The Swami came to the United States in 1923, initially to assist Swami Prakashananda in San Francisco. He eventually founded the Vedanta Society of Southern California which grew under his direction to a large collection of dedicated temples and monasteries from Santa Barbara to San Diego. With Christopher Isherwood, Frederick Manchester, and other authors the Swami Prabhavananda published many books on Vedanta, including original translations of the Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, and Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.
At the invitation of some interested persons in Portland, Swami Prabhavananda came from San Francisco and gave public lectures which eventually prepared the ground for a permanent Center. With the active encouragement of Swami Prakashananda the Vedanta Society of Portland was established in November, 1925 under the care of Swami Prabhavananda.10 But there was no permanent place for the Society. Lectures and meetings were held variously in the Portland Hotel (in downtown, corner of S.W. Broadway and Alder, now known as Pioneer Square), in Mr. Child's (the first President of the Society) residence, in the chapel at 616 Kraemer Building (corner of S.W. 2nd and Washington, changed later to 206 S.W. Washington in the present numbering system), in the Dekum Building, in the Studio Building on Taylor Street and the so-called "German Hall" above Olds and King Store on Morrison Street (now the Galleria). The Vedanta Society of Portland was officially incorporated on October 4, 1928 by Hal G. Child--President, R. C. Soule--Secretary, and Lottie I. Scott-- Treasurer.
Swami Vivekananda stayed at 309 Monterey Road, South Pasadena, for six weeks as a guest of the three Mead sisters during his visit to Southern California in 1900. It was one of the sisters, Mrs. Carrie Mead Wyckoff (known later as Sister Lalita) who came to Portland toward the end of 1928 to help Swami Prabhavananda. A place near the City (ten acres of land in Lake Oswego, Clackamas County) was selected for purchase, but to show how difficult things were in those days for a new religious movement, the Vedanta Society was not welcome in this suburb.
Theresa Olson is one of those who helped Swami Prabhavananda in his pioneering work of establishing a Vedanta Society in Portland. She was the treasurer of the Society for 35 years. "Through the Grace of the Lord," recalls Theresa Olson, "I was born to good Christian parents, and at my Mother's feet learned a prayer remembered throughout the years. In my Sunday-school days I used to receive as gifts books of people in foreign lands, and I enjoyed reading them and thought that some day I would even see these people. Destiny brought our family to this beautiful city of Portland, and it was here after a few years that I found my wish answered. I did not have to go to a foreign land, it came to me right here.
"At the time I was entertaining a friend who had been ill, and one evening looking over the paper for some place to go, I saw a picture of a face that I seemed almost to recognize, and said, 'This is where we will go.' It was to be a meeting in the lobby of the famous Portland Hotel, and there I sat on the front seat with my friend before a person from a foreign land. It was in the year 1925 that Swami Prabhavananda of India came to Portland, and it was before him that I sat on this occasion.
"A musician had played on a harp, and when the Swami began to speak, it was as if a new heaven and a new earth was opened for me, and I said to myself, 'Is it possible that this is happening?', but I knew it was and that it was very real because in my very inmost heart I answered 'Yes, yes' to every word he said. It was as if I was sitting under a huge fountain of Divine Perfection and Bliss and cleansed of all doubts and fears and born anew, and that Bliss is still mine.
"Once, Swami Prabhavananda gathered the few of us and gave us our names. Mine is Hari Priya (dear to the Lord), and I still feel the blessing and Divine protection of that occasion."
However, after four years of fruitful service to the Portland Centre, Swami Prabhavananda moved to Hollywood in 1929, at the invitation of Mrs. Wyckoff, who donated her house at 1946 Ivar Avenue (later named Vedanta Place) to start the Vedanta Society there.11
Swami Vividishananda was sent from India in 1929 to take charge of the Portland Centre. The Society still had no place of its own, and he too lived in a modest apartment at the Wheeldon. Sometimes they screened his bed off with a curtain and held meetings in the balance of the same room. Unfortunately after a year of service he went to San Francisco on account of ill health.
There was no resident Swami in Portland from 1929 until Swami Devatmananda's arrival on February 11, 1932. But the devotees used to meet Tuesday evenings in the house of Theresa Olson and would read from the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda. Swami Prabhavananda used to come to Portland during vacation time.
Swami Devatmananda, who was in the New York Vedanta Society at the time, was asked to take charge of the Portland Centre. Accordingly, he came to Portland in 193212 and started his mission of service while the entire country was steeped in the depth of depression. It is well known amongst the old members and friends of the Society that the Swami, when he started his work in Portland, had not enough money even to pay his milk bill. But the Lord's work has been going on ever since. At a later time, seeing that no collection plate was passed after the service, one person asked, "How does the Society manage to continue?"
