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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.

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.


 

Black and Desi: A Shared History

On January 28, 1900, Swami Vivekananda looked out at the white audience at the Universalist Church in Pasadena, California, and spoke out against anti-Black racism. “As soon as a man becomes a Mohammedan, the whole of Islam receives him as a brother with open arms, without making any distinction, which no other religion does … In this country, I have never yet seen a church where the white man and the negro can kneel side by side to pray.

Half a century later, a young Black man sat down inside the British Embassy in Washington, DC, and refused to move. African American pacifist Bayard Rustin became director of the Free India Committee in 1945, working to end British rule in India. But it wasn’t enough to just talk, so Rustin began leading sit-in protests at the British Embassy, repeatedly getting arrested as he worked to help free India, two decades before he went on to organize the 1963 March on Washington, site of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I have a dream” speech.

Why would a Hindu monk speak out against anti-Black racism? Why would a gay African American civil rights leader repeatedly face arrest fighting for India’s independence? South Asians and African Americans have been standing up for each other for over a century. Our histories are deeply intertwined, even if our communities don’t always know it.

I don’t know if Vivekananda was scared to condemn American anti-Black racism. But I heard fear, or at least a great discomfort, when I talked to a young Desi activist speaking out against anti-Black racism. She wasn’t scared of engaging in civil disobedience, but the thought of talking to her parents left her speechless. “When I act in solidarity with Black people in this movement, I want to call my parents into the struggle,” she explained. “After an action, when Ma calls and asks if I’ve eaten and if my health is well and how is school, I want to tell her everything … Instead, I say, ‘My health is good, Ma.’ And it breaks my heart.”

South Asians and African Americans have been standing up for each other for over a century. If we knew our shared history, would it make the conversations easier?

The Black Bengalis of Harlem: 1880s-1940s

Growing up in California, many of my South Asian friends were instructed by their parents that they weren’t allowed to marry someone African American—racism cloaked as “tradition.” But over the last several years, historian Vivek Bald has uncovered a history we were never told: when we were new to the United States, we were welcomed by African American communities, to intermarry, and built rich mixed lives together.

Between the 1880s and 1940s, two waves of South Asian men came to the United States, marrying and building new lives in African American, Creole, and Puerto Rican communities. Bald traced the story of these men and their lives in a strange new country in his groundbreaking book Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America.

The first wave of these immigrants came to the United States from the Hooghly district of Bengal between the 1880s and 1910s. They worked as peddlers across the East Coast and the South, selling embroidered silks and “Oriental” goods from Bengal. These dark-skinned Muslim immigrants found homes in communities of color, with many settling in New Orleans. Bald found records of about two dozen South Asian men in New Orleans who married African American and Creole women.

Moksad and Elizabeth Ali married in 1895 and had six sons and a daughter. In 1900, they were living in a joint family in New Orleans’ Third Ward: Moksad, Elizabeth, their children, Elizabeth’s sister, and brother-in-law, and her 80-year-old grandmother, a freed slave from Virginia. The Alis later moved to Mississippi, and by the 1920s, the next generation of Alis had moved to New York’s Harlem neighborhood, where a new Black Bengali community was about to form.

From World War I to the 1940s, the second wave of working-class Bengali ex-seamen was finding their way to New York, often settling in Harlem, the heart of African American New York. Vivek Bald, an intrepid history detective, scoured New York City marriage records to uncover the stories of Harlem Bengalis marrying African American and Puerto Rican women.

The community eventually spread outside Harlem, but the Bengali men, their wives, and their mixed-race families would continue to come together to celebrate Eid-al-fitr, and host an annual summer celebration bringing together hundreds of members of the scattered community.

Dreaming of Freedom, Standing Up for Civil Rights: 1920s-1947

From the 1920s onward, Indian and African American freedom fighters started recognizing the links between their struggles against colonial rule and racist oppression. Gerald Horne, Sudarshan Kapur, and others have written extensively about this history, often focusing on African American scholar and civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois, who corresponded with Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Lala Lajpat Rai, and others.

By 1942, Horace Cayton, Jr. would write “it may seem odd to hear India discussed in pool rooms in South State Street in Chicago, but India and the possibility of the Indians obtaining their freedom from England by any means has captured the imagination of the American Negro.” The NAACP, the prominent African American civil rights group, passed a resolution supporting Indian autonomy that same year, with accompanying statements from major African American artist-activists like Paul Robeson, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes.

African American poet Langston Hughes, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote eloquently about the shared struggle of Indians and African Americans. “It just does not make sense,” he wrote, “for the Allied leaders of the Western world to make beautiful speeches about freedom and liberty and democracy with India still in chains and Negroes still jim-crowed.”

One of Langston Hughes’ several poems about Indian liberation, “How About It, Dixie” connected Indian political prisoners and African American victims of racist police brutality. It reads, in part:

“Show me that you mean / Democracy please— / Cause from Bombay to Georgia / I’m beat to my knees / You can’t lock up Nehru / Club Roland Hayes /  Then make fine speeches / About Freedom’s way.”

