'My great grandfather Henry Ford would have been very happy with the lifestyle I am leading and the things I believe in.'
He's a servant of god. A temple builder. Manu Shah meets the Ford who spreads word about the glories of Krishna.
Ambarish Das may not have been born Indian. His soul is Indian though. Before he adopted his new name, he was Alfred Brush Ford. His mother is the daughter of Edsel Ford, Henry Ford's son. That makes him a fourth-generation Ford from his mother's side and a part of one of America's most iconic families.
His father Walter B Ford II, though unrelated, coincidentally shared the same last name as the legendary Fords.
But this Ford has more on his mind than cars.
While studying at Tulane University, he saw The Radha Krsna Temple, an album by George Harrison at the campus record store, which had "two little beautiful people on it."
He broke down on hearing the record. It touched something deep in him. Thus began his involvement with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.
In 1975, he was initiated and given the name Ambarish Das or servant of god.
He married a Bengali girl and has since used his fame and wealth to spread the word of the Hare Krishna movement. He travelled all over the world with his wife, also a devotee, to spread Krishna consciousness because he says "It is a spiritual science not just for Indians, but for everybody around the world."
Manu Shah caught up with Ford on the sidelines of Houston's Janmashtami celebrations where he was the chief guest for an event hosted by the Indian-American community and followed up with this two-part interview for Rediff.com on the telephone:
I'm curious. Which car do you drive?
(Laughs heartily) I recently bought a Lincoln MKC. I like that car.
You were born in one of the richest families of America. What was your upbringing like?
Well, of course, I was brought up in a lot of opulence. My parents had a lot of houses around the country and private airplanes. We went on many trips abroad to Europe, so it was a very privileged upbringing.
Was it easy being a Ford and having to live up to the family name?
When I was young that was easy, but then it became a little more problematic as I grew older.
You don't know really where you fit in, especially when you have five other cousins who are working to get involved with the company. My brother and I, because we were the sons of the daughter, were in a little different position than my other cousins.
By any standards you had it all. Why were you unhappy?
It wasn't that I was unhappy. But there was unhappiness around me and people working very hard to accomplish or do things that often didn't really bring them happiness.
Also, I always had the idea that life is very temporary and that even if you are able to achieve a great deal, you can't hold onto it for very long.
And these were thoughts that ran through you mind even before you met the guru and acharya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness Srila A C Prabhupada?
I had a lot of questions when I was growing up. When I was young, I used to wonder how big the universe was, what's on the other side of the sky, who was God, what was He like -- those kind of questions and things.
Do you think your great grandfather Henry Ford would have been happy to see your lifestyle today?
I think so, because he was very interested in spiritual life, in Eastern philosophy.
He believed in reincarnation and was a vegetarian.
So he would have been very happy with the lifestyle I am leading and the things I believe in.
I know from one of the books that was written about him that a Sufi saint also came to Detroit and they discussed reincarnation and other topics.
In the 1960s you became a hippie. What were you seeking in life? Did you find it?
I was looking for meaning in life and hadn't found it in the faith I grew up in.
I experimented with being a hippie and read several religious systems.
But as soon as I read the Bhagwad Gita by Srila Prabhupada, it was like a bell went off. He said all the things that I was looking for: God is a personality. We have a relationship with God and by restoring that relationship we can go back to the spiritual world.
How did your involvement with ISKCON begin?
I had an American friend, Atul Ananda, who became a devotee.
When I was living as a recluse in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming, he would visit me, bring me books, beads.
I started reading, chanting and cooking vegetarian food. So I was totally into the lifestyle even before I was initiated.
When were you initiated?
In 1974, the devotees in Hawaii asked me to help them purchase a temple in Honolulu.
I purchased the temple there. Whenever Srila Prabhupada would come to Hawaii, he would write to me to come and stay there and I would go.
It was during my third visit that I was initiated and given the name Ambarish Das (servant of God) by Srila Prabhupada. I knew he was my spiritual master even before I took my initiation.
Can you share memories of your first meeting with Srila Prabhupada?
I went to Dallas when he was at the gurukul (residential school where pupils stay with the guru) there. I had been reading his books. When I went into his room I was very awestruck. I offered my obeisance. He was sitting behind his desk and before I got up, he said: 'So you are Henry Ford's great grandson.'
I said yes and then he asked me: 'Where is he now?'
This immediately put me on the spiritual path as I realised that I didn't know where he was. Also that everything he had achieved, he had to leave behind -- all the money, all the fame everything, because everything in the material world is temporary.
How would you define happiness?
You are Indian -- you know the concept of ananda -- unlimited happiness. Happiness is not something that has a beginning and an end -- it is endless.
Some people get happy if they go shopping. Or have a good meal. But how long does the happiness last? It doesn't last very long.
Happiness cannot come from sensory objects. It comes from self-realisation. It comes from realising who we are, what is our dharma, what are we supposed to be doing, who are we supposed to be serving.
Once we find that and feel comfortable in that position, then we realise that that position cannot end. No one can take it away. There is no fear involved. That is the beginning of happiness because it is not temporary.
What does Krishna mean to you?
Well, he' the Supreme Personality of Godhead -- so he's supreme. He is the beginning and the end of everything. I am working on my spiritual life so that I can come closer to him. Right now I am in the service mode, where I show my love and dedication through service to him.
But I would like to have Krishna as my friend eventually. I would like to tend cows and eat kachoris (laughs).
How did your family, the social circle, react to you becoming a Krishna devotee?
Well, it was different. This was the 1960s and 1970s, so people were doing different things. There was a great interest in India. I think my parents thought maybe it is a passing fad and that I would snap out of it.
(Laughs) I never did and when I married Sharmila that was a milestone for them. They were very impressed with her, she had a PhD, very well educated, accomplished woman and, of course, they love my children too.
What were the challenges you faced?
Back in the 1960s and 1970s Hare Krishna was considered to be a cult. There were a lot of people who thought it was a crazy thing to do -- it wasn't legitimate, it wasn't authorised, it was another cult like the Moonies.
People didn't understand that it is a very ancient religious tradition, based on ancient scriptures like the Bhagwad Gita. You had to constantly explain that to people. That was the challenge: Trying to differentiate us, Hare Krishnas, from the rest of the crazy things that were going on in the 1960s and 1970s.
Your parents were initially not very happy when you started the Bhaktivedanta centre in a 1920s mansion in Detroit with Elisabeth Reuther (daughter of Detroit labor leader Walter P Reuther) in the 1970s and even threw you out of the house. What changed them?
My grandmother read the article in the papers about the opening of the centre and didn't seem very upset with it. She talked to my mother and calmed my mother down. After several years, they even came to the temple.
Part 2: The Ford who loves Lord Krishna