During his first visit to the West, Swami Vivekananda (Swamiji) had often spoken of the need in America for a Vedantic ashrama or retreat. But it was not until early in 1899, when a student of Swami Abhedananda’s renounced the world and received the brahmacharya name of Gurudas, that the need became real. When it was discussed in the New York Society, of which Swami Abhedananda was in charge, another of his students, Miss Minnie C. Boock, offered a solution.
She possessed, it so happened, a homestead in Santa Clara County, California, that had been issued to her some eight years earlier by President Harrison, and that contained, according to the Official Plat of the Survey, “one hundred and fifty-nine acres and eighty-nine hundredths of an acre.”
This property could, she thought, serve the purpose of an ashrama. “It had its disadvantages,” Swami Atulananda (formerly Cornelius J. Heijblom, then Gurudas), later wrote; “it was fifty miles from the nearest railway station and market, but it would do to begin with. It would be solitary anyhow. And she very generously offered this place to Swami Vivekananda.”
On June 25, 1900, when Swamiji was in New York, Miss Minnie Boock formally deeded her homestead to him, “to have and to hold,” the record reads . . . “in trust, for the general use and benefit of the Vedanta School of Philosophy.” Thus the first Vedanta retreat in the Western world officially came into being.
In June 1900, Swamiji wrote that, “It (Shanti Ashrama) would be nice for a summer gathering for us in California, if friends like to go there now I will send them the written authority. Will you write to Mrs. Espinol [Aspinall] and Miss Bell, etc. about it. I am rather desirous it should be occupied this summer as soon as possible. There is only a log cabin on the land, for the rest they must have tents. I am sorry I can not spare a Swami yet.”
In the meanwhile Swamiji asked Swami Turiyananda, to whom he had already assigned the California work, to establish the ashrama. “It is the will of the Divine Mother that you should take charge of the work there,” Swamiji told him. Swami Turiyananda smiled, “Mother’s will? Rather say it is your will. Certainly you have not heard the Mother communicate Her will to you in this matter.” But Swamiji grew grave. “Yes, brother,” he said, “If your nerves become very fine, then you will be able to hear Mother’s words directly.” He spoke with such fervor that Swami Turiyananda’s doubts were stilled. Even as a year or so earlier he had agreed, out of love for Swamiji, to come to America, so he now agreed to try to establish a retreat in far-off California.
Swami Turiyananda and Miss Boock traveled in Swami Vivekananda’s company as far as Detroit, where they evidently stopped over for a day or two. It was there, it seems, that Swami Turiyananda received directions from Swamiji regarding the future work. Speaking of these later, the swami enumerated them: “(1) Forget India; (2) go to the land; (3) establish the center; (4) Mother will do the rest.” Thus instructed, Swami Turiyananda, accompanied by Miss Boock, proceeded on to southern California where he arrived on Sunday, July 8.
Swami Turiyananda arrived in San Francisco on Thursday, July 26, and that evening was greeted by the Vedanta Society, which met as usual at Dr. Logan’s office. Discussion revolved around whether the swami would accomplish “most good by going away to the mountains with a few who would be able to go with him or by remaining in the city and shedding the influence of his life and teaching among the many he would be able to reach.” Swami Turiyananda’s reply was that he would do both; “that his work was with the few and the many.” But now he felt that he should go to the mountains, as the land had been given and “Mother” was propitious, and that after starting the ashrama he would return to teach in San Francisco and also go to Los Angeles. “I am your servant,” he said: “I have come all the way from India to serve you, and I will do my best.”
On the afternoon of Thursday, August 2, just a week after his arrival in San Francisco, Swami Turiyananda and eight students set out for the ashrama. These pioneers were Emily Aspinall, Ida Ansell, Dr. Milburn H. Logan, George Roorbach, Mrs. Bertha Petersen, Dr. Lucy A. Chandler, Mrs. Agnes Stanley, and a Mrs. Jackson. The first four had been well known to Swami Vivekananda. Four days earlier, Lydia Bell and Minnie Boock had gone on ahead to get things ready for the arrival of the group.
