If you’ve ever been to Union Square, you’ve seen them: They chant, drum; sometimes they even give you a free copy of their scripture. Hare Krishnas are often shrugged off as an urban oddity on par with clipboard people, but what lies behind those orange robes and endless mantras?
This Friday, June 16, Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started It will premiere at Village East Cinema. The documentary tells the story of Srila Prabhupada, a disheveled 70-year-old Hindu who boarded a freighter to the U.S. in August 1965 with little more than three self-translated religious texts and instructions from his guru to “offer spiritual wisdom to the people of the world.”
Prabhupada – back then still called Bhaktivedanta Swami – struggled through life on New York City’s rough “bum Bowery” until one of his early admirers found him a place one avenue over. It was here, in a tiny storefront at 26 Second Avenue, that Prabhupada established what would become the very first Krishna Consciousness temple outside of India.
Today, the place looks inconspicuous, but buried under the scaffolding of what is going to be a new 10-story apartment building, the temple is still in use. I visited the sanctuary to speak with Yadunath das, a 55-year-old actor and comedian who is on the board of directors of the historic site.
Referring to a replica sign on the storefront that reads “Matchless Gifts,” Yadunath said, “That was one of those moments where you see the hand of God.” When Prabhupada’s early followers found the empty space, it still carried the sign of its former occupant, a small curiosa shop. The devotees decided to keep the sign, “because what Prabhupada was giving them was a real matchless gift, the gift of knowledge of God.”
As Hare Krishna! shows, Prabhupada offered this gift during a time when many were seeking. During the turbulent mid-sixties, the beatniks were evolving into hippies, authority was questioned on all fronts and youngsters were looking for a level of meaning that the post-war American Dream of suburbia could not provide. “A chicken in every pot, two cars in every garage,” Yadunath said, “But the youth saw that their parents were having these things, but still weren’t satisfied, something was missing.”
So they went searching; some via music, some via drugs, some via religion, and some via all of the above. “LSD opened up levels of consciousness to the hippies that they did not know were available,” Yadunath said, “And it opened up a lot of questions, but it didn’t provide them with the answers.” Prabhupada, however, did. He claimed the world needed “a revolution of consciousness,” rather than a political or social one.
Some of the seeking youngsters were captivated by this message and by Prabhupada’s solemn yet often joyous presence, and also prominent (counter-)cultural figures started exploring the opportunity of a more permanent state of bliss through the Hare Krishna process. In 1963, Allen Ginsberg had returned from a spiritual quest in India, and remained looking East for answers. Upon hearing that Prabhupada had rented the Second Avenue storefront, Ginsberg befriended him, sought his teachings, and helped get his books published.
On October 9, 1966, Ginsberg joined Prabhupada for a now-famous public kirtan — a collective chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra — that took place in Tompkins Square Park and soon resulted in a crowd of curious passersby. As the film shows, the next day the New York Times published an article about it and Prabhupada considered this recognition to be the starting point of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). He registered the organization under that name, and it grew to be synonymous for the worldwide movement.
Two months later, music producer Alan Kallman visited the Second Avenue temple and, after hearing the kirtan, invited Srila Prabhupada and 15 of his followers to record a session in his Midtown studio. Ginsberg lent them his harmonium — an instrument still widely used for Hare Krishna chanting — and praised the completed record in the Times, saying that it brought “a state of ecstasy.”
With that same shrill harmonium, Ginsberg further exposed the public to the Krishna movement in September of 1968, by singing the 16-word mantra to a visibly uncomfortable William F. Buckley, the famous conservative journalist who hosted a talk show called Firing Line.
In the meantime, Prabhupada’s kirtan album had sold out, and somehow one of the copies found its way to the other side of the Atlantic, where it enchanted Beatles guitarist George Harrison. “I remember we sang it for days, John and I, with ukulele, banjos, sailing through the Greek Islands chanting Hare Krishna,” Harrison would later recall in 1982. “Like six hours we sang, because we couldn’t stop once we got going. As soon as we stopped, it was like the lights went out. It went on to the point where our jaws were aching, singing the mantra over and over and over and over and over. We felt exalted; it was a very happy time for us.”
Harrison went on to help popularize the movement, not only by producing his own Hare Krishna album, but also, most famously, through his worldwide hit “My Sweet Lord,” in which he sang about his quest for a personal relationship with God while his background singers chanted the Hare Krishna mantra, gospel-style.
Harrison got John Lennon and Yoko Ono interested and, in September 1969, Lennon invited the then 74-year-old Prabhupadato to stay with him at his estate in the U.K. and give a series of lectures. During Prabhupada’s residency they recorded a private conversation between the four of them. As they talk about their mutual proclivity to bring peace to the world, Prabhupada can be heard answering questions about his philosophy to an eager Lennon and Harrison, while repeatedly cutting off a more skeptical Yoko Ono.
