked up on the Silk Route and Buddhism. I could feel the palimpsest of time and geography reveal itself in layers. The age-old apsaras appeared before us and the choreography was faithful to the celestial aura.

In Femina, the Mosaic team was able to create a feminine continuum between realms, time, spaces, cultures, and generations, through beautiful art. Happy Women’s History Month to all of you, dear readers! 

The wonderful thing about programming for Mosaic is that it blurs the lines. The narrative may begin as Art imitating Life but then one quickly discovers that it is Life imitating Art. Stories of life – its past, current, and future – are presented on the canvas of culture of, by, for the people in a specific place. Join us and learn more about the Mosaic movement as we catalyze Inclusion and cultivate Belonging in America! 


Priya Das is a writer, dancer, and co-founder of Mosaic Silicon Valley. She is fascinated by the intersections between history, culture, convention, traditions, and time.

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.

Bay Area Burmese Americans Protest the Military Coup

In response to the recent military takeover in Myanmar (Burma), the Free Burma Action Committee (FBAC)–a coalition of the San Francisco Bay Area-based Burmese American activists–will stage a peaceful protest on Saturday, February 13, from 1 PM to 3 PM at the UN Plaza in San Francisco.

Ko Ko Lay, a member of the Free Burma Action Committee (FBAC) and a former student leader, said, “We’ve just heard that in Naypyidaw, the police shot into the protesting crowd with live ammunition. As a result, one protester is now fighting for her life in the hospital. The news is of great concern to us. We condemn the Myanmar military’s use of deadly force.”

This protest, led by FBAC, is part of a growing movement among the overseas Burmese Americans and their supporters. FBAC members join the UN Security Council in calling for the immediate release of Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and other detainees.

They also demand that the Myanmar military:

  • respect the people’s right to peaceful assembly and protest
  • recognize the outcomes of the 2020 General Election
  • restore civilian rule in Myanmar, led by the people’s elected representatives

Ordinary Myanmar citizens and civil servants have been lighting candles, refusing to go to work in mass protests, and noisily beating their kitchen utensils nightly in defiance of the unwelcomed military rule. In response, the Myanmar military has begun using force—water cannon and rubber bullets, among others.

With this protest, we aim to reinforce and highlight our loved ones’ civil disobedience campaigns from overseas; and restore democracy in our homeland.

About FBAC

On February 1, 2021, FBAC is formed with Burmese Americans living in the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento region to respond to the current political crisis in Burma.

The committee

  • condemns the Myanmar military’s recent coup in the strongest of terms
  • demands that the outcome of the 2020 November election in Myanmar be recognized
  • calls for the releases of all civilian and political leaders detained in the coup
  • supports the actions of the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH) in Myanmar
  • urges UN Security Council to take stronger actions to restore democracy in Myanmar

We applaud and stand with the people of Myanmar in their civil disobedience movement and other nonviolent movements to express themselves peacefully. We are committed to protecting and restoring democracy in Burma. We will work with the overseas Burmese communities around the world to end the military rule in Myanmar.

We believe that a single action can make a difference in the community, and collective action can create positive changes.


 

Pink and Pollution at 4 O’Clock

I’ve begun applying hot coconut oil on my hair again every Saturday. I search for the little footprints I left back in the streets of India playing football. I seek that warm sun and humidity in Hyderabad on Saturday evenings. I’ve begun reminiscing about the pink and pollution of 4 pm. The kiraane ki dukaan that quenched my thirst with sprite and a 10 rs. Lays packet. I reminisce about the rainy days of playing four corners instead of basketball. I remember the smell of rain hitting concrete. I remember the feeling of melted dairy milk silk on my fingers, the cold glass of mango juice that numbs my fingers on a hot day, the smell of yellow daal tadka, and aloo after coming home from school on Saturday. 

