The building of the Old Temple was a remarkable feat for a variety of reasons—the most amazing being the speed with which the temple was built. The work began in August 1905 and the temple was ready for dedication in January 1906. Within four months the swami had accomplished an almost unimaginable task. Initially the temple had only two floors. The third floor and four main towers were added two years later. The other unusual aspect of the temple is that Swami Trigunatita himself designed it, blending elements of Eastern and Western culture, both religious and secular. The architect, Joseph A. Leonard, who based his blueprint on the swami’s ideas, mentioned that he learned more about the construction of the temple from the swami than the swami did from him. Swami Trigunatita’s conceptual design is expressed in both the architecture and symbolism that is embodied in the structure.
The swami was always intent on synthesizing the best of the East with that of the West, just as his illustrious brother Swami Vivekananda had done. Sister Gargi wrote, “To Swami Trigunatita the first Hindu Temple in the whole Western world would be a vital piece of India planted on American soil. The Temple represented the influx of India’s great spiritual wisdom into the culture of the West—there to grow and flourish, as Swami Vivekananda had wanted.”
In a pamphlet that he published, “General Features of the Hindu Temple,” he explained the style and the symbols, stating, “This Temple may be considered as a combination of a Hindu Temple, a Christian church, a Mahommedan mosque, a Hindu math or monastery, and an American residence.”
After the third floor was added, the temple was rededicated in 1908. A San Francisco newspaper article described the extraordinary architecture of the Hindu Temple. Excerpts from the article state: “The temple itself is one of the most striking meeting places… in San Francisco. While covering but a comparatively small area, its cluster of gourd-like domes, its tower of meditation, and its minarets invest it with the appearance of having been transplanted from sacred Benares. The architecture of the roof is a composite of detail from the Taj Mahal at Agra, the Temple of Shiva at Bengal, and of the Temple Garden of Dakshineswar at Calcutta, where Paramahamsa Sri Ramakrishna, the great master of Swami Vivekananda, and other adepts once lived.
“A canopy over the mosaic and marble entrance to the auditorium is made to represent the thousand-petaled lotus in the brain, which, when opened through concentration and meditation, the Vedantists believe, brings the highest spiritual illumination. A Sanskrit inscription on the mosaic arch of the auditorium entrance reads, Om Namo Bhagavate Ramakrishnaya. Om is the symbolic word for the absolute and is frequently chanted or repeated in spiritual meditation. Namo means salutation, and Bhagavate Ramakrishnaya means to the blessed Lord, Ramakrishna.”
Mention should be made of another tower over the entrance to the auditorium which resembles a bell-tower of a Christian church, somewhat a Mahommedan mosque, as well as a partial miniature of the Taj Mahal of Agra. The tower was used as a conservatory, which symbolized all living things. The swami even included the American eagle in his design above the door, comparing this famous American icon with the mythical bird, Garuda, of ancient India.
The swami had a cordial relationship with whomsoever he came into contact. He felt strongly that he should integrate with Western culture and society. Accordingly he met all kinds of people in San Francisco—city officials, fireman, tradesman, street car conductors, shopkeepers, etc.—all were charmed by him. In 1912 he sought permission to plant trees around the temple, which required taking two feet of the existing public sidewalk. He contended that a garden of shrubs and other plants would enhance the attractiveness of the building, which in turn would reflect well on the city, especially during the Panama Pacific Exposition that was to be held in San Francisco in 1915. The mayor and board of supervisors granted him the necessary permit. He also succeeded in getting a tax exemption for the temple, as well as the right to sell Vedantic books without the usual license fees necessary for sales.
Swami Trigunatita’s vision for the growth and spread of Vedanta in the West was unique. He conceived of Vedanta as an organic unity, which included every religion, the East and the West, and all philosophical thought. The Old Temple, which survived the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, is a living testament to the great swami’s universality and dynamism.
For more details see Swami Trigunatita: His Life and Work