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.