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.
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”.
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.
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.