Ram Dass, whose real name was Richard Alpert, was a clinical psychologist known as America’s preeminent spiritual leader. He died on December 22, 2019 at the age of 88.
Dass received his name, which means “Servant of God” in Hindu, from guru Neem Karoli Baba, who’s also known as Maharaj-ji. Dass met him while on a meditative trip to Eastern India in 1967, according to the biography on his website. It was a pivotal meeting that completely changed the course of Dass’s life, and inspired him to author the book, Be Here Now, which has sold more than 2 million copies.
Prior to meeting Maharaj-ji, Dass was a Harvard professor. In collaboration with Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, Aldous Huxley, and Allen Ginsberg, they researched psilocybin, LSD-25, and other psychedelic drugs, Dass’ website explains. Their research was so controversial that Dass and Leary were tossed out of Harvard academia, and the two professors decided to go on their own psychedelic journey. They traveled to Mexico, ate mushrooms, and studied the source of consciousness itself, mind expansion, and drugs being a catalyst for spiritual thinkers, according to his biography.
When Dass traveled to India and met Maharaj-ji, he gave his guru a large dose of LSD to see how such a spiritual leader would react, and much to his surprise, the drugs had zero effect on him, Dass wrote in 2014. After numerous trips back and forth to India to spend time with Maharaj-ji, Dass settled down in America to focus on his new non-drug related spiritual awakening, combining the beliefs of Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, Christianity, and Jewish mysticism.
Dass, who was bi-sexual, but preferred men, never married. However, he discovered late in life that he had a child. He is survived his son Peter Reichard.
Here’s what you need to know about Ram Dass:
1. Ram Dass Was Wheelchair-Bound After Suffering A Stroke in 1997
Dass wrote over a dozen other books throughout his career, including The Only Dance There Is, Miracle of Love: Stories of Neem Karoli Baba, How Can I Help? Compassion in Action, One-Liners: A Mini-Manual for a Spiritual Life , and Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita.
The popular spiritual leader has also been the star subject of numerous documentaries including Becoming Nobody, which premiered earlier this year. While Dass suffered a stroke in 1997 that affected his speaking ability and left him severely debilitated, he never let this setback push him off track. He told The New York Times in September, “The stroke took away my cello playing, golf, making love. So all I could do after the stroke was go inside and concentrate on my spiritual side.”
After surviving a near-fatal infection in 2004, Dass continued to host retreats from his home in Maui, Hawaii, where he taught his message of unconditional love. His popularity didn’t waver in old age. At the time of his death, he had nearly 500,000 followers on Instagram.
2. Dass Learned When He Was 78 That He Had Fathered a Son More Than 50 Years Earlier
In 2009, Dass learned that while he was a graduate student at Stanford, he fathered a son with one of his fellow classmates, Karen Saum, with whom he had a brief affair. His child’s name is Peter Reichard. He was a 53-year-old investment banker at the time Dass’ learned about him and he was living in North Carolina with his wife and daughter.
Dass famously said, “If you want to see how enlightened you are, go spend a week with your family,” and when learning he had a son was a true test to his belief system. While at first Dass believed he was being hustled, a DNA test proved that he was indeed the father.
Dass told Sara Davidson that their relationship slowly blossomed from weekly phone calls to in-person visits. “Peter is such a sweet guy,” Dass said of his son, who was raised without religion. “Peter and I are meeting as father and son, but underneath that, we’re two souls. I’d like us to get beyond the roles; then we’ll really have something. I’ll give up Ram Dass-ness, he’ll give up Peter-ness, and here we go.”
3. Ram Dass Is The Co-Founder of the Seva Foundation
Seva, which means “spiritual service” in Sanskrit, is an international foundation which supports programs the helps wipe out curable blindness. According to Seva’s website, an estimated 253 million people live with vision impairment, and 80% of all issues can be prevented or cured with a 15-minute operation.
Dass created the Seva Foundation in 1978, and has helped provide eye surgeries, eyeglasses, medicine, and other eye-related care to more than 40 million people in impoverished communities.
4. Dass Grew Up With A Jewish Family in Boston
Dass was born as Richard Alpert on April 6, 1930, and he grew up with two older brothers. His father, George Alpert, was a lawyer and president of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. His father later became the first board president of Brandeis University. Alpert was raised Jewish, and had a bar-mitzvah, but it would be years before he fell in love with studying religion and spirituality, and for very different reasons.
Alpert graduated at the top of his class at Williston Northampton and went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in psychology at Tuft’s, his master’s at Wesleyan, and a doctorate at Stanford. He was highly successful during his tenure at Harvard, and wealthy. He lived in an upscale apartment in Cambridge apartment, owned a Mercedes-Benz, an MG sports car, a Triumph 500cc motorcycle, and a Cessna 172 airplane, he wrote on his website in 2012.
But everything changed on March 6, 1961, the first Alpert tried psilocybin, and he discussed the massive shift in his life in Be Here Now. Dass wrote, “In 1961, at the beginning of March, I was at the high point of my academic career. I was making a great income, and I was a collector of possessions. But what it all boils down to is that I was really a very good game player.”
Dass told the New York Times of his shift from working with Leary and drugs, “Tim was a social scientist, and he was experimenting with social situations. That’s where his focus was. In the last period of Tim’s psychedelic world, he heard the mantra: ‘Turn on, tune in and drop out.’ That’s radical. That’s radical.'”
5. Dass’s Celebrity Fans Shared Tributes To Him On Social Media
When the news of Dass’s death broke, Twitter filled with condolences for the spiritual leader, sharing their favorite quotes or passages from teacher. However, they can rest assured that he was more than ready for his time to come, and was did not fear death. He told the New York Times in September 2019, “When I arrived at my soul. Soul doesn’t have fear of dying. Ego has very pronounced fear of dying. The ego, this incarnation, is life and dying. The soul is infinite.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this report mistakenly said Ram Dass suffered a stroke in 1971.