"So many people ask that," Swami Devatmananda smiled, "and I really don't know. The Lord provides. When I first arrived in Portland, there was not even money to pay the milk bill. And yet we have managed. Our needs are very little."
"Members' devotion to the Society seems to be the answer," someone present remarked.13
The Society rented a house at 721 N. E. Halsey Street, near N. E. Broadway in March 1932 for the accommodation of the Swami and to hold regular meetings and classes. Soon after, the Society rented a hall downtown in the Dekum Building and had Sunday morning services and Tuesday classes there. In October, 1932 the Swami moved to a house at 1816 S.E. 32nd Place-- the second location of the Society. The Sunday evening service at this time was held in the Mason Temple downtown.
In 1934, when many non-profit religious institutions had to close on account of financial difficulties, the Society purchased a substantial house at 1206 N.W. 25th Avenue--the first permanent home of the Vedanta Society of Portland. Two years later, in 1936, on the occasion of the 100th birthday anniversary of Sri Ramakrishna, the Society purchased on February 27th a tract of 120 acres of wooded land near Scappoose, 20 miles away from Portland, overlooking the Columbia River Valley. This acreage was to be used by interested members of the Society as a Retreat for meditation and contemplation. There was a log cabin (not existing now) with a kitchen and quite a large living room, as also a tool house and a small shed (the latter later on being rebuilt as a small meditation hall). In 1938 a small cabin for the Swami was built. Later, in 1941, on Easter morning, the members laid the foundation for a ladies' cottage, which was built in memory of Mary Olson. The building is a two-storied structure with good sized porches.
"Persons who worship Me in all beings, to them I carry what they lack and preserve what they already have," says Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. (IX. 22) Theresa Olson relates how it happened in their lives too:
"Swami Devatmananda said [in 1934] we must try to buy a place of our own, and after a picnic day in Laurelhurst Park a meeting was set for this purpose, and at this meeting our President said we would look into this matter. We tried for one of the old houses on S.W. Park Avenue, but found the price too high for us. Then we secured a very nice and substantial house on N.W. Northrup and 25th Avenue.
"The company who had this place for sale appointed a saleslady to deal with us. At the age of four she had met the great Swami Vivekananda in her Mother's home back east, where Swami was being entertained, and she remembered that he had patted her on the head. The price for this place was $3,500. For some time we made monthly payments, and then we were to raise $200 and secure the deed, giving a mortgage for the balance.
"When I came to the meeting the day before we were to make the payment, I told Swami that we lacked about $34, but he did not seem disturbed. But I was surely disturbed. Everybody had done what he could. As we were sitting for meditation that evening, the front door flew open with a force, and I remembered something from my childhood, and I said 'Come in.' A beautiful form of the Divine Mother came in and walked up the aisle past where I was sitting and stood at Swami's right; and I knew that all was well.
"After the close of the evening, we had the full $200 to make the payment next day. One member, whose work had been scarce, and who had already contributed, came and said, 'I will bring $10 to you at your office tomorrow, even if I starve.' She came, and it was hard for me to take that $10, but I prayed to our Master to help her find work. I watched and saw her work increasing, and to this day she has never lacked for work."
In 1943, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the advent of the Vedanta Movement in America, the Society acquired a house at 1877 S.W. Park Avenue. Subsequently the Society moved from 1206 N.W. 25th Avenue to this site on June 30, 1943. Henceforth all the activities of the Society, including Sunday services, were held at the new home of the Society. In the same year, on October 6, 7, and 8, a special worship of the Divine Mother was performed. During this time Swami Ashokananda of San Francisco, Swami Vishwananda of Chicago, and Swami Vividishananda of Seattle were present in addition to Swami Devatmananda. On the evening of October 8, the dedication of the Chapel in the new home of the Society was conducted. The following day, Saturday, October 9 the foundation stone for the future Temple at the Retreat was laid.
To commemorate the Silver Jubilee Celebration of the founding of the Portland Centre, the bronze life-size sculpture of Swami Vivekananda was dedicated at the Society on November 11, 1951. It was designed and executed by Miss Malvina Hoffrnan of New York, who had met Swami Vivekananda when she was a girl. The bronze was cast at a foundry in New York.
