Ram Dass History


The Metamorphic Journey of Richard

by Sara Davidson

Sara Davidson is a free-lance journalist who lives
in New York City. Her articles have appeared in Life, Harper’s, and



Thaveling where the saints have trod Over to the
old golden land

&emdash;Incredible String Band





On a sunny May afternoon, a 41-year-old man with
long, wiry, graying hair emerged from the Boston International
Arrivals Terminal carrying a suitcase full of Indian silks and an
unwieldy, bowl-shaped instrument called a tamboura. Tall and light of
step, he wore a sweater and bell bottom slacks, and his face shone
with healthy color. He hesitated at the door to the waiting room, for
in his head was flickering an extraordinary film: a film in which he
saw himself swallowed by a living wave of white-robed bodies,
strangled by hugs, and suffocated by a hail of flowers, grapes and
mangos. For the man was Baba Ram Dass, formerly Dr. Richard Alpert,
returning to the United States after a year and a half in India, his
second journey to the East.

During his absence from this country, a book he
had written, Be Here Now, had been published in paperback and sold
200,000 copies. That is twice the trade most bestsellers do, although
the book was not promoted and never acknowledged by any national
publication. Tapes of his lectures had been played on radio stations,
and transcripts were printed in underground papers and scholarly
journals. For a year, Ram Dass had been receiving about 100 letters a
week, asking and begging for his attention and advice.

A week after his return, Ram Dass reflected, “I
was afraid of the karma I had brought on myself with that book,
afraid of the numbers that were going to overwhelm me. So I put off
coming home, and hung around England for. six weeks. I felt I wasn’t
ready to wrestle with fame and power.” Finally he cabled his father
that he was on his way to Boston. “I got to the airport all prepared
for some Frank Sinatra hysteria scene, and there was nobody there.
Nobody! My father was out of town and didn’t get the cable.” Ram Dass
took a bus into the city, checked his tamboura and wandered around
“really digging this total reversal of my expectations.”

Had he sent word of his arrival to a few strategic
people, there indeed would have been throngs at the airport, and I
might have been among them. I had read Be Here Now in 1971 and was
interested in meeting the author. Although I had had many
opportunities to see the folly of this impulse, there, nevertheless,
it was: if I could just talk to Ram Dass, get near enough and ask the
right questions, certain mysteries and doubts might be resolved

The concepts Ram Dass expressed matched suspicions
I had long held but never fully trusted. What hit the strongest chord
was his assertion that one could hold all the keys to the
kingdom&emdash;money, power, beauty, achievement&emdash;and still not
be happy, still have an unsatisfied gnawing in the gut: “It’s not
enough.” You might want success in a project, or a trip to South
America, or a house in the country, and as soon as you get it, you
find yourself wanting something else.

Most of us, he said, spend the first part of our
lives living in the future ~and the rest living in the past. In order
T6 ive in the moment, totall fulfilled, one must be free of
att~’chm~gt to those unending desires. We have all had tastes of the
here-and-now experience: sailing on a perfect summer day, or sitting
with a group of especially close friends, when there is an absence of
wanting, of needing anything more. For a fragment of time, we’re not
worrying about past troubles, or planning what to do when the boat
docks or the friends leave. We are, briefly, outside time, outside
desire. And by “working on yourself,” Ram Dass said, one can progress
toward inhabiting that state more frequently.

I made inquiries about interviewing Ram Dass, for
habitually, whenever I have wanted to pursue an interest, I’ve found
a way to make a work project out of it. He was back in India, and
when I met him a year later, his tuning had subtly changed. The
stakes in his game had been jacked up since the last round. He was
headed for the gap across which lies sainthood, or
psychosis&emdash;whatever you want to call it&emdash;a state beyond
the range of perceiving we consensually call normality.

One of the first things he said was, “I’m living
in a totally psychotic space now, because in my universe there’s only
one other being besides me and it’s God. All day long I’m constantly
talking to Him. That’s clearly not a sane statement in the Western
rational model.” He said he sensed in India the profundity of the
surrender required, “the power of the death, the true death of the
ego. I had figured I could go through the whole transformation
without ever missing a step. But you can’t take any personality
baggage with you. Whoever is left of the old separate being has to
die. It feels as if some thing irrevocable has happened and my faith
is not quite shakeable anymore. My relationship to my guru and
through him feels somewhat beyond the pale.”

