After hallucinogenics researcher Richard Alpert was fired from Harvard for drugging his students, he reinvented himself as a spiritual leader named Ram Dass and became an icon of the counterculture.
Over the course of his life, it would appear that Ram Dass led two vastly different lives.
The first, of Richard Alpert, a boy born into an upper-class Jewish family in Newton, Massachusetts, who earned three degrees in psychology and was a respected professor.
The second, of Ram Dass, a humble spiritual guru who explored Hinduism in India and psychedelic drugs at Harvard.
Richard Alpert’s life was relatively short in comparison, as he only existed for roughly 30 of Ram Dass’ 88 years before he assumed his new identity and died in 2019. This is his psychedelic story.
The Early Life Of Richard Alpert
Born Richard Alpert to Jewish parents in a suburb outside Boston on April 6, 1931, the future guru was raised atheist. He later claimed that he did not find God until he took psychedelics for the first time.
A curious student, Alpert received his BA in psychology from Tufts University. Even though his father implored him to go to medical school, Alpert enrolled in a master’s program for psychology at Wesleyan University, from which he graduated in 1954 and went on to study at Stanford.
He had intended to teach and indeed began his career at the University of California, Berkeley. After finishing his visiting professorship there, he moved to Harvard, where he took up a tenure-track position. In addition to teaching, Alpert also served as a therapist in the Health Services department.
And although his teaching was impactful, it was the work that he did with his fellow professor, Timothy Leary, that earned him his reputation.
Leary was a noted psychologist and lecturer in clinical psychology at Harvard who had also performed extensive research on psychedelic drugs. Together with Alpert, Leary began researching the therapeutic effects of psychedelic and hallucinogenic drugs in earnest.
The duo sampled psilocybin, LSD-25, and various psychedelic chemicals while founding the Harvard Psilocybin Project, which lent itself to their research.
Alpert and Leary even began to distribute these drugs to their students and enlisted theology students to participate in their experiments, resulting in the first controlled, double-blind study of drugs and the mystical experience.
Despite both being formally dismissed from Harvard, (Leary for leaving school without notice and Alpert for distributing drugs to his students) the two men moved to Millbrook, New York, where they could continue their experiments and teachings.
There, the pair engaged in group LSD sessions hoping to find a higher consciousness. They would hold weekend retreats and — rather than encourage their guests to take hallucinogenic or psychedelic trips — they would attempt to recreate the trips by doing yoga and meditation. It was during this time that Alpert made a fateful trip to India.
Becoming Ram Dass
In 1967, Richard Alpert left Timothy Leary in New York and traveled to India to meet with a spiritual seeker known as Kermit Michael Riggs, who called himself “Bhagavan Das.” There, Alpert was introduced to Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba, who became his guru. It was also Neem Karoli Baba who gave Alpert the name “Ram Dass,” which means “servant of God.”
At the time, Ram Dass had reportedly taken LSD with him to India. Neem Karoli Baba allegedly requested that Ram Dass give him a large dose of the hallucinogenic, but Ram Dass later claimed it had no effect on him.
When he returned to the United States, drugs were still an important part of his teachings, but no longer a major factor. He began, instead, to hold massive lecture series at his father’s cabin in New Hampshire and all over the country.
In 1971, Ram Dass presented a book he had written about his spirituality to the spiritual Lama Foundation, where he was staying. The community collectively edited and illustrated the manuscript, which was published under the name Be Here Now as a collection of loose pages in a box. It quickly became a popular manual for conscious being. It has since sold more than two million copies and has been reprinted three times.
Shortly after becoming a cult guru of sorts, Ram Dass tried to drop his Indian name but his publishers talked him out of it. He continued to preach and print his teachings, however, and he allegedly made sure his materials were reasonably priced.
In his later years, Ram Dass somewhat bemoaned his 400 drug trips, saying he received more enlightenment from his sober meditations. He nonetheless told The New York Times that he still partook in a trip or two each year.
What Happened To Ram Dass?
In addition to lecturing, Ram Dass also became deeply involved in philanthropy. He co-founded the Seva Foundation, a charity to fight blindness and other health problems around the world.
In 1997, Ram Dass suffered a stroke which left him with expressive aphasia. However, he continued to give talks at small venues and publish memoirs and summaries of his teachings. He is perhaps most famous for such one-liners as “we’re all just walking each other home” and “the quieter you become, the more you can hear.”
In 2004, Ram Dass moved to Maui, where he continued to practice his religion and attempted to reach a higher consciousness through meditation. He rediscovered his Judaism at age 60 and published a memoir in 2013. He died on December 22, 2019.
He was survived by a son who he only learned he fathered at age 78. The child was the product of a relationship with a graduate student Ram Dass had at the age of 24. Ram Dass was later very open about his sexual orientation as a gay man.
It seemed as though his spiritual journey had prepared him for his death. In an interview at the age of 82, Ram Dass reportedly said, “Now, I’m in my 80s … Now, I am aging. I am approaching death. I’m getting closer to the end … Now, I really am ready to face the music all around me.”