Kali Mandir / Ramakrishna Ashram History
“MY MOTHER TOLD ME TO FEED YOU”
It all began in 1986 with a photograph of Ma Bhavatarini Kali. Sitting outside the famous Dakshineswar Kali temple, Usha hoped to take a photograph of Ma in the inner shrine. The odds were not in her favor, since photography was strictly forbidden. Suddenly, an attractive lady came out from Ma’s inner shrine and said, “My Mother told me to feed you.” With that, she put a sweet into Usha’s mouth. The lady turned out to be Kalpana Biswas, one of Rani Rasmani’s descendants and part-owner of the temple. With Kalpana’s permission, Usha took a photo of Ma Bhavatarini Kali, which in India became the most popular photo of Ma Kali for many years. Usha wanted to share her photos of Ma Kali and publish them, together with authentic information on this mystic goddess. When she approached a swami of the Ramakrishna Order who was a well-known writer to write a book on Ma, he declined. The then-president of the Order, Swami Gambhirananda, told Usha, “You write the book.” It took two years to write Kali, the Black Goddess of Dakshineswar and it took another two years—and a collection of rejection letters—to find a publisher.
Usha did not find a publisher until she let go of the manuscript. During the height of the AIDS epidemic, Usha attended a satsang of Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, an AIDS activist and colorful spiritual teacher. A young man approached her: “May I read your manuscript on Kali?” Usha told him to wait until the book was published. “You don’t understand—I don’t have time,” he said. Usha realized that this man was dying. The next day she sent a copy of the manuscript to Ma Jaya for distribution. Two days later, she received a letter from Betty Weiser of Weiser Books/Nicolas-Hays, offering to publish the book.
After her mother passed away in 1992, Usha attempted to turn her grief into a positive force. She decided to hold a Kali Puja festival the following year. It would be in June, at Anneliese’s School in Laguna Beach. To conduct the pujas, she arranged to bring Sri Haradhan Chakraborty, main priest of the Dakshineswar Kali temple, along with his assistant Sri Pranab Ghosal. There were many obstacles which turned out to be blessings. Had there not been problems with visas, finances, people and attitudes, then the chain of events that led to the formation of Kali Mandir may not have happened.
Pranabji commissioned a beautiful stone image of Ma Kali in Kolkata, and Sri Haradhanji ritually awakened the murti at Anneliese’s School in Laguna Beach on Friday, June 18, 1993, naming Her “Sri Ma Dakshineswari Kali”. Anuradha Paudwal, the famous Indian bhajan singer, said years later that she had been sitting in the inner shrine at the Dakshineswar Kali temple earlier in 1993 when she had heard Ma say, “I’m going to California.”
There had not been the intention to have more than one festival, but when some dishonest devotees ran off with with Ma’s ghat (a vessel that is necessary for formal Kali worship), Haradhanji and Pranabji had to be brought back the following year to install the new ghat.
The Kali Puja festival had now become an annual event. Amongst the devotees, it became known as “Big Puja”. Although expensive—Usha was spending her own money each year—the pujas continued. Until Haradhanji’s passing in 2009, he and Pranabji came every summer for seventeen years to perform these pujas.
THE GODDESS OF LAGUNA
Ma had taken up residence in Laguna Beach, and She needed to be worshiped daily. Haradhanji taught Usha and the pre-monastic Swami Bhajanananda Saraswati (who was barely out of high school) how to perform puja. Many of Swami Bhajanananda’s high-school friends began coming, drawn to Ma and Her worship. Some have since moved on and some stayed, such as Swami’s best high-school friend, Swami Ambikananda. There were many young people, Indians as well as Westerners, and much joy and laughter. The word spread, and soon more than forty people would cram into Usha’s small one-bedroom apartment in downtown Laguna Beach for monthly Amavasya Kali pujas. The downstairs tenant—nicknamed “Frank Asura” by devotees—would take a broomstick and bang on his ceiling loudly, complaining about all the “religious noise”. One day in 1996, Haradhanji was performing puja at the apartment, and another neighbor complained about the sound of the bell. Haradhanji did not like the interruption of Ma’s puja, and told Usha to move to a free-standing house. Though she liked her apartment and did not want to move, circumstances forced Usha to move to Kali Mandir’s current location in Laguna Canyon just a few months later. Usha rented a house from Rose Trevino, a woman as tough as steel, but with a heart of gold. Rose promised to sell the house to Usha for $500,000 if she could come up with the down payment.
In December 1997 there was a terrible flood in Laguna Canyon and Kali Mandir was hit by four feet of mud and water. Fortunately, the day before, Rose had insisted on having all the doors boarded up, so only a minimal amount entered the house. Still, Usha needed to evacuate to higher ground, and as she stood across the street, watching the devastation, she felt terrible for having brought Ma to such a dangerous place. At that very moment, she noticed something rise up from the flood waters, right at her feet. It was a rudraksha mala. Taking it as a sign from Ma, she tossed into the flood waters the thoughts of moving and started japam with this mala. On two other occasions, when discussion of moving came up, immediately a sign appeared, seeming to indicate that she should stay: once, a fossilized Lakshmi conch came out of the earth in Ma’s garden; another time, a snake came up to a holy tree in the garden and stopped at a picture of Kali and Sri Ramakrishna that sat at the base of the tree. The snake then coiled itself around the picture and remained poised over it in a classic cobra pose. When Swami Bhajanananda graduated from UC Berkeley, he moved into a tent under this tree, which is now the location of the outdoor Shiva Lingam under the Manasa Devi tree.
Shortly after the annual Kali Puja festival in 2001, Rose came by one Saturday and gave Usha a one-week ultimatum: come up with $500,000 to purchase the house, or she would evict her and put the house up for sale for $650,000. No matter how the figures were massaged, only half the down payment was available. Stressful days passed. Then a Tantric holy man showed up at Kali Mandir on Thursday morning after Ma’s daily puja. “I heard of your predicament,” he said. “I know a mantra. When I chant it, Ma comes and fixes the problem.” He sat down with the harmonium and started to chant in a tune both melodic and haunting. Everything was forgotten. Tears of joy rolled down the cheeks. On Friday—one day before the deadline—a devotee called and pledged the remainder of the down payment. Ma Kali always comes through, but sometimes She makes us wait until the last moment before She saves us.
A WELL-SWEPT COURTYARD
Though money was tight, spirits were high. Daily, monthly and yearly Kali pujas continued. Over the years, an ever-increasing number of sadhus and devotees visited. In 2008, Swami Ambikananda moved to Kali Mandir / Ramakrishna Ashram. Soon after, musician Rampriya Das (Trevor Hall) moved in and lived here until his marriage in 2013. Many of his songs were written during his stay. There is always music in the air here. Recently Ma brought another musician. Kamalakanta (Naren K. Schreiner, founder of Sangita Yoga) moved in, bringing his sweet Shyama Sangeet and Indian classical sounds.
Sri Ma Dakshineswari Kali of Laguna Beach is very much alive and hears the prayers of Her children. She responds when She wills—but the word has spread that sweeping Her courtyard helps get results faster. When one broom gets worn out and breaks, someone brings another. After one devotee has cleaned Ma’s courtyard, another comes and shakes the tree so that the leaves fall and the sweeping can continue. We who live at Kali Mandir / Ramakrishna Ashram just watch Ma’s divine play and thank Her for allowing us to work for Her and Her devotees. None of us ever planned all this. But Ma had a plan all along…and who knows what She is going to do next.