Below are descriptions of some early Eastern and Eastern-influenced religious orders here in Los Angeles. Starting in the mid to late 19th century, the Western world started to open its eyes to the philosophy and perspectives of the rest of the world. And in the 20th century, Eastern thought had significant influence on the culture of the West. California was more often than not ground zero for this cultural opening, and Los Angeles played a pivotal role. After all, if you are going to start an ashram or meditation center, why not set up your grounds in a beautiful garden near the Pacific Ocean where it’s sunny and warm all year round. . . In any event, Los Angeles has always been home to a boggling array of religious beliefs and groups. This great religion tour map of Los Angeles is really handy if you want to see some of the plethora of odd religious organizations here in L.A. first-hand.
1919 — Krotona (6205 Temple Hill Drive 90068)
This site was once home to a religious community started by the Adyar branch of the Theosophists. Theosophy was founded in 1875 by Madame Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott, and William Quan Judge with a basis in mystical beliefs and esoteric religious philosophy. Unlike the two groups below, which were honest-to-god East Indian movements that migrated from the Indian subcontinent to the United States, the Theosophists were westerners who adapted and embraced their own version of Eastern philosophy. After Madame Blavatsky’s death in 1891, the Theosophists splintered into a number of sub-groups. One branch formed in Adyar, India, under Annie Besant. American followers of this branch, including Albert P. Warrington and Grace Shaw Duff, purchased land in Hollywood; in 1919 the Krotona community came into being at this locale. 5 years later, as more residences were built in the surrounding neighborhood, this religious community moved to Ojai where the Krotona School of Theosophy is still located. Many buildings in Hollywood connected to the sect remain standing today, this nice pdf guide tells you more about the place than you probably ever wanted to know! There are other Theosophical groups and locations in Los Angeles as well, including a major branch headquartered in Pasadena.
1925 — Self-Realization Fellowship (Headquarters at 3880 San Rafael Avenue 90065)
Paramahansa Yogananda first came to the West in 1920 when he undertook a series of lectures in Boston and began setting up meditation centers in the eastern United States. In 1924 he embarked on a cross-country speaking tour and in 1925 he founded the international headquarters of the Self-Realization Fellowship in the Mt. Washington neighborhood of Los Angeles. Based in the Hindu tradition, the Self-Realization Fellowship is open to a wide range of religious beliefs. Their primary goal is to spread Yogananda’s teachings and the practice of Kriya Yoga, which is believed to have been taught by Krishna to Arjuna many millennia ago. It is notable that Yogananda’s book “Autobiography of Yoga” (completed in 1945) ended up being a great success, bringing the guru mainstream fame. The sister group to the Self-Realization Fellowship on the Indian subcontinent is the Yogoda Satsanga Society of India. The Self-Realization Fellowship has meditation centers through-out the Southland, including sanctuaries in Pacific Palisades, Hollywood, Encinitas (where Yogananda spent the last years of his life) and San Diego. The Palisades location is home the lovely Lake Shrine. The Mt. Washington headquarters, on the site of the old Mt. Washington hotel and featuring a visitor center and a number gardens, is definitely worth checking out as well.
1934 – Vedanta Society of Southern California (1946 Vedanta Place 90068)
The Vedanta Society is the Western arm of the Ramakrishna Order, a large and well-respected Indian Hindu religious order that embraces religious diversity. The founder of this movement was Ramakrishna, a holy man who is considered by believers to have been an avatar of Vishnu (incidentally, Christopher Isherwood’s biography of Ramakrishna is an enthralling read). After Ramakrishna’s death in 1886, his disciple Vivekananda took over leadership. Starting in 1893, Vivekananda embarked on a lecture tour of the West and in 1894 he founded the first Vedanta Society in New York. In the late 1890’s Vivekananda made the acquaintance of the Mead sisters in Pasadena. This realtionship planted the seed that came into fruition in 1934, when Mrs. Carrie Mead Wyckoff donated land to the order and Swami Prabhavananda moved to Los Angeles to found the Vedanta Society of Southern California. Today the Vedanta Society has sanctuaries in Santa Barbara, Trabuco Canyon, San Diego, and South Pasadena. The main temple is in Hollywood at the address above in the title.
These three religious movements are really just the tip of the iceberg. During the last century, Los Angeles has been a hotbed of cults, sects and odd types of religious activity. It is hard to know where to start in listing all the various groups that prayed, meditated, and practiced here. Other prominent Hindu sites in the area include the Los Angeles Hare Krishna Temple and the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Calabasas. Groups similar to the Theosophists include the Anthroposophist (Rudolph Steiner’s offshoot of the Theosophists) and the Philosophical Research Society (founded in 1934, known for their large occult library). Other groups whose practice includes knowledge of the occult include the Temple of Thelema and Builders of the Adytum. And other Eastern religions that have large branches here include the Hsi Lai, Tenrikyo, and the Zoroastrians. Again I refer you to the Los Angeles religion tour map for locations of many of these groups. The selection of religious groups listed above is by no means complete (I have not even mentioned the Dream Center or the Scientologists!) as there is such variety of religious devotion here in Los Angeles.