On the occasion of the 100th birthday of the Holy Mother, the construction work of the New Temple at the Retreat began in 1953. Subsequently the Temple was dedicated on August 1, 1954 in the presence of Swami Prabhavananda of Hollywood, Swami Pavitrananda of New York, and Swami Devatmananda. Exterior and interior of the outer walls of this octagonal edifice are done in knotty pine, topped by a gold dome. The sacred word 'OM' is above the entrance. Altar decorations included a bronze head of Sri Ramakrishna (also by Malvina Hoffman) and photographs of Holy Mother and Swami Vivekananda. A social hall is in the basement. Seating is provided for 200 persons in the Chapel. This is the first Hindu Temple of its kind in the Northwest.14
Because of his prolonged ill-health, Swami Devatmananda was urged by the Headquarters of the Ramakrishna Order to return to India for rest and treatment. Accordingly, he left Portland on Saturday December 11, 1954 for Belur Math, where he passed away on August 8, 1958.
Swami Devatmananda worked very hard for the development of the Portland Centre. He worked with great love and zeal. To all the members he was their friend, philosopher and guide. In the course of his stay in Portland he won the esteem and admiration of many.15 Even now the old devotees remember their days of holy association with him. A special mention may be made in this connection about the Centenary Celebrations of Sri Ramakrishna in 1936. There was a banquet at the Masonic Temple, 100 guests were present. A play "The Light from the Beyond," was staged in the auditorium of the Masonic Temple on four religions--Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Mohammedanism, under the guidance of Swami Devatmananda. The audience and the devotees called it 'a classic.'16
Succeeding Swami Devatmananda at Portland came Swami Aseshananda. Swami Aseshananda was initiated by Holy Mother, Sri Sarada Devi, in 1917. He joined the Ramakrishna Order in 1921 and was initiated into brahmacharya by Swami Brahmananda in 1922. Subsequently he took his final vow of sannyasa from Swami Saradananda in 1923. He had the good fortune of serving Swami Saradananda as his private secretary from 1921 to 1927 in Udbodhan, popularly known as 'Holy Mother's House' in Calcutta. Over and above, he came in contact with many other direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, including Swami Shivananda, Swami Turiyananda, and Swami Premananda. Swami Aseshananda arrived in Portland on February 5, 1955 from Hollywood where he had been assisting Swami Prabhavananda.
Following a precept of Swami Brahmananda, the Spiritual son of Sri Ramakrishna, that work and worship must go together, Swami Aseshananda introduced morning meditation, noon worship and evening vespers for the devotees as an essential complement to the daily work of the Centre. During the first years at Portland, two men-devotees lived with him.
An important addition to the Society was the finishing of the basement of the Temple at the Retreat, and turning it into a kitchen and social hall. The dedication ceremony was held on May 16, 1959 with a special worship and Homa-fire ceremony. The hall was named 'Swami Brahmananda Hall,' and a picture of Swami Brahmananda was installed.
Portland State University took over the Vedanta Society's property at 1877 S.W. Park Avenue on March 15, 1966 for their new library site. Then Swami Aseshananda and Mr. Stuart Bush (President of the Vedanta Society) moved to Apartment 4 at 1120 N.W. 25th Avenue. At that time Sunday morning services were held at the Retreat Temple. All other services were held at the Y.W.C.A. at 1111 S.W. 10th Avenue. Meetings were held in the Swami's apartment. Repeated searches for a new site for the Society were made, and finally the present property, approximately one acre, at 1157 S.E. 55th Avenue, was purchased on January 8, 1968. The existing building had to be remodelled to a great extent. The Swami moved to the new Temple near the end of July. On September 29, 1968 (Durga Puja), the new Temple was dedicated. Since then all the classes, Sunday services, and meetings have been held in the new Temple.
Swami Aseshananda was invited by a number of institutions to give lectures on Vedanta and allied subjects. He spoke at Lewis and Clark College, Reed College, St. Helen's Hall (Episcopal), Oregon State University, Portland State University, University of Portland, Clackamas High School and Pacific University. As the senior-most Swami of the Vedanta Societies in America, he gained the respect of other religious leaders, even conservative Christians.
Many Oregonians, hearing the term 'Guru', immediately think of the Rajneeshes and their Bhagwan. But Hideo Hashimoto, a Methodist minister and a former professor of religious studies at Lewis and Clark College, says that view is too narrow and ought to be redefined,--"Swami Aseshananda has an entirely different approach to reality and life. He's the genuine article.''17
In 1973 the Buddha Shrine was built and dedicated in the yard of the Portland Centre. In the same year a 'School of Inter-Religious Understanding' was started with lectures and classes at 7:30 p.m., but later on it was discontinued.
Some outdoor meditation-shrines were built in different areas of the Retreat property to be used for public worship: Sri Ramakrishna and Holy Mother Shrines in 1974, the Buddha, Christian and Swami Vivekananda Shrines in 1975, the Islamic Shrine in 1976, and the American Indian Shrine in 1977.
