Ambarish das Remembers Srila Prabhupada

Prabhupada Memories

Interview 01

Ambarish: I had been corresponding with Prabhupada for about a year, and I was reading his books, chanting and following the principles. I had also done some service for Prabhupada, as I helped buy the temple in Hawaii. Then, when Prabhupada went to Dallas, I flew there to meet him for the first time. I was nervous because I thought, “Here’s this great man, this great spiritual personality.” I went into Prabhupada’s room and I offered my obeisances. I hadn’t gotten up when, in a grave tone, Srila Prabhupada said, “So you are Henry Ford’s great-grandson?” I said, “Yes, Srila Prabhupada.” He said, “So, where is he now?” Immediately I thought, “I don’t know.” Prabhupada immediately put me on the spiritual platform and started me thinking about the difference between the body and the spirit. Srila Prabhupada preached to me on that point. One funny thing that happened during that meeting was that Bali Mardan’s wife, the supposed Toyota heiress, came in at some point and offered her obeisances. Prabhupada looked at her, then looked at me and said, “She is Toyota,” and chuckled. I was impressed not only by the grandeur of his presence but also by how he was so personable. As soon as I started talking to him, he made me feel comfortable. He was always like that, always interested personally in how you were feeling, how you were doing, how is your health. No matter who you were, he made you feel comfortable. It was really nice.

I don’t remember much about the initiation ceremony because I was nervous. I was the only initiate, so I was in the spotlight, and I was afraid I was going to do something stupid. When Prabhupada gave me my name, he pronounced it “Umbarish.” I didn’t know who that was because I was still new. After the initiation, my relationship with him changed because he was my spiritual master. In the afternoon of the same day, like a humble disciple, I asked Prabhupada for permission to go to the prasadam restaurant in Waikiki. I offered my obeisances and said, “Srila Prabhupada, is it okay if I go to the restaurant?” He said, “No, we do not go to restaurants.” I thought, “It’s the devotee restaurant.” I said, “But Srila Prabhupada, you don’t understand.” I hadn’t even gotten that out when I realized this was not something you say to your spiritual master. He said, “No, we do not go to restaurants.” So, I gave up at that point and surrendered. I didn’t go. That was the only thing I remember from my initiation.

I had read that some brahmans had been murdered in India. I thought, “Krishna always protects his devotees,” so I asked Prabhupada, “If these were brahmans, how come they were murdered?” Prabhupada said, “Not all brahmans are really brahminical. Many times people act in a way that is not brahminical but pass themselves off as ‘swamis.’ In fact, they are not anything close to what they should be.” That was a nice answer.

In Hawaii I went on quite a few morning walks. On the first morning, I was feeling bad because I had overslept and was late. All the big shots were there, and Prabhupada looked at me, laughed, and said, “Better late than never.” He was casual and always encouraging, never discouraging in his instruction. We used to take a beautiful drive to the nice beaches on the other side of Oahu, walk on the beach, and then drive back. One morning we were driving along the coast when we passed a rock the size of an island. Prabhu- pada remarked, “There are fish in the ocean that can swallow this.” I was some hick from Detroit. I didn’t have any problem believing that there were fish in the ocean that were huge and that the moon was farther away than the sun. I accepted the fact that I was like a frog in a well and that Prabhupada knew a lot more than I did. It was on one of those morning walks that Prabhupada remarked, “If there is any enjoyment in this material world, it is here on Oahu,” because Hawaii is so beautiful and has such a nice atmosphere.

Another time we were coming back from the morning walk. Getting back in the car was always chaotic, because everybody would run around trying to figure out who was going to go in which car. Everybody wanted to go with Prabhupada. Harikesh was Prabhupada’s secretary and he was running from one side of the car to the next with all of this tape recording stuff all over him. I was sitting in the back seat of the car with Prabhupada, watching this whole thing. Prabhupada shook his head and said, “My disciples are a little crazy, I think.” So it was nice. He accepted us although we were all so unqualified to do what we were doing. Simply by his mercy we were able to carry on and accomplish a few things. Another time, the temple president in Hawaii was trying to sell Prabhupada the idea of buying a sailboat and going from island to island. He said, “Prabhupada, all we need is twelve good men.” Srila Prabhupada immediately replied, “We do not have twelve good men in all of ISKCON.” I took it that we were totally unqualified, and to a degree we still are. But he still accepted us and accepted our service, which was really nice.