Jawaharlal Nehru was devoted to solidarity with African America, connecting both with friends like Paul Robeson, and through intermediaries like Cedric Grover. After India gained independence, solidarity was complicated by the need to maintain good relations with a white-led American government. However, in a secret memo to the first Indian ambassadors to the U.S. and China, Nehru remained clear about India’s position: “our sympathies are entirely with the Negroes.”

How African Americans Created South Asian America: 1950-1960s

We are in the United States today because African American activists organized, bled, and died to overturn the racist laws keeping us out. American laws long restricted immigration from South Asia. While several thousand South Asians had journeyed to the United States by the early 20th century, the Immigration Act of 1917 explicitly barred our immigration. Three decades later, the 1946 Luce-Cellar Act loosened the restrictions—but allowed in only one hundred Indian immigrants per year.

From the 1950s onward, new waves of African American activists took on the policies upholding American racism. Civil rights activists organized in the face of social pressure, mob violence, police brutality, and domestic terror. In Mississippi, NAACP activist Medgar Evers was shot and killed in his home. In Alabama, four little girls were killed when their church was firebombed. In South Carolina, three students were shot and killed by Highway Patrol officers on a college campus. In Tennessee, Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated as he stood in support of local African American union workers. The list goes on.

Some early South Asian immigrants participated in the civil rights movement. For example, in his book Colored Cosmopolitanism, historian Nico Slate describes how in the mid-1960s, two professors in Jackson, Mississippi stood with their African American students to help desegregate the city in the mid-1960s. Hamid Kizilbash (from Pakistan) and Savithri Chattopadhyay (from India), both faculty members at Tougaloo College, challenged racial segregation and terror, taking advantage of their ambiguous racial status. (In one instance, a white mob stopped attacking a bloody Kizilbash after a priest yelled “he’s not Negro, he is Indian.”)

The civil rights movement won one of its biggest victories with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965, which created South Asian America as we know it today. This law ended the racist restrictive immigration quotas, allowing us to become one of the fastest-growing populations in the United States, with over 3.5 million South Asians in the United States today.

While the burden of the civil rights movement was carried largely by African Americans, perhaps no group has benefited as much from African American activism as Indian (and particularly upper-caste Hindu) Americans. Fifty years after the civil rights movement, the median Indian American household income is over two and a half times higher than that of African Americans, in part because of immigration policies favoring the selective import of skilled foreign workers like my father.

I grew up in the United States, and never questioned my right to be here. But my wife Barnali Ghosh came to the United States as a graduate student; and stayed on as an H-1B worker. Learning history made a deep impression on her. “I realized that my presence in this country, and the existence of our Desi community, was possible only because African American activists helped overturn anti-Indian immigration laws. How do we repay the deep debt that we owe?”

South Asians for Black Lives: 2014-

Seventy years ago, Bayard Rustin, a gay African American civil rights activist, repeatedly engaged in civil disobedience to support Indian independence. Across the country, South Asians are starting to repay the debt, at a time when African American activists are asking other communities for their support as they organize against racism and police brutality.

In Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown was fatally shot, South Asians whose businesses were impacted by protests stood with their African American neighbors and often saw their neighbors stand up for them. Ferguson resident Anil Gopal, president of the St. Louis Asian Indian Business Association, described to India Abroad how “Black people came to help the (Indian) community … Some of them even kept vigil outside the store as long as they could, to protect the stores.”

In New York City, the DRUM (Desis Rising Up And Moving) South Asian Organizing Center brought together over a hundred community members to discuss race and policing in light of the killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, before starting a march against racism and for immigrant rights.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, South Asians organizing with #Asians4BlackLives have been engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience against institutions responsible for killing African Americans.

Across the country, South Asian Americans are divided about how we understand our relationship to African Americans; many community members have never given much thought to the topic. The Queer South Asian National Network developed a free curriculum on confronting anti-Blackness in South Asian communities, which is being used for 1–2 hour workshops in New York City, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and beyond. Little by little, some community members are choosing to repay the debt, continuing the century-long tradition of solidarity.

Growing up, I learned a version of our community’s history where we desis worked hard, pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps, never connecting with other communities of color.

But for over a century, South Asians and African Americans have lived entangled lives—Black-Bengali marriages, Vivekananda speaking out against anti-Black racism, satyagraha in the civil rights movement, Indian Muslims offering Black Muslims a more global perspective, Dalit activists learning about Black Power, long histories of individual friendships, and African American activists who first fought for our independence, and then helped end the barriers to our immigration.

Knowing our history leaves us with a choice. Behind closed doors, I’ve heard some of us openly express anti-Black racism; perhaps this is linked to casteism or colorism, or maybe we’re mimicking what we see and hear around us. Will we ignore our history and give in to some of our worst instincts? Many community members are choosing a different path, celebrating our shared histories, and helping add a new chapter to one of our best and oldest traditions.

Anirvan Chatterjee is a community historian. He’s one of the curators of the award-winning Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour, and the author of the Secret History of South Asian and African American Solidarity


First published on the 1st of June, 2015.