Ram Dass (born Richard Alpert; April 6, 1931 at Boston, MA) died peacefully at his home on December 22, 2019, on Maui.
Ram Dass was a major influence on American spiritual life for more than fifty years. His groundbreaking BE HERE NOW (Crown, 1971)–part graphic novel, part introduction to yoga and inner transformation–is an enduring classic that has sold over two million copies. In the seventies it was the hippies’ bible; today it continues to inspire young people in their search for meaning. Historian of religion Huston Smith said, “One of the virtues of Be Here Now is that it is not tied to any historical religious tradition. It just goes straight for the pay dirt and the essence and the heart that underlies them all.”
Alpert was born in Newton, Massachusetts. His father, George Alpert, was a prominent lawyer in Boston, who served as President of the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad, and was a founder of Brandeis University. Ram Dass earned degrees from Tufts, Wesleyan, and Stanford, and taught psychology at both Stanford and Harvard.
He met Timothy Leary through David McClelland, who headed the Center for Research in Personality at the Social Relations Department at Harvard, where Alpert and Leary both did research. Together they began the Harvard Psilocybin Project, which included the “Good Friday Experiment”, which assessed the effect of psilocybin on spiritual experience, and later founded the International Foundation for Internal Freedom (IFIF) to study the religious use of psychedelic drugs.
As a psychologist, Richard Alpert played a pivotal role in the psychedelic movement of the sixties, lecturing on psychedelics at numerous college campuses across the country. A generation “turned on, tuned in, and dropped out” with psychedelics, providing the inner fuel for a turbulent era of social change, sexual liberation, and political unrest. In 1963, as psychedelics began to have a major influence on the culture, Alpert gained the distinction of being the first professor fired from Harvard in the 20th century. His predecessor in the previous century was Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Alpert, Leary, and Ralph Metzner established psychedelic communes in Newton, MA, in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, and in Millbrook, New York. The explorations by psychologists, creative artists, musicians, poets, and philosophers, pioneered the “set and setting” guidelines still used for research sessions in the current resurgence of psychedelic research.
In 1967-68, Alpert journeyed to India, where he met the famed Indian saint, Neem Karoli Baba, or Maharaj-ji, chronicled in BE HERE NOW. After learning yoga and meditating in the Himalayas for six months, he returned to the West as Ram Dass, which means “Servant of God.” For decades, Ram Dass crisscrossed America, lecturing on an eclectic spiritual path. Born Jewish and transformed by a Hindu guru, his lectures and books invoke Zen Buddhism, Sufi mysticism, Christ consciousness, one-pointed meditation, and bhakti (devotional) and karma (action) yoga. He was a pioneer of the then-new American spirituality movement and its introduction to the West of yoga, meditation, and other contemplative practices.
He was a guide for thousands seeking to discover or reclaim their spiritual identity beyond or within institutional religion. He was instrumental in the establishment of adult learning centers for expanding human potential and awakening consciousness, including Esalen Institute, Omega Institute, Lama Foundation, and the Insight Meditation Society. He also co-founded many service organizations, including the Prison-Ashram Project, the Living-Dying Institute, and Seva Foundation, an international public health foundation that has restored sight to five million people, primarily in Asia.
In early 1997, Ram Dass had a hemorrhagic stroke that left him with paralysis and expressive aphasia. He recovered enough of his speech to lead retreats from his wheelchair, lecture remotely at conferences, teach online, and mentor many students. In 2004, he moved to Maui, where he lived a quieter life, led retreats on the island twice a year, wrote books, and continued to teach online.
The ramdass.org website run by Love Serve Remember Foundation is visited by 250,000 people each month and distributes his online teachings and courses for free. His podcast, “Ram Dass Here and Now,” on the Be Here Now Network has over 200,000 downloads per month.