As these major cultural icons appropriated Prabhupada’s viewpoints, a wider audience rapidly came to know about the Hare Krishna. “Well, they must be cool,” Yadunath remembers thinking as a teenager, “George is into it, so on some level it must be okay.”
Yadunath das was raised Catholic. With “more of a personal rather than institutionalized relationship with God,” he settled upon his new belief system in the 1990s. It was an embrace of “the hugging saint” Amma — the world famous Hindu guru known for her cuddly disposition — that directed his spiritual search back to the Hare Krishna. After meeting her, he remembered and revisited the transcript of the conversation between Prabhupada and The Beatles that he had read in the 1970s. “Then, at that point,” he said, “it really resonated with me.” It was this rereading that eventually set him on a path towards his initiation in 2002.
“It was very meaningful for me to be initiated in this exact room where Prabhupada began the movement,” Yadunath said about the temple on 26 Second Avenue. Yadunath had come to know his spiritual guide through his role playing a devotee in a low-budget drama series on the life of Prabhupada that was directed by this guru. After his initiation, Yadunath continued his career as an actor and comedian for the (currently dormant) improv and sketch troupe Chicago City Limits, now at times catering specifically to audiences of devotees.
“We try to demonstrate our love for God in as many ways as possible,” Yadunath said. Chanting the names of God such as Hare and Krishna is one way to do this. The guru Sri Chaitanya, who founded the predecessor of the Hare Krishna movement over 500 years ago, famously popularized this practice. “It’s written somewhere that when you’re chanting Hare Krishna, God is dancing on your tongue,” Yadunath said, “Because there is no difference between his name and himself.”
Asked about his most blissful moments, Yadunath said, “There have been times where chanting the holy names felt like a blanket and I felt so safe in those names.” He explains it as an effort to be in the now. “Here in the material world,” he said, “Everything happens in the future or in the past, very rarely is anybody in the present moment. You’re thinking about the future, worried about it, or planning it, or you’re lamenting about – or reveling in – the past.” When chanting, he said, “You can experience the depth of now and what that means. I have never experienced anything in this world that compares with it. Whatever your favorite meal is, or getting high, or having sex, or whatever the most extreme pleasures of these world are, it was for me so much deeper than any of those things could touch.”
For anyone who has ever attempted taking up yoga with Adriene (or with anyone else, for that matter), this “importance of now” might sound familiar. And indeed, the downward-dog yoga and Hare Krishna are two sides of a similar coin. Where Hare Krishna (or Bhakti-yoga) denotes the entire system of devotion to God, the physical yoga as we know it, is seen as a practice that helps the mind to concentrate towards meditation.
Other important aspects of Krishna Consciousness are the study of scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita; a truthful, austere and clean lifestyle (think of the baldness of their monks); and a commitment to vegetarian food and the sharing of meals. This is why, three times a week, members of the eclectic, Hare Krishna-led Interfaith Community Services hand out free lunches at Tompkins Square Park, often with lines stretching around the block. “We have a hostel and the money we make goes to these meals,” a twinkle-eyed Hare Krishna named Adi said on a recent Monday morning, while scooping up large portions of rice to grateful recipients.
Over time, ISKCON has grown from a handful of jamming kids in the East Village to an international movement with several hundred thousand worshipping in temples across the globe. But with its growth, it also gained its detractors. As the Hare Krishna! film shows, parents of devotees claimed that their children were being brainwashed, with people in the media claiming that ISKCON used methods “no different from Hitler,” upon which lawsuits and attempts to “deprogram” the devotees followed.
More scandals would plague the Hare Krishnas, most notoriously in the late 1990s when ISKCON admitted that there had been “widespread physical, emotional and sexual abuse of children who were sent to live in the group’s boarding schools in the United States and India in the 1970s and 1980s,” as the New York Times reported.
As the preview clip above shows, Hare Krishna! pays attention to the first controversy, but the latter remains untouched. Last Saturday, I met director John Griesser at the Hare Krishna Festival in Washington Square Park, where he commented on his double role as a devotee and filmmaker. “Some people will say it’s a hagiography, a glorification of a saint,” he said, “But we just wanted to share the story of a wonderful man. And the controversy came really only after he left in 1977.”
Griesser, now 73, met Prabhupada for the first time in 1970, when he was in India, working on a photo essay on the origins of the Krishna movement. Fascinated by Prabhupada, Griesser and his now-wife Jean Papert decided to follow him and document his life. “There was a connection, something I couldn’t really explain,” Griesser said, “He is my spiritual guide.” Fifty years after their initial encounter, with John and Jean initiated as Yadubara das and Visakha devi dasi, the documentary is finally getting its release.
“It feels like a good time,” Griesser said, “Lots of turmoil in the world. Prabhupada had an answer for the difficulties we face right now, most of which are based on a bodily concept of life. Prabhupada gave us really a solution for a peaceful world. We’re not these bodies, we’re something deeper. Something eternal.”