By Pravrajika Madhavaprana
Pravrajika Madhavaprana is a monastic member of Vedanta Society of Northern California, San Francisco. This article was first published in the January, 2009 edition of Prabuddha Bharata.
It was in San Francisco that Swami Vivekananda declared that souls should defy nature, that they should live and die game. This is the story of one of his brother monks, Swami Trigunatita, who did just that in our city, San Francisco. He lived here, earnestly serving the people of this city, and he died game in that service. Shortly before Swami Vivekananda left his body on July 4, 1902, he chose Swami Trigunatita for the San Francisco work. Swamiji knew his brother was well qualified for the assignment since he had put in fifteen years of excellent service in India—pioneer famine and plague relief, founding Vedanta teaching centers, starting the magazine Udbodhan, and serving Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi. So three months after Swamiji’s mahasamadhi, Swami Trigunatita launched out enthusiastically for his mission in the West—‘taking the run like a monkey,’ as he jocosely wrote to a friend.
In many ways Swami Trigunatita was a good match for the people of San Francisco, because of their willingness to take risks, their informal camaraderie and jaunty cheerfulness in the face of disaster. Witness the 1906 earthquake and fire, which killed an estimated three thousand people, and destroyed three quarters of the buildings and streets. Out-of-town visitors were amazed at the reaction of San Franciscans—helping one another, cheerfully camping in the parks, and pitching right in to clean up and rebuild. When pious critics suggested God was punishing San Francisco for its wickedness by causing an earthquake, quick came the reply, ‘If that be so, how come He knocked down all the churches and left the brewery standing?’ It is not that San Franciscans were against religion and spirituality. They respected their ministers and monastics, they welcomed new thoughts, and they were open to what genuine holy people had to say. Their reaction to Swamiji and his brother monks bears testimony to that fact.
In this article I would like to concentrate more on what Trigunatita was to this city, a saint working with the people of San Francisco, a missionary of Ramakrishna Vedanta. It is a great good fortune to have had a saint live in our city even for a short time. Swamiji lived and taught in San Francisco for a few months, as did Swami Turiyananda. Swami Trigunatita, on the other hand, lived here for the best part of twelve years. One could truthfully say that he sacrificed himself to establish Vedanta in San Francisco. Because of Swami Trigunatita’s work here, one of his successors, Swami Ashokananda, often used to say that the Vedanta Society is firmly rooted in this city. ‘Swami Trigunatita stood like a rock,’ as the swami graphically put it. What was the city like when Swami Trigunatita was here? It was the hub of northern California and the major port city on the Pacific coast of America. More than that, it was the financial and cultural centre of the western United States.
Actually Swami Trigunatita saw three different San Franciscos: the city before the 1906 earthquake, the devastated city immediately after the earthquake and fire, and the rebuilt modern city of 1914 America, looking out at the world. In 1903, when the swami came, it was much like the city where his predecessors, Swamiji and Turiyananda, taught. One arrived by boat, either a ferry which finished a train journey at the Oakland Mole, or by Pacific Ocean steamer, which came through the Golden Gate and docked in San Francisco Bay. This latter is how Swami Trigunatita arrived on 2 January 1903. From the dock one took a horse-drawn cab, a cable car, or a streetcar to your destination. Swami Trigunatita’s destination was Dr Logan’s house on Steiner and Oak streets. Dr Logan had been a friend and host to Swami Vivekananda and was currently the president of the young Vedanta Society.
Within the city ordinary people either walked or rode the streetcar. Only rich people owned a horse and carriage, and hardly anyone had even seen an automobile. Swami Trigunatita walked all over the city. When he went to Oakland, as he did every week to lecture and give classes, he took a streetcar to the Ferry Building, the ferry across the bay, then another streetcar or train to his East Bay destination. When he went to Shanti Ashrama for his yearly month-long retreats with devotees, he took a train to San Jose, then a horse-drawn stage over the mountain. When he traveled to Los Angeles, he took a train and stayed for two or three months to lecture and start a Vedanta centre there. In his first three years in San Francisco, the swami spent a lot of time traveling.