Swami Turiyananda and the eight students, carrying luggage, provisions, tents, and other bulky equipment of diverse kinds, traveled by train to San Jose, a town some sixty miles south of San Francisco. They stayed overnight at a small hotel (the Rita) and the next morning at daybreak set out by horse-drawn stagecoach for Mount Hamilton, some twenty miles southeast. This second step of the journey was the most pleasant. The road, a fairly good and well-traveled one, wandered through fragrant, fruit orchards, through vineyards and olive groves, past well-kept farms and dairies, and, at length, wound — twisting three hundred and sixty-five times in five miles — up Mount Hamilton to Lick Observatory, from which summit of 4,200 feet one could see on a clear day for a hundred miles in all directions.
But just here, at the peak of the journey, the aspect of things alarmingly changed. Waiting for the party of nine was a Mr. Paul Gerber, a young Italian-Swiss homesteader, whom Miss Boock had sent. He had brought the only available conveyance in the valley—a small, four-seater spring wagon, drawn by four mules, which could accommodate seven people, including himself: four on the seats, three on the floor with legs dangling, country-style, over the back. But with the space thus filled there was no room for the luggage, the provisions, the tents, and the equipment—all of which, Mr. Gerber explained, would have to be left at the mountaintop. Further, his mules could make only one trip every other day up the steep, difficult road; thus it would be some time before the baggage could be recovered.
As for the three remaining people, two horses were borrowed from the Observatory, one for Mrs. Stanley, the other for Dr. Logan. Mr. Roorbach, who had brought along a bicycle, had perforce to ride it. Disheartening as this turn of events was, a look to the east of Mount Hamilton was more so. Here were no orchards, no vineyards, no well-irrigated fields, no shaded farmhouses or well-kept barns. A rugged confusion of mountains, partly covered with chaparral —a scratchy small-leafed scrub — and dotted with oak and scraggly digger pine, shimmered in the heat. Nowhere was there sign of human life.
At the base of the farthest range stretched what appeared to be a long, narrow strip of brownish grass. This, as Mr. Gerber could have pointed out, was the San Antonio Valley, somewhere in which lay Miss Boock’s homestead. The valley upon which Swami Turiyananda must have gazed from the top of Mount Hamilton was not — nor is it today — to be found on an ordinary map; few Californians could have said where it was, what it was, or how to get there. “Mother,” Swami Turiyananda murmured, “where have You brought us? What have You done!”
The road that twisted some fifteen miles down, around, up, and over the mountains and into the valley has been described in her memoirs by Mrs. French, who traveled it several years later, as “almost impassable — rocks, fallen trees, in some places almost washed away. Only a cowboy on horseback could traverse it with safety.” Indeed, for long distances this road was no road at all but a long-dry, gravelly creek bed, overgrown here and there with brush. As the afternoon wore on, the heat became oppressive, and at length Mrs. Stanley fainted dead away and tumbled from her horse. Though unhurt, she was shaken, and the swami insisted upon giving her his place in the wagon beside the driver. He himself now rode the horse.
It was seven o’clock, the sun had set behind the western range, and the mountains in the east were a deep and lovely mauve when the party arrived at the ashrama at the south end of the valley. There they found a small (twelve-by-twelve-foot) log cabin, a shed, a tent, and Miss Boock and Miss Bell.
These women had been having trouble of their own. During her absence much of Miss Boock’s furniture and equipment, such as cots, camp stools, lamps, and utensils, had been appropriated by other homesteaders whose cabins, now deserted, were located long distances one from another. Miss Boock, accompanied by Miss Bell and Mr. Gerber, had driven about the sweltering valley in the spring wagon, discovering and repossessing some, if not all, of her property.
These foraging trips, together with cleaning out the long-unused cabin and shed, re-equipping them, putting things in order, must have been arduous tasks. But on the evening of August third all was in readiness, and the rudiments of dinner — boiled rice and brown sugar — were waiting for the swami and his party. The rest of the meal, which was to have come with the group and been cooked upon arrival, was sitting atop Mount Hamilton. Thus Shanti Ashrama became established.