Another time in Hawaii, Yogi Bhajan came to visit Prabhupada. In those days he had a good following, and at that time he was inviting all types of spiritual masters and religious leaders to an international peace conference. He was trying to sell this idea to Srila Prabhupada. He talked about it and was getting into it, but Prabhupada stopped him and said that there could never be any world peace until everyone could agree that Krishna is the Supreme Personality and that everything belongs to Krishna. Prabhupada mentioned many times that the peace formula is that everything belongs to Krishna, that He is the enjoyer of everything, and that He is the well-wishing friend of everyone. Yogi Bhajan’s attempt to organize a peace conference was basically for Yogi Bhajan’s glorification, and Prabhupada kept reiterating that there would never be any peace unless everybody accepted that Krishna is the Supreme Personality and everything as His property. Yogi Bhajan left a little frustrated because Prabhupada didn’t say whether he was going to come or not and because Yogi Bhajan couldn’t accept Prabhupada’s point. After he left, Srila Prabhupada said, “Because Yogi Bhajan and his men are Sikhs, they should be the kshatriyas of ISKCON.” Even though there were vast philosophical differences between them, Prabhupada was thinking about how he could bring them into Krishna’s family. He was always trying to bring others into Krishna’s family. It was really nice to see.

Prabhupada was very protective of ISKCON. When I first went to Hawaii, there was one devotee there who was a little puffed up and arrogant and actually rude to Srila Prabhupada. But Prabhupada encouraged him, was kind to him, and didn’t want him to leave. Prabhupada didn’t take offense very easily. But there was another devotee who had his own little scene going on, and when I was driving back from a morning walk, this devotee was speaking against ISKCON. I mentioned that to Paramahamsa Swami, who mentioned it to Prabhupada, and Prabhupada got angry and didn’t allow this man to preach anymore at the temple. I could understand that for himself, Prabhupada was lenient and tolerant and didn’t accept offense, although the devotee who was offensive to him eventually left, because Krishna didn’t tolerate his offenses. But Prabhupada didn’t tolerate people finding fault in his disciples. One of his God-brothers came to visit him for a day or two in Hawaii, and during that time he criticized the way the devotees chanted. He spoke to Brahmananda and a couple other devotees about it. He said that the devotees were not concentrating when they chanted, that they did not pay enough attention. After this sannyasi left, the devotees went to Prabhupada a little disturbed that they weren’t chanting properly. Prabhupada dismissed it, saying, “Just chant and listen.” He made it simple for us. Prabhupada never said, “You’re not concentrating” or “You’re not listening properly.” It was, “Just chant and listen.” He made it simple because he realized that we were neophytes. He was protective of his disciples in that way. He was like a father, and we were like his children. We couldn’t do very much wrong, although we were always making mistakes.

After I was initiated, I traveled a little with Prabhupada. We went to Denver, then Chicago for the Ratha-yatra. On a morning walk in Denver, Prabhupada talked about how the body changes and I said something about growing. He jumped on me because he knew that I did not understand what he was talking about, namely the difference between growing and changing and the concept that the body is changing at every second like the frames of a movie. He really pressed this point home to me for a good twenty minutes and was asking me, “Do you understand?” I realized that I had been brainwashed by Darwinian scientists to the concept of growth and evolution. The whole idea is that every second the body changes and that death is just another change. I didn’t grasp the concept very well, and I realized that I needed to be re-educated, that I was totally brainwashed by modern science. But Prabhupada was patient. When I talk about Prabhupada’s books, some friends of mine who are not devotees say, “Well, don’t they just say the same thing?” To a certain degree, they are saying the same thing over and over. But Srila Prabhupada wanted us to understand the basics of Krishna consciousness because we’re not so highly elevated or educated about Vedic philosophy. That’s why in his lectures, he stresses the same points over and over again, that you’re not this body and so forth. It’s easy to forget and to fall under illusion again. He really pressed home the basics many times, and especially when I was traveling with him and hearing him preach.