Because of this faith, he no longer needs to wear
white garments and holy beads, or set up a little altar wherever he
goes with his books, candles and pictures of saints. “I don’t need
the physical reminders for fear I’ll go under.” Neither does he need
to persuade or teach anyone. He will avoid public activities,
speaking to large groups and “playing the holy man so much. I’m just
going to be another guy and hang out.”

So once again, the master metamorphosis has pulled
his disappearing trick. Ram Dass said, “I see my value at this moment
as symbolic: somebody who was a psychology professor, was a drug
person, and is still all but primarily none of those anymore;
somebody who was an Indian student but is not primarily that now
either. By changing form, I can help people get the essence of the
thing without getting caught in the form. That’s really the fun,
because they’ll say, ‘I thought you were &emdash;!’ and I’ll say, who
was that? You were focusing on the wrong thing, it’s just that I was
wearing a brown jacket yesterday.” He laughs. “When expectations are
broken, people grow.”

Ram Dass once said he felt “blessed by having been
given everything that Western society could offer: affluence, lots of
love, the best education, and the fruits of advanced technology,
including drugs, the best drugs. All that was part of my preparation
to now know something else.” The affluence came from his father,
George, a dignified, Republican financier-philanthropist, who was
president of the New Haven Railroad and helped found Brandeis

When Ram Dass talks about Richard Alpert, he tends
to paint him, often hilariously, as a tormented, miserable wretch.
But those who knew him as a student and later at Millbrook say he was
always warm and charismatic, with an infectious sense of humor and
zest. David McClelland, a psychology professor for whom Alpert worked
at Harvard, says he was an excellent and ambitious scholar, who
gained rank with rare speed. “No one observing him would have known
about the inner anxiety, and he didn’t talk about it.”

At Harvard, Alpert taught psychology and practiced
psychotherapy. He flew his own plane, collected antiques, cars, a
sailboat and scuba-diving equipment. Although he had spent five years
in psychoanalysis, he says, he was tense and suffered diarrhea every
time he lectured. He drank heavily and was a closet homosexual,
“living with a man and a woman at the same time in two different
parts of the city&emdash;a nightmare of hypocrisy.” He looked at his
colleagues on the A team at Harvard and saw that none seemed
fulfilled or content. He feared he himself would wake up 40 years
later no less neurotic or more wise, and he panicked. “I thought, the
best thing I can do is go back into psychoanalysis. But then I
started to have doubts about the analyst. Is his life enough? Whose
life is? Who’s saying, right, it’s enough?”

He was, at this time, an atheist, and had
difficulty even pronouncing “spiritual.” But on March 5, 1961, a tab
of psilocybin was to blow out all the old holding pegs. One of his
faculty drinking buddies, Timothy Leary, had started a research
project with mind-altering drugs, allegedly to explore their
potential benefit for criminals, addicts and sick people. Alpert was
brought in as the steadying influence, to control Leary’s wild
flights and keep the research within respectable scientific bounds.
But the first time Alpert took psilocybin with Leary, he discovered
an exalted place inside himself where an “I” existed, an essence
deeper than his social and physical identity, a steady center
unaffected by the play of time. And this “I” was all-knowing. The
more drug trips he took, the more he trusted the inner voice, and the
less reinforcement he needed from the environment. In 1963, when he
and Leary were fired from Harvard in a ritual of public exorcism,
they barely broke stride; moving to Millbrook, New York, they set up
the Castalia Foundation to study the mystic aspects of drugs. They
created the word “psychedelic”&emdash;mind revealing&emdash;and for
seven years used their bodies as test chambers to discover a
permanent route to higher consciousness. They took new drugs as fast
as they were invented, but each seemed to have built into it a crash
back to the ordinary waking swamp.

