Features & Columns

The First Hindu Retreat
in the Western world

Local history has overlooked the Western world's first ashram,
built a century ago behind Mt. Hamilton
Antero AlliHOUSE OF THOUGHT: A meditation cabin stands among trees at the Shanti Ashrama. Courtesy of Vedanta Society of Northern California

THE ANTI-MAN-ABOUT-TOWN recently became aware of yet another slice of half-Eastern, half-Western history unique to Santa Clara County. At the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, he was reminded that the South Bay played a major role in the history of Hinduism's foray into the West.

In the summer of 1900, the celebrated Swami Vivekananda dispatched a delegation of the Vedanta Society to the eastern side of Mt. Hamilton with the purpose of establishing a "peace retreat."

By then, Vivekananda had already lectured extensively in Chicago, New York and San Francisco, but this remote locale 15 miles southeast of Lick Observatory, in the middle of nowhere, at the far eastern portion of Santa Clara County, was the first Hindu retreat in the Western world. At least that's what the Vedanta Society says. Swamis Turiyananda and Trigunatita were among those leaders who initially helped establish and maintain the property, which blossomed into a popular retreat during the first half of the 20th century.

On its website and in its books, the Vedanta Society of Northern California documents much of the story behind the retreat's inception. A truly remarkable tale, it bears a quick summary. In 1900, a Vedanta student, one Miss Minnie C. Boock, owned nearly 160 acres of isolated property in the San Antonio Valley—that is, between Lick Observatory and where Interstate 5 would later emerge. She was in New York attending lectures and hanging out with Swami Vivekananda, who was then initially bringing the Vedanta teachings to American soil.

Vivekananda was looking for a place to establish a retreat and Boock gave him the property. Vivekananda then dispatched Swami Turiyananda, to whom he had already assigned the California chapter, to lead a contingent over Mt. Hamilton and on to the retreat area. It was to be called Shanti Ashrama. On their way up to Mt. Hamilton, they stayed at the Rita Hotel, and after a treacherous descent into then-unknown territory on the other side, they arrived at the property in August of 1900. At that time, San Jose was not yet the prune capital of the Western world.

Over the next few decades, Vedanta swamis and devotees would build living quarters, work the land and utilize the retreat for lectures and meditation sessions. The only remnant of the original compound still remaining today is the 12-by-12-foot meditation cabin, now painted white, which sits in a meadow surrounded by forested environs. Each year, swamis and devotees still visit the isolated property to engage in spiritual practice.

No San Jose history book acknowledges any of this. In Clyde Arbuckle's definitive history, he threw in a few Swedish churches that date from around the same time, but nothing on the Vedanta Society. I relayed this tale to my local experts—both in academe and in the guttersā and none of them knew the story either.

Todd Perreira, who lectures at SJSU in comparative religious studies and actively researches the histories of Eastern religions and their initial forays into the local geography, said Vedanta's entrance into Santa Clara County is important.

"There were very few opportunities in those days to actually translate one's sympathy for these religions into an actual practice," Perreira told me. "So the fact that Miss Minnie C. Boock, in the summer of 1900, formally deeded her Mt. Hamilton homestead to Swami Vivekananda, the star of the World's Parliament, for the expressed purpose of setting up an ashram, the first Vedanta retreat in the Western world, casts San Jose into the role of inaugural hero during the pioneer days of religious and cultural pluralism in America."

Shanti Ashrama can be placed in the same historical context as Herman Vetterling, a.k.a. Philangi Dasa, the publisher of the first Buddhist periodical in America, who permanently settled in San Jose in 1901. Fifty years later, another hero named Jack Kerouac would stumble into the San Jose Public Library and discover Buddhism.

The exploits of Vivekananda and the Vedanta Society were seen as kooky by Americans of the early 20th century, but their practice embodied a kaleidoscopic co-mingling of spiritual paths, East and West, and in that sense they helped define an entire slice of California consciousness for the rest of the 20th century.