Artwork by Swati Ramaswamy

This nostalgia made me realize: the smell of rain on concrete is not so different in San Francisco. Sprite tastes the same here, just a little (lot) sweeter. The sun at 4 pm yesterday was bright and golden and made me feel like I was in Mumbai. As a kid, I never understood the feeling of belonging to a place, everywhere can be your home if you want it to. But this past year I felt so distant from every place that I had called home. I felt in between things and just slightly offbeat. But these small things, like the smell of concrete and the sun, connected me back to all my homes. It connected me to Sunday morning skies in Japan, which were perfectly blue and sunny. It connected me to the most beautiful view from my balcony in India. It made me realize that pieces of my home, that felt most like it, always carry themselves with me. They repeat, they renew. No matter how much I change or grow, they give me comfort when I need it. The new year felt like that. Like the smell of freshly baked cake in the kitchen. Like finally making the perfectly round and “crisp on the outside soft on the inside” dosa. It feels just happy enough to be happy for no reason and happy enough to be happy when I’m sad. The feeling of jumping into a cold pool on the hottest day. It was like landing. I think home, wherever it is, invokes comfort in its meaning rather than its physicality. This phase of nostalgia made me realize that if I ever feel lost, I’m still always home.

Renewal. It’s a very tedious word. We renew passports, leases, and licenses. It’s a process that we have already achieved, but need to repeat. Renewals are odd and vacant. But the years that repeat are also renewals. The seasons renew too, so the second time it rains you have an umbrella. Situations repeat, and we change how we react to those repetitions, and we grow. This new year won’t be much different, but I hope it ends up being one of familiarity and comfort, even if it is about seeking new things. I hope there is always belonging, there is always that memory of a home that makes you feel permanent, like a cold glass of mango juice on a hot day.


Swati Ramaswamy is a recent graduate from UC Davis and is an aspiring creative writer who loathes speaking in the third person. 

Mother-Son Duo Deliver a Message of Gratitude

After their first children’s book on diversity, We Are One which was published in 2017, San Francisco Bay area-based mother-son duo Pinky Mukhi and Param Patel are back with their new book on diversity and gratitude I Am Grateful. Pinky, who works as an I.T. professional, loves working with children, teaching them Gujarati, and engaging them with stories, arts, and crafts related to festivals celebrated by different cultures. Her curious nine-year-old son, Param, is interested in arts, computer games, music, reading, and sports.

A simple tale told through bright and colorful illustrations by Devika Oza, the book is a journey into the daily lives of children and what they feel grateful for. The story trails a day in the life of a child, examining all the things he has around him to be grateful for—his parents, grandparents, school, lessons, teachers, art, music, playtime, bath time, books, stars, trees, and flowers—in other words, the little things that we often take for granted.

The book was conceptualized when Param was six years old and is based on a conversation with him about what he feels thankful for. When Param was eight, he along with his mother, added further to the story by imagining what children in different nations may appreciate. They then decided to include in the story some of the countries Param had visited and the continents he had studied about.

For this reason, the book is sprinkled with some charming illustrations of various well-known landmarks in different countries–such as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Sydney Harbor Bridge, the Taj Mahal in Agra, the Stonehenge in the UK, the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya, the Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro, the Bamboo Forest in China, the Cappadocia in Turkey, Mount Fuji in Japan, and the Keukenhof Tulip Gardens in the Netherlands. 

The book ends with these powerful lines, accompanied by pictures of children belonging to different cultures, with their palms folded in prayer:

“I am grateful for love.

I am grateful for friends.

I am grateful for Mother Nature.

I am grateful for sunshine and moonlight.

I am grateful for food.

I am grateful for home.

I am grateful for learning and stories.

I am grateful for toys.

I am grateful. I have everything I need!”

After a month of Thanksgiving and Diwali, the book which is sure to resonate with children between the ages of four and nine, serves as a much-needed reminder of optimism and gratitude, especially during these challenging Covid times. 


Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer and editor based in New Delhi. She is the author of ‘Wanderlust for the Soul’ and ‘Bombay Memory Box’. You can access all her published work under different categories in various publications here: www.nehakirpal.wordpress.com

Bollywood and Beyond is a 3rd i Tradition

Never been to a film festival before? Due to the pandemic, they’re more accessible than ever, having pivoted to digital extravaganzas inviting people to “attend” who might not have had the chance otherwise. 

