Swami Vivekananda introduced Vedanta to America at the 1893 Parliament of Religions in Chicago. He founded two Vedanta Societies: one in New York in 1894 and the other in San Francisco in 1900.Swamiji arrived in San Francisco from southern California on February 22, 1900. He left at the end of May for India via the East Coast, Europe and the Middle East. Within three months Swamiji had sown the seeds of Vedanta throughout the Bay Area, which to this day continue to sprout and flourish. He gave over sixty-one talks, including formal as well as informal classes; he intermingled with the people of the area impressing everyone with his powerful yet gentle presence. Some of his most moving lectures: “Is Vedanta the Future Religion?,” “Discipleship,” “The Soul and God,” and “I Am That I Am,” were given in San Francisco, as well as a series of talks on the world’s great spiritual teachers. He also gave a series of lectures on spiritual practice, emphasizing concentration, meditation, and worship.
Those who came to hear him lecture found his appearance and delivery exceedingly attractive. Although he looked like a prince in his orange robe and turban, his lecturing style was not lordly or oratorical. He had an easy, informal style with charming gestures and facial expressions, and a beautiful, well-modulated voice. He had a habit of leisurely looking over the audience before he started to speak. When he spoke people felt he was talking to them and, what is more, enjoying it. “All faces are dear to me,” he said in a lecture. “We must learn to see the Lord in all. All, even the worst, are Mother’s children. The universe, good and bad, is but the play of the Lord.” Swamiji’s effect on people was to lift their minds into the infinite reaches of their own nature; they would come away, as one of them put it, walking on air.
From the audiences at his lectures he gathered a following to whom he could give more serious training. A flat was rented on Turk Street for a month where he could give classes and private interviews, and where he could, as he once wrote of the process, “mold disciples to conceive of the ideas of realization and perfect renunciation.” With these smaller groups and individuals he, as the guru, the spiritual teacher, could interact with them more intimately. Also he could live more informally there. He could cook for himself and his students, eat and talk with them in the kitchen, and come and go freely as he pleased—on walks, or rides on the cable cars to the market or to Chinatown or Golden Gate Park. Of course, on these excursions he was blessing a wider audience than the students who came to the flat. There are many charming stories about Swamiji while he was living here in San Francisco amongst us, which demonstrate his multifaceted personality: his childlike nature, his mischievous sense of humor, his dignified regal bearing, unfathomable intellect, and his meditative indrawn mood.
His companions relate that he attracted attention wherever he went. When he walked along a downtown street, people would stand and gaze at him, and in Chinatown the Chinese would happily flock around him. From his Turk Street letters we get the impression from Swamiji himself that he was happy and serene in San Francisco. He joyously tells how he is walking a lot up and down hills, eating well, and having better sleep than he had ever had anywhere else.
Everywhere that Swamiji went he gave completely of himself. A man of God of his stature had a tremendous lasting influence on the thought current of those who were fortunate enough to come into contact with him and even on those who did not. As a world teacher, his spiritual power was subtle and penetrating; he himself predicted its effect would be far-reaching and long-lasting. He always emphasized the glory of our true spiritual Self and the means to realize the truth directly.
One of the reasons Swamiji came to California from the East Coast was to recoup his health. In May 1900, he went to Camp Taylor in Marin County, where he, along with others, camped for two weeks. Although the weather on the whole was overcast and rainy, Swamiji relaxed free from public engagements and crowds of people. He meditated in the profound stillness of the surrounding forest, chanted in the silence of the early morning hours, took quiet walks with his fellow campers, and chatted amicably with his companions throughout the day on a variety of topics, ranging from how to make mayonnaise to the nature of the Atman. Swamiji left the camp refreshed in spirit. By the time he boarded the Southern Pacific train for Chicago, his work in the West was winding down. The light from a luminous star that appeared on the horizon, though briefly, still shines as brightly as ever.