Steven Berg: 1946-2021

You sensed straight away that he was more than a nice guy, something other than a rail-thin, tall soul in a plaid shirt and jeans, looking to help out. Steven, who passed away on May 31, worked hard to convince you that he was a regular gruff Joe, but it was a tough sell.

If you lived in Santa Barbara, you likely met Steven Berg — on his postal routes, serving meals at Transition House, or surfing the outer breaks of local beaches. If you were one of the thousands of annual visitors to the Santa Barbara Vedanta Temple in Montecito, you saw him every evening at 6 p.m. vespers, sitting in the back on the floor.

At Sunday lectures, he was the doorman who welcomed visitors to the temple. “Come in,” he would say, laughing, “everything here is free!” When needed, he was the bouncer to those who might mistake the exquisite 35-acre grounds as ideal for a concert, a yoga studio, or a place to tie one on and get lit.

Since 1982, Steven lived in a small apartment on the lower level of the Pavilion on temple grounds. If you peered in his basement window in the morning, you would have seen him sitting cross-legged, ramrod straight, eyes closed for hours. He passed a portion of every day studying the Bhagavad Gita. For half a century.

Although he declined to take formal vows as a monk (“I’m too independent,” he balked), he was a monk. Indeed, in the view of some qualified to know, he may well have been a saint.

The facts of his life did not signal such an outcome. Raised in a middle-class Norwegian/Irish family in San Francisco, Steven attended S.B. City College in 1964 for two years, briefly married, then hightailed it to Hawai’i to live on a leaky boat.

His early live was devoted to surfing waves that touched the heavens. Indeed, he surfed until recently, when cancer sapped his strength to push off his board to stand.

Steven Berg | Credit: Courtesy

In 1968, he spied a notice in a Honolulu paper for a talk on Hindu philosophy at the YMCA. The speaker was Swami Vividishananda of the Ramakrishna Order created by Vivekananda, the monk who had introduced meditation to the West in 1893. “I was completely enthralled,” Steven recalled, from minute one.

The swami urged Steven to work at the Vedanta Center in Seattle. Despite misgivings about foregoing surfing, Steven stayed for four years. He also graduated with a master’s degree in Art History from the University of Washington and remained a lifelong student of painting, museums, and all varieties of flowers throughout his life.

Surfing returned to his life in 1974 when he gleefully transferred to the Vedanta Center in Fiji. He would live at the ashram and teach at Vivekananda High School for eight years. At the same time, he became an accomplished beekeeper at the center, selling honey to buy books and food for students.

“I went with the idea of living a surfer life, but I learned the beauty of the work,” he said, adding with typical understatement, “which stayed with me.”

A military coup forced him to leave Fiji, and in 1982, he re-settled in S.B., knowing of its jewel-like Vedanta Center on Ladera Lane — and its superb beaches. He also took a job at the Postal Service, delivering mail for decades.

“Every inch of the Santa Barbara property, all 35 acres, has been touched by Steven,” says Pravrajika Vrajaprana, the resident scholar (and lilting soprano) at the Montecito center. That included clearing brush, planting thousands of bulbs and wildflowers, beekeeping, bear chasing, rattlesnake excavating, and planting Matilija poppies all the way up to the top of Ladera Lane. When monks, nuns, and devotees passed away, she said, “Steven reverently paddled out into the Pacific and carefully placed their ashes with prasad flowers in the sea.”

Steven’s first bout with melanoma was in the mid-’80s, likely from years of Fiji sun. He swatted away each recurring episode, even one that afflicted the top of his head near the brain. He carried on with his schedule of duties, study, and meditation, resolutely confident in his doctors, Sansum’s cancer center, and, most of all, the path he had taken.

A year or so ago, he started immunotherapy with initial success but began to decline earlier this year. Through it all, he never complained, nor pined for a longer life or asked for another outcome. “Whatever you do, don’t pray for me to get better or live any longer,” he emphatically instructed me in April. “I’ve had a good life.” His oncologist was baffled and told him, “I wish I could bottle whatever you have, because 99 percent of my patients say, ‘Why me?’”

During his postman’s lunch hour, Steven would often take the elderly who could no longer drive on their errands. His last route was in a hard-scrabble neighborhood where many families had a member who was in a gang or a parent in jail. Some of the children were achingly lonely, in trouble, or barely saw an absentee parent. He would bring them small gifts and sign them up for catalogues and foreign travel brochures so they would receive mail of their own — and see a glimpse of beauty in a world unknown to them.

For 35 years, he volunteered at Transition House, serving meals and then sitting down with those without homes or money, offering his care and attention. What made Steven remarkable is that he expected nothing in return. Indeed, he wanted nothing in return — the linchpin of karma yoga for aspirants. Steven, however, evinced no visible effort.

“We have no doubt that he has attained the goal he sought for so long,” Vrajaprana, his friend of 32 years, said, conferring on him a Vedantin’s highest achievement.

His method was seemingly simple: “When I moved here, I took a vow. Whenever anyone asked me to do something, I’d say yes. I wouldn’t ask why or what. I’d just say yes.”

There will be a memorial July 17, 2021, at the Santa Barbara Vedanta Society of Ladera Lane in Montecito. In lieu of flowers, Steven requested donations to the Vedanta Society of Southern California, 1946 Vedanta Place, Hollywood, CA 90068.


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