Krishna Devotees Look to Provide for This Life

The New York Times
By Greg Beato, March 4, 2016

For Roger Siegel, the last half-century has been the proverbial long, strange trip. It started in New York, where, as an idealistic college dropout in the early 1960s, he tutored Harlem schoolchildren. It included civil rights marches in Alabama and peyote hikes in the Nevada hills.

It took a major turn in San Francisco in 1967, when Mr. Siegel became Gurudas, a disciple in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or Iskcon, a.k.a. the Hare Krishnas.

For Mr. Siegel, the pursuit of Krishna consciousness led to simple living and global adventure. There were free vegetarian love feasts at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. There were recording sessions with George Harrison in London. Mr. Siegel played the kartals — hand cymbals — and sang in the chorus on “Hare Krishna Mantra,” a hit single that Apple Records released in 1969.

What it didn’t do was provide him with the kind of retirement security he might have attained if he had gone into a more mainstream life. Now, he and other Krishna devotees hope to address that.

“We have people all over the world now, in the East and the West,” Mr. Siegel said. “Some are isolated. Some are poor. We’d like to create a retirement village.”

When Mr. Siegel joined Iskcon, it was still a fledgling organization. A year earlier, its spiritual leader, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, a 69-year-old immigrant from India, founded it in New York. He practiced Gaudiya Vaishnavism, a form of Hinduism with roots in the 16th century. He taught that the material world is temporary and that man could attain his highest spiritual development through devotional service to the supreme divinity, Lord Krishna.

Along with his fellow devotees, Mr. Siegel shaved his head, wore a dhoti and spent hours each day chanting and dancing in public places while distributing Prabhupada’s translations and commentaries on ancient Vedic texts. “We pooled our money and lived communally,” Mr. Siegel said.

GurudasNYTimes
(Roger Siegel, at far right, at a music festival in 1969 with George Harrison, center)

By the mid-1970s, the group had attracted around 10,000 full-time adherents in the United States and around 50,000 congregational members. Internationally, it had established 11 communities in Western Europe and around 30 more in the rest of the world. Individual communities were financially autonomous, but they all tended to generate revenue through donations and through the sale of books, incense, suntan lotion and other items produced by two Iskcon-owned enterprises. Iskcon’s growing revenue during this period fueled its ambitious expansion and outreach efforts.

In the early 1970s, Mr. Siegel spent several years in India, supervising the construction of an Iskcon temple in Vrindavan, a holy town in northern India that was reputedly the birthplace of Lord Krishna. Even as Iskcon’s fortunes grew, life in the ashrams remained austere. Devotees ate simple vegetarian meals. They owned few possessions beyond their clothing, prayer beads and musical instruments.

In keeping with their ideals of material renunciation and their practice of bhakti yoga, or giving back to Krishna, they did not receive individual salaries or wages for the work they performed on behalf of the group. There were no pension plans, either. Instead, their focus was on eternity and their next lives, not the end of this one.

To a certain extent, that philosophy has remained central for Mr. Siegel. For the last 30 years or so, he has lived in apartments, working as a job counselor at a nonprofit. He never gave up the pursuit of Krishna consciousness; he just moved out of the ashram.

Long term, Mr. Siegel would still like to escape samsara, the repetitious entanglement of birth and rebirth in the material world, and live in a state of transcendental bliss with Lord Krishna in a far corner of the universe known as the Vaikuntha planets.

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