With the passing away of the pioneer of the counter culture and the consciousness movement that swept the Western world in the sixties and seventies, Richard Alpert, popularly known as Baba Ram Dass, in the US ended one of the most creative and interesting phases of our post-war era.
The rebellion against the consumer culture and acquisitiveness of the US had manifested in the youth across the campuses, found its face, and voice, in the shape of Richard Alpert and Timothy Leary who were the pioneers of the psychedelic drugs experiment that became the rage of the campuses. Colleagues at the Harvard University they explored their minds and the universe through experimenting with LSD and other psychedelic drugs till one day it dawned upon Richard Alpert to look for a guru in the Himalayas. He had been expelled from Harvard for administering LSD to an undergraduate and had arrived in Delhi to get a visa to Nepal when he ran into a friend who mentioned of a guru in the foothills near Nainital. It was thus that Alpert landed in the ashram of Neem Karoli Baba and that encounter was to change his life altogether, and in the process he got a new name by which he became famous, Baba Ram Dass.
He talked often of that encounter with the guru who was clad only in a blanket. As is usual he had carried some fruits for visiting the holy man, and when he bowed he was asked if he had brought any dollars. He had some dollars and then he was asked if he had any medicines. Ever the scientist he always carried LSD with him, neatly calibrated into grams. He hesitatingly gave him a gram of LSD that was enough to give a high. He asked for more and had the entire stock taken away and he swallowed the whole stuff that was enough to knock off a whole a battalion. That whole night Alpert could not sleep and kept pacing the corridor to see if things were alright with the holy man. That night he also thought of his mother who had died the previous year and he had been with her during her illness.
In the morning he went anxiously to meet the guru who was his usual self. He asked if he was worried about him and how he had remembered his mother. The scientist Alpert was totally baffled by this rustic who had shown no signs of the LSD effects and had read his mind as well. He stayed there for some months and went back to the US and his lectures at campuses had swarms of young people heading for Haldwani and the ashram of the Baba at Bhowali. He kept coming to visit his Guru till the latter’s death in 1973. Among those who made their way to the ashram were Dr Larry Brilliant, a community medicine specialist, and Stev Jobs, but by the time the latter came the Baba had passed away. But the doctor was lucky and he was instrumental in one of the unique miracles that had happened, the eradication of smallpox in the subcontinent.
A persuasive speaker and author of some of the bestseller books, like In Be Here Now and How Can I Help Ram Dass continued his work of engaging with the youth throughout his life
With his unconventional way he showed the zany path towards the spiritual life, much more than the psychedelic drugs, which he had first introduced. The irony could not have been starker and this seemed like one of the pranks that the holy man, wrapped in blanket, had played.
Ram Dass launched the Hanuman Foundation for propagating the teachings and life of the Neem Karoli Baba and also founded the Prison Ashram Project offering counselling and spiritual advice to those incarcerated. He had also jointly created the Living-Dying Project to provide support to care givers and health professionals, and those dealing with terminal illnesses. Along with Larry Brilliant he founded the Seva Foundation that works to combat blindness in the Himalayan region and healthcare there as well as in other neglected areas of Asia and the Americas.
He helped set up the Social Venture Network to explore ways to bring spiritual awareness to business executives and was on the board of Creating Our Future, an organization for teens who wanted to lead more spiritual lives. Also in 2004,he co-founded Doorway Into Light, which helps people prepare for dying. He said, ‘Sitting by the bed of the dying is sadhana [spiritual practice].’ For his unwavering commitment, Ram Dass has been called ‘a model of selfless service.’
After his cerebral haemorrhage in 1997, he quipped, ‘My life has been a dance between power and love,’ as that charismatic and articulate teacher groped for words. ‘First part, till Harvard: power, power, power, power. Up until drugs, I thought power was the end all and be all, because I was a little individual. Then drugs: love, love, love, love. My first mushroom trip was so profound that I saw radiance was inside, and I said, ‘I’m home, I’m home, I’m home.’
The roller coaster ride of the youngest son of George Alpert, prominent lawyer and president of New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad and first president of Brandis University, whose family was Jewish and he was bar mitzvahed and who later called the ritual hollow and that he had no interest in religion lasted until he hit the psychedelic drugs that had taken him the full circle.
An outspoken advocate and support for the sick and dying, he had told an audience, ‘Something has happened to me as a result of my meanderings through consciousness over the past 30 years that has changed my attitude towards death. A lot of the fear that denial of death generated has gone from me. Death does not have to be treated as an enemy for you to delight in life. Keeping death in your consciousness as one of the greatest mysteries and as the moment of incredible transformation imbues this moment with added richness and energy that otherwise is used up in denial.’
Those were one of the most interesting decades with the soft power of India making its presence in areas as diverse as Woodstock, where Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha dazzled the audience with the magic of Hindustani music and yoga guru BKS Iyengar cured the violinist Yehudi Menuhin. The Beatles had discovered the orient and George Harrison had come to Hardwar looking for a guru and Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder were exploring places like Benares and Gorakhpur for their metaphors, and Kerouac had set up a university in the high mountains stacked with books on Indian spirituality. That was also the time American PL-480 grains had averted a famine in parts o India and Peace Corps volunteers were working all over the country.
Sometime earlier when the Chinese had attacked the northern border and had reached as far as Tezpur, a panicked Nehru asked for all kinds of arms from the US, he also asked Dr. Shankar Dayal Sharma to approach Neem Karoli Baba and do something. The baba reportedly told Sharma that the Chinese had come to administer a lesson, that you cannot neglect these far-flung regions and that the Chinese would go back on their own in a couple of days, which was what happened precisely.