Pubdate: Tue, 24 Dec 2019
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2019 The New York Times Company
Author: Douglas Martin


Baba Ram Dass, who epitomized the 1960s of legend by popularizing
psychedelic drugs with Timothy Leary, a fellow Harvard academic,
before finding spiritual inspiration in India, died on Sunday at his
home on Maui, Hawaii. He was 88.

His death was announced on his official Instagram account.

Having returned from India as a bushy-bearded, barefoot, white-robed
guru, Ram Dass, who was born Richard Alpert, became a peripatetic
lecturer on New Age possibilities and a popular author of more than a
dozen inspirational books.

The first of his books, "Be Here Now" (1971), sold more than two
million copies and established him as an exuberant exponent of finding
salvation through helping others.

He started a foundation to combat blindness in India and Nepal,
supported reforestation in Latin America, and developed health
education programs for American Indians in South Dakota.

He was particularly interested in the dying. He started a foundation
to help people use death as a journey of spiritual awakening and spoke
of establishing a self-help line, "Dial-a-Death," for this purpose.

When Mr. Leary was dying in 1996 - and wishing to do it "actively and
creatively," as he put it - he called for Ram Dass. Over the years,
Ram Dass had alternately been Mr. Leary's disciple, enemy and, at the
end, friend. In a film clip of the two men preparing for Mr. Leary's
death, Ram Dass turns to him, hugs him and says, "It's been a hell of
a dance, hasn't it?"

A year later, Ram Dass suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that left him
partly paralyzed, unable to speak and in a wheelchair. From his home
in Maui, he learned to "surf the silence" at first, he said, but over
time he painstakingly reacquired a halting form of speech and was able
to lecture on the internet and make tapes.

Richard Alpert was born in Boston on April 6, 1931, to George and
Gertrude (Levin) Alpert. His father, a lawyer, was a founder of
Brandeis University and president of the New Haven Railroad. Richard
had a bar mitzvah but said he had no religious convictions as a youth.

A "spit and polish" son of a corporate executive, as he described
himself, he graduated from Tufts University in Massachusetts as a
psychology major in 1952 and studied for a master's degree in the
subject at Wesleyan, only to flunk the oral exam.

Nevertheless, Mr. Alpert was accepted as a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford
and earned his doctorate, staying on afterward to teach. That was
followed by twin appointments, in psychology and education, at Harvard.

He soon had an apartment full of exquisite antiques, a Mercedes sedan,
an MG sports car, a Triumph motorcycle and his own Cessna airplane.

It was at Harvard that he crossed paths with Mr. Leary, who was
lecturing there in clinical psychology. They became drinking buddies.
Mr. Alpert admired Mr. Leary's iconoclasm; he told the Tufts
University alumni magazine in 2006 that Mr. Leary was "the only person
on the faculty who wasn't impressed with Harvard."

While working at the University of California, Berkeley, Mr. Leary had
done research on psilocybin, the main psychoactive ingredient in some
species of mushrooms, and he continued the work at Harvard.
Psychiatrists were interested in mind-altering drugs as clinical aids
because they were thought to mimic schizophrenia, but Mr. Leary wanted
to see if they could be beneficial.

He invited some friends - including Mr. Alpert and the poet Allen
Ginsberg - to his house in Newton, Mass., on March 5, 1961, a
Saturday. In his kitchen, he distributed 10-milligram doses of psilocybin.

After taking his, Mr. Alpert recalled, he felt supreme calm, then
panic, then exaltation. He believed he had met his own soul. He said
he realized then that "it was O.K. to be me."

The Harvard work led to many articles in newspapers and magazines, but
it also provoked criticism. A Harvard dean suggested that psilocybin,
LSD and other psychedelic chemicals could cause mental illness.

In May 1963, both Mr. Leary and Mr. Alpert were fired - Mr. Alpert for
giving drugs to an undergraduate, Mr. Leary for abandoning his classes.

In the fall of 1963, after visiting Mexico to sample psychedelic
mushrooms, the two men and a group of followers moved to Millbrook,
N.Y., finding quarters in a 64-room mansion on a 2,500-acre estate
provided by Peggy Hitchcock, an heiress to the Mellon fortune.

