Talking to the Hare Krishna Leader Who’s Bringing the Movement Into the Age of Lululemon

Hare Krishna leader Radhanath Swami. Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

It’s early Saturday evening at the Rubin Museum of Art, located around the corner from Barneys New York in Chelsea. Every seat in the sleek basement theater is filled by an earnest crowd of limber New Yorkers, many tattooed and top-knotted, wrists heavy with looping strands of wooden beads. They are gathered for a talk by Radhanath Swami, who has been for 20 years a leader of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, better known as the Hare Krishna, that Age of Aquarius enlightenment craze with the cultish vibe, which has grown up and successfully adapted itself to our Age of Lululemon. Tonight, Radhanath, who is in town for the summer from Mumbai, is being interviewed about his new spiritual guidebook, The Journey Within — out this month from Mandala Publishing — by Dana Flynn, described by the Rubin website as an “international yoga figure and social activist,” who wears her gray hair in an anime pompadour and founded the stylish Laughing Lotus Yoga Centers in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and San Francisco. 

The swami is a patiently smiling, rigorously kindly man with a shaved head who looks a little like Stanley Tucci playing the role of guru. Flynn seems spiritually smitten, confessing her faults and simmering in awe as much as interviewing him. He parries her with self-deprecation (“Your description of the book is better than the book itself”) and more patient laughter. The audience responds with modern and ancient modes of supplication: lots of iPhone pictures of the stage, occasional prayer hands raised to their third eye at moments of agreement.

The Journey Within was blurbed by Russell Brand and Cornel West — Radhanath is, for all his humbleness, an intellectual ambassador for a movement, “a general in the saffron army,” as one of his friends described him to me. Radhanath later tells me that he’s spoken at Princeton and Oxford, before the British Parliament, and at the Milken Conference in Beverly Hills. He’s even chatted with President Obama.

I used to think maybe peace was boring,” Flynn admits. “Even the idea of being pure, I would think: puritanical. And now, being around you, I think, I want to be more pure!” She speaks of moments in the book when Radhanath decides to give things up: “You’re not missing anything by renouncing … pot or women.” The audience laughs. This is a crowd bedeviled by what Radhanath calls “weapons of mass distraction.”

I’m not able to explain it better than you just did,” he replies. “It’s not just giving up something, but accepting a higher thing.”

To spiritual skeptics, or people more intellectually inured to what seems like the unfolding complexity of life, this might all sound like prechewed profundity. And The Journey Within can feel like a book-length version of those uplifting little homilies a certain kind of yoga teacher spills out over the sweaty captive class at the start of Savasana. But there’s a reason everyone keeps going back to yoga. There are lots of idealists trying to get by in the city, rubbed raw by the effort of contentment and self-improvement in a relentless world.

The Hare Krishna movement was founded here in New York. The legend goes that, in 1966, the Indian immigrant guru Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (but you can call him Prabhupada) sat under a tree in Tompkins Square Park chanting daily. Then one day some young people brought over some instruments. Eventually the drum circle turned to guru-talk about Krishna, and within a few years, troupes of chanting saffron-robed youths were set loose across the land. Celebrity devotee-dabblers included Allen Ginsberg and George Harrison, who gave them a mansion in London. (It’s where Radhanath met Brand, who had just gotten sober.)

Prabhupada’s movement is a variation on the Hindu sect of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. It recommends no sex outside marriage, no alcohol, no caffeine. But the theology plays well with Western reference points: Hare Krishna believe all gods are manifestations of the same god, Krishna, sidestepping the more pantheistic Hindu traditions and reworking Vedic texts to sound a bit more allegorical, like the New Testament.

And in fact, Radhanath, who grew up Jewish in suburban Chicago, continuously switches between the Bible’s lessons and parallel ones from his adopted tradition. One thing he deftly elides in our conversation is the group’s post-Aquarian hangover period: By 2000, the Hare Krishna’s numbers had massively dwindled to fewer than a thousand in the U.S. In 2001, a class-action lawsuit was filed alleging institutionally overlooked sexual abuse, among other charges, in the church’s schools in the ’70s and ’80s. (The group went bankrupt the following year.) These days, the airport chanting has been curtailed — hard to say what the TSA would think of that, anyway — although you can still come upon disciples proselytizing in Union Square.

But the real change in the movement is demographic: The hippies have grown old, and their values have suffused our entire culture. Meanwhile, the movement’s numbers in this country have been supplemented by the rise in South Asian immigrants (whom the group reportedly has courted aggressively). Many Krishna Consciousness temples have been transformed by this diaspora from hippie relics into melting pots. Back in Mumbai, Radhanath’s congregation, he says, includes 10,000 people and runs an orphanage, a hospital, and an “eco-village” to teach sustainable farming.

Prabhupada’s first temple is still there, in fact, on lower Second Avenue, not far from where I live: For years, I had assumed it was a kind of museum, or perhaps a vegan bakery. A block east of the original temple is the Bhakti Center, the six-story local headquarters of the modern Hare Krishna movement. The swami and I meet for tea in the restaurant there. Upstairs, adherents are seated on the floor, making flowery necklaces for the altar statues of Krishna and the female deity Radha.

The Journey Within is a kind of follow-up to his memoir, The Journey Home, which told the story of how the young idealist Richard Slavin became a cave-dwelling mendicant monk in India. His story is
a familiar trope: a 19-year-old college student in 1970, the height of hippiedom, radicalized by the civil-rights movement and Vietnam. He took to Europe to hitchhike around with some friends. We talk about how the culture has changed since then: “There is a strong resistance, almost like an allergic reaction, by many thinking people to anything which appears sectarian,” he says. But “spirituality” is on the rise: Witness the simultaneous popularity of yoga. “The nature of those exercises is to bring us deeper and deeper into our own spiritual identity,” he says. “The Bible says, ‘Seek and you shall find’ ” — following it up with something from his tradition, which he then translates: “As we approach God, God reciprocates accordingly. If we approach for divine eternal love, we get divine eternal love. The yoga I practice, Bakhti yoga, is about awakening that divine, ecstatic love, expressed through devotional service.” He goes on to explain that he learned it from “celibate monks living in caves in the Himalayas,” who did it so they could “sit in their poses for meditation longer.”

I tell him I do yoga so I can sit in front of my computer longer. He pauses, looking at me patiently and acceptingly, his hands folded in front of him. He hasn’t finished his tea, I notice. I’d gulped mine. “Whatever your purpose is, it will work accordingly.”

The night at the Rubin, the group ends with some chanting. Two people come up onstage, one with a drum, the other a harmonium, and Radhanath begins to sing: hare Krishna hare Krishna. “Everybody!” the swami implores the crowd, and they join in as it loops around again, a joyful frenzy. I keep quiet at first, politely observing from my seat. But when we are asked to link pinkies — the woman next to me smiling gently, sweetly proffering hers — I can’t help it and join the simple, hypnotic, ecstatic song: Rama Rama hare.

*This article appears in the May 16, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.

The Hare Krishna Leader in the Age of Lululemon