Visit To Shanti Ashrama California

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During  a conversation with Swami Tyaganandaji, Head of Vedanta Society  Boston he spoke about the Memorial Day Function at Shanti Ashrama  i.e. held on April 25th every year and suggested I go.

A  few days later met with Swami Tattwamayananda, Head of the Vedanta  Society of Northern California, San Francisco who kindly arranged for  a devotee to drive me to the Ashrama.

Friends  back home said that Shanti Ashrama was one of important pilgrimage  places of the Ramakrishna Order and was lucky to be in San Francisco  then.

What  is the significance of Shanti Ashrama?

During his first  visit to the West, Swami Vivekananda had often spoken of the need for  a Vedantic ashrama or retreat in America. Deeper intent was to have a  place where seekers could meditate intensely.

When discussed in  the New York Society, of which Swami Abhedananda was in charge, a  student Miss Minnie C. Boock, offered in Santa Clara County,  California 159 odd acres of land.

So Swamiji asked  Swami Turiyananda, to whom he had already assigned the California  work, to establish the ashrama. “It is the will of the Divine  Mother that you should take charge of the work there,” Swamiji told  him. Swami Turiyananda smiled, “Mother’s will? Rather say it is  your will. Certainly you have not heard the Mother communicate Her  will to you in this matter.”

Thus, Swamiji's  dream took shape in 1900. Thereafter, Swami Turiyananda and Swami  Trigunatita, both direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami  Prakashananda gave rigorous training to spiritual aspirants there.

View  of Shanti Ashrama from Dhuni hill.

"Swami  Turiyananda was a jivanmukta, which according to Vedanta is  defined as one who is freed while living, having transcended body  consciousness, and is immersed in the divine Reality. But more than  being a profound scholar, he had assimilated what he studied and  verified it through his own direct experience.

Sister Gargi  observed, “The residence of a great soul can create a great  retreat, and this, one thinks, is why Swami Vivekananda asked so very  great a soul as Swami Turiyananda to establish a center there.”

The evening campfire  was inaugurated almost upon arrival, continuing nightly thereafter.  Ida Ansell, remembered the first campfire at the ashrama: “We sat  in a circle around the fire and listened to swami’s deep, rich  voice chanting in melodious Sanskrit, ‘We meditate on the adorable  and effulgent light of Him who has produced this universe. May He  enlighten our hearts."

With  time Swami Turiyananda and students pitched tents for a kitchen,  dining room, several outhouses etc as well as a small meditation  cabin, which stands to this day. Importantly, a daily routine was  established which blended spiritual with practical lives.

Swamiji  returned to India in 1902.

Even  today the Ashrama has no electricity, water and cell phone  connectivity. Imagine how difficult it was reach and stay in 1899!

The  second great period of Shanti Ashrama was Swami Trigunatita’s time.  It lasted from 1903 until his death in 1915.

He  held month-long retreats in the study and practice of Vedanta for  about 40 students. Swamiji believed that in large classes students  would learn faster if activities were regular and disciplined. The  retreats were called Yoga Classes and included all the four yogas.

Swamiji did a lot of  work himself for eg "he carved out a path up Dhuni Hill through  chaparral by himself. He was responsible for instituting many  inspiring customs at the ashrama such as sitting all night performing  spiritual practices, most especially meditation, before a fire at the  top of Dhuni Hill, which was called the dhuni fire ceremony."

"Swamiji  developed a water scheme which included a windmill and water tank,  which were carted in from Livermore over the perilous road."

Left is Swami  Trigunatita and right Swami Turiyananda.

The  third great period was from 1915 to 1927 during Swami Prakashananda’s  time.

"As  assistant swami, he helped build up the ashrama traditions, such as  the singing and chanting programs, the dhuni fire ceremony, the  Sanskrit classes, the daily karma yoga work periods and meditations,  etc". His death put an end to regular retreats at the ashrama.

During  the 1920s, Swami Prakashananda regularly brought groups of students  to the ashrama. Later individuals occasionally took advantage of the  ashrama atmosphere, but organized group retreats no longer occurred.

A  fire in 1952 burned thousands of acres of neighbouring  grassland/forests including most of the ashrama's trees and  buildings. A noteworthy survivor was the mediation cabin - today  become the ashrama's symbol.

On  the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Vedanta Society of  Northern California and Shanti Ashrama in 1975, the Society invited  its members and friends for a daylong program which included music,  chanting, guided tours of the ashrama and talks by prominent Swamis.

The  nearly two hour drive from San Jose was uphill and winding in parts,  very scenic. We reached the Ashrama by 11 am. It was as if I had  entered a different world where peace and serenity reign supreme.

There were about  fifty devotees including some foreigners. Morning session consisted  of Meditation and Flower offerings by devotees. A temporary tent was  made next to the meditation cabin.

After a sattvic  lunch, organised by lady devotees, we were taken on a conducted tour  of the Ashrama by Swami Vedananda.

Swamiji took us to  the various points where log huts originally stood and gave us a  lucid commentary. Lastly we walked up to Dhuni hill.

Swami Trigunatita  had carved a path through the bushes. On some days they would gather  in top of the hill, bring firewood then chant and meditate all  through the night. They would greet the rising sun and then return  down.

To  symbolise earlier times firewood is kept on top of the hill and  surrounded by a rope. Part of the ashes of Swami Prakashananda are  buried there. It has thus become a sacred place.

Post chanting we  were enlightened by Mission Swamis of Chicago, San Francisco, Berkley  and Sacramento.

In  1980 the meditation cabin was extensively renovated and is a symbol  of Shanti Ashrama’s early days. Devotees go and meditate inside the  cabin. I spent about fifteen minutes in the cabin and experienced the  energies within.

Today  no one stays at the Ashrama full time. It consists of open green  spaces, wild flowers and hills.

I  had not planned to visit Shanti Ashrama, in fact did not know about  its existence. When Ishwar desires things just happen and everything  falls in place. People enter your life from nowhere to help you get  there.

It  was Shanti Shanti Shanti all the way back home. I am indebted to all  those who made this Yatra happen.

The  Author is a spiritually inclined traveller and founder of  www.esamskriti.com

Information  on history and quotes taken from http://sfvedanta.org/the-society/history/shanti-ashrama-history/

To  see pictures of Shanti Ashrama Click here