Ram Dass History


The Metamorphic Journey of Richard Alpert

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 Esquire.



Thaveling where the saints have trod Over to the old golden

&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 metamorphosist 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 University.

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 Mill-brook, 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 experience.

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; Al-pert 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

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 allof your energies into your own strange man with a
beard, driving a being, it becomes autoerotic, masturbation.

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:

terviewer, “I haven’t cured my neu- ‘I am not that kind of
connection.'” rosis, I just got bored with it. For 15 The next day,
the five young men years I was basically homosexual. appeared outside
Ram Dass’ cabin. Psychoanalysis improved my relations They brought
friends who brought with women but it didn’t wipe out the friends,
and by the end of the summer, homosexual desires. Drugs did a lot
there were more than 200. Ram Dass more, because with drugs, it was
ob- said he was a beginner on the path and vious that, biologically,
this was not not a model for others, but kids found the way God meant
it. So I became that after sitting with him for an hour, sort of
even, bisexual. When the spin- they felt stoned, blissed out, and
they tual trip took over, the importance of hadn’t even smoked! They
concluded, the whole issue started to fall away. understandably, “If
I just do whatever The new dimension made it irrele- this guy does I
can get what he has.” vant.” So Ram Dass taught them mantras,

In 1968, Maharaji told Ram Dass to holy songs, how to meditate,
how to return to the United States for a brief set up a puja table or
altar in their time. He arrived in Boston barefoot, home, and how to
develop a witness, all in white, with beads and a beard. an observing
mechanism in the mind According to Ram Dass, his father told that
w~tches everything go by without him to get in the car quick, “before
judging. The young people began using anybody sees you.” His father
listened th~ Indian greeting, Namast~, which to the stories abOut
India, and liked to means, I salute the light within you.

have Ram Dass perform for his friends. In the fall, Ram Dass gave
a four-On cue, he would say, “I don’t under- hour talk called “The
Transformation stand a word of it, but if he’s doing it, of a Man” at
the Bucks County, Penn-it’s OK with me.” Ironically, he saw sylvania,
Se~inar House. The Pacifi a the holy man routine as a harmless Radio
netwo k broadcast a tape of

relief after his son’s hoary plunge in and Ram s it the lecture

drugs. He took to calling him m For s ev ing appearances, he at
Dum, while his oldest son, stock on stage s rounded by flower and
broker, referred to the “agin ippie” ense, p a d the tambour , and as
Rammed Ass. sang to m; fter a tantalizin y pregMoving into a cabin
ehind t nant sil nce, would speak His mesmain house in New Ha pshire,
am sage w s ever ogentle. He ould run Dass fixed his rice an tea, r d
and dow Buddha,’~s Four No le Truths meditated. The first ti rove
into and ave the/audience lau hing all the town for groceries, he
passed two wa – The,,f²’rst truth, he s id, is that all young men
with long hair~ Feeling lif is ‘ffering, becaus it’s in time. high
and divine, he waved joyously. “Bi , death, not gett g what you When
they didn’t wave back, he want, even getting w at you want thought,
“See! Here you are, filled means suffering becaus you’ e going with
loving thoughts and thinking to lose it, in time.”

everybody must love you in return. The second truth is that the
cause That’s another kind of ego trip. Those of suffering is desire,
or attachment. kids think you’re crazy. So cool it out, “If you don’t
try to hold on, you Ram Dass.” don’t suffer over the loss. So the

When he emerged from the store, truth is: give up attachment, give
up the two young men and three others desire, you end the suffering,
you end were waiting. One approached hesi- the whole thing that keeps
you stuck.” tantly, and Ram D~ss said to himself, The fourth truth is
Buddha’s eight”Ah, I shouldn’t have doubted! Of fold method for
giving up attachment, course he saw the love.” Then he which Ram Dass
summarizes in the waited, reverently, for the boy’s open- phrase
“work on yourself.” And what ing words. a felicitous phrase for
American ears.

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&emdash; Heliopolis,
highsville&emdash;is 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 experience.




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 personality.

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 in-

side you, you don’t have to go to India. The next message you need
is always right where you are.”



am 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 royalties.

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

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&emdash;so it all seems OK. You can keep contact through Marty
Malles in Brooklyn.”

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&emdash;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

“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.”


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 said.

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

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 horizontal.

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 ahead.”

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 II days
when I was not surrounded by Westerners, doing the same thing I do in
America. You see, when I was speaking and running ash-rams 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 place.”

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.'”