A disciple welcomes the challenge of fullling a difcult order from his spiritual master.
Ambarisa Dasa (Alfred Ford) is the great-grandson of Henry Ford. He was initiated by Srila Prabhupada in 1973.
Back to Godhead: What is your connection with the Mayapur Project?
Ambarisa Dasa: I've been asked to be the honorary chair of the fundraising campaign, and I'm happy to bring to it whatever I can.
BTG: How does the Mayapur Project fit into your life?
AD: Mayapur is one of the main tasks for the rest of my life. Srila Prabhupada asked me to do just a few projects, and among them I see the Mayapur Project as the most challenging. It will challenge both me and ISKCON to keep growing. I look forward to it.
BTG: What did Srila Prabhupada say to you about Mayapur?
AD: Srila Prabhupada talked to me about Mayapur many times. In Detroit in 1976 he asked me to help finance the project not only to donate but to go out and help raise funds and get other people involved.
BTG: Raising funds can be tough. What makes you look forward to raising funds for Mayapur?
AD: I'm hoping we'll raise much money in the West from an entirely new group of people. I think people wealthy, influential people are waiting for a project like this. Spiritually, people in the West are very hungry. After many years of prosperity, they realize that their level of happiness has not really improved. People are looking for something new, different. They're materially exhausted.
Throughout my life it's been my experience that having a lot of material facilities does not give one happiness. Sensible people are realizing that. Of course, there's a trend to minimize spiritual values, but segments of the population remain spiritually hungry.
BTG: What do you mean by minimizing spiritual values?
AD: There's a general trend toward more relaxed spiritual and ethical values. The media calls it "defining deviance down." What's gone on in the White House recently is an example. Kali-yuga goes on, yet this very valuable knowledge of Krsna consciousness is readily accessible. ISKCON has been limited to a very small number of people, but now the world has become so much more interconnected. So we can make a big impression on the world, even from Mayapur. There will always be materialists, but for those in spiritual and emotional pain, we should be able to offer comfort.
BTG: Won't wealthy, influential Westerners view the Mayapur Project as a sectarian cause?
AD: We have to teach that Krsna consciousness is a spiritual science that appeals to everyone. With our diverse international membership, we're in a good position to show that. We've been inclusive. Devotees have been willing to talk to other religious organizations. Srila Prabhupada trained us in that way. Even though we feel we have the absolute truth, we don't negate everyone else. We see that other religious seekers are on a constructive path. We encourage them.
BTG: How will the Mayapur Project demonstrate this broad spiritual view?
AD: With science, grandeur, and manpower. In the West people have sometimes been disappointed with ISKCON temples because they lack manpower and do not show a very organized
presentation of Krsna consciousness. But in Mayapur we have many young and energetic devotees. It makes a great difference.
BTG: What else makes Mayapur different?
AD: It's the birthplace of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, who showed that Vaisnavism is for everyone. Also, Srila Prabhupada was the great world ambassador of Vaisnavism, and he spent much time and energy there. He had many hopes and visions for Mayapur.
BTG: In your 25-plus years in Krsna consciousness, you've seen ISKCON have many ups and downs. What makes you confident about the Mayapur Project?
AD: I tend to be forward-looking, to see what we can do now to make the future better. We may have failed in some ways, but we should not give up. If we can make Mayapur a center that will attract people from around the world to come and learn about Krsna consciousness, it will become one of the most important places on the planet. Mayapur can attract people from all over the world. It can be a window to the spiritual world or an exit from the material world like an Internet portal to the kingdom of God.
Krsna doesn't make things so easy that they become cheap. Anything worth having is worth a fight. Real spiritual life doesn't come easily.
BTG: You seem to have a sense of urgency about this project. Why?
AD: I see that Kali-yuga is making great strides, with gambling, abortion, and all kinds of immorality going on at a feverish pitch. Mayapur is a dike against this flood of sinful activity. If we fulfill Srila Prabhupada's goals, Mayapur will be a center for spiritual education unlike any on earth. Coming to Mayapur will be a life-changing experience. A visitor can realize that he or she is not the body. Devotees can come and be strengthened.
BTG: Are you concerned that Mayapur might become commercialized and lose its spiritual value?
AD: It will never be like Disneyland. The temple will be a tourist destination, because whenever you do something big it attracts attention. Srila Prabhupada wanted this temple to attract people, and it will be a work in progress for many generations. But aside from the temple, the Mayapur Project can become renowned for all Vaisnava arts education, farming, vegetarianism, cultural activities all the things that Hare Krsnas are famous for. I think the town planners are doing a good job in making room for all aspects of a balanced community, including education, commerce, and culture.
BTG: The Mayapur temple the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium places one of the most controversial parts of the Srimad-Bhagavatam right in the middle of everything. Why?