I kept pretty quiet. Prabhupada would ask, “What is your opinion, Maharaj Ambarish.” He would call me Maharaj Ambarish. I would never want to say much because I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself. One time we were walking on Juhu Beach in Bombay and, he said, “They say this is the most beautiful beach in the world. What do you think?” There were dogs wandering around and fires and people selling jewelry. I didn’t know what to say. Should I say it’s a nice beach, or what should I say? Many times he would ask me my opinion and I would be quiet. I think he realized that I was a bit shy, so he was lenient with me; he didn’t lean too heavily on me. I’ve heard stories about how he used to blast Tamal Krishna, but he never did that to me. I think he realized that I would probably disintegrate if he did.

I was initiated in the spring of 1975, and Srila Prabhupada asked me to come to India in the fall. I flew to Kenya to meet him in Nairobi, and we went on from there to India. There are a lot of Indian Life Members in Nairobi, so Srila Prabhupada went to many engagements. He would take prasadam at people’s houses or give a lecture, usually in Hindi, in front of a lot of people. We all accompanied him when he went on these lectures, and I would never know what he was saying, but often he would bring me into the lecture some- how or other. I would be listening, and as it was in Hindi, I wouldn’t understand anything. Then all of a sudden, I would hear my name. Prabhupada would indicate to me, I’d stand up, he’d lecture a little bit more and then indicate that I could sit down. It was really nice. I was feeling, and I still feel, that this was the perfection of being engaged by the spiritual master, to assist him in his preaching efforts. Even though I didn’t understand what he was talking about, just to be able to assist him in that way was personal service. One morning we drove around different areas in Nairobi, looking for a new temple. When we went through one neighborhood, Srila Prabhupada noted that it was very respectable. One of the sannyasis in the car turned to Srila Prabhupada, and Prabhupada said, “Respectable means not Krishna conscious.” I remember that because I’ve noticed that generally the more money people have, the less interest they have in Krishna consciousness.

From Nairobi we flew to Bombay. I had never been in India or any third world country before, and it was a quite an eye-opener for me. At that time Srila Prabhupada had plans to build a university in Kuruksetra, and I had volunteered a donation for that project. I called my office in Detroit and had them wire one hundred fifty-thousand dollars to Prabhupada’s account in Bombay. At that time, if an Indian bank got a wire transfer, somehow or another they would misplace it for a couple of days so they could earn some interest on it. So, the message came that fifteen thousand dollars had been deposited, but I knew that a hundred-fifty-thousand dollars had been sent. I freaked. I went to Srila Prabhupada to tell him, expecting him to get very upset, but he laughed and said, “Oh, it looks like they have lost a zero.” He was completely detached about it. It didn’t seem to bother him at all, whereas I was completely upset about it. It was amazing. After a couple of days, they found all the money. Shortly after that, we drove to Kuruksetra to find some land. Prabhupada and a few of us went to the place where Krishna spoke the Bhagavad-gita. It was an incredibly serene, quiet, yet intense place. Prabhupada said, “The battle is perpetually going on here.” It had an ancient aura about it. We stood there for a while, and Prabhupada said, “This is the place I want to purchase land.”

In Detroit, Prabhupada asked me to write to the Ford Foundation to see if they were interested in supporting the Mayapur project. I was a little reticent to do it, because our family doesn’t have much influence over the Ford Foundation anymore, but I did it anyway. I sent a letter to the chairman. He wrote back to say that they didn’t support any projects that were religiously oriented. To add insult to injury, he said in the letter that the only way they would be able to support it was spiritually, which is not what we needed anyway. Srila Prabhupada didn’t need any more spiritual support. I read the letter to him. He didn’t say anything. He was silent and went on to the next topic. I felt crushed that I wasn’t able to follow through with this. When Prabhupada was silent, it was like the whole universe was silent. When he laughed, the whole universe laughed. You felt jolly. But when he was silent, it was so heavy. You didn’t know what to think, but you knew that it wasn’t good.

