Ram Dass, meaning ‘servant of God’, is an American yogi, guru, and thought leader. He is maybe one of the most well-known spiritual teachers to come out of the 21st century.
His deep wisdom evolved from pursuing a range of practices spanning Hinduism, Yoga, Buddhism, and Sufi and Jewish mysticism.
Baba Ram Das was a guide for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of seekers on the spiritual path and it’s certain that his influence will permeate our consciousness for a long time to come.
Let’s take an in-depth look at all things Ram Dass and his influential life:
- Who is Ram Dass?: Early Life, Education, and Career
- Ram Dass’ Guru
- Ram Dass Teachings, Books & Legacy
- Ram Dass Death & Later Life
Who is ram dass?
Early Life & Education
Born Richard Alpert to a Jewish family in Boston, he identified as an atheist for much of his younger years. Being born into a middle-class family, he attended a private co-educational school in Easthampton, Massachusetts, graduating in 1948.
Passionate about psychology, and against the wishes of his father for Alpert to study medicine, he achieved his master’s degree in the subject from Wesleyan University. He then went on to achieve his PhD in Psychology from Stanford in 1957.
His thesis, available to read on the Standford Libraries website, was entitled: anxiety in academic achievement situations: its measurement and relation to aptitude.
It appears that he always had a brain that could understand and analyze complex information, which is apparent from the way he spoke with ease and clarity about some of the most challenging and substantial questions in life.
First, I was a professor. Then I was a psychedelic. Now I am old. I’m an icon.Baba Ram Dass
It may surprise you, or maybe not now that you are aware of his academic background, that Ram Dass was once Dr. Richard Alpert! He began teaching and researching psychology at Harvard in 1958.
Ram Dass, or then Richard Alpert, was probably first known for being the colleague of Timothy Francis Leary, an American psychologist who polarized the opinion of many by being a strong advocate for the use of psychedelic drugs.
Often named the ‘father of the psychedelic movement’, Leary joined the faculty of Harvard at the Center for Personality Research where Ram Dass also worked. Inspired and captivated by Leary’s learnings through taking psychedelics, Ram Dass took them 6 months later.
As a psychologist, Richard Alpert truly played a focal role in the psychedelic movement of the 60s, researching the impact of them on, amongst many other things, personality, identity, and spiritual experiences, and lecturing on it at various college campuses across the US.
Psychedelic Research & Becoming Ram Dass
This experience of taking psychedelic mushrooms changed Ram Dass’ life; his path was redirected and his consciousness, alongside the global consciousness of the planet, was altered forever.
He writes that he had an overwhelming feeling of being home: ‘I came into what I now call my soul. Even my body vanished. I became pure spirit, pure consciousness and love. It changed my life‘.
Leary soon started the Harvard Psilocybin Project, the research drew a lot of negative attention from the media and the university subsequently went on to dissociate itself from the project that they believed, politically, represented a dark and dangerous counterculture.
Federal and state authorities soon reacted to the increasing use of psychedelic drugs amongst American ‘hippies’ with harsh and oppressive restrictions, this stifled any remaining hope of further research and Ram Dass was fired as a professor from Harvard.
In search of practices to integrate his illuminary insights into life, death, and love, and feeling that he could find this profound insight in the East, Ram Dass went to India in 1967.
It was here that his spiritual path was further accelerated upon the meeting of his Guru in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Ram dass: guru
I hang out with my guru in my heart. And I love everything in the universe. That’s all I do all dayBaba Ram Dass
Neem Karoli Baba, known to his devotees as Maharaj-ji, was the guru that Ram Dass met that day, a devotee of the deity Hanuman (the monkey god), and a dedicated follower of the bhakti path.
He believed that service to others (seva) was the highest form of love that one could show in order to dedicate their lives to God.
His profound and heart-led teachings were pivotal for Ram Dass, shaping the way he viewed the world and the way he encouraged followers to view one another.
Ram Dass even gave Neem Karoli several large quantities of LSD, which had almost no effect on him. Preaching that love is the best medicine, probably even better for Ram Dass than psychedelics, his guru lived by the notion ‘love everyone, serve everyone, remember God‘.
Ram dass: teachings & legacy
Ram Dass has an abundance of teachings on many different topics, so it would be impossible to fit them all into this article! Let’s take a look at some of his most popular ones.
1. Death as another stage of life
Death and dying are topics Ram Dass spent a lot of time talking, writing, and teaching about. In his song with East Forest, he explains how dying is nothing to be scared of, but more like ‘taking off an old pair of shoes‘.
By this, he means that we aren’t really going anywhere when we die, because where is there to go?
It’s more like taking off one set of ‘clothes’ and changing into something different. A new experience, just this time without the physical body.
The only thing we lose through death is our ego, which sees death as suffering, causing us to fear it. We maintain our consciousness because we are exactly that – a divine being of consciousness or awareness.
The ego thinks you are this physical body, but really you are so much more than this. He knew that what he really was, and completely identified with, was the soul. The soul is something that cannot die alongside the physical body.
