Ram Dass (Richard Alpert)
Richard Alpert was born around 1930 in Boston, Massachusetts. He became a university lecturer in psychology but despite 5 years of psychoanalysis by 1961 he was very depressed, very anxious, drinking heavily and smoking pot while the fear before every lecture produced diarrhoea and tensions. He was nominally Jewish but felt no spirituality in his religion, no love in his family, was disillusioned with his understanding of psychology and experiencing a deep malaise when he met Timothy Leary. Leary had returned from a European holiday he financed by passing bad cheques ie stealing but this didn't stop Alpert from becoming his drinking buddy and adoring disciple. He believed Leary had "an absolutely extraordinary intellect" and who knows, at this time, maybe he still had. Leary also helped turn Richard Alpert, a straight, uptight, depressed, anxious, non-religious Jew into Dick Alpert, a stoned, freaked-out, uptight, depressed, anxious, non-religious Jew who was ready for a religious conversion of a life-changing standard.
After taking psilocybin in 1961, his life became dominated by the taking of "psychedelic" drugs in as great a combination as was possible. His excitement and belief in the transcendant and revolutionary social effects of these drugs seems silly now after thirty years of their (ab)use. By 1967, despite his survival of an extraordinary amount of drugs with faculties reasonably intact he was once again deeply depressed and in despair touring in India suffering from physical discomfort & paranoia caused by hashish withdrawal when he met a young Californian calling himself Bhagavan Das who became his guide and introduced him to his guru. The two of them became among the most successful religious hucksters of the 20th century. At the time it seemed unlikely that these two had the spiritual credentials to influence a large scale religious transformation and hindsight has only confirmed this. Alpert described their first meeting with wide-eyed wonder and zero skepticism:
I met this guy and there was no doubt in my mind [that he "knew"]. It was just like meeting a rock. It was just solid, all the way through. Everywhere I pressed, there he was! (Dass, 1971).
The guru was Jagat Gurudev Baba Neem Karoli Maharaj. "Maharaji" (or "Greatest King" - in India gurus are usually given honorifics by their followers that would be considered excessive in European societies) appears to be ugly and grossly fat, nearly always dressed in a tartan blanket and who does very little but lie around on a couch eating and occasionally getting into strange postures. This is not a picture I find compelling. Alpert soon convinces himself that Karoli is actually omniscient, omnipotent and etc, etc as many have convinced themselves before though the evidence as recorded in Be Here Now is not convincing to a skeptical person. Neem Karoli certainly appears less harmful than most of the gurus who've developed a Western following and some of his followers seem pretty ethical. It's not as if there aren't plenty of other weird looking Indian gurus who've convinced their followers they're God.
Ram Dass seems to be good-hearted and sincere. His ability to admit when he has been wrong has also come in handy, as has his ability to create the most spiritual, convoluted and exculpatory excuses for his stupidity. In an article amusingly titled "Egg on My Beard" he explained that by the end of 1973 he "felt more and more depressed and hypocritical" though he'd written in "Be Here Now" that he was "floating about on an ocean of love." In 1974 Ram Dass demonstrated that he had zero credibility in discerning a spiritual fraud by falling under the spell (metaphorically) of Joya Santana and then writing a 5,000 word article explaining why this both hideously embarrassing, incredibly stupid and spiritually beneficial:
Originally Joyce Green, she had what Ram Dass called "powerful charisma and chutzpah," and she claimed to be in touch, psychically, with Neem Karoli Baba, who had died the previous year. She told Ram Dass her job on earth was to prepare him for his future as a world spiritual leader. "I easily let myself be convinced," he confessed in a mea culpa in Yoga Journal titled "Egg on My Beard," saying he’d conned himself into believing an "incredible tapestry of half truths and lies." - American Veda by Philip Goldberg
That should read "another incredible tapestry of half truths and lies." Ma Jaya continued a successful if despicable role as Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, a guru greater than God, for decades despite Ram Dass' disowning her.
Ram Dass soon became a travelling psychic/spiritual circus. By 1975 he was traveling with a road manager and a group of backup musicians for the chanting and singing the praises of his now dead Master. Neem Karoli became famous outside India even though Ram Dass and Bhagavan Das were the witnesses most unlikely to be believed by a skeptical, judicious and prudent audience. However they were just perfect for the audience they had, willing to believe, anxious to believe and desperate to stay on the cool, trendy bandwagon.
Because he is a public figure who compulsively discusses his private life in public it is possible to determine the results of his spiritual practice and his devotion to his guru over a thirty year period. In public seminars conducted in 1997 marketed as 'Truth and Transformation' he reveals that 30 years since writing 'Be Here Now' he has gained no spiritual insight or experience from meditation and that his cherished beliefs about his guru are just that - beliefs.
On 19 February 1997, Ram Dass suffered a stroke which left him paralyzed of the right side of his body and limited his ability to speak. He recover. He did not lose his sense of humour.
Alpert received the name Ram Dass, or "servant of God" and returned to the United States where he edited and published 'Remember, Be Here Now'. The book contained 3 sections, the first was an autobiography of Richard Alpert up until the time he became a follower of 'Maharaji' mainly devoted to his drug experiences ending with "Since his most recent return to the West from India he has been floating about on an ocean of love" which wasn't true.
The second section is devoted to his "philosophy" formatted in "late 60's hippy multi-media" ie text was handwritten, partially ignoring the convention of left to right & straight lines intersperesd with naif sketches. Hideous.
The third section was a brief introduction to yoga, "spiritual" life practices and techniques with inspirational quotes - a sort of mini 'Perennial Philosophy' and a do it yourself spirituality textbook. It was ridiculously optimistic as Ram Dass' life demonstrates but if it was your first introduction to Indian religion and spirituality it could be quite paradigm changing. "Be Here Now" was an unexpected publishing bombshell and made "Ram Dass" famous and commenced his career as a motor-mouth, an author and a "teacher". He continued to write books such as "Spiritual Awakening" and "Journey of Awakening" though he had done neither.
"In his book The Way of Kabbalah, Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi warns that one of the hazards of the spiritual path is that the seeker may mistakenly study with a false teacher, someone who is either self-deluded or an imposter." - Egg On My Beard
That has got to be one of the great understatements of all time.
Books by Ram Dass
- The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based On the Tibetan Book of the Dead (with T. Leary and R. Mentzer), 1964, 1992.
- Be Here Now (editor), 1971
- The Only Dance There Is; Talks Given at the Menninger Foundation, Topeka, Kansas (1970) and at Spring Grove Hospital, Spring Grove, Maryland (1972) 1974
- Miracle of Love: Stories About Neem Karoli Baba (editor) 1979
- How Can I Help: Stories and Reflections on Service (with Paul Gorman) 1985
- Grist for the Mill 1988
- Journey of Awakening: A Meditator's Guidebook 1990
- Compassion in Action : Setting Out on the Path of Service (with Mirabai Bush) 1992
- Conscious Aging: On the Nature of Change and Facing Death 1993
- Cultivating the Heart of Compassion 1991
- Finding and Exploring Your Spiritual Path: An Exploration of the Pleasures and Perils of Seeking Personal Enlightenment 1989
- Helping Yourself 1987
- Who Are You? 1988
- Journey of Awakening: A Meditator's Guide 1990
- Path of Service: Here and Now in 90's 1992
- Ramayana As Retold by William Buck 1991
- Sacred Odyssey: Seeking Freedom And Helping Yourself 1997
- Spiritual Awakening 1993
- Spiritual Practices and Perspectives for Daily Life 1997
- Truth and Transformation (with Dan Goleman and Huston Smith) 1997
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