By LANCE ARMSTRONG Valley Community Newspaper writer
The diversity of the Sacramento area is undoubtedly great. And a fine example of this can be found at a unique place on Mission Avenue, just north of Fair Oaks Boulevard.
This place is the Vedanta Society of Sacramento at 1337 Mission Ave. on the Carmichael side of the Sacramento-Carmichael border.
The Vedanta Society of Sacramento is a nonprofit religious organization that promotes the practice, study and teaching of the philosophy and religion of Vedanta – the ancient spiritual wisdom of India, especially as expounded by Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886), Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) and Sri Sarada Devi (1853-1920).
What is Vedanta?
Swami Prapannananda, minister and teacher of the Vedanta Society of Sacramento, presented the following words when asked to describe Vedanta:
“Vedanta forms the basis of the various branches of Hinduism and is one of the living philosophies and religions of the world. The word, ‘Vedanta,’ means literally, ‘the concluding portions of the Vedas,’ and also ‘the supreme spiritual knowledge.’ The Vedas are India’s most ancient scriptures, whose composition (is) said by scholars to extend as far back as 4000 B.C. The books that comprise Vedanta – known also as Upanishads – were composed, for the most part, during the second millennium B.C., and consist of the accumulated knowledge of God, soul and the universe, as derived from the spiritual experiences and discoveries of generations of India’s seers.”
The basic Vedanta teaching is that God exists in every being and man’s real nature is divine, he said.
The roots of the Vedanta Society of Sacramento’s history date back to 1948, when a small group of Sacramento area residents became interested in Vedanta teachings and began traveling to San Francisco on a regular basis to attend services at the Vedanta temple in that city.
The Vedanta Society of Northern California was established in San Francisco on April 14, 1900.
This Sacramento group’s travels to San Francisco, coupled with the desire of various residents of the area to have a Vedanta temple in the capital city, led to efforts to construct a local Vedanta center.
Heading this project was Swami Ashokananda, who was then serving as swami-in-charge of the Vedanta Society of Northern California in San Francisco.
By the following year, a branch of this main society in San Francisco was formed in Carmichael, and the center of the branch was named The Church of Universal Philosophy and Religion.
It was not until November 1970 that the center was registered as an independent religious corporation and renamed the Vedanta Society of Sacramento.
Constructing the center
The earliest branch classes were held at the residence of a local devotee.
For the purpose of establishing a permanent place for services and other uses, all but one acre of the local Vedanta center’s present 8-acre Mission Avenue site was purchased in 1950.
An additional acre of property, which included a small house and walnut trees and was located adjacent to the north side of the property, was purchased in 1963.
After the acquisition of the initial property, architect Henry Gutterson of San Francisco drew plans for structures that would be built on the property.
These plans were designed in a manner that construction would occur based upon the growing needs of the branch.
Initially, volunteers provided the entire workforce for the project. But as construction progressed, several Vedanta members from San Francisco added to these labor efforts.
A temporary chapel was dedicated on the grounds on Feb. 28, 1953.
Altogether it took 14 years to complete the main portion of the project, and the temple was dedicated on Saturday, Nov. 14, 1964.
The new temple
Swami Aseshananda, swami-in-charge of the Vedanta Society of Portland, officiated the dedication.
In attendance at this special event were about 220 people, including swamis, monks, nuns and devotees from the Bay Area and Portland.
Today, the site includes a permanent chapel, a monastery, an auditorium, a 3,500-volume library, offices and a bookstore.
The present chapel, which has a seating capacity of about 100, includes an altar with the universal OM, or Order of Merit symbol, which is an ancient, sacred Indian representation of the highest impersonal spiritual ideal.
Also included on the altar are flowers, candles and images of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, Sri Sarada Devi, Guatama Buddha and Jesus Christ.
It is at this altar where daily worship is performed. The Sunday services, which are held from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m., are the most widely attended services. These services are followed by an 11 a.m. public lecture.
Adding to the uniqueness of this religious site is its landscaped, lightly-wooded grounds, which, for the most part, have the appearance of a beautified park.
Many first-time visitors of this site are pleasantly surprised to observe such a highly developed, serene setting, which includes tall Italian cypresses, magnolia trees, fruit trees, lotus ponds, lilies, roses and statuary.
These grounds were recently enhanced with the presence of colorful, lotus blooms, which are used as a religious symbol in Hinduism, as well as in Buddhism.
The garden of this local Vedanta center is known as Santodyan or “Garden of Saints.”
Included within the garden are shrines dedicated to St. Francis, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Moses, Lord Shiva, Lord Krishna, Shankaracharya, Sri Chaitanya and Guru Nanak.
Swami Prapannananda described the idea behind the garden’s wide variety of shrines.
“We respect all kinds of religions and we learn from all spiritual personages, so to focus on that, we have made this Garden of Saints,” he said. “People can also learn from this sort of teaching of religious tolerance or mutual understanding.”
Swami Prapannananda, who is a native of Kolkata, India, became a resident of Gujarat in 1966. Gujarat, a highly populated state in western India, is the world famous birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi.
In 1989, Swami Prapannananda came to the United States to become the assistant swami of Carmichael’s Vedanta center.
Seven years later, he replaced Swami Shraddhananda as the local center’s swami-in-charge. Swami Shraddhananda, who came to San Francisco from India in 1957 to become the assistant swami of that city’s Vedanta center, served as swami-in-charge of the Carmichael Vedanta center from 1964 to 1996.
Vedanta centers are located throughout the world, including more than 150 centers in India and 13 centers in the United States.
The local compound is open daily from 6 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. or dusk, whichever arrives first.
For additional information regarding the Vedanta Society of Sacramento, call (916) 489-5137 or visit www.vedantasacto.org.