The difference between “biography” and “hagiography” is the presentation of contrary views, critical voices that the biographer or bio/filmmaker takes seriously.
That goes for anybody you’re profiling, from political opportunist Sarah Palin to hair care product purveyor Jean Paul DeJoria, or A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
He’s the guru profiled in “Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started it All,” an adoring, uncritical documentary about the Hare Krishna movement that Swami Prabhupada launched in America in the 1960s.
And even if you just think the shaved-head monks who used to hassle you at airports or in Times Square are a cultural punchline, the movie’s got something to offer, and not just its (relative) riches to rags story of a teacher who gathered followers and inspired a worldwide movement.
The swami was a well-educated Indian businessman who renounced his wealth and past life to take up teaching what he’d been taught by his guru. Whatever attention he attracted in India was nothing compared to the fame he gained, moving to New York, penniless, with just a few books and translations to sell to help him survive the Big City in 1965.
In one of the world’s most turbulent eras, and America’s most roiled decades, Swami Prabhupada grabbed the attention of hippies, LSD users and wealthy spiritual seekers.
“The ancients knew something,” the argument went at the time. Sure, India was one of the poorest, least educated corners of the planet, with the life expectancy to match. But the allure of the exotic, the comforting anti-materialist message of this “ecstatic Vaishnava (wandering) monk,” caught on.
The poet Allen Ginsberg was a fan, and can be seen chanting to an eye-rolling William F. Buckley Jr. on “Firing Line” in the ’70s.
The Beatles followed another swami to India, but when his misbehavior sent them packing, George Harrison found new friends among the followers of Prabhupada. “My Sweet Lord” is something of a Hare Krishna anthem, a poetic sermon delivered, in Hindu, in the chorus.
The movie is filled with the faces and the voices of the faithful, the elders of the movement now, survivors of the ’60s still walking the straight and narrow path laid out for them by the anti-materialist Prabhupada. Supposedly.
Did you know that the reason they shaved their heads and started wearing saffron colored “bedsheets,” was to “stand apart” from the colorful denizens of swinging London? Branding your movement in a place that colorful was difficult.
The movement drew a lot of gays, and figures like Ginsberg and Boy George have been linked to it. But all non-procreative sex was deemed “illicit” by the founder’s reading of ancient texts., with celibacy a big part of consciousness raising. So, there’s a paradox some folks have to wrestle with, and there were scandals involving “boys” that the film ignores.
“Hare Krishna!” shows the elder stateswomen and men of the movement (ISKCON, International Society for Krishna Consciousness) exaggerating their connection to The Beatles, acknowledging the many movies and TV shows that have mocked the movement, without seeming to “get” the mockery.
The documentary’s final third gets at some of the controversy attached to it, the “de-programming” craze that it fostered and money issues that the filmmakers go to great pains to distance the Swami from.
There have been many critical TV reports and books on the movement over the decades, most of which seem shrill, ignorant and misguided today. And there have been several other documentaries about it, most of them too much like this one. But lacking anything like a dispassionate outside voice discussing this group’s benefits and failings, “Hare Krishna!” never amounts to anything more than a mix of historic relic and modern day recruitment film.
And aside from the already-converted, who’s going to want to see that?
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Srila Prabhupada, Bonnie McElroy, Michael Grant, Allen Ginsburg
Credits: Directed by John Griesser, Jean Griesser , written by Jean Griesser. An Abramorama release.
Running time: 1:26