The houses in San Francisco were mostly wood, like the temple Swami Trigunatita built in 1905. They were the famous ornate Victorian structures which people admire today. Downtown office buildings, stores, and hotels were brick and stone. Brick, stone, or wood, they all came tumbling down in the earthquake, and what did not fall in the earthquake was wiped out in two days by the raging fire. Only the western part of the city, where his newly dedicated Hindu Temple stood, was spared. Immediately after the earthquake, Swami Trigunatita tried to reach the members by telephone, but most of the lines were down. Then he set out on foot to Steiner and Market streets, some two miles distant, to see what had happened to his disciples who lived there. Their house was off its foundation, and they were not home. So he left his calling card and walked back.
San Francisco, immediately after the earthquake, was in ruins. The streets were full of rubble, the streetcar tracks were twisted, and the water lines had burst. The fire could not be stanched by firefighters. People watched from a distance as their city went up in smoke. Though the earthquake did not damage the temple, the raging fire came close. When it reached Van Ness Avenue, some six blocks away, the wind suddenly shifted. Swami Trigunatita happily reported to Belur Math, the headquarters in India, that through the grace of God the temple and its members were saved. Almost as soon as the fire was out the cleanup began. All the rubble from downtown buildings was carted by big horse-drawn wagons to the waterfront by the temple for landfill to extend the Marina district. This was where they built the 1915 Panama Pacific World’s Fair, right near the temple.
Swami Trigunatita watched the exposition buildings go up with great interest. He saw this World’s Fair as a grand event: a celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal, the rebuilding of San Francisco, a display of all man’s new inventions and of all the cultures of the world. For him it was a unifying, international, intercultural event akin to the Ramakrishna Mission of which he was part. And it was next door to the temple! The year following the earthquake he added the third floor and towers to the temple. The third floor was equipped with all the modern conveniences and the towers represented the different religions and cultures of the world. It was to be lighted and decorated to go with the fair. All America’s latest inventions that came out in quick succession in the period after the earthquake he embraced with enthusiasm.
He went to Tanforan to see the new biplane demonstrate its flight. He went on excursions in Mr. Wollberg’s car. Now that travel was so much faster, he took a financial risk and bought a property in Concord for a colony which was to include a temple, library, orphanage, medical facility, and walnut orchard to support it. Though the project dissolved with his death, it is not impossible that some aspects of it might come to pass in the future. San Franciscans always have been open-minded, companionable, and this was especially true in the early twentieth century. They frankly loved their city and their country, celebrating all the local and national holidays and events with gusto—flags, parades, fireworks, and so forth. Sitting on the hills overlooking the bay, they watched Teddy Roosevelt’s great white fleet come steaming in through the Golden Gate. For all these occasions the swami would cancel classes so the members could take part.
Everyone he encountered knew and loved Swami Trigunatita, from the firemen in the station next door to the temple, to the mayor and officers in City Hall. Not just in San Francisco, but wherever he went he made friends. Holy Mother believed you should make the whole world your own, and that was what the swami did. Once he went with a party of Vedantins to the Lake Tahoe area. They had a two-hour wait for the train in Truckee. It was a Sunday evening with a church nearby, so the swami said, ‘Let’s go to the sermon.’ They sat in the back. At the end of the sermon slides of famous cathedrals and churches were shown. Lo and behold, the last slide was the Hindu Temple of San Francisco. When the minister came down the aisle to shake hands with people he spotted the swami. They both were delighted to meet each other. They became friends then and there, and the minister used to visit the swami in San Francisco.
I heard a swami once describe a saint as a walking utsava, a moving divine festival. Swami Trigunatita certainly was that.At this point I think I should say what I mean by a saint. First and foremost, of course, a saint is a realized soul. He has seen the Divine—however you want to put it—God, Spirit, or his true Self. He has broken out of this world of ignorance and knows he is immortal. This, I believe, is what people of all faiths consider a saint to be. More than that, I would like to speak of what a saint is in the Ramakrishna- Vivekananda tradition. Sri Ramakrishna, who is considered to be an incarnation of God, said that a saint is free from lust, greed, and egotism, and, further, he sees divinity in men, women, beasts, everything.