I found a palatial estate that was the Fisher Mansion and later became the Bhaktivedanta Cultural Center. We went there to look at it, and Srila Prabhupada immediately liked it. He mentioned, “Who would not like such a building?” Govardhan said, “Well, Ambarish doesn’t like it.” It was dirty, and there were dogs in it, and the neighborhood was really bad. I couldn’t see what was going to happen to it, but Prabhupada had a vision of what this place could be. Govardhan said, “Ambarish thinks it’s maya.” Prabhupada said, “Yes, but Krishna is also maya, and maya can be utilized in the service of Krishna.” After we looked at the building, we went to see the man who owned it. We were sitting by his pool. He was materialistic and greedy and wanted as much money as he could get, but the neighborhood was so bad that I couldn’t see how he was possibly going to get that much money, three-hundred-fifty thousand. Prabhupada told the man that he liked the building. He said, “Of course, we’re mendicants, we’re monks, we don’t have much money.” He suggested that the man give the building. The man was cool. He didn’t seem too shocked with that suggestion, but the real-estate lady almost fell over backwards in her chair, because she was counting on her commission. Her jaw dropped when Prabhupada said that. The owner was respectful and said he couldn’t possibly do that, as he had invested money in the property. So they settled on a price, and Prabhupada asked if Lekhashravanti and I could come up with the money. We ended up purchasing the building that way.

We were walking in the gardens, when Prabhupada ex- plained that he wanted to make this Detroit building a showplace for Krishna consciousness. He specifically mentioned putting in diorama exhibitions. He was very enthusiastic about these diorama exhibitions because his spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta, had used dioramas throughout India as an effective way of preaching. Prabhupada saw that non-devotees like Disney were using them, and he wanted us to have them. Dioramas were one of the first things that I wanted to get working on when we bought the property. I was concerned with the neighborhood because there was a lot of crime and burned-out buildings. Prabhupada said “If you simply bring Krishna here, everything will improve.” At the time, I didn’t have much faith in that, but it’s well known how the neighborhood has improved. Now there are luxury condominiums there, and there’s the first new housing development within the city limits of Detroit in forty or fifty years. The whole neighborhood has been transformed, and they have said specifically that it’s because the temple is there. Prabhupada could see that this was going to happen. What I learned from this experience was that simply by follow- ing the instructions of the spiritual master, you become successful. As disciples, we don’t have to try to be innovative or think up new things, but just by following Prabhupada’s directions things will work out. Prabhupada could see past, present, and future because he was in touch with Krishna. The Detroit building has worked out really well. It has become a wonderful center and people who would never visit any other temple come there. I think Prabhupada would be very pleased with the way things developed.

The night after the new temple was purchased, the real- estate lady and her partner, two middle-aged Polish women, came to congratulate Prabhupada. They both were intoxicated and were laughing. Prabhupada was kind and friendly with them, and he was very happy too, because he had purchased the building at a good price. Prabhupada didn’t discriminate. He always made whomever came feel comfortable. His attitude was so personable it was amazing.

During the last few months of his life, I knew Prabhupada was really ill, but I never thought that he was going to depart. I thought, “How can he leave? He can’t leave us now,” so I did not go to India. In retrospect I wish I had gone, but Govardhan, the president of the Detroit temple, went, and when he first went into Prabhupada’s presence, Prabhupada said, “How is Ambarish?” He was on his departure bed, yet he was asking how I was doing. It’s amazing to me that he was always so concerned. Right up to the end, he was translating and giving instructions. Everything he did, he did for our benefit, for the benefit of the living entities and especially for his disciples. It’s such an example of love. I never knew what love was before I met Srila Prabhupada. I had no idea, because we get so many perverted reflections. He was an example of Krishna’s love, and it is amazing that we’re able to see that.

To view the entire unedited video go to Memories 16 - Bhakti Thirtha Swami, Pradyumna, Ambarish, Tamal Krishna Goswami

The full Prabhupada Memories Series can be viewed here and also at

Following Srila Prabhupada

Interview DVD 07

Ambarish: I paid my obeisances, and Atulananda was there. He gave me Prabhupada’s garland. So I was really nervous. And as soon as I got up, I looked at Srila Prabhupada, who was sitting behind his desk. The first thing he said, “So you are Henry Ford’s great-grandson?” and I said, “Yes, Srila Prabhupada.” Then he said to me in a very grave voice, “So where is he now?” So I was a little stunned. My immediate reaction was, “Well, he’s dead,” but then I was thinking that this wasn’t really what Prabhupada was talking about. He was saying where is his soul now, which I didn’t have a really good answer for. So then Prabhupada spoke for a little while, and he was saying something along the lines that Henry Ford was such a famous man. He said, “Now you should become just as famous for being a devotee.”