By 1967 Alpert was in a state of despair the
dimensions of which must have been truly hideous. He had cut all his
lifelines and was adrift in the midst of nowhere. He could not go
back to the straight world, and after hundreds of acid visions,
neither he nor anyone knew how to make constructive use of the

His mother died early in the year, and when a
friend invited him to travel across India, he accepted ..not in hope
of learning anything but because, oh well, what else? He watched the
countryside go by and his depression never lifted. Then, in Katmandu,
a chance encounter with a gigantic, blond, 23-year-old American boy
led him to an ashram in the Himalaya where he met his guru, Maharaji
(a title meaning Great King).

For each of us, it probably takes a certain kind
of jolt to break the shackles of absolute faith in the rational mind.
For Alpert, it was meeting a twinkly, fat, old man wrapped in a
blanket, who immediately told him exactly how his mother had died,
and indicated that he knew everything in Alpert’s head. At first,
Alpert says, his mind raced to come up with an explanation. Then,
like a computer fed an insoluble problem, “my mind just gave up. It
burned out its circuitry.” There was a violent wr.enching in his
chest and an outpouring of tears. “All I could say was it felt like I
was home. The journey was over.”

I have heard an assortment of rumors about Ram
Dass and they all center on what “really happened” in India.
According to various, comically murky sources: Alpert was on
morphine; Bhagwan Dass was on heroin; Alpert followed Bhagwan Dass
because he was sexually attracted to him; Alpert never went barefoot;
Alpert spoke constantly about his mother and it would have been no
feat for the guru to pick up the vibe. The need for these rumors is
puzzling, because the undeniable fact is that something happened in
India and Alpert came back transformed.

In his book, he describes studying yoga in the
Temple of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey God who exemplifies the perfect
servant. Dass means servant, so Ram Dass, the name Alpert was given,
means servant of Ram, or God, as Ram was one of the incarnations of
the God Vishnu, the preserver, Baba means father, and is a term of
endearment and respect.

Alpert followed a ritual of study, meditation, a
cold bath at 4 a.m., vegetarian diet, exercise, breathing and
cleansing practices. He vowed sexual continence, and for six months
he was silent, using chalk and a slate to communicate. As a result of
not speaking or expending sexual energy for so long, when he returned
to this country he was like a spring uncoiling with tremendous force.
He met with Tim Leary in San Francisco, who suggested he simply
hadn’t finished with his sexual trip. “If you’re turning incident
later, he said, “I saw it all of your energies into your own strange
man with a beard, driving a being, it becomes autoerotic,

Alpert laughed, and laster told an interviewer, “I
haven’t cured my neurosis, I just got bored with it.

Cadillac. What else could I be? I bation.” waited in the peace within
for the anAlpert laughed, and later told an in- swer to arise. At
length it came. I said:


lt echoes the ideals we’ve been urged to believe
in all our lives: the virtue of self improvement; the wisdom of doing
what the syndicated lady problem-solvers tell their readers to do, no
matter what the trouble&emdash; “Look to yourself.” But those who
listened closely to Ram Dass sensed that he meant something quite
different from Dale Carnegie, for his kind of self work leads
ultimately to the end of the self as we know it&emdash;the ego.

The notion of destroying the ego is scary because
we tend to think that if there is no ego, there is nobody to be
conscious of anything, and so we no longer exist. But if you can
conceive of yourself as a spark of divine essence, a bit of life
force, which is being expressed through your thoughts, feelings, body
and behavior but is not seated in any of those, then you are open to
what Ram Dass suggests: “a complete perceptual reorganization of who
I am. I am without form, without limits, beyond space and time. I am
light, love, consciousness, energy. It’s a hard one. I’m still doing

In this framework, the ego is only a surface
casing; all the searing emotions which seem to lie deep within you
are but twitches in that outermost crust. “It’s interesting, because
as a psychologist I always treated the personality as real and
terribly serious. That’s what the whole growth movement, the
encounter thing, all of western psychology does. But it’s not real,
it’s all just stuff. Pain, pleasure, anger, guilt&emdash; they’re
only mind moments, and there’s always a new moment.

Even the mind is not really you. “Cogito ergo sum
is a lie. We exist behind our thinking.” Ram Dass says there are
other ways of knowing besides through the senses and the mind, and
quotes Albert Einstein as stating:

“I did not arrive at my scientific discoveries
through my rational mind.” The other way of knowing is intuitive,
subjective, and requires transcending the rational mind. The mind
must be transcended because it works in time, and can only think with
an object.