His chief disciple, Swami Vivekananda, added that a saint is fearless, unselfish, sincere, and energetic, with a strong desire to help humankind. Swamiji put it more dramatically in a letter to his brother monks: ‘To do the highest good to the world, everyone down to the lowest—this is our vow. Welcome Mukti or hell, whichever comes of it. … Off with laziness. Spread! Spread! Run like fire to all places.’ In other words, Swamiji’s saint must be a tireless, selfless worker for humanity, brave beyond measure, and careless of personal salvation. Swami Trigunatita was this kind of saint, and he lived in our city— joyfully, tirelessly working with the people here. One of the ways you know this type of saint is by noting what other saints say of him. All of his brother monks remembered Swami Trigunatita for his loving, companionable nature as well as his austerity and scholarship.
Swamiji himself gave Sarada—that was Swami Trigunatita’s pre-monastic name—the highest praise for his vigorous selfless service in India. After the pioneer famine relief which Sarada managed so deftly single-handed, Swamiji said, ‘Sarada is on my head now, I am his disciple!’ And when Swami Trigunatita was sacrificing his all to start the Bengali magazine Udbodhan, Swamiji said, ‘Trigunatita has given up his spiritual practices, his meditation and everything, to carry out my orders, and has set himself to work. Is it a matter of small sacrifice?’ Of course to Swami Trigunatita himself Swamiji was a severe taskmaster, and his scoldings were monumental. Swami Trigunatita took them with grace. For this we have the testimony of another saint, Swami Vijnanananda. He remembered that ‘[Sarada Maharaj] was a man of great forbearance. His face was always lit with a smile. Even after getting a severe scolding from Swamiji he would never feel disturbed. So Swamiji used to say of him: “A strange fellow! Never gets angry.” At the most, Sarada Maharaj would tell us, “Swamiji has scolded me today.” . . . So sweet was his nature that he could easily win over people.’
If seeing God is the first prerequisite of a saint, Sarada had that immediately when he came to the Master, because Sri Ramakrishna was an incarnation of God, and he selected Sarada as one of his sannyasin apostles. Sarada was only a youth of nineteen when he met the Master in 1884, and though his discipleship lasted just one and a half years, he got the thorough preparation he needed for his mission. Swami Trigunatita used to tell his western disciples of all the spiritual gifts the Master gave him. He told how the Master removed all his pride of aristocratic birth and gave him a spirit of service to God in people; wiped out lust from his heart; gave him the ochre cloth of a monk; asked him to follow Swamiji; and put him in the care of Holy Mother.
With Holy Mother he had a sweet relationship which lasted all his adult life until his death in San Francisco. Saint that he was, Swami Trigunatita recognized the identity of Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother, and the Divine Mother as three forms of the same Divine Being. In San Francisco he would often speak of his work as being directed by the Divine Mother or the Master. Holy Mother was still alive in India when he was in San Francisco, and the swami would regularly send money to her. She would also write to him and do tender things like bless rosaries for his disciples. His respect and obedience for Swamiji, of course, was unwavering. He felt a close spiritual connection to Christ also. Possibly this was because he was teaching in a Christian country; possibly it was a matter of his temperament. He had a strong idea of sacrifice, which is central to Christian practice. He felt that if he sacrificed himself in his life and work in San Francisco, he would be able to establish Vedanta firmly here. There was nothing grim or sorrowful about it though; he set out joyfully from India and was always noted for his cheerful enthusiasm for the work in this city.
