My occasional visits to our enchanting Vedanta Temple in Santa Barbara began in the late 1970s, and while never a member I’ve discovered a sense of the sacred on this stony hillside with the Channel Islands sparkling on the wine-dark horizon.
The outward spectacle from the Vedanta Temple steps seizes the attention in a vise-lock of purple sea and blue horizon as Lutah Maria Riggs’ wonderfully placed structure floats above the sloping sun-bronzed sandstone.
The truly significant building on the 45-acre property is this south Indian-style temple, yet it displays only modest dimensions and blends seamlessly with the hillside. The brilliant architect Riggs designed the Santa Barbara shrine to evoke the ambience of a typical south Indian country temple, and it might well serve as a symbol for Vedic Earth Day, too. Having traveled in south India, I see she has achieved that, and in fact the ancient south Indian temple style has almost vanished in India today.
Technically speaking, Vedanta is one of the six ancient Hindu philosophical-theological traditions, and among others we find the Sankya and Yoga schools of thought.
Wise Hindu elders have proclaimed that “spirituality comes on ordinary feet,” and the lack of hierarchy and non-contentious spirit has attracted many to Vedanta. Its philosophy bases itself on the world’s oldest known scriptures, the Vedas (composed in Sanskrit).
Vedanta traveled to the West easily under the leadership of Swami Vivekenanda, proving most adaptable under the British Empire and in the United States. The historic Vedanta Society of Southern California, originally based in Los Angeles at 1946 Vedanta Place (Hollywood), built a few outreach temples in San Diego, Orange County (Trabuco Canyon), Pasadena, and here in Santa Barbara in 1956.
Turning left off Ladera Lane, I notice the inscribed entry stone, and then drive into the large parking lot directly below the soaring temple.
From here, the Santa Ynez foothills capture one’s attention, and after some deep breathing exercises, I walk slowly up the steep asphalt and past the massive Buddhist guardian bell. This 12th-century Sung Dynasty bell was Japanese-cast and supposedly used onboard a Chinese military ship. The nuns ring it thrice daily.
I have been present to hear how the deep melodious tone harmonizes quietly with the sonorous landscape of stone, succulents, native chaparral, and cacti.
But what exactly is Vedanta, whose followers supported erecting this gorgeous Hindu temple in California? I learned from the ancient Greeks that it can help to define something by stating what it is not. Vedic Hinduism isn’t monotheistic, evangelistic, hierarchical or even highly organized as a “belief system.” In my comparative world religions classes, we wouldn’t think of Hinduism or Buddhism as “religions” at all in the western sense. Hinduism is more a way of life built on certain basic values, beliefs and traditions.
The Vedanta Society sisters (or nuns) here in Santa Barbara manage the rustic campus and a whole host of activities. Brother monks from L.A. or India (the Ramakrishna Math) usually give talks once a week — I would not describe them as “sermons” (4.1.1. Hours).
Discord and human frailties disappear in this entirely sacred space on a sloping Montecito hillside. When I interviewed Sister Vrajaprana at the temple in May, we shared many laughs and pleasant anecdotes. I have known her — the author of seven books — since the 1980s, along with Sister Krishnaprana and others.
The sisters don’t seem to have much of a yen for deep philosophical disputation, and Vrajaprana laughed melodiously throughout our talk while she was recovering from knee-replacement surgery. I’ve always delighted in the complete lack of proselytizing or “pushing” one’s own belief system in Vedanta; this lack appeals to those raised in an evangelical monotheism tradition as I was.
The major ancient text for Vedanta philosophy is the Brahma Sutra, and the key component is the concept called a-dvaita, meaning non-dualism. Since all of reality is indivisible, then we realize that Vedanta philosophy consistently promotes protection of the Earth itself, that every day is Earth Day for a Vedantist.
Staring at the sea and the islands’ black silhouettes evokes relaxation and lowering the mind’s persistent guard, but once you walk inside the modest rectangular temple the dim quiet re-orients you deeper inward. One observes almost no decoration or elaboration here, no baroque sculptures or vivid paintings or rose windows like those I’ve admired in Chartres Cathedral.
The wooden pews are neither comfortable nor over-austere, the wooden lattice screens keep out direct sunlight, and what we’d term the “nave” in Christian terms is a simple altar area where the fire ritual (arati) is performed. There I can dimly make out three tall dark portraits that depict Ramakrishna (d. 1886 CE), Buddha (d. ca. 500 BCE) and Jesus (d. 33 C.E.).
Reincarnation is part of their belief system, and it’s how you treat other people rather than your windy exposition of some overarching philosophy that seems to matter the most to Vedantists.
Speakers at the Santa Barbara Vedanta Temple have included Aldous Huxley, Amiya Corbin, Swami Prabhavananda, Sister Vrajaprana, Sister Krishnaprana and Christopher Isherwood. Isherwood states that the Vedanta philosophy embodies three propositions: a human’s real nature is divine; the goal of life is to realize this divine nature; and all religions are basically in agreement. There are many paths to “god,” but only one Brahman (undivided reality), and Vedantists refrain from sectarian quarrels or sterile controversies over name and form.
The philosophy that this Earth IS the only reality (advaita), that the planet is divine herself, fits well with a 21st century emphasis on resuscitating the living planet, which is simply all one reality.
Indeed, Peter Frankopan’s crucial new scientific book, “The Earth Transformed,” quotes the Atharva Veda, which says, “The Earth is our mother and we are its children” and then he confirms Vedantic wisdom with its “constant warnings about respecting forests, animals, and water sources.”
When my independent school entrusted me with teaching comparative world religions to sixth- and seventh-graders, hauling them up to the Vedanta Temple was a natural fit and most children tuned in immediately. The sisters welcomed our visits, the smiling Krishnaprana and Vrajaprana showed us where they live and dine in the convent below and invited the students to meditate or have some silence inside the cool temple.
We would troop up there, take off our shoes, calm down in silence for a few minutes while absorbing the inspiring seascape, then slip inside and sit for a measured 10 minutes. For pre-adolescents to sit quietly for even five minutes can be a chore, but most of them have handled it quite well.
I encourage you to take a half-hour off and sit on the steps of the Vedanta Temple sometime, and then mosey inside and sit in serene contemplation of the shimmering beauty all around. Relax the spirit in silence, restore the mind, know that today is always Earth Day, and depart with a child-like spirit suffused with the Mother’s divine energy.
Drive Highway 101 south to the new Sheffield exit and follow Sheffield to East Valley Road. Turn right and in a couple of miles you will turn left on signed Ladera Lane. The Temple is at 927 (note the stone). The well-stocked Sarada Convent bookstore adjacent to the temple is open on Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The Vedanta Society of New York was the first Vedanta Society center in the United States, founded by the Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda in November 1894. “Vedanta for the Western World,” ed. Isherwood (1945) is a good resource with articles by Huxley, Gerald Heard, and others; as see Pavrajika Vjrajaprana’s “Vedanta: A Simple Introduction” (1999). Peter Frankopan, “The Earth Transformed” (2023), p. 117.