‘Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started It All’: Film Review

John Griesser’s documentary, ‘Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started It All,’ recounts the story of the popular spiritual movement and its charismatic founder.

There’s certainly a good film to be made about Srila Prabhupada and the spiritual movement he founded that became an international sensation starting in the mid-1960s. But John Griesser’s documentary isn’t it. Lacking objectivity and the necessary contextual information and commentary that would provide a balanced examination of its subject matter, Hare Krishna! mostly preaches to its robe-wearing choir. (The full title, incidentally, is Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started It All, but that hardly lends itself to chanting.)

The film relates the story of the movement’s founder, who came to the United States in 1965 at age 70 with practically no money or connections. Settling in New York City, he began delivering lectures interpreting ancient Sanskrit texts at locations that included a Lower East Side walk-up apartment and a former gift shop, Matchless Gifts, whose sign proved perfect for what the swami was selling.

The Bottom Line

Doesn’t begin to tell you all you need to know.

Prabhupada arrived at the ideal time in history to promulgate his teachings. The counterculture movement was just beginning and the Hare Krishna movement quickly caught on with the young hippie crowd, especially at its Haight-Ashbury epicenter in San Francisco. The swami proved himself a tireless promoter until his death in 1977, traveling all over the world to spread his message.

Most people remember the Hare Krishnas — they still exist, and in large numbers, according to the film — from their distinctive chant and the members who harangued people at airports and other crowded locales. Its celebrity members also helped cement it into the public consciousness. Allen Ginsberg was a devoted follower; one of the film’s funniest moments is a clip of the poet chanting on William F. Buckley’s television show as the acerbic host looks on in wide-eyed bemusement. George Harrison gave the movement its own musical anthem with his classic song “My Sweet Lord,” which incorporated Vedic prayer as well as the chant into its lyrics.

There’s a fascinating tale, rich with social and historical resonance, to be told here. But the film relates it ploddingly and, more problematically, one-sidedly. Most of the onscreen commentary comes from devotees and true believers who deliver such admiring lines about the admittedly charismatic founder as “He looked like the prime minister of the galaxy!”

Further, this glossy hagiography only lightly touches on the controversies surrounding the movement and its opponents who labeled it a cult. Worse still, it ignores such things as the racist and anti-Semitic views that Prabhupada unabashedly expressed. In the end, only those who think that chanting “Hare Krishna” provides the path to spiritual enlightenment will fully embrace Hare Krishna! the movie.

Production: Inner Voice Productions
Distributor: Abramorama
Director-screenwriter: John Griesser
Co-directors: Jean Griesser, Lauren Ross
Producers: Jessica Heinrich, Lauren Ross, Coralie Tapper
Directors of photography: Krishna Sanchez, Adric Watson
Music: Michael Mollura
Editors: Lauren Ross, Krishna Sanchez, Hilary Zakheim

90 minutes