There were two holy birthdays which the swami celebrated in an extraordinary way all the years he lived in San Francisco: one was his Master’s, and the other was Christ’s. In 1903, the year he came, he held a fifteen-hour service on the Master’s birthday, lasting from five in the morning till nine in the evening. The swami had no Indian assistant as yet and just a few American devotees. He remained standing all those fifteen hours, talking of the Master. He wrote joyfully about it to a friend in India, saying he was doing a full fast for twenty-four hours, and he gave three long talks and four short ones, two of which were so good nearly everybody cried. He did the same thing on Christmas every year: a fifteen-hour service, all the time standing and speaking of Christ. Some of the devotees would remain in their seats, fasting, listening, and meditating all those fifteen hours.
In later years more people participated in the ceremony. After 1906, his assistant, Swami Prakashananda, would participate; and, also, the choirs would sing. The swami’s talks and readings would make Christ living for the devotees, and they felt they were transported to the Christian holy land. An experience like that would cut a new groove in the soul, as Ashokananda put it. Christianity was much more prominent in the lives of San Franciscans a century ago, and Swami Trigunatita often gave lectures on Christian subjects throughout the year; he took up the Bible, the Imitation of Christ, and other Christian texts in his classes. It is important to note, however, that the main subjects for the swami’s public lectures as well as his classes were about basic Vedanta, not just personalities. Holy persons were held up as examples.
One of his first downtown lectures was entitled ‘The Life of Sri Ramakrishna, a Model Vedantist at the Present Age’. Swami Vivekananda had taught him to work in this way. Swamiji wrote to Swami Trigunatita in 1896 from New York, giving instructions which would serve the young apostle well in San Francisco as well as in India. I will quote Swamiji’s letter in part:
“It is very easy to search for faults, but the characteristic of a saint lies in looking for merits—never forget this. … You need a little business faculty. … I am determined to make you decent workers thoroughly organized. … That Ramakrishna Paramahamsa was God—and all that sort of thing—has no go in countries like this [the US]. … That will make our movement a little sect. You keep aloof from such attempts; at the same time if people worship him as God, no harm. Neither encourage nor discourage. The masses will always have the person, the higher ones the principle; we want both. But principles are universal, not persons. Therefore stick to the principles he taught, let people think whatever they like of his person.”
In giving spiritual guidance to his disciples as well as others, Swami Trigunatita laid emphasis onself-improvement, character-building, and steady practice for Self-realization. He would ask the students to keep a diary of their own spiritual practice, and bring it to him to check at each weekly interview. ‘Ask yourself, ’ he would instruct, ‘what is my goal in life? Tell yourself you have strength. Analyze yourself. ’ He would ask the students to list in their diary the faults they wanted to overcome and show him what they had written. Once, on reading the list of one student, he laconically remarked, ‘There are many more.’
He held a Gita class where the students learned the Sanskrit as well as the spiritual content of the verses in English. He wanted each of them to prepare to give a class on five Gita verses, looking on the audience to whom they were speaking as God. ‘Smear everything with God,’ he would advise, echoing the first verse of the Isha Upanishad. His teaching was practical and tailored to fit the individual American student. To give an example, one woman could not agree to his instruction to give up attachment to a friend, which the swami considered detrimental to her spiritual progress. He said, ‘If you cannot obey me we will stop the lessons.’ And he did resort to that. She would come to the lectures and classes but there were no more interviews. Finally she became so unhappy she begged the swami to let her come see him. ‘All right,’ he said, ‘if you can come here at 6 a.m. on New Year’s Day, I will see you.’ She made her way clear across town, walked from the streetcar down Fillmore hill, and made it on time.
He did not give her a lesson then, nor did he on any of the other morning interviews that followed. Sometimes she would just sit there and watch him work, or maybe he would dictate to her a page from a Sanskrit primer he was composing for his students. Always he would give her some candy. Many of his students were asked to come in the early morning. People often wondered why he did this. I would make a guess: Early morning in the ancient Hindu tradition is considered auspicious, it is called the brahma-muhurta. As a modern verification of the concept, once Sri Ramakrishna told one of his disciples to meditate on him in the early morning because ‘at dawn my mind pervades the whole universe’. Swami Trigunatita, being a saint steeped in the Indian spiritual culture, naturally knew all these things. So my guess is that his student’s mind would be more receptive at this holy hour. And, of course, being in his holy company at that time would make it a double blessing.