Interview DVD 09

Ambarish: This one morning I remember he was hammering me on this one point because I kept on saying that the living entity grows, and Srila Prabhupada was saying, “No, not growing, changing, second by second changing.” And for some reason I just could not understand that concept, that the living entity is changing at every second like the picture in the book with the different movie frames. I was thinking that the body is growing because I wasn’t looking at it in a spiritual context at all. But I was so conditioned to this way of looking at things, that the child is born and then it grows, and Prabhupada was hammering this point home with me that “No, this concept of growth is wrong. The body is changing. Every second there is a new body and a new body, like that, changing, changing.” But he must have hammered on me for about 10 minutes and I was so thick, I just could not understand the concept at all. But finally I began to understand it, but I realized actually on this walk how conditioned I was by my so-called education and Darwinism and all this other nonsense that you’re fed when you are growing up in America. To understand Krishna consciousness, I had to unlearn a lot of things too before I could even grasp some of the basics. So it was kind of an awakening for me.

Interview DVD 10

Ambarish: There is Govardhan, he’s the temple president. I had actually just taken initiation in June, so this is a month later. I was actually here when Prabhupada came in, but I’m not here because I’m out at the curb with the car. We had a nice white Lincoln Continental that we got from Ford Motor Company. We filled it will marigolds, it was just chock-a-block full with marigolds. Then when Srila Prabhupada came out, I offered my obeisances to him and held the door open. And he gave me a nice pat on the shoulder, I always remember that, and got in and we took off for the temple. I was Srila Prabhupada’s driver for his whole visit in Detroit. When you drive from the airport into the city, you pass Ford Motor Company, it’s on both sides of the road as you’re coming in, and there’s actually this big tire that’s been there for years. It came from the World’s Fair, I think. In 1964, they had a World’s Fair and they had a Goodyear exhibit. So they brought this huge tire. So we’re passing this big huge tire and Prabhupada says…Srila Prabhupada had a great sense of humor…he said, “Oh, this is the presiding deity of Detroit.” Then we drove a little farther and…here’s the car here, there I am. So we drove a little farther, and we passed Ford Motor Company on the left and on the right – World Headquarters Ford Motor Company it said. So Brahmananda said, “Is this where you work?” And Prabhupada said in his very deep voice, “No, he is the proprietor.” So we all had a good laugh at that, and then we proceeded on to the temple. We were still at the temple on Jefferson. The temple on Jefferson is in a historic neighborhood, Indian Village it’s called, and we would go out to Belle Isle to go for a morning walk. It’s a park near the temple on Jefferson, so we would go out there and park and then walk around. It was my job to find the proper route. And no matter what route I ever came up with, we would always run into a bunch of rowdy people because it’s a city park so the caliber of people in there was not so great. There would be some people that had been there all night who’d come rolling out of the bushes. But Prabhupada was very merciful, and I think he enjoyed walking there. The devotees had built Prabhupada a palanquin because the temple room was on the third floor. So they had built a palanquin to carry Prabhupada up to the top, and he took one look at it and waved his hand and said, “No, no,” because it didn’t look very safe. We would come back to the temple room for greeting of the Deities, and there’s Radha-Kunjabehari, jaya. Govardhan was such a perfectionist that They were never ready by the time we got back. So we’d be standing out in front of the curtain with Prabhupada, I could hear Govardhan screaming in the back, “Forget it! Forget it! Just get the curtain open on time!” But he always did such a nice job dressing the Deities. I think Radha-Kunjabehari were famous for Their opulence and also the opulent prasadam and milk sweets that you got. We used to steal the Mangala-arati sweets after Mangala-arati and go into Govardhan’s office and eat them.