AD: Srila Prabhupada was always interested in smashing scientists. He saw reductionist, materialistic science as an evil force, brainwashing people about impersonalism and atheism. So he saw materialistic scientists as a force to be defeated, and he boldly challenged their conventional wisdom. Srila Prabhupada saw the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium as a challenge to the godless "big bang" theory, evolution, and all the other materialistic scientific premises that many accept without question. In other words, Srila Prabhupada saw Mayapur not in a sectarian way but as a theistic educational project for people at large.
BTG: What would you like to see Mayapur become?
AD: I would like to see Mayapur be similar to what the Vatican is to the Catholics. It will be a place where people come for a spiritual experience, not only by seeing great buildings but by hearing philosophy in good association. I want to see Mayapur become an easier place to get to, with facilities for Westerners to stay comfortably. Perhaps there will be an airport and a port for boats from Calcutta.
In general I'd like to see Mayapur become a world-renowned holy place. People will go there for spiritual knowledge and become refreshed by the Ganges. They will grow spiritually and tell others.
BTG: Building such a project is a real challenge.
AD: I'm so happy Srila Prabhupada gave us this challenge. What would our life be without it? It's very easy to become self-absorbed and concerned only with my realization and my family. The Mayapur Project challenges us to do something for the world, to be compassionate. It draws us out of our homes and our own temples to broadcast Srila Prabhupada's message to the world. To me, Mayapur is not just bricks and mortar. It is my preaching and a preaching project that will last thousands of years.
Building Mayapur is not going to be a cakewalk, even if we have the money. It's not a material endeavor. It will happen only by the mercy of guru and Krsna.
BTG: How does one get that mercy?
AD: You've got me! It has to be thrust upon you. If you have the desire to help, somehow Srila Prabhupada will engage you. I often remember that Srila Prabhupada said we'd please him by cooperating. Unless we, his followers, cooperate as a society, building Mayapur will take a very long time. If we learn to cooperate, we can see it in our lifetime.
BTG: Is it the scale of the building that makes it difficult?
AD: No. It's the scale on an organizational level. It's the biggest thing Srila Prabhupada's followers have ever attempted. And because it's a spiritual endeavor, maya will try to thwart it at every turn. Here we are, more than twenty years after Prabhupada's departure, and we've had many detours. I think Srila Prabhupada's followers have been sincere in their endeavors, but there has been a lot of inevitable trial and error, and that has fostered questions of ability and credibility.
BTG: At this point, how do you feel about the project?
AD: I would like to have more information readily available. There's such a distance between here and India. I plan to spend more time there in the future. But in general I have confidence in Abhirama [the project director]. He has done large-scale projects before, so he's qualified to carry out a lot of this work. And I think that as a society, ISKCON is ready. We need a project like this to unite us. But we may encounter more challenges.
BTG: What kinds of challenges?
AD: We can be our own worst enemies. Splintering is an example, which is common after the disappearance of a religious founder. It may get worse.
BTG: Can Mayapur unite us?
AD: It has to. We're not getting any younger, and none of us want to end our lives without at least a good beginning in fulfilling Srila Prabhupada's order to build Mayapur. We have to compartmentalize our differences, and if we do, we will realize that our differences are not that great.
BTG: Have you seen examples of that unity?
AD: Only in kirtana, at festivals. But the same could happen with Mayapur.
BTG: What gives Mayapur such universality?
AD: Mayapur is Srila Prabhupada's cherished dream. The acaryas envisioned the Mayapur project. Lord Nityananda predicted it. Mayapur is the center of our heritage, like Rome or Mecca. Mayapur should be important to everyone who chants Hare Krsna.
BTG: Is money for Mayapur well spent?
AD: Certainly it's well spent. In America the same amount of money wouldn't go nearly as far.
BTG: Do you see the temple taking a long time to build?
AD: Well, this is a long-term project. You have to see it like that. At the same time, once you get started with construction you can't stop; you have to keep the momentum going. We can't do this in fits and starts. Otherwise we'll struggle to build the temple over decades and centuries, like the Washington Cathedral or the Washington Monument. We're constrained by our short lifetimes. If we realize that, things will change drastically. We'll build this temple in short order, as Prabhupada desired.
BTG: In addition to the temple, the Mayapur Project leaders are working on social projects for the surrounding region. How do you feel about that?
AD: I like the fact that the ecological and other non-religious aspects are being pursued. It gives people an opportunity to put money to benefit very poor people. One of the trends of the new millennium will be the continued divergence between the rich and the poor. The gulf grows every year, so people want to put their money where the poorest people are.
BTG: Isn't that akin to mundane welfare work, which Srila Prabhupada criticized?
AD: There is nothing mundane about it. Mayapur is not just any part of the world. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu appeared there, and Srila Prabhupada preached there. So by helping people in Mayapur, the Lord is at the center. The center is different, and so the consciousness is different. That's our message: carry on with your activities, but put Krsna in the center.