The swami was fond of young people, especially little children, and they loved him in return. One is reminded of Christ’s saying, ‘Suffer little children to come unto me, for such is the kingdom of heaven.’ Swami Trigunatita would let the children of devotees walk around his office and touch all the interesting things there. He would converse with them in detail about what they were thinking and doing. The two young sons of the Wollbergs were given particular attention. The swami allowed them to come to the summer retreats for serious students at Shanti Ashrama. He persuaded them to get up early and walk the mile or so from their home to see him at 5.30 or 6 a.m. He even got them to darn their socks and show him their work. When one of them started smoking at the age of fifteen, against the doctor’s orders, the despairing parents appealed to the swami for help. The swami himself smoked. He said to the parents, ‘Give me a week and then send him.’ In a week’s time the swami quit smoking for good, and when he talked to the boy, he quit cold too.
Mrs. Edith Allan wrote in a 1924 Vedanta Kesari article entitled ‘With the Swamis in America’ these words of praise about Swami Trigunatita as a guru: ‘His energy was untiring, nothing was too small to demand his attention. He was interested in all the little details and daily occurrences in the lives of his students. He was like a fond mother always looking out for the welfare of her children, training them in various ways as their nature required, now by strict discipline, now gently taking them by the hand and leading them into paths of peace and blessedness.’ His earnest work as a spiritual guide probably revealed his sainthood best. He carefully guided all sincere aspirants, his own initiated disciples, and those of his predecessors. Though he admitted that spiritual life for an individual in the West was very hard, he knew that everyone’s true nature was pure Spirit and, by steady practice, one could realize it.
In his twelve-year ministry in San Francisco, Swami Trigunatita cheerfully faced one struggle after another, sometimes achieving a victory, sometimes not. It was designed that way, he said, because a life without struggle, without losses and failures, was no life at all. Besides, he knew that as an apostle of the Master a divine power was guiding him. He once told a student during an interview at the temple, ‘I sit here and watch great waves of difficulties roll in and then I look into the waves and see God’s hand.’ To another close student he confessed, ‘I could have lived a contemplative life instead of [doing] this work, but I would not have been so close to God.’ Thus equipped with this divine knowledge, and with the practical training of Swamiji as well as his own considerable intelligence, imagination, and determination, he went about his work of establishing Vedanta in San Francisco. He did not expect it to be easy, and it never was.
It is a matter of regret that one of the major obstacles in his work came from his own disciples as well as those of other swamis who did not like his method of work, or his ideas, or his specific projects. No matter how outrageous they were, he always handled the problems with respect, patience, and forgiveness. The most striking of these, of course, was when his crazed disciple exploded a bomb at his feet, causing the swami’s death. When he was interviewed for the newspaper shortly after the explosion the swami said, ‘I do not know why he did it unless it was that he was crazy … I assure you there had been no trouble between us as far as I know … I do not harbor any ill will against the man. Please make that plain.’
The second major cause for the swami’s difficulties was his own health. Soon after he came to San Francisco the doctor found that he had Bright’s disease, a faulty valve in his heart, and rheumatism, in addition to the malaria he already knew about. He wrote to a friend in India that whenever the pain in his heart and stomach became too bad, he would just lie down for a while till it lessened. He had an extraordinary control over his body; in India he was famous for it. Towards the end of his life he himself said he was holding his body together by sheer force of will. One of his disciples illustrated his magnificent self-control at this time by telling a story. The disciple noticed a quaver in the swami’s voice during his lectures and mentioned it to him. The swami tried in subsequent talks to stop the quaver but couldn’t. Then the swami confessed that whenever he came out on the platform to speak, the Divine Mother appeared before him, which filled him with such love that he had difficulty speaking. Just imagine what self-control it took to speak at all in such a circumstance!
