“Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare. A hypnotic, rhythmic chant of 16 words has replaced LSD and other drugs for some in New York’s East Village,” says a CBS network correspondent, referring to a guru who is preaching about Krishna’s teachings inside a store on 2nd Avenue. The black-and-white footage is from the opening scene of Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started It All. The 2017 documentary turns the lens on Srila Prabhupada, who made the International Society for Krishna Consciousness popular in the West. It has been directed by John Griesser, an ISKCON member, along with Lauren Ross, and focuses on the impact an old Indian spiritual teacher had on strangers miles away from his country.

In 1965, 70-year-old Prabhupada arrived in New York without much money or contacts. He was armed only with translations of ancient devotional texts. America was in the throes of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and a raging counterculture. In this atmosphere of uncertainty and rebelliousness, Prabhupada claimed to create an alternative. For a generation of youth seeking deeper answers, Prabhupada’s philosophy and the promise of transcendental vibrations caused by chanting had a wide-ranging impact.

Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started It All (2017).

“It was a bizarre sight for many people, watching the devotees chanting down the streets of New York,” Griesser said. “They really appreciated Prabhupada’s message... that we’re not these bodies, we’re not these minds, we’re eternal souls, spirits”.

Griesser, who also goes by the name Yadubara Das, first met Prabhupada as a photography student in 1970. Griesser had visited India for research on his master’s thesis on the origins of the ISKCON movement. “I met him in Surat, and I was instantly fascinated by him,” the 73-year-old filmmaker said. “He had a powerful spiritual personality, but at the same time, he was also very practical.”

Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started It All (2017). Image credit: Cargo Film and Releasing.

Griesser travelled extensively with Prabhupada in the ’70s, documenting his activities on a Super8 camera. “In 1974, I asked him if I could make a film on his life, and in his usual humble manner, he had said, ‘What is the need?’” Griesser said. “I told him that in the future, people would want to know who started this movement.”

For Hare Krishna!, Griesser sifted through 40 hours of archival footage, shot re-enactments of Prabhupada’s life in India, and conducted interviews with entrepreneurs, professors and motivational speakers, many of whom were his disciples, such as author and lecturer Joshua Greene. The 90-minute film weaves in bits of Praphupada’s past in early twentieth-century Kolkata. The son of a priest, Praphupada was a Gandhian who participated in the non-cooperation movement. In 1922, he met spiritual teacher Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati, who went on to become his teacher and inspired him to take the movement to the West.

Greene, who also wrote Swami in a Strange Land: How Krishna Came to the West (2016), and has spent over four decades studying and teaching the Bhagavad Gita, told Griesser about his first encounter with Praphupada: “I first met him at a press conference in Paris. He had been napping on a couch after the long ride. When his assistant asked him if I could be let in, Prabhupada gestured, a slow sweeping motion with his hand, as though tracing an arc in the air, signaling I should enter the room. It was, frankly, the first perfect thing I’d ever seen, as graceful as a dance gesture. I entered, bowed to him, and wept. It would take a while to dig into the reasons why.”

Srila Prabhupada. Image credit: Cargo Film and Releasing.

Hare Krishna! also delves into how the movement found its way into popular culture. Spoofs on the book-selling devotees were featured in Woody Allen’s Hannah and the Sisters (1986) and the sitcom That 70s Show. “The Hare Krishnas were in the media current and they became a bit of a punchline for late night show comedians,” Lauren Ross said. “They became a household name, and whether you liked it or not, you often had an experience with them, at airports or other places. We wanted to capture all sides of the story.”

Among the interesting segments is the one on deprogrammers. They were hired by parents to kidnap their children, many of whom were teenagers or in their early twenties, from the cult and wean them off its teachings. A deprogrammer interviewed by the filmmakers likens the Hare Krishna devotees to followers of to Jim Jones and Adolf Hitler. “The unfamiliar clothing and rituals gave some the misimpression that Krishna Consciousness was something invented and dangerous,” Greene said. “Parents were naturally concerned. The scare was short-lived after the New York Supreme Court ruled that that Krishna Consciousness was a bona fide religion rather than a cult.

The one aspect that is missing from the film is the disquiet over the commercialisation of the movement. “We do touch upon some of the controversies and difficulties that came up at the time, but looking at where the movement is today wasn’t part of the storyline,” Ross said. “We chose to focus on Prabhupada’s life, and how he engaged everyone on a spiritual journey.”