Therefore, as long as we identify with that which is true and real (our divine consciousness/soul/awareness), we will not fear death because we know we are more than merely our physical body.
There is continuity of life beyond death – just a different kind.
Death is simply an awakening process through which we are given a new perspective. He did not fear death, his attitude towards it was something that grew alongside the development of his spiritual journey. He assured everyone that there is nothing to be afraid of.
At his mother’s hospital bedside just before she died, she told her son ‘I think I’m going to die’. Upon asking him what he thought death would be like, knowing that love goes beyond death, he replied:
It seems to me the way you and I are connected isn’t really defined by the fact that this body is disintegrating, because you sound just like you’ve always sounded, and I feel like I’ve always felt
I think that the fact that you and I love each other, I guess I really believe that love transcends deathBaba Ram Dass
2. God in drag
Perhaps one of his most well-known teachings is to treat everyone you meet as if they are God themselves or, as he put it, ‘God in drag’. This is because they are!
This really speaks to his non-dual influence, believing life, and all that is part of it has one, indivisible nature – including God. We see God as everything we do and everyone we meet. Truly, the best way to worship the divine is through everything and anything that we do.
God is infinite consciousness, and we are all manifestations of this consciousness (otherwise, how could we be aware of ourselves, or anything else for that matter, if we weren’t made up of this consciousness?).
When we let go of the finite ‘I-am-ness’ of the ego, we merge with the infinite.
From the macrocosm, the microcosm is born.
If we see God as the infinite, unchanging awareness that is the macrocosm, and humanity (and all life) as the microcosm, we are all, then, God in drag.
3. I am loving awareness
This a mantra that you are bound to have heard if you have followed the guru. The awareness he is referring to is not the senses, thoughts, or anything else that arises out of the identification with the go, but the spiritual heart.
This is where we can find our unlimited supply of unconditional love and compassion. Too, there is joy, wisdom, contentment, and peace. It is a space, or state of existence, that transcends the plane of the ego.
When we are present with and rest in this space, and only this space (not the future, the past, or any mental roles we take on), we are loving awareness.
Practice this mantra continuously, even, in fact, especially with people that you dislike or who you find disrupt your peace. We should use these experiences as an opportunity to widen our capacity to act from a place of loving awareness.
4. It’s all perfect
Perfection is in everything.
Life is full of duality; joy and sadness, confusion and clarity, wonder and boredom, yet this is the fullness of life. This is also the perfection of it too. You might want to change the world, but since everything is perfect, this desire to change it is perfect too.
Perfection does not need to align with our emotional responses or feelings, the perfection comes from just being with it all, whatever ‘it all’ is. To be at peace with our suffering as much as our jubilation.
He maintained that every situation we go through in life is always a perfect lesson, too. Everything is sent here for a reason, to ‘burn out our reactivity‘. That is, our attachment, our fears, our desires, our dependency to external things, to all that makes us human.
Part of being human is that we are confronted with things that can, and do, burn us out. This is because of our attachment. The more of these lessons we are confronted with, the better we get at letting go of our attachment, and thus, the less we suffer.
Furthermore, we should say ‘thank you’ for every experience – tat tvam asi. The ultimate form of compassion is to see ourselves in every thing and experience.
A complete list of the books that Ram Dass has written, in order of the year they were published!:
1. Hanuman Foundation
Founded by Ram Dass, the Hanuman foundation (taking its name from the deity) is a non-profit organization that strives to improve the spiritual well-being and growth of society through education, awareness, and community service projects.
2. Seva Foundation
A foundation that Ram Dass co-founded in 1978 to give ‘critical eye care to underserved communities, especially women, children, and indigenous peoples‘ with a belief that improving sight is one of the best ways to relieve suffering and reduce the impact of poverty.
3. Love Serve Remember Foundation
Set up to preserve and continue the teachings of Ram Dass and his guru, Neem Karoli Baba.
His Later Life & The death of ram dass
In 1997, the then 65-year-old Ram Dass had a stroke that left him partly paralyzed with difficulties speaking. Staying true to his teachings, he saw it as an opportunity for growth and to deepen his experience of life. The way he saw it, he was ‘stroked by God‘.
He still continued to teach for over two decades after his stroke.
On 22 December 2019, after a lifetime of trailblazing and leading the way for many feeling called to the path of service, Ram Dass left his body at the age of 88 at his home in Maui surrounded by loved ones.
I remember one of my teachers telling a story about how Ram Dass, quite literally, had a ‘big bubble of love’ around him everywhere that he went, enveloping all of those near him.
It’s clear that his loving and compassionate presence was felt by everyone around him, and this wisdom continues to be felt by all those who engaged with his teachings.
For sure, his presence is felt beyond his physical life on earth, proving that love truly does transcend death.
Ram Dass Birth: April 6, 1931
Ram Dass Death: December 22, 2019
More on Ram dass
If you’re just getting into his teachings, take a look at this amazing resource, the Ram Dass starter kit.
To deepen your understanding of his teachings, you can listen to many of his talks on this podcast.