The third major cause for his difficulties was lack of money. The San Francisco Vedantins of his time were not rich. Most of his loyal supporters were middle-class and worked for a living, so their contributions to the Vedanta Society were small. The earthquake made money even more scarce. As a consequence the swami took out loans in his own name at six or seven per cent interest. His brother monk, Swami Saradananda, who was secretary of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, was doing the same thing in India in order to build a house for Holy Mother and the Udbodhan magazine. In India, as well as America, it was considered unorthodox, if not unethical, for a monk to do such a thing—that is, borrow such a big sum of money on interest, even for a noble cause. But these disciples of Sri Ramakrishna were not just orthodox monks. They were spiritual heroes working for the uplift of humanity. They were Swamiji’s type of saints.
How Swami Trigunatita carried the San Francisco temple from its high-minded conception to an actual finished building is a fabulous story, literally something out of a fable. April 2008 was the one-hundredth anniversary of the dedication of the completed temple, and it still stands as a testimony to the saint’s determined work against all odds, as well as the divine power behind it. Today we Vedantins call it the Old Temple, and we rarely think of it as the firm foundation of Vedanta in San Francisco. So to honor the temple and the far-seeing swami who built it, I think it is apt to review the marvelous story now.
When Swami Trigunatita arrived in San Francisco in January 1903 he studied the situation of Vedanta in America and, specifically, in San Francisco. He made a decision to make the city the centre of his work, rather than the ashrama in the countryside, as Turiyananda had done. He could see that America was fast becoming urban. The Vedantins in the San Francisco Bay Area were working people, and most of them could only afford a two-week vacation at the ashrama. So he decided to use the ashrama for a one-month-a-year retreat as an auxiliary to the spiritual training at the temple in the city. In the first year, 1903, he had a month-long retreat at Shanti Ashrama in November. Included in the group of retreatants were disciples of Turiyananda, like Frank Rhodehamel who had never before been able to attend a retreat with a swami. Mr. Rhodehamel wrote a beautiful description of this retreat in the May 1918 number of Prabuddha Bharata. In this article, titled ‘Shanti Ashrama Days’, he said that Swami Trigunatita ‘enjoyed himself and made no attempt to conceal it. He was bubbling over with good spirits’.
Nevertheless, Swami Trigunatita’s first priority would be a temple in the city, where Vedanta could reach more people than was possible by the swami giving lectures in rented halls or talks in private homes, and then living mostly in the Shanti Ashrama, as Turiyananda had done. Some of the old students regretted this change and started grumbling about it. But Swami Trigunatita was sure he had made the correct decision. His mind dwelt in the realm of his Master’s divine mission and the worldwide movement he had so recently witnessed growing in India under Swamiji. He had seen Swami Vivekananda train Sister Nivedita for helping the women of India, he had served Holy Mother during her early spiritual ministry in Calcutta, he had witnessed the purchase of the Belur Math property— partly financed by Western women—he had watched Swamiji train the monks for a worldwide mission, and he himself had founded the Udbodhan magazine. Thus Swami Trigunatita thought in international, if not cosmic, terms.
He envisioned a temple in San Francisco, not just as a place which would serve a small group of devotees in the San Francisco Bay Area, but as a conduit for India’s great spiritual ideas and practices to flow into America and meet with the best ideas and ideals of America and thus benefit all of humankind. Probably it takes a far-seeing saint to think that way, or someone utterly dedicated to the cause of Swami Vivekananda, the world prophet. Swamiji used to think and speak that way. Some of Swami Trigunatita’s successors in San Francisco also spoke that way. For example, in the 1950’s Swami Ashokananda gave a lecture with the visionary theme ‘India and America: Lands of Destiny’.
