Ram Dass – Biography

Youth and college

Alpert was born to a prominent Jewish family in Newton, Massachusetts. His father, George Alpert, was one of the most influential lawyers in the Boston area and president of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, as well as one of the leading founders of Brandeis University and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. The youngest of three boys, Richard as a child was described as being engaging and loved by all—the family mascot. He went on to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree from Tufts University, his master’s degree from Wesleyan University, and his doctorate (in psychology) from Stanford University.

Harvard professor

After returning from a visiting professorship at the University of California, Berkeley, Alpert accepted a permanent position at Harvard, where he worked with the Social Relations Department, the Psychology Department, the Graduate School of Education, and the Health Service, where he was a therapist. He was also awarded research contracts with Yale and Stanford. However, perhaps most notable was the work he was doing with his close friend and associate, Dr. Timothy Leary.

Having only recently obtained his pilot’s license, Alpert flew his private plane to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where Leary first introduced him to teonanácatl, the Magic Mushrooms of Mexico. By the time Alpert made it back to America, Leary had already consulted with Aldous Huxley, who was visiting at M.I.T. Through Huxley and a number of graduate students they were able to get in touch with Sandoz, which had produced a synthetic component of the magic mushrooms called psilocybin. Alpert and Leary brought a test batch back to Harvard, where they conducted the Harvard Psilocybin Project. The pair was later dismissed from the university in 1963, Leary for his overall conduct and Alpert for continuing to fraternize with, and give psilocybin to, undergraduates. By this time, however, Alpert had already become disillusioned with academia and even described himself as feeling caught in a meaningless game.

The two soon relocated and continued their experiments unsupervised from a private mansion in Millbrook, New York, owned by Billy Hitchcock, an heir to the Mellon fortune. Famous poets, musicians and intellectuals of the time, such as Allen Ginsberg, Maynard Ferguson, the Grateful Dead, Marshall McLuhan and Ken Kesey, came from across the country to be part of what was going on there. Although they remained life-long friends, the two eventually began to part ways spiritually and philosophically as Leary continued to spread his mantra of “turn on, tune in, drop out”, while Alpert increasingly found his purpose in the Hindu ethic of serving others.

From Dr. Richard Alpert to Baba Ram Dass

In 1967 Alpert traveled to India, where he met the American spiritual seeker Bhagavan Das. As he guided him barefoot from temple to temple, Bhagavan Das began teaching Alpert basic mantras and asanas, as well as how to work with beads. After a few months Bhagavan Das led Alpert to his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, or as he is better known in the West, Maharaj-ji. Maharaj-ji soon became Alpert’s guru and gave him the name “Ram Dass”, which means “servant of God”. Under the guidance of Maharaj-ji, Ram Dass was instructed to receive teaching from Hari Dass Baba, who taught in silence using only a chalkboard. While in India, Ram Dass also corresponded with Meher Baba; however, he remained primarily focused on the teaching of Hari Dass Baba. Among other things, Hari Dass Baba trained Ram Dass in raja yoga and ahimsa. It was these life-changing experiences in India that inspired Ram Dass to write the contemporary spiritual classic, Be Here Now, in which he teaches the harmony of all people and religions.

Back in the West to spread the message

After his return to the United States in 1969, Alpert founded several organizations dedicated to expanding spiritual awareness and promoting spiritual growth, including Hanuman Foundation. Since then he has embraced a wide variety of spiritual traditions and practices, including guru kripa (grace of the guru); bhakti yoga focused on the Hindu spiritual deva Hanuman; meditation in various schools of Buddhism such as Theravada and Mahayana (including Tibetan and Zen); karma yoga; and Sufi and Jewish studies. In February 1997, he suffered a stroke which left him with expressive aphasia, however, he understands his stroke as an act of grace and continues to travel giving lectures, as his health permits. When asked if he could sum up his life’s message Ram Dass replied, “I help people as a way to work on myself, and I work on myself to help people… To me, that’s what the emerging game is all about.” He was awarded the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award in August 1991.

For a long time, Ram Dass has acknowledged his bisexuality. In the 1990s, he became more forthcoming while avoiding labels and pointing out that who we are “isn’t gay, and it’s not not-gay, and it’s not anything—it’s just awareness.”








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