Spiritual Activism Doc Gives Recipe For Real Change
By Madhava Smullen for ISKCON News on 21 May 2011
Radha Vallabha Das
With his shaved head and saffron robes, Radha-Vallabha Dasa—a brahmachari monk at New York’s Bhaktivedanta Ashram—isn’t your typical activist. But his new documentary film Today We Have The Power may just have the most powerful, and deceptively simple solution to the problems of capitalism and globalization that have bothered so many protesters for decades.
His story starts back when the one-time Christopher Timm was in his last year of college at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and was developing an avid interest in studying the dark underbelly of capitalism.
“A capitalist economy is based on us being able to cheaply buy the latest new gadgets every couple of years, as many new clothes as we want every season, and plenty of other stuff we don’t need,” he says. “We’re sold the idea that there’s an equal exchange going on—but in order for that system to be sustainable, one group of people are going to be getting the shorter end of the stick.”
That means a dark truth : workers, often children, in China or Bangladesh laboring in a sweatshop under extremely unhealthy conditions to create tennis shoes or cheap clothes for us. Conditions that, despite sometimes providing a slightly better life for the destitute, would still never be condoned by any sane person if they were happening in our own backyard.
And our consumerist culture doesn’t just create systems for the oppression of people. It also destroys the environment.
“Take, for example, facial tissues and toilet paper—two commodities that we use extravagantly in America, and that are actually unnecessary,” Radha-Vallabha says. “People had been using handkerchiefs and cleaning themselves with water for centuries. But now, so that we can very conviently wipe our butts and blow our noses, we’re ravaging forests. Companies go out and clear-cut a forest in South America, where there are none of the environmental protection laws that we have now in the US. Each box of Kleenex or pack of Charmin has a huge, destructive backstory that we never hear about or think about. It’s horrendous. There’s blood on our hands for the lifestyle that we live.”
Some people who made such discoveries might become political activists. Others, like most of us, might be horrified at first, but gradually forget amidst the familiar conveniences of modern life. Christopher Timm did neither. He took the spiritual path, intent on finding the root of the problem.
“I realized that this whole system of exploiting people and resources in other parts of the world was set up to benefit me—the typical white American guy,” he says. “And I was totally miserable. I was living this shallow, middle-class life in Madison, Wisconsin, just hanging out and getting drunk and talking about stuff like the latest episode of the Simpsons. I was a happy little consumer, a cog in the wheel—I was the cause of the problem. And I thought, ‘Man, how do I get out of this?’”
Christopher got out by becoming a Hare Krishna devotee in 1995. He followed a new spiritual path of simplicity, celibacy, devotion to God and cleansing his heart of the selfish desires that stoked the fires of globalization and the capitalist economy. He received the name Radha-Vallabha Dasa from his guru, Radhanath Swami.
And then, in 2001, he co-wrote and co-produced his first documentary film, “The Simple Temple,” about the Radha-Gopinath Mandir in Chowpatty founded by Radhanath Swami. It focused on a different life, a life of selflessness and devotion to God—the answer to the problem.
But what about introducing spiritual activism in a broader way, to those new to the idea? For his next documentary, Radha-Vallabha immediately looked to the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests—widely known as “the Battle in Seattle” that had happened just two years before, in 1999, as a way to explain the problems of globalization and then direct viewers to a spiritual answer.
Since then, life took him in many directions, and the film was a long time coming—it’s expected sometime next year. But today, while there are some changes to the way corporations negotiate trade agreements, the core issues are still as relevant as ever.
“The WTO protests in Seattle were a watershed event where people came to realize on a large scale that there was this whole other side to globalization they had never heard about before,” Radha-Vallabha says.
The World Trade Organization, he explains, holds meetings every couple of years wherein countries come together to negotiate trade agreements—agreements that result in globalization. One of those at stake at the 1999 meetings, for example, was the Global Free Logging agreement, which would have given American corporations access to South American forests.
“Forty thousand people, across a wide spectrum of society, gathered in Seattle to protest this and other environmental, human and animal rights violations that happen as a result of WTO agreements,” says Radha-Vallabha.
Today We Have The Power, Radha-Vallabha’s film, examines these economic and social issues that brought people to Seattle, and tells the story of how their protests turned from a peaceful street theater, singing and dancing-filled “carnival against capitalism” into a violent nightmare of police brutality.
“The story that most people remember is that a peaceful protest was disrupted by a small band of masked anarchists intent on violence and property damage, forcing the police to intervene,” Radha-Vallabha says. “What we know for sure is that for one week in 1999 the sight of Seattle police brutally attacking ordinary American citizens that had come to protest the WTO transfixed the world.”
Today We Have The Power takes a close look at the events of that week, featuring ground-breaking interviews with major players such as the anarchist philosopher behind the property damage, and the Seattle Chief of Police at the time, Norm Stamper.
In fact, according to Stamper, who today regrets his actions, the small band of anarchists were not the impetus for the police violence—rather it was simply a decision to clear the streets of a far larger amount of protestors than had been anticipated.
But it’s the spiritual thread running through all of this that most interests Radha-Vallabha.
“I talked to many people who agreed that everything that happened in Seattle boils down to spiritual issues,” he says. “Mr. Stamper, whom I didn’t even expect to get an interview with, told me, ‘You’re the first person to mention this angle in relation to the Seattle protests,’ and agreed that a lack of spirituality was at the heart of the problem. He said that even being a police chief is fundamentally a spiritual role—a responsibility to protect and care for citizens, to respect and honor life. And he had neglected that responsibility.”
As well as being the cause of the police violence, it was agreed that a lack of spirituality is the cause of the greed and exploitation inherent in the capitalist system and globalization that people were protesting in Seattle.
Activist and author David Korten hits the nail on the head in an interview in Today We Have The Power when he says, “If we want to solve this problem, we have to recognize that capitalism is built on a system of inspiring unlimited material desires and material needs. It instills the idea that happiness means acquiring more and more material things.”
“What we need is a spiritual awakening, where people realize that the way to true happiness is not through material things, but through searching within, and connecting with God,” Radha-Vallabha says. “And as my guru Radhanath Swami says in the film, if we want to change the world, we have to start by changing our own hearts.”
Radha-Vallabha doesn’t address the specific method he discovered for changing his own heart in the film, preferring to leave it up to the individual seeker. He does, however, introduce the idea of a spiritual solution.
“There’s a whole class of Americans out there who are aware of these issues, and are struggling to find answers,” he says. “And I believe this film can help them get closer to some.”
Radha-Vallabha is fundraising for Today We Have The Power himself—a difficult task—but provided he does get the funding he needs, he expects the film to be completed in August. He’ll then submit it to both smaller film festivals interested in human rights, environmental and spiritual issues, and larger events such as Sundance, the Toronto Film Festival, and New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival. If it does well at these, it’s likely to get theatrical distribution at independent theaters around the US, some form of television distribution, and will of course also be available on the Internet.
Radha-Vallabha will begin a cutting edge program on religion and ecology at Yale Divinity school this fall, and hopes to continue connecting with the activist community through writing and teaching, thus offering them his unique view.
“A big issue in activism is that a lot of people feel completely overwhelmed,” he says. “It seems impossible for us to change this gargantuan system backed by multinational corporations that are economies within themselves. But my film shows how through the power of personal spiritual transformation, we can change our world, the world within us, today. And by changing our world, we have the power to change the world.”