It is unknown, but to a few, that in 1936 the Vedanta Society of Portland purchased 120 acres of newly harvested hillside in the Tualatin range to house their future spiritual retreat. This acquisition is all the more surprising since it occurred during the harshest years of the Great Depression and was organized and financed by a relatively minor chapter of the Hindu church in the US. Officially known as the Ramakrishna Order, the Hindu presence in the United States had begun only 100 years prior, when the first Hindu representative Sri Vivekananda had toured many of the major cities of North America with the intent to introduce Hinduism to its thriving population. Sri Vivekananda was graciously received by “cultured circles” in many of the major cities from New York to San Francisco and Seattle, but he never came to Portland. And yet it was here, due to the efforts of his primary disciple who was familiar with Portland that a local chapter of the Ramakrishna Order was founded.
Oregon in those days was not a very “culturally diverse” community and acceptance by the locals was hard to come by. Initial efforts to establish a Hindu center in progressive Lake Oswego failed due to local resistance. Thus, it is even more astonishing that the Hindus found peace and acceptance in a rural community that had only recently begun stringing the wires to bring electric light to its rural citizens.
Despite these odds, the Portland Ramakrishna Society managed to scrape together the payment and secured a 120-acre property that included a log cabin, a tool house and a small shed. In 1954 the Society replaced the original buildings and completed an octagonal temple topped by a golden dome in a clearing set above the property. This rustic temple became the first Hindu Temple in the Pacific Northwest.
But challenges were afoot. Multnomah County, in its efforts to raise tax receipts objected to granting the Society tax-exempt status for the entire 120-acre tract, and would only grant an exemption for a single acre upon which temple stood. Transcendence not being a particularly practical response to this secular challenge, the Society took umbrage and sued the county! During the contentious proceedings it became apparent that the county interpreted the tax exemption as extending from the church building itself, and it seemed possible that the Society might be forced to relinquish the tax exempt status for lands that lay too far away from the temple itself. But, it appeared, the penumbra of tax exemption depended upon whether the structure served a spiritual purpose, no matter how large or small it might be. This revelation gave rise to a novel response. In case the tax collector fail to note the intrinsic spirituality of these hallowed groves, the Vedanta Society began to construct tiny little shrines all across the property, each with its own spiritual umbrella that extended into the forest around it. In 1974 the first wooden shrines were constructed to the Sri Ramakrishna (the founder of the Order) and the Holy Mother. The following year shrines to commemorate the Buddha, Christ and Ramakrishna’s disciple Swami Vivekananda were added. An Islamic Shrine followed in 1976, and finally in 1977 the American Indian Shrine was built on a slope overlooking Sauvie Island and the site of the first known Native American settlement in this area.
While this is private property, the Society allows respectful visitors to enter and wander amongst the shrines. The members of the Society have been repairing the buildings after a period of neglect took a toll upon them. The Shrine to the Spirit of the American Indian was recently rebuilt due to winter storm damage. On one of my many visits to the property I spend several wonderful hours conversing with the Lakota artist that was adding a series of symbols onto the structure. Later I returned to find the structure adorned with symbols of buffaloes and lightning – an iconography indigenous to the plains Indians. But as the Society explained, it was the Lakota that responded to their appeal so it was the influence of the Sioux that prevailed in this land usually associated with the Salmon and Raven.