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Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

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Ananda Ashrama – Part 1

Mike Lawler is the former  president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at lawlerdad@yahoo.com.

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at
lawlerdad@yahoo.com.

Of the many “treasures of the Valley” that I write about, there are few as intriguing, as beautiful and, to most CV residents, as mysterious as the Ananda Ashrama. The Ashrama is a 120-acre spiritual retreat that lies hidden in the heart of CV, sandwiched between a residential neighborhood and the mountains. The grounds are natural, yet beautifully kept, and the facilities include a large temple and several retreat facilities.

The Ananda Ashrama promotes an Eastern-flavored blend of all the world’s religions – an eclectic, non-sectarian faith that recognizes and honors the one God of all religions. Vedanta is the base of their philosophy – Vedanta being a Sanskrit word signifying bliss or supreme wisdom. The Vedanta philosophy seeks the base fundamentals of spirituality, rejecting dogma and ritual, and emphasizing peace and tolerance. It does not encourage its followers to reject their own religions, but instead helps each individual to find his own path to God, in whichever direction that spiritual path may lie.

Most CV residents are unaware of the church’s existence even though the Ashrama has been here since 1923. The sign at the entrance on Pennsylvania is small, there is no marquee out front with clever weekly sermon titles, and they don’t advertise in the newspaper. While they are in no way secretive, they are so low-key that they are often overlooked, and gain much of their membership through word-of-mouth. The Sunday services are open to the public, as are their classes.

Yet few locals even know where its entrance is – a tree shrouded driveway that faces onto the very top of Pennsylvania Avenue. Driving through the nearly always open gates, one is immediately transported into another world, a wonderland of green meadows, huge mature pines and eucalyptus, and carefully tended gardens. The driveway winds through the lush greenery, punctuated by rock walls, small cabins and groups of nearly tame deer. The driveway climbs up the hillside finally ending at a parking lot perched below the main temple. It’s a truly amazing oasis in the middle of suburban Los Angeles, a quiet and peaceful place of inward reflection, and a time capsule of old La Crescenta.

First-time visitors are astounded. What is this place?

The story of Ananda Ashrama reaches back to 1893, when the Chicago World’s Fair convened a “Parliament of World Religions.” Swami Vivekananda came from India to represent Hinduism, and electrified the gathered crowd with his teachings, creating a sensation. He is credited with introducing America to yoga, and the ancient Hindu philosophy of Vedanta. In his native India he was a key figure in the revival of Hinduism and its elevation to a great world religion. His young disciple, Swami Paramananda, came to the U.S. in 1906 to continue the works of Vivekananda. He established the Vedanta Centre in Boston, which he used as a base for popular lecture tours throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia. By the early ’20s, after much success for Swami Paramananda, the time had come to expand to the west coast. By that time one of his own disciples was socialite Georgina Jones Walton, daughter of Senator John Jones, the developer of Santa Monica. Georgina, or Sister Daya as she was called at the Boston Vedanta Centre, was familiar with the west coast and chose the Crescenta Valley as a likely spot to create a new west coast center. While staying at the La Crescenta Hotel, located at the corner of Rosemont and Foothill, she attended a tea put on by the world-famous painter Seymour Thomas and his wife Helen, niece of Benjamin Briggs. Thomas had heard that the Fusenot Ranch at the top of Pennsylvania was for sale, and urged Sister Daya to go see it. It was perfect – extensive acreage planted in grapes and other crops, a reliable water source from Ward Canyon, a large main house and many barns and outbuildings.

Realtor Fred Anderson, whose office was in Montrose, closed the deal and Ananda Ashrama was born.

Next week I’ll cover the building of the temple and the fire and flood of 1933.

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