One of the premier festivals promoting diverse images of South Asians through the independent film is 3rd i’s 18th annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival: Bollywood and Beyond (SFISAFF), offered for free Oct 23-25, 2020, as a completely virtual experience.

Part of the appeal of a film festival is our surrender to the collective experience: we walk into the theatre, sit down with everyone else and watch a movie together. In the best version of that experience, the audience becomes a single organism, a coming together of people in the spirit of discovery, a connection we make with our fellow attendees. 

So, what will it mean for us to watch these independent films in the privacy of our homes, alone in our living rooms? Art. That is the reason we lend our attention to a film festival. Art gives comfort and solace, a reason to hope. In the end, art’s power is more important than where or how we see it.

India Currents writer Mona Shah in conversation with 3rd i’s Artistic Director Ivan Jaigirdar about how the festival has innovated to keep our attention rapt.

IC: What in your opinion is the silver lining to taking the festival virtual? 

Ivan Jaigirdar: 3rd i audiences are not just from the Bay Area or those who fly in, but it gives access to audiences anywhere in the world, reaching the Diaspora globally. Given Covid-19, we’re able to still hold the festival, celebrate South Asian cinema, and keep safe. Making the programs free this year allows greater access to new audiences. 

We get to interview filmmakers from abroad and reduce the carbon footprint since they are not flying in. With Zoom interviews for the Festival in their homes, it feels more accessible with the casual atmosphere.

IC: How important is the in-person experience? 

Ivan Jaigirdar: Celebrating diversity and community is the key to our Film Festival and there lies the importance of in-person experience. That’s to say, a lot of activity happens in terms of our awareness of each other and of “the other”—both within ourselves “the other,” and outside of ourselves when we experience a film together in person.  We get to dream together and have emotions about a film and then discuss it together.

IC: Do you see this as a shift, a portend of how things might change for film festivals in the future? 

Ivan Jaigirdar: As festivals are discovering the benefits of online programming, they may consider hybrid programming in the future, for example online and in theaters during a Festival, and developing 3-D virtual.

This year get thrilled by stumbling onto something new – a film, a filmmaker, a movement.

Here are a few of the notable selections from the festival to add to your watch-list.

Opening Night: 10/23 @ 7:30pm “Levity and Artivism with Fawzia Mirza” will have a post-screening live Q&A (discussing her work across theater, TV, and film, and her thoughts on feminist and queer politics in South Asia, specifically Pakistan.) with viewers submitting questions in an online chat after the screening.

The screening will be of her short films Queen Of My Dreams (2012), and I Know Her (2019) which recently made the rounds of the Cannes Film Festival. Free with registration.

Artist, SETI X

Closing Night:  10/25 @7pm Word to Your Motherland with artist SETI X will screen a short then do live performance before the LIVE Q&A  with viewers submitting questions in an online chat after it. Free with registration.

Movie: Road to Ladakh

A homage to one of the greats of Indian cinema, Irrfan Khan, Road To Ladakh. A sensual suspenseful love story revolving around an encounter between two strangers thrown together by chance into the magnificent wilderness of Ladakh. A post-screening discussion will follow with Oscar nominee, director Ashvin Kumar. Free with registration.

Movie: Lucky

Avie Luthra’s Lucky, a narrative based on a short of the same name, was nominated for an Oscar award in 2005. Delicately crafted, both in story and visual style, this beautiful, emotional tale explores the unusual alliance between an elderly Indian woman (with an irrational fear of Africans) and a South African orphan in post-Apartheid South Africa.  Luthra’s film will be followed by a discussion with the filmmaker about the South Asian community and its relationship to the Black Lives Matter movement. Free with registration.

Knock, Knock, Knock, a crossword puzzle master and a young student develop a “cat and mouse” relationship in an enigmatic and engrossing psychological thriller set against the stunning locales of the hill-station Darjeeling. A post-screening discussion will follow with director Sudhansu Saria. Free with registration.

More information about the festival is available on our website at: www.thirdi.org


Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter, Facebook for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor, her experience spans television, cable news and magazines. 

US and India Benefit From the Same Democratic Process

Although many feel the democratic urgency of voting this election cycle in the US, it is not uncommon to hear, “My vote won’t count anyway.”