“The place we’re aiming for. Heliopolis,
highsville, lives outside time, and there is no subject-object. There
is no knower who knows a thing, no experiencer having an experience.
The knower is the knowledge, the experiencer is one with the

That’s why they say LSD is a false samadhi,
because there’s still an experiencer. The drug doesn’t kill the ego.
If it were a real samadhi, you wouldn’t come back.”

The trick, though, is that when you do reach the
end of the line, you re exactly where you started, but everything is
in different perspective. When you give up your attachment, your
anxious need, for money or power or sex, then you’re free to make
money, wield power and have sex. When you transcend your mind, you
still use your mind, but it’s a servant, not your master. When you
crack the ego and feel your personality as completely unreal, you
don’t lose your personality. All holy men have distinct
personalities. But you no longer identify with that

At the end of his talks, Ram Dass always told
people that whatever course they were following was perfect, because
“it’s all predetermined anyway. The very moment you wake up is
determined. There are no accidents in this business. The guru is
inside you, you don’t have to go to India. The next message you need
is always right where you are.”

Ram Dass returned to India in November of 1970.
The book was being hand-lettered at the Lama Foundation, a spiritual
commune in New Mexico, to which he had assigned all rights and

There were also, by this time, more than 160 hours
of Ram Dass tapes in circulation. WBAI in New York played them
through 1971, and that summer, a group of listeners formed a
meditation group in which Hilda Charlton, a woman who had been
seeking God for many years, became spiritual leader. Meanwhile,
rumors flew back from India: Ram Dass was coming home in December,
January, February, never. His head was changing. He would not teach
or give interviews anymore. I decided to write him, telling him about
myself and my interest in an article.

He answered last March, saying he would be in
America soon and we might “share a moment.” If writing an article
brings you closer to God, he said, “it is good sadhana (spiritual
work), which is all there really is. Your letter felt good, so it all
seems OK. You can keep contact through Marty Malles in

I called Marty Malles, and we had a strange
conversation in which I spent the first half stammering and the
second half laughing with him. He said he was 34, a salesman of
ladies’ underwear, and had just been to India with his wife and two
children on his annual three-week vacation. He had been following Ram
Dass since 1969, and Maharaji was now his guru. “You’re calling
because Maharaji sent you to us. Maharaji shines through Ram Dass.
Maharaji wrote that book, and if it touches you it’s because Maharaji
loves you.

He asked me to come to the meditation group. I
walked into the apartment on Riverside Drive, found the usual jumble
of shoes by the door and about 70 people sitting in near darkness
reciting “Affirmations:” “I am God’s perfect child, I am free, I am
free, I am free.” On a corner table were pictures of Ram Dass,
Christ, Maharaji, Sathya Sai Baba, Pir Vilayat Kahn, and Hilda
herself. “My God,” I thought. “These people are serious.”

They began to sing “Praise be to Jesus,” and I
recoiled. Seventeen years of Jewish cultural conditioning had given
me no faith in God or reverence for the Hebrew tradition, but it had
left me with a visceral antipathy to Christ. With each chorus, the
group substituted the name of another saint, and when it came to
praising Ram Dass, I found myself joining in. Marty led a meditation,
there was singing, ever more joyous, and when the lights came on,
everyone was in each other’s arms.

I went regularly to the meditations, and for long
periods, forgot that I had originally come there on business, to get
to Ram Dass. Then a report would filter in about Ram Dass’
whereabouts and shock me into a state of confusion. I was not sure,
anymore, why I was so compelled to reach him.

One Friday in May Marty came to pick me up for the
meditation. As we were walking out the door, I said casually, “I bet
he’s in Boston right now.” Marty went to the phone and dialed George
Alpert’s number. Ram Dass answered the phone.

“Hi!” he said, in that buoyant voice I recognized
from the tapes. “Did you finish your article?”

“No, I haven’t started it yet. I’d really like to
talk to you.”

“Well,” he said, “I don’t know where I’ll be from
moment to moment. I’m not living in time.”

“Could I come see you in Boston?”

“You could,” he said, “but you might get here and
not find me, and you’d have a round trip to New England.”

I said that wouldn’t bother me, but I had heard he
might want privacy and I didn’t want to intrude.

