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SURROUNDINGS HOLLYWOOD

Vedanta Temple Is an Oasis of Peace in the City

'There have been great vibrations here for 75 years,' a swami says. 'Everyone is welcome.'

October 02, 2003|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Cars and trucks roar along a freeway a few steps away. The whump-whump-whump of a helicopter rumbles somewhere overhead.

But inside Hollywood's miniature Taj Mahal, there's a surprising serenity.

Its swamis say that's because of the vibrations. Those that are spiritual, not secular. The good vibrations.

The onion-domed Hollywood Temple is filled with them, according to those who come to meditate with the Vedanta Society at its Southern California headquarters.

"There have been great vibrations here for 75 years. This place appeals to many intellectual people," said Swami Sarvadevananda, a 60-year-old India-born assistant minister at the temple.

"Great writers such as Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood were influenced by this place. All day long people come. Everyone is welcome. Our main teaching is harmony and respect for everyone."

Isherwood's autobiographical "My Guru and His Disciple" spoke of the Vedanta philosophy as a nonsectarian, non-dogmatic "cleaning house for religious experiences and ideas."

Those going for the first time may have to hunt for the Hollywood Temple, though.

Tucked into a cul-de-sac called Vedanta Place off an alleyway named Vedanta Terrace, the place known to locals as the "Tiny Taj" is all but invisible to the hundreds of thousands of people who pass within a few feet of it each day on the Hollywood Freeway.

The temple was built in 1938, eight years after the Vedanta Society of Southern California was founded by devotees of the Ramakrishna Order of India.

The Vedanta philosophy was introduced to the United States in the late 1890s by Indian mystic Swami Vivekananda. One of his followers was South Pasadena resident Carrie Mead Wyckoff.

Her father, William Mead, owned an oak-studded, four-acre Hollywood hillside retreat where he had built a cottage. By the mid-1920s the area's proximity to movie studios had turned it into one of Los Angeles' first film colonies.

After her father's death, Wyckoff donated the Hollywood property to a protege of Vivekananda named Swami Prabhavananda, who was in the process of establishing the society's local chapter.

These days Mead's 1901 Craftsman home next to the temple is used for the society's bookstore, offices and meeting rooms. A monastery that houses 18 swamis and monks sits behind the temple. Another half-dozen homes, mostly used as rentals, fill the remainder of the acreage. The largest of the dwellings has been turned into a convent for 18 Vedanta nuns.

The Italian villa-style convent was once home to actress Jeanette MacDonald. Others who are said to have lived in the area during its heyday included Charlie Chaplin, Janet Gaynor, David Niven, William "Hopalong Cassidy" Boyd, Ronald Colman and Claudette Colbert.

Construction of the Hollywood Freeway in the late 1940s and early '50s created havoc in the neighborhood. Some streets were severed. Others were rerouted. Hundreds of homes and businesses were removed.

Swami Atmavidyananda, who as a boy named William Scott attended services at the Hollywood Temple with his parents, has never forgotten the disruption the highway project caused.

"I remember my mother starting to drive up Ivar [Avenue] to the temple and saying, 'Oh, oh, I can't do that anymore with the freeway there,' " said Atmavidyananda, 54, the Vedanta Society's treasurer.

These days, the temple at 1946 Vedanta Place is reached by taking the northbound freeway's Cahuenga Boulevard offramp and turning left onto Cahuenga, then left on Franklin Avenue and left on Ivar before going under the freeway and turning right on Vedanta Terrace and then right on Vedanta Place.

Directions from the southbound freeway are similar, except that motorists turn right at the exit ramp onto Cahuenga.

"Before they put extra lanes and a wall up in the '70s, you could see the temple clearly going south on the freeway. But now you barely get a glimpse," Atmavidyananda said.

"People are always saying, 'Oh, gosh, I didn't know this was here.' The sound of the freeway is like white noise when you come here. People are always commenting on serenity being so close to the city."

American-born monk Jnana Chaitanya agreed.

"A lot of people say it's like an oasis here. But that's the nature of our activity -- finding serenity and peace. People sense that when they come here. Some very holy people lived and taught here and contributed a great deal to the vibrations here."

The 64-year-old Jnana- said a visit to the temple's bookstore when he was in his 20s turned him on a path that led to its monastery.

"In my school days, I was in a lot of turmoil. I was struggling to find my way in the world -- spiritually too. I spent some time in the bookstore and heard the swami speak. It resonated with me. Vedanta is very broad and accepting of religions. We believe there's truth in all religions. We emphasize the mystic path, inward discovery of the inner self."

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