Many Paths to God: The Vedanta Temple of Santa Barbara

Tristan Williams, Staff Writer

About six miles east of Westmont College, past the mouth of Romero Canyon in the foothills above Summerland, lies the Vedanta Temple. Completed in 1956, it was designed by Lutah Maria Riggs, who also designed the Blaksley Library at the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden. Evoking the wooden temples of South India, its plans are currently housed in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. 

The temple attracts Santa Barbara locals not only for its architecture, but its practice of Vedanta, defined as the underlying philosophy of Hinduism. This distinction is important, because, despite its deep roots in Hindu faith, Vedanta is a separate entity, taking a more universal approach to worship of the divine.

The word Vedanta means ‘end of the Vedas’ or basically the Upanishads, said Pravrajika Krishnaprana, a member of the temple’s convent. The Upanishads, vital scriptures for Hindu doctrine and faith, are understood in Vedanta philosophy as containing the culminating message that “the purpose of life is to realize our eternal Self.” 

According to Krishnaprana, Vedanta teaches that the fulfillment of this purpose is not confined to the cultural [or] social aspects of Hinduism. The philosophy of Vedanta can and is applied to all religions, or it can be a religion in and of itself.”

In other words, there are many ways to be united with the divine. Vedanta philosophy guides its practitioners in following their own path to that unity, regardless of other faith commitments. 

This universal approach means the temple recognizes the truth in multiple traditions, and incorporates those traditions in their worship. Christmas and Easter are celebrated, and Jesus Christ is recognized as one divine incarnation, among others. The Buddha is also recognized as divine, and Buddha Jayanti, or Buddha’s thrice-blessed day, has a corresponding temple service. Pictures of the Buddha and Christ are displayed in the temple.

Among these portraits is a portrait of Sri Ramakrishna, Hindu guru and mystic recognized as another divine incarnation, as his teaching is integral to the Vedanta temple.

Born in 1836, in a village outside of Calcutta, Ramakrishna was burdened from an early age with a hunger for the divine. Christopher Key Chapple, a theology professor at Loyola Marymount University, wrote that Ramakrishna’s early years were plagued by “states of extended despondency, spiritual yearning, and periods of what [Ramakrishna] himself characterized as ‘madness.’” Such experiences are comparable to the Christian conception of “the dark night of the soul.”

However, Ramakrishna was able to endure these periods and experience periods of religious ecstasy, an ecstasy not confined to traditional Hinduism. By 1866, he was engaging in Muslim practices, and in 1874, he immersed himself in Christian teaching. 

Indeed, Ramakrishna is recorded by Swami Nikhilananda, a major figure in the establishment of the Ramakrishna Order in the United States, as professing: “Behold the Christ, who shed His heart’s blood for the redemption of the world, who suffered a sea of anguish for love of men. It is He, the Master Yogi, who is in eternal union with God.”

Ramakrishna believed that all faith traditions could provide paths to God-Consciousness — union with God with no distinction between self and God — providing a uniquely expansive repertoire for his teaching. His discussions were collected into a volume called “The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna,” translated into English by Swami Nikhilananda. Revered by the likes of Aldous Huxley and Thomas Mann, this gospel is read aloud as part of the Vedanta Temple’s activities.

“We all belong to the Ramakrishna Order of Monks headquartered in India. It is an international organization with centers all over the world,” said Krishnaprana. “The motto of the order roughly translates … for your own liberation and the service of the world — God in man.”

As the motto communicates, Vedanta philosophy does not amount to only the realization of personal divinity, but the recognition of divinity in others, and the service of others as part of divine expression. The temple attempts to fulfill this expression in multiple ways. 

“We have classes on philosophy, we coordinate with the other churches — inter-religious councils, [and] we do some social work,” Krishnaprana said. The temple has also been involved with the Transition House, an organization devoted to relieving familial homelessness in Santa Barbara.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the temple was open to the public from 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day, including a daily Vespers service in the evening. The bookstore, offering religious literature and items, was open six days a week, with a nun present to answer questions.

Now, with COVID-19 restrictions in place, temple activities have moved to Zoom. Vespers is streamed on Tuesdays, classes on Wednesdays, “Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna” readings on Saturdays, and live lectures two Sundays per month. The convent continues to maintain the grounds, and was operating the bookstore in person until a spike in cases forced the store’s closure. “We hope to open [the bookstore] again very shortly,” said Krishnaprana.

When asked what she finds beautiful about Vedanta philosophy, Krishnaprana said, “The thing I have found the most appealing is that God is One called by various names, and our true nature is one with God. Jesus said it too: ‘I and my Father are One.’ The purpose of our human life is to know that.”

Charles Farhadian, professor of world religions and Christian mission at Westmont College, used to take his world religions class to the Malibu Hindu Temple before the COVID-19 pandemic. The Vedanta Temple would be mentioned in passing, but he has never taken his students there. In speaking of the issue of Christ in Hinduism, Farhadian’s views contrast with Krishnaprana’s perspective. “The challenge of many Hindu traditions for Christians is that there is no problem absorbing Jesus Christ into their pantheon of gods,” Farhadian said. “There’s a scandal of particularity in Christianity that is the source of its life and the life of all who have been redeemed by Christ.”

It is a puzzle to consider how some can find religious life in the idea of ubiquity, whereas others find life in the idea of particularity. Perhaps that challenge speaks to the power of Christ’s message, because so many see that message as a good thing, regardless of their preconceptions and understandings.

During a recent Saturday reading of “The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna,” Krishnaprana expounded on the purity one needs to pursue communion with God-Consciousness. She quoted from the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

What may be important to remember, as philosophical and theological arguments are worked out, is that the hunger for divine truth is pervasive in human experience. The pure in heart, with vigilant and passionate pursuit, will somehow gaze upon the goodness of His truth. 

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