There was a long pause, and then Ram Dass said:
“If you can find me, you can have me.”

I was on the first shuttle flight the next
morning. It was pouring rain when the taxi dropped me at the orange
brick townhouse. I pressed the buzzer and shouted through the
intercom, “Is Ram Dass there?” I heard muffled voices: “Oh what,
Sara, New York, groan&emdash;just a minute.” Phyllis Alpert, George’s
second wife, answered the door in a pink housecoat. It was just after
nine, a Saturday morning, and I had woken everybody up. I sat alone
in the immaculate living room. After some time Ram Dass appeared, put
his hands in the temple pose and nodded. “I took you at your word,” I

I sensed in him an openness, an almost palpable
receptivity, yet there was also a kind of crystalline sternness. He
went to the kitchen to brew Indian tea. “How does it feel to be
back?” I asked. “I can only think about the tea now, unless you want
a superficial answer.

He brought out the tea on a silver tray and took
me to the back room. “This is where I hang out.” It was a cozy,
well-appointed study, with an oriental rug, a wall of dark wood
bookcases, a white fireplace with fluted columns and cherubs, and a
gold velvet convertible sofa on which the bedclothes were left as Ram
Dass had climbed out of them shortly before. We sat on cushions on
the floor. There was a damp chill, and Ram Dass, wearing pants and a
tunic of thin white material, put on a jaunty, plaid, Scottish wool
cap, and wrapped himself in a mohair blanket. He was much taller than
I had envisioned&emdash;about 6’2″. His crown is bald, but from the
sides and back of his head and from his face, hair sprouts in a
wildly capricious assortment of lengths. His blue eyes, fixed
unshakeably on me, were open so wide they seemed more vertical than

I told him I had been asking myself why I had
pursued him so single-pointedly, and it became clear that I was to
try to write something. I had questions to ask which he could answer
or not. He nodded. It was all so easy. “You have me. Go

He picked up the tamboura and sang devotional
songs, ending with “Sri Ram.” After a silence, he opened his eyes; I
turned on the tape recorder. I asked what being with Maharaji this
time had meant to him. “Wow. I’m speechless.” He shook his head and
thought a few minutes. “I went back to India with the fantasy that I
would be going back in, that I had been out in the world, the
marketplace, and now I was going back to the cave to recharge.” He
laughed softly. “Maharaji knocked that into a cocked hat. In a year
and a half in India, he allowed me exactly 11 days when I was not
surrounded by Westerners, doing the same thing I do in America. You
see, when I was speaking and running ashrams in New Hampshire, all
the people who gathered wanted me to help them with their trips. So
for like 19 hours a day, I was rushing around being there for
everybody, and I started to feel starved to death because nobody
wanted me. They wanted it but not me, and I was starving and I
rebelled. I got to hate them all because they were my murderers. So I
went to India thinking, now I’m going to get away from them all, and
preserve my ego in a cave. Far out. Can you hear that inversion? But
lots of them followed me there, and every time I tried to be alone,
Maharaji would send huge numbers after me: ‘Go be with Ram Dass. Ram
Dass is your guru, he’ll help you. Like, kill him, kill him

“It was an incredible period, the longest I’ve
ever gone through with no conceptual understanding of what’s
happening to me. Because I’m so good at describing things, but
Maharaji’s so far out I can’t even find him! At moments he seems like
a bungling old fool. Other times he’s a wizard, he’s divine, or he’s
just a nice teacher. Every time I label him he immediately crashes
the label.”

On his first visit, he said, the guru had been a
remote, loving presence; this time he did more direct, intensive
teaching. “He took me through fierce trips about anger, jealousy,
sex, greed, and attachment to the physical body. I saw that my bonds
to him were much deeper than I had planned them to be. It was as if I
had surrendered more, so the next level of operation could take

At their first meeting, Maharaji asked Ram Dass
why he had come back to India. Ram Dass said because he was not pure
enough. “I asked him for only one thing, one boon&emdash;that I could
be pure enough to be an instrument of his service. I said I don’t
want to be enlightened, I just want to be pure enough to do whatever
work I’m supposed to do. He gave me a mango to eat, hit me on the
head and said, ‘You will be.'”