Associate Professor of Political Science at SFSU and Researcher, Jason McDaniel addresses the importance of local elections as a “foundation for democracy” and a “pathway to racial-ethnic equity.” Whether it be, city, county, or state jurisdiction, local law supersedes federal law and can more accurately represent the sentiment of its community. 

However, at the local elections in Berkeley, San Francisco, Oakland, and San Leandro, your vote actually has more bang for its buck. 

Why? Because of their implementation of Ranked Choice Voting (RCV).

Entrenched in the SF Voting Data, McDaniel cautions that RCV can be a contributor to the confounding nature of ballot response but its results are that of a lower democratic deficit. He finds that complexities within the SF local election and lack of information lowers voter turnout for communities of color.

The US follows the First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system, in which you vote for one candidate and the candidate who receives the most votes wins the election. At the Ethnic Media Services briefing on October 6th, McDaniel reviewed Rank Choice Voting, also known as Instant Runoff Voting. 

When RCV is used, candidates are ranked from 1-10 (depending on the number of candidates). If a candidate immediately has an outright majority (50 percent plus one), then that candidate is declared the winner of the election. However, if none of the candidates have an outright majority, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their votes are redistributed based on their voters’ second choice rankings. The process continues until one candidate’s adjusted vote number hits an outright majority.

Dr. Jason McDaniel’s example of RCV from the Mayoral Election in SF (red indicates eliminated candidate)

Ranking candidates requires more knowledge of all platforms and of RCV. McDaniels comments, “Reformers who want to change democracy often overestimate what voters care about…The vast majority of voters don’t have strong preferences for more than one or two candidates.” The idea of voters having multiple informed preferences in nonpartisan, local elections is quite novel, unheard of, and is likely a barrier to participation. Research shows that it is possible to recover the loss of voter participation.

Benefits can outweigh the implications of using RCV in a few ways:

  1. This particular method of voting can mitigate “spoiler” candidates, where a candidate that may be a third choice wins an election to a split vote.
  2. The candidate that wins better represents the majority.   
  3. Voters can cast “sincere” votes, unbridled by the burden of a “wasted vote”. Independent third-party candidates can be represented by a genuine vote, but if they are dropped during the process of RCV, then another candidate with a similar platform can receive that vote.
  4. It can reduce negative campaigning because it may lie in the interest of multiple parties with resembling platforms to advocate for one another.
  5. It can reduce polarization by rewarding moderate candidates. There is no research to support this yet.

Why stop at local elections?

India, which generally employs FPTP voting, explored a version of Rank Choice Voting in electing their 14th and current President, Ram Nath Kovind. President Kovind is only the second Dalit president elected in Indian history. RCV secured a notable win for someone like Kovind, who overcame countless adversity in his path to a presidential win, while accounting for the public vote in a substantial way. After his win, Kovind addressed the Indian populace, “My win should prove that even honest people can get ahead in life.”

An ongoing dialogue around voting processes can be beneficial for our communities and for reform. If not to change the process, then to better educate everyone around us. 

Anni Chung, SF resident and CEO of Self Help for the Elderly, “Rank Choice Voting has always been a mystery to me, even now, after all these years.” 

Voting can only be effective if understood. Keep the conversation going and go out and vote this November 3rd!


Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.

Former Mayor Speaks Against Measure RR

The CEO and board of directors of Caltrain are doing a major “dis-service” to the residents of San Mateo, Santa Clara, and San Francisco counties with Measure RR.

Their proposal to address and remedy the Caltrain loss of revenue problem is to place on the backs of the total population another tax initiative, while only a limited few will directly benefit if this measure passes.

One, the tax is regressive and negatively impacts the families with household incomes of $50,000 or less, which is more than two-thirds of families in these 3 counties, significantly harder than the families who are directly benefiting from this measure passing.

Remember Caltrain ridership, 80% of those individuals have a household income greater than $200,000.

Two, the measure is asking the public to commit to this tax for 30 years…..Caltrain, is dying, a dinosaur, even before the pandemic, ridership has been steadily decreasing….now after the pandemic, the world has changed….we work from home, our bay area’s companies will never return to employment levels pre-pandemic, and ridership will never approach yesterday’s numbers.  