Residents took lots of LSD, which did not become illegal for recreational use 
until 1968. Don Lattin, in his book "The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How 
Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and 
Ushered in a New Age for America" (2010), called the commune "a Disneyland of 
the Psychedelic Sixties."

But Mr. Alpert found that after coming down from a high, he was
depressed. As his tolerance to LSD increased, the thrill had
diminished. And as the drug experience deteriorated, tensions between
Mr. Leary and Mr. Alpert rose. One issue was Mr. Alpert's acknowledged

Mr. Leary accused Mr. Alpert of trying to seduce his 15-year-old son,
Jack, whom Mr. Alpert often took care of while Mr. Leary, a single
parent, traveled.

"Uncle Dick is evil," Mr. Leary told Jack, according to Mr. Lattin's

"Oh, come on, Dad," Jack replied. "Uncle Dick may be a jerk, but he's
not evil."

Mr. Alpert went to India in 1967, more as a tourist than as a pilgrim.
Events led him to a twinkly old man wrapped in a blanket: Neem Karoli
Baba, who was called Maharajji, or great king, by his followers.
Maharajji appeared to read Mr. Alpert's mind by telling him,
accurately, that his mother had recently died of spleen disease -
information that he said he had told no one in India.

The experience caused a spiritual upheaval in Mr. Alpert, who forever
after considered Maharajji his guru. It was Maharajji who gave Mr.
Alpert the name Ram Dass, or servant of God, and added the prefix
Baba, a term of respect meaning father.

Ram Dass gave Maharajji some LSD, but it had no effect. He surmised
that the guru's consciousness had already been so awakened that drugs
were powerless to alter it.

In 1968, Maharajji told him to return to the United States. Ram Dass
later recalled that when he got off the plane in Boston - barefoot,
robed and bearded - his father told him to get in the car quickly
"before anyone sees you."

He moved into a cabin on his father's estate in New Hampshire. Soon,
as many as 200 people were showing up to chant with him.

Ram Dass hit the lecture circuit, his presentation a mix of pithy
wisdom and humor, often expressed in the same sentence. "Treat
everyone you meet like God in drag," he said in one talk.

Wavy Gravy, the eccentric poet and peace activist, once said, "Ram
Dass was the master of the one-liner, the two-liner, the ocean liner."

Ram Dass's biggest public success came in 1971, when the Lama
Foundation published "Be Here Now," originally issuing it as loose
pages in a box. It has had more than three dozen printings, with sales
exceeding two million.

Here, in its entirety, is Page 2: "Consciousness = energy = love 
awareness = light = wisdom = beauty = truth = purity. It's all the
SAME. Any trip you want to take leads to the SAME place."

By the 1980s, Ram Dass had a change of mind and image. He shaved off
the beard but left a neatly trimmed mustache. He tried to drop his
Indian name - he no longer wanted to be a cult figure - but his
publisher vetoed the idea. Ram Dass said that he had never intended to
be a guru and that Harvard had been right to throw him out.

He continued to turn out books and recordings, however. He started or
helped start foundations to promote his charities, to help prisoners
and to spread his message of spiritual equanimity. He made sure his
books and tapes were reasonably priced.

The old orthodoxies slipped away. He said he realized that his 400 LSD
trips had not been nearly as enlightening as his drugless spiritual
epiphanies - although, he said, he continued to take one or two drug
trips a year for old time's sake. He said other religions, including
the Judaism that he had rejected as a young man, were as valid as the
Eastern ones.

In a 1997 interview with the website Gay Today, Ram Dass said he had
always been primarily homosexual, despite earlier statements that he
was bisexual. "I always had a front to go to faculty dinners and
things like that," he said. He said he had had thousands of
clandestine homosexual encounters.

In 2010, he received a letter from a man, a stranger, saying that Ram
Dass might be the father of the man's brother. DNA tests proved that
Peter Reichard, a 53-year-old banker in North Carolina, was indeed Ram
Dass's son, the offspring of a liaison with a Stanford graduate student.

His survivors also include a granddaughter.

For Ram Dass, God existed in everyone. He liked to tell the story of
visiting a psychiatric hospital and meeting a patient, who said he was

"I said to him, 'So am I,'" he recalled. "He was quite upset because
he wanted to be the only one."
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