For many, the Hare Krishna might be most recognizable from films, where they are often used as a punchline.
Form Airplane! to Hannah and Her Sisters, their instantly recognizable yellow robes and shaved heads, with their soft spoken voices and outstretched arms, were an easy target. Who can forget Robert Hays rushing to the gate to try and catch his estranged girlfriend, only to be blocked by Hare Krishna proffering flowers and peace. His response? A nonchalant punch, before dashing off again.
Maybe that is why director John Griesser sees his new film, Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement, and the Swami Who Started It All, as much an educational endeavor than anything else. When asked what he hoped people would take away from his documentary, Griesser’s first film in over ten years and premiering as part of BAMcinemaFest, his response is quite simple: “I want them to understand.”
Forty years ago, when director John Griesser was a young man, he encountered one of those living changing events that are so often heard about from my generation, passed down by our parents, aunts, or uncles, from the people who happened to be at the right place at the time. That place? Greenwhich Village and Haight-Ashbury in the 1970s, when an Indian swami set up shop and began preaching to the numerous disaffected youth of the hippie movement who happened to share his corner of Second Street and Second Avenue in the East Village.
The idea for a film about Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the Hare Krishna’s founder, has stuck with him since. “I’d even asked for permission in ’74,” Greisser recalls. Of course it took several decades to fulfill that dream. “Things finally came together about four years ago,” says Greisser, adding that it was not until they could secure a producer (and consequently funding) that his wife, Jean, who is credited as a co-director, and he were able to finally bring this
Of course it’s not just the funding that inspired Griesser, who draws many parallels between contemporary New York and the city where Prabhupada set up shop, but also a sense of duty. “The culture was defined by dysfunction and turmoil. People were seeking an alternative, and there it was,” he describes, before adding that “it’s just the 60’s all over again out there.”
Hare Krishna, for Griesser and the individuals he interviewed for his film, whom he emphasizes were largely primary sources (“I wanted to talk to the people who were really there,” Griesser points out), is more relevant now than ever. In his eyes, the modern “yoga crowd,” the health conscious Whole Foods shopper, the millennial drawn to downsizing and minimalism, whether they know it or not, are all coming from this same school of thought.
“It’s the oldest culture in the world,” Griesser says, “And before it came to the US, there had just never been anything like it.” Their text, such as the “Baghavad Gita,” had survived thousands of years and spread across continents. Hare Krishna! is just the next step, as he sees it, hopefully connecting these newer schools of thought back to their roots. In the end, what it comes down to is what Griesser defines as the common belief that “we are the soul, not the body.” And that hopefully the more people who realize this simple fact, the sooner peace can be attained.