The Vedanta Temple: Our Second, Deeper Home

Celebrating 75 Years of a Santa Barbara Spiritual Epicenter

Swami Prabhavananda in the 1940s with the Vedanta Temple’s original sign | Credit: Courtesy

For as long as I can remember, the Vedanta Temple has been the spiritual epicenter of my Santa Barbara. It sits high above the ocean on a quiet road that leads up into the hills. You step out of your car into a pulsing silence and meet a weathered green bell that suggests a mountain in Kyoto. Behind it, a soaring temple that itself speaks for some harmonious meeting-place of India and Japan. Golden poppies in the sun, well-tended, and a glassy bookshop to one side alight with books of wisdom and whirling statues.

Everyone knows it, and everybody meets there because it sings out to a universal longing. We all of us sense, at our better moments, that there’s a truth beyond what we can see and that we’re free insofar as we can let go of our little selves. If only we can stand, as this temple does, serene amid the changing world — forest fires, bears, mudslides often surround it — we can see what passes and what belongs to some more lasting sphere. To step inside the temple, celebrating its 75th year on October 15, is to feel the immediate possibility of something true.

For me, as for so many others, it has been a sanctuary, a solace, a stimulation. I remember coming here as a boy to hear Christopher Isherwood and other wise voices tell us of how we have everything we need, right here, if only we can wake up to it. I buy birthday presents for my most cherished friends in the bookstore, drive up to sit in the temple — or even on its steps — whenever I need to clear my head and remember what I love.

My mother used often to give lectures here, to bring students to the services; she came every year for Durga Puja, and she brought me for lunch so we could enjoy the remarkable community of nuns, with their memories of Germany and Peking. Some of our closest lifelong friends are sisters in the Sarada Convent, not least because they can be relied upon for a liberating joke, constant counsel, and a sympathetic ear close to midnight, when the world seems to be coming apart.

It’s hard to know how many of us would survive without the Vedanta Temple. It shines like a candle in some corner of ourselves that too often we forget. It reminds us of a stillness in the center of the tumult where we can see what lies beyond our words and ideas. It gives us clear and friendly companion-teachers who express eternal truths in a language anyone can follow.

I still remember when my father was dying in a local hospital, and my mother didn’t know where to turn. Then we recalled our friend from the Vedanta Temple, who would bring holy water from the Ganges even at the dead of night, so that something of the ancient blessing of India could anoint us all. The heart of worship, in every tradition, is community and love, and through their selfless service the sisters at the Vedanta Temple remind us of that daily, and of the divinity within us all.

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