So during 1904 Swami Trigunatita and the officers of the Vedanta Society searched for a suitable piece of land on which to build a temple. They found a corner lot in Cow Hollow near the bay and bought it for eight thousand dollars. They financed it through Mr. Juhl, a restaurant owner who knew and loved Swami Vivekananda. He gave one thousand dollars as a down payment, and for the remaining seven thousand he gave a loan at six percent interest to Swami Trigunatita. This was the first big debt the swami took on. And that was just for the land. To finance the building and furnishings would require twice that much. Still, in 1905, the swami went ahead to build the temple. Then, out of the blue, so to speak, came a donation of seven thousand dollars from a Los Angeles lady to clear the mortgage for the land. A number of devotees gave small donations to build the temple. Only one was large at nine hundred dollars. The names of all the donors were placed in the cornerstone. The nine-hundred dollar donation was listed as coming from ‘a woman disciple of Sri Ramakrishna’, who probably was Mrs Ole Bull, the great American benefactor and disciple of Swami Vivekananda.
The building went up rapidly in less than four months—August to December 1905. The architect, Mr Leonard, and the swami worked closely together, and Mr. Leonard declared he learned more from Swami Trigunatita than the swami learned from him. It was a two-storey structure with just one dome. The first floor was for the Vedanta Society and the swami’s residence, and the second floor was for Mr. and Mrs. Peterson, Turiyananda’s disciples with whom Swami Trigunatita lived for all the twelve years he was in San Francisco. Even without the towers, which came two years later, the swami proudly called it ‘The First Hindu Temple in the Whole Western World, a place dedicated to the cause of humanity’. He stated that if there was the slightest trace of selfishness in its building, it would fall; if it was the Master’s work, it would stand.
The dedication made headlines and drew an overflowing audience. The Vedanta Society during Swami Trigunatita’s time always had a very good press. Both the dedication on January 8, 1906 and an interview of the swami the day before, were reported very sympathetically by the San Francisco Chronicle. We have a written record in our archives of the talk the swami gave at the dedication. He addressed this very attentive American audience as ‘My dear friends of the great land of liberty’, and then went on to thank them for welcoming Vedanta, and indeed all religions, to America, and for spreading ideas of liberty and tolerance throughout the world. As a tribute to America, he said, the Vedanta Society will fly the American flag above the temple.
Then he went on to say that the temple is being dedicated to God, not any particular person, society, or religion, and will serve people of all creeds and faiths. He explained Vedanta as a religion which embraces all other religions and invited them to come to future services. The audience listened with respect and great attention. A week after the dedication the swami wrote a letter to Mrs Ole Bull, telling how he felt about the temple as a part of the Ramakrishna movement. It is worth quoting here:
“The Temple here is almost finished; still a little work here, a little work there to be done. But we have been holding classes and meetings here. It is a very good little place. It cost us nearly $14,000 including furnitures [sic]. I am still in debt to $10,000 at 6% interest. It is a very important work no doubt, to establish a permanent basis of close relationship between India and America. In India, by the able and active good wishes of you all, we have been able to establish a permanent centre to carry out and to carry on the great work of Vedanta in the West. Now, this is the beginning of the permanent centre on the other end, i.e. in America, to receive constantly what India can give, and to take in return what America can give to India. All this is due to our blessed Swami Vivekananda. Don’t scold me, mother, for my daring spirit of having incurred such a great debt. It is a great disinterested work. And I believe, dear mother, all disinterested works (no matter by whom done) are directly looked out for by God.”
He enclosed a picture of the temple and several copies of the pamphlet describing it. The Hindu Temple was the home of the Vedanta Society. Here the swami felt free to train a group of serious students in meditation, self discipline, and Indian philosophy as found in the Gita and Upanishads. He called this training ‘brahmacharya’. He also felt free to introduce more concrete things and customs from India. He performed at least two Indian-style weddings for his Western devotees, and several ‘first-rice’ ceremonies for Western babies. The swami kept a friend in India busy sending Indian food items such as dal, curry, pickle, and himself would cook them for the devotees. He asked his friend to send worship utensils and performed worship in Indian style. He sent for musical instruments such as tabla, sheet music with English notation, and phonograph records with good melodies such as those of Ramprasad.