Todd Thomas, a devout member of the Vedanta Society, gives a moving account of how Sri Ramakrishna helped him find his spiritual teacher and eventually made him an instrument in acquiring the present property of the Society:
"I was doing some studying," Todd Thomas narrates, "and in my study the name of 'Guru' came into the picture. Then I realized that I needed a teacher. One day when I was in a quiet time, something prompted me to look into the phone book, and I looked under 'Swamis' and there was Swami Aseshananda's name. I called the Vedanta Society and found they had services. On Sunday I came to the Society and heard Swami Aseshananda give his talk. And that was it. He was my Guru at that point. I knew it. Subsequently, in 1960 during the Durga Puja I was initiated by Swami Aseshananda.
"One day Swami Aseshananda mentioned in a group meeting that Portland State University was supposed to take over our property, so we should find out some suitable place for the Society. And, surprisingly, he mentioned Mt. Tabor. That kept ringing in my mind all the time. About September, 1965, we made a trip to Hollywood Vedanta Society. At Santa Barbara we had dinner with Swami Prabhavananda. During the course of the dinner Swami Prabhavananda referred to our searching for a new site. He turned towards me and said something to the effect that Swami Aseshananda needs help. 'Will you help him?' It was a shock to me--that he came at me so strong! I dropped my head and turned within. Pretty soon he said, 'Well, you say something.' 'Well, I'm thinking, Swami. We have been looking and don't know what we should do,' and finally I said, 'Yes, I will.'
"From that point on I spent every available spare time looking for property all over the city of Portland, any piece of property of 20 thousand square feet or more, because that was our requirement so that we could have off-street parking and all that. One morning after meditation in the small shrine of my apartment I was at a loss as to where I should look next! I prayed to Sri Ramakrishna, 'O Lord, I looked everywhere, but I don't know where to go now'; and in the twinkling of an eye the vision of this property came into my mind very clear. I knew where it was, what it exactly was. It was Sunday morning. After the Service I came up to this property and walked into the Centre; and I can't express the feeling that I felt. The sky was clear. It was nice warm day. It was a kind of heavenly feeling that I had about the property, and I thought, 'This is it.'
"Later on, Swami Aseshananda and the members of the Board went to the property. Within five weeks plans were drawn and approved by the Planning Commission. Subsequently we purchased the present property of approximately one acre in Mt. Tabor District on January 8, 1968."
Adjacent to the building there is a beautiful garden with apple, cherry, plum and pear trees. A variegated array of camellia and rhododendron shrubs, a profusion of crimson azaleas, delightful roses, luxuriant marigold, and charming seasonal flowers such as daffodil, tulip, zinnia, aster, daisies, lilies, poppies, gladiola, chrysanthemum and many others grown in the flower garden, are a feast to the eye in the spring, summer and autumn.
For women devotees wishing to live a more guided spiritual life, two houses were purchased: Holy Mother's House at 7207 S.E. Salmon Street on September 29, 1981, and Sri Sarada House at 7514 S.E. Market Street on May 10, 1983. Some women devotees live in the two houses. Although they have not taken formal vows, they lead a dedicated life and attend all of the various activities of the Society, including meditation, worship, vespers, services and other celebrations. Their lives have long since taken on the steady rhythms of work and worship.
(Sri Sarada House was discontinued in 1996.)
Glimpses of a Great Soul--A Portrait of Swami Saradananda, by Swami Aseshananda, was published in 1982. Swami Aseshananda passed away on October 16, 1996
Swami Shantarupananda came from India in July, 1991 to assist him. Swami Asheshananda passed away October 16, 1996. Swami Shantarupananda served his devotees and the community with great love and energy until June 10, 2015 when he passed away suddenly. He joined order at the Ramakrishna Mission, Cherrapunjee. He served as assistant editor of the Bengali magazine of the order at Ramakrishna Math, Udbodhan, Kolkata.
Swami Aparananda, a senior monk and former head of Ramakrishna Mission, Mauritius and the Vedanta Society, Berkeley CA, was appointed as interim swami-in-charge until Swami Chandrashekarananda was able to come to Portland. The Portland Temple is very grateful to Swami Aparanandaji.
Swami Chandrashekharananda was welcomed by Swami Aparananda and a group of devotees on Tuesday December 29, 2015 and was appointed as swami-in-charge on January 1, 2016. Before moving to Portland he served in Vedanta Centre of Sydney, Australia and in its branch centers, as assistant minister for 10 years. He joined the order in 1977 at the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, Lucknow and served there in various capacities up till 2001. He was then posted to Ramakrishna Mission Sevapratishthan, Kolkata another hospital Center for 2 years before moving to Belur Math for preparation and then to Australia.
History of the Vedanta Society of Portland
Portions originally published in Prabuddha Bharata, January 1994.
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