Embassy Or Temple? Unraveling The History Of Cow Hollow's Vedanta Society

Whether you're a longtime Cow Hollow resident or simply someone who frequents the neighborhood, chances are you've crossed a unique building in an inconspicuous location of the neighborhood.

Tucked away just blocks from Union and Fillmore streets (and very recently tucked under a tarp for renovations), is the first Hindu temple in the entire Western world. 

Because of the roof, people sometimes confuse the building for a Russian Embassy. But we here at Hoodline are here to help clear things up.

2961 Webster St., circa 2010. | Photo: Anomalous_A/Wikimedia Commons

Located on the corner of Webster and Filbert streets (2961 Webster St.), the building is actually the first home of the Vedanta Society. Referred to now as the “Old Temple,”(The New Temple, dedicated in 1959, can be found at 2323 Vallejo St.) its history dates back to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Swami (teacher) Vivekanandaji visited San Francisco after attending the fair and quickly gathered a significant group of students in the Bay Area to form the Vedanta Society in 1900.

By 1904 the Vedanta Society of San Francisco purchased the Webster Street property for $1,800 to build its first temple.

The first two floors of the building were completed in August 1905, and the building served as an office and teaching space for the swamis, as well as living quarters for them and their assistants. Only four months later, on January 7th, 1906, the temple’s official religious dedication took place with the blessing of Swami Trigunatit, who acted as minister of the San Francisco chapter from 1903–1915.

Miraculously, the temple survived the infamous San Francisco earthquake and fire of April 1906 without any damages. And in 1908, a third floor was constructed, adding a Moorish balcony, the main towers and new roof.

The Old Temple, 1908. | PHOTO: VEDANTA SOCIETY OF NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

By the late 1920s the Old Temple catered to men seeking a monastic life. Classes and services continued while it matured into a monastery for men. (Female followers of Vedanta seeking a monastic life were housed separately across the street.)

Today, the Old Temple is still in use, serving as a dormitory and classroom site for Vedanta Society members.

However, due to ongoing renovations, classes for society members and the general public are currently on hold at the Old Temple. According to a Vedanta Society spokesperson, who asked to remain anonymous, the renovations will provide additional space for meetings, classes and the society's plan to hold "more programs that encourage an interfaith platform."

The renovations were "necessitated by needing a new foundation. And out of that we got two lecture and meeting rooms," the spokesperson said. "We are working on the finishing touches right now, and classes will resume as normal in September."

Classes are held September through June. For those interested in attending a Friday night class or Sunday School later this year at the Old Temple, the society's spokesperson said that these classes follow a "Western model," in which Hindu teachings are applied to the "Western cultural mindset and practical approach."

Inside the Old Temple. | PHOTO: VEDANTA SOCIETY OF NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

At Friday night classes, do not expect a sermon. A theme from one of the spiritual teachings is selected for the year, and each week members and guests explore related topics.

"The Swamis come here from India as teachers of the Vedanta philosophy," the society's spokesperson said of Friday classes. "Generally, the classes are similar to a professor-student exchange. Each class starts with silent meditation followed by an hour-long talk given by the Swamis, based on Vedanta's main scriptures: the Vedas, Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita. The last 15 minutes of each session is set aside for questions and answers."

Sunday School classes are for "younger and older children," including children as young as six through high school-age, noted the society's spokesperson. In groups led by convent members, students "study the scriptures and stories of the Vedanta, in age-appropriate ways."

Even without stepping foot inside, the Old Temple is admired by tourists, locals and architecture buffs alike. And next time you wander by, keep an eye out: The Vedanta Society will soon add new signage with more information on the building and the society.

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Embassy or temple unraveling the history of cow hollow s vedanta society