The bottom line is, the board and CEO have failed their fiduciary responsibility……they should have foreseen this coming at least 5 years ago ……they did not and did nothing…now with their backs up against the wall, they offer a remedy that lacks any strategic thought, does not consider today’s technology direction, no consideration for the existing and future work patterns,  and chose to ignore the impact another tax has on the lowest wage earners, to name a few. One question I have is why no reduction in headcount, salary expense,  or their fully paid pensions and medical benefits?

We should not suck out of the public another $100,000 million annually,  taxes to provide a service for less than 1% of the population….let me remind you that 1% are the wealthy 1%……and again,  make this law for 30 years!  This board and CEO have not demonstrated they are worthy stewards the public can trust….and the measure has no allowance for independent oversight and reporting back to the public.

Think of the impact these tax dollars could have on improving our school, housing, health care, youth employment training, and programs, etc.

Before I close, let me address the key selling point of this Measure…….”it will result in less traffic on our freeways”.  An empathic No, Caltrain’s impact on reducing traffic congestion is and will be very minimal, less than a 1% reduction may be achieved if this measure passes. It is expensive to ride and inconvenient, for the majority of us to even consider.

In closing, the proponents of this measure were also not transparent in the pre-work/surveys that they used to gauge the level of public support…they did not inform the public they were seeking approval of a measure that will be the law for the next 30 years.  Why place this tax on the backs of our children?

I hereby humbly request the board to have the moral compass to withdraw this request to the public.

Sincerely yours,

Jim Lawrence

Former Mayor, Foster City


Jim Lawrence is the Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of Expertus Inc. A change agent by definition, is active in his community, having served as Mayor of the city of Foster City, appointed to numerous county & Statewide boards and committees, and elected to the board of several nonprofit organizations. 

Featured image found here and license here.

IC Wins 10 at the 2020 SF Press Club Awards!

This past year was challenging for us – adapting to changes with our medium of storytelling, turnover of the editorial staff, and limited resources for our nonprofit media company. This is not unheard of in our industry – and yet we push forth!

Because we must. Because of the desire to tell our stories. Because of our many willing collaborators. Because of our readers. Because our voices MUST be heard!

As I reviewed the articles we had curated in 2019 I realized that, despite the challenges, we were able to produce insightful and meaningful stories. My work and the work of countless others was validated as I saw the results of the San Francisco Press Club Awards 2020.

Jaya Padmanabhan, former IC Editor, wrote this on social media:

And my favorite magazine India Currents and dear friends Vandana Kumar, Meera Kymal and Nirupama Vaidhyanathan among a whole host of other writers (Sarita Sarvate) have walked off once again with well-deserved awards this year.

 

Vandana Kumar once told me years ago, “we’re like the little engine that could” at these award ceremonies, competing against Goliaths like Bloomberg, the Chronicle, and Examiner. Every year, every single year, IC and its little engine does us proud! So happy!

A huge shout out to the writers who choose to share their voices on our platform. Thank you!! 

The San Francisco Press Club’s Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards ceremony and dinner honor the outstanding work of Bay Area print, TV, radio, and digital media journalists, graphic designers, and photographers, as well as the work of documentary filmmakers and PR materials from nonprofits and corporations. The annual event is usually held in November but was hosted online this year. Find the video below!

India Currents Wins 10 Awards:

Digital Media: Overall Excellence

First Place: Vandana Kumar, “Can Public Charge Deny Your Green Card”  “Making of a Jihadi”, India Currents

Digital Media: Columns-News/Political

First Place: Meera Kymal, “Growing Political Power”, India Currents

Digital Media: Business/Technology Story

Second Place: Vandana Kumar, Sarita Sarvate, Rajesh Oza, Nirupama Vaidhyanathan, “This American Life of Mine”, India Currents

Digital Media: Feature Story / Light Nature

Third Place: Ranjani Rao, Nandini Patwardhan, Vandana Kumar, Nirupama Vaidhyanathan, “Desi Root’s Global Wings”, India Currents


Vandana Kumar has been the Editor for India Currents and is serving as the Publisher.