Some of the swami’s disciples were good musicians and were able to compose songs combining Western and Indian musical styles. At the temple he was able to have a printing press where he published a magazine— Voice of Freedom—and other Vedanta literature. Some of the old Vedantins did not like all this trend towards Indian culture, nor so much organized activity. They preferred the straight philosophy and meditation as taught by Swami Trigunatita’s predecessors. Soon after the 8 January 1906 dedication, Brahmachari Gurudas, the caretaker of Shanti Ashrama, expressed dissatisfaction by suggesting in a letter to Swami Trigunatita that Shanti Ashrama be made a centre separate from the Hindu Temple, a year-round Vedanta retreat with a different swami as head. He volunteered to be head until a swami could come from India. Needless to say the executive committee in San Francisco said ‘no’ to this proposal. The swami sent a rather kindly letter to Gurudas along with the executive committee’s refusal. This rejection turned out to be a boon for Gurudas because when he left the ashrama, he went to India and stayed six years, associating with his beloved Swami Turiyananda and other monks of the Ramakrishna Order.
Swami Trigunatita had planned to go to Shanti Ashrama with a small group of members in May for a month-long retreat. But the 18 April earthquake altered everybody’s plans in San Francisco. The retreat was postponed. The Hindu Temple was spared, but everything in San Francisco was scarce—money, food, shelter, and easy transportation. In August of 1906 Swami Prakashananda, Swami Vivekananda’s disciple, came to serve as assistant swami in the Hindu Temple. This swami was a wonderful help in all the temple work until he left in May of 1914 to start ‘his own centre’. In 1907 Swami Trigunatita decided to add a third floor to the Hindu Temple and a group of towers to represent different religions and cultures of the world. His original purpose for building the third floor flat was to accommodate Swami Brahmananda when he came to America. Then, when he found that the great swami could not leave his duties in India, Swami Trigunatita decided to start a monastery.
The addition to the temple was completed and dedicated on 5 April 1908. Again the dedication was well received by the San Francisco press and public. An overflowing crowd attended the grand affair, and the press noted that the Americans watched with awe as arati was performed at one of the towers on the roof. Again the swami went into heavy personal debt. Again there was opposition from some of the members, which the swami calmly addressed, this time with a question and answer meeting. There was also one of the swami’s amazing financial rescues from out of the blue, as it were. It happened like this: The swami was worrying where the money for the addition would come from. Suddenly the doorbell to the temple rang and in walked an old devotee with a friend carrying a satchel full of eight thousand dollars in gold—a gift for Swami Trigunatita.
The swami told a close disciple of a profound psychological reason for some of his actions like building of towers, insisting on the name Hindu Temple, and the blending of Indian and American customs in his ministry. He knew that prejudice against other peoples, religions, and cultures was deep-seated in the human mind, and this bad trait would hurt others as well as impede an individual’s spiritual growth. So he introduced some of these methods ‘to disarm and break down prejudice and bigotry, and ignorance [in order to] harmonize and make the path smooth for those who would follow and carry on the work’. There is no doubt that Swami Trigunatita and his work in the Hindu Temple have accomplished this noble purpose in great measure.
When Ashokananda arrived in San Francisco in 1931, he was very much impressed by the holiness of the temple. He felt the presence of God vividly there. It was obvious to him that the temple was too small for the expanding work; but how could he move to a larger place, leaving such holiness behind? Ashokananda asked Swami Shivananda, the president of the Ramakrishna Mission, about it, and Shivananda replied: ‘Now that the space is insufficient Swami Trigunatita himself would move the temple to another place, and if you do this, your effort will receive blessings first of all from him. He will be happy.’ Then Shivananda gave his blessing by saying, ‘Wherever you will move the temple, in that place not only the stream of Sri Ramakrishna’s divine power will not be hurt in any way or diminished but rather will grow, so that more and more it will attract people’s hearts and minds.’ So today in this New Temple we are continuing to benefit from what this great saint Swami Trigunatita did for us when he lived and served in our city a century ago.