Vedanta Society's Old Temple – San Francisco, California - Atlas Obscura

Vedanta Society's Old Temple

Built in 1906, this unique building was the first Hindu temple in the United States. 

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The Vedanta Society’s history in America dates back to the end of the 19th century. After attending the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, Swami Vivekanandaji traveled to San Francisco, where he gathered a significant group of students. The Vedanta Society of San Francisco was established in 1900.

Vedanta, one of the six schools of Hindu philosophy, was brought to America by Hindu disciples of Ramakrishna, including Vivekanandaji and Swami Trigunatitananda.

After an invitation from Vivekanandaji, Trigunatitananda arrived in San Francisco on January 2, 1903. He supervised classes and lectures at the local Vedanta Society, but soon operations began to outgrow the small flat they were using. The society raised $1,800 (equivalent to about $51,800 in 2021), which they used to build a new home for the society at the corner of Webster and Filbert streets. 

The first two floors of the building were completed in August 1905, and the building served as an office and teaching space, as well as living quarters for the swamis and their assistants. The temple was officially dedicated in January 1906. In 1908, an additional floor was constructed, which included a balcony and the main towers. The Vedanta Society published that architecturally “this temple may be considered as a combination of a Hindu temple, a Christian church, a Mohammedan mosque, a Hindu math or monastery, and an American residence.”

Due to its onion domed towers, the building is often confused for the Russian Embassy. Incredibly, the temple survived the San Francisco earthquake and fire of April 1906. It served the local Vedanta community until a new temple, dedicated in 1959, was built at 2323 Vallejo Street. The old temple is now used as a dormitory and classroom space.

The temple captured the city’s attention on December 28, 1914, when a former student detonated explosives inside the temple at the feet of Trigunatitananda. The former student died, and Trigunatitananda sustained injuries that led to his death several weeks later. Onlookers describe the bomber as walking to the front of the temple and then banging a package three times before it exploded. 

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