Alfred Ford: The Billionaire Bhakta




From The Times of India:

The Ford legacy doesn’t really weigh him down as he can see beyond material trappings. In fact, he has found his religion, his God, his very reason to be. Alfred B Ford , the great grandson of the legendary Henry Ford, in an exclusive interview.

He was born into one of America’s richest families, the great grandson of Henry Ford, the tycoon who gave the world the motorcar and the assembly line.

“I had a normal upbringing,” Alfred B Ford says, “My parents lived simply.” But behind that statement lies generations of staggering wealth and privilege – mothers who collected Renoirs and Van Goghs, jet-setting aunts who married Greek shipping tycoons, Sunday school and baseball games, and the great tumult of the ’60s.

By the time he got to college, he was somewhat of an anti-establishment person. “The Vietnam War had started, it was the era of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, we had a Presidential assassination, and we had his brother and Martin Luther King assassinated.”

Says Ford, “We began to experiment and look at different ways of living. I wanted to know what God looked like. I was looking for a personal connection with God, a relationship with him.”

Though it seemed to be a ’60s kind of thing to do, in families such as his, it was nothing new to search for higher meaning. “My great grandfather Henry Ford,” he says, “had always wondered how he had acquired the ability to know so much about mechanics. He had very little formal training, and yet, at the age of nine he could take a watch apart and put it back together. One explanation was that he had acquired this in some other lifetime. Though not very religious, he was very interested in spirituality. He believed in reincarnation. A Sufi mystic came to visit him from India, and he was pretty much of a vegetarian.”

Blame it on the Beatles – George Harrison actually. “Everything Indian was very popular back in those days,” he recalls, “I remember, in my college I had a big picture of a mandala and we used to try and meditate in front of it. I had my hair long and a beard, and then George Harrison, who had become involved in the Krishna Consciousness, produced an album for the ‘Radhe Krishna temple’, which I bought when I was in college.”

It was a life-defining moment. As soon as the first bhajan began, he says, he found himself crying. “It touched something very very deep in my heart. It was a very profound experience. I realised that this was the concept of God I was looking for – Govinda, the most attractive… the protector of cows… the most beautiful… always youthful… eyes like blooming lotus flowers…”

After college, Ford wanted to become a recluse, so he moved to the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming, where he lived in a little cabin, and skied every day. But Krishna came looking for him in the form of a close friend who had been a hippy along with him in college, and who had become an initiated disciple in the Krishna Consciousness movement.

“He came over with some books, and preached to me,” he says. “He had brought me Prabhupad’s translation of the Bhagvad Gita , and soon, I started to change my lifestyle. I had turned vegetarian in college and I had stopped drinking, and then I started cooking vegetarian food and offering it to Krishna as prasadam . I started chanting on my japa mala and studying Prabhupad’s books.”

Soon a guru-disciple relationship began to develop between the 20-something heir to one of America’s biggest fortunes, and the 80-something pontiff of one of Hinduism’s largest movements. To please his guru, he bought a $ 6,00,000 mansion in Honolulu to house a temple and learning centre.

Finally, they met. “I was very nervous as I knew this was a great personality. So, I bowed to him and as I was coming up, he said to me, ‘So you are Henry Ford’s great grandson. Where is he now?’

“And that question immediately made me realise that life is so temporary. Krishna Consciousness teaches you that the only eternal relationship and identity you have is with Krishna. I learnt when I was growing up that though I belonged to a family which had everything, still, there was unhappiness and frustration,” says the man, who has come as close as any to having it all materially.

But soon, there was trouble in paradise. “People definitely thought I had joined a cult,” he says, “but it did not bother me, in the least. I was happy.” And soon his family came round. “I helped set up a centre in Detroit in 1983. And for the opening, my parents came, they saw Radha Krishna, the deities there, they took prasadam .”

Perhaps their feelings were assuaged because they realised that he was not about to abdicate his responsibilities. He still attended to the family business and had made quite a reputation for himself as one of the foremost dealers of Indian art.

“I used to come to India and buy art from the Maharajahs,” he says, “In those days, we were allowed to take antiques out of the country.”

With so much India on his mind and on his sleeve, you didn’t need an astrologer to predict the next step: he married an Indian girl. A Sharmilla Bhattacharya, PhD, from Bengal via Jaipur and Australia.

“In the early ’80s, I became friends with one of the Hare Krishna leaders in Australia. There was this beautiful, brilliant Bengali girl, a devotee who was being married off to a doctor against her wishes, and her spiritual guru was worrying about her. Why don’t I marry her, I found myself saying.”

You can bet Krishna smiled. They were married in less than a year, and by the time she got her degree, they were already the proud parents of an American-Bengali-Brahmin-Wasp girl by the name of Amrita!

Life, more or less, settled into a routine now. There was the chanting, the worship at the temple that began at 4 am and lasted till about 9 am, and then there was office to attend to, where he worked as a trustee of the Ford Motor Company Fund, in charge of the company’s charitable work, oversaw an IT company that he had invested into in California, and other investments to attend to.

“All this was pure business,” he says. “Krishna’s message to Arjuna was not to give up his position as a warrior and go meditate in the woods, but to fulfil his purpose here in the material world. Go ahead and achieve what you have to, be the best of what you can be, but at the same time, don’t neglect your spiritual life,” he says simply.

He’s ruffled a few feathers with his passion for setting up Krishna Consciousness centres all over the world. In Russia, the Orthodox Church saw red when he wanted to build a domed building large enough to hold 8,000 Hindus, a few miles from the Red Square.

Now, he’s going to play footsie with the Indian government over a $250 million ski resort he wants to start in Himachal Pradesh. But for him, it’s all par for the course. Business and spirituality are not strange bedfellows.

“My cousin Bill is more or less vegetarian, eats no red meat, just a little bit of fish, is a Buddhist, studies Eastern religions and is chairman of the Ford Motor Company,” he says, “I send him books on Krishna Consciousness.”


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