We did some programs also at the University of Michigan. Because I was the driver, I wanted to get Prabhupada as close to the door as I could. So one time I drove through these bushes and over the grass to get Srila Prabhupada to the door of the auditorium. Brahmananda was sitting in the back, he was saying, “You can’t do that just because you’re a Ford.” I said, “No, it’s not because of that. Because I have Prabhupada in the back seat, I feel I can bend the rules a little bit to try to get him as close to the door as possible.” Prabhupada was laughing, he thought it was funny. But we had some nice programs at the University of Michigan. Prabhupada was on his world tour, but at the same time we were getting ready to buy a new temple. Govardhan had gone out and scouted around and had found what is now the Bhaktivedanta Cultural Center, this historic mansion, the Fisher Mansion, which was in this very, very dilapidated part of town, East Jefferson it’s called. It was ghetto and just horrible, but the property itself was quite nice and it was being sold. So we took Srila Prabhupada over there. The man who owned it owned an alarm company, so he had rigged the whole house up to test his alarms. And he had dogs and carpeting, and it was really muchi. So I was not all that impressed because it was dark and oppressive and it was just scary, it was a scary place. I was not all that impressed by it. But we walked into the ballroom that Mr. Fisher used to have his parties in, and at the far end of the ballroom were three arches behind which the orchestra used to sit to play for the people when they came to the dance. So Srila Prabhupada saw these three arches and he said, “Oh, Krishna has made this house for us.” So we walked around and looked at the mansion, here, there, and Prabhupada asked what they were asking. They were asking $350,000 and Srila Prabhupada said, just to us, not to the realtor, “Every room is worth $350,000.” Then as we were walking out Govardhan said, “How do you like this house, Srila Prabhupada?” And Prabhupada said, “Who would not like?” So Govardhan…I don’t know why he said it, he said, “Well, Ambarisa doesn’t like it,” because I had expressed some reservations about it. I was a new devotee and I said, “Prabhupada, it’s maya.” When you’re new, you think you know a lot more than you actually do. So Prabhupada said, “Yes, Krishna is maya too. This can be utilized for Krishna’s service too.” Prabhupada saw everything as being able to be utilized in Krishna’s service, this principle of yukta-vairagya, which I didn’t know very much about then. Also, Prabhupada said if Krishna comes here the neighborhood would change, because I had expressed some reservations, “This is a high crime neighborhood.” Actually the first carjacking in the United States took place there. So I had some reservations about crime and what was going to happen to the devotees, etc., and Prabhupada said, “You just bring Krishna here and distribute prasadam, then everything will change.” I just surrendered. So we decided that we would make an offer for the house. So the next day Govardhan, myself and Srila Prabhupada, we went back to the house, back to the Fisher Mansion, and we had a meeting out by the pool with the real estate lady, our broker, and the owner of the house. We all sat down, and the first thing that Srila Prabhupada said was “We are mendicants, so we would like it if you would give us this house.” So the real estate lady, she almost fell in the pool because she saw her commission fly out the window. And the owner of the house, his jaw dropped because…I could tell what was going on in his head, that he was looking at Prabhupada and thinking, “Well, maybe he’s a mendicant, but this guy over here,” looking at me, “definitely no, he’s not a mendicant,” because he knew who I was. So anyway, he said, “No, I’m sorry, I can’t do that.” He was asking $350,000, and Srila Prabhupada agreed to pay $300,000. So we got this beautiful historic mansion with all this work that really can’t be replicated. That house, to replace it would cost probably 5 or 10 million dollars. So we got it for $300,000. So everybody was happy. Lekhasravanti, she was Walter Reuther’s daughter, and she basically surrendered everything. She gave everything she had to buy this house, and whatever she couldn’t cover I covered. So it was about 50-50. She was very surrendered, and I really commend her for that because she sacrificed everything for Prabhupada. That night I remember the real estate lady, she was a middle-aged Polish woman, and her friend came over to congratulate Prabhupada that they had accepted the offer. So they came up to Prabhupada’s room. Both of them were intoxicated, so they were rolling around on the pillows in front of Prabhupada’s desk. But he was so jolly because he was happy that we had purchased this house, and he was so kind to these old ladies. That was Prabhupada’s nature was that he could see everybody’s spiritual identity, and he was very merciful to them. So we ended up purchasing the house, and that was a momentous occasion during that trip. We had our grand opening in 1983, I think it was. And since that time, there has been redevelopment all around the whole mansion, and people have told us actually that the reason they came in there and put money into the area was because the Fisher Mansion was there and was being maintained so nicely by the devotees. So Srila Prabhupada could see past, present and future and could see that this was going to be very successful and become a very famous place. But it was really wonderful to have Prabhupada there, I remember it very sweetly. Of course, I had my personal service driving Prabhupada around, it was very nice just after having been initiated. I’ll always remember that trip.