If you were to assemble a time capsule to explain the Sixties to future generations, you might want to include a peace symbol, incense, love beads, the Sgt. Pepper album and a tape of Mick Jagger begging “Everybody, come on now! Cool out!” at Altamont. Or you could simply get a larger capsule and—after a great deal of persuasion, no doubt—insert Ram Dass, whose adventurous life helped shape the era. In 1963 Ram Dass—then a Harvard psychology professor and still known by his given name, Richard Alpert—was booted out of the university, along with his colleague, Timothy Leary, for experimenting too freely with LSD. Footloose, he later traveled to India, studied with a guru and wrote Be Here Now, a bestseller that fed the period’s fascination with Eastern religion. Under the name Baba Ram Dass—Baba is Hindi for “respected father”—he became both the unofficial spiritual adviser to the hippie movement and a controversial figure popular enough to inspire parody: The National Lampoon took to running monthly columns about a scrambled mystic named Baba Rum Raisin.
All that of course is history. Dharma long ago gave way to disco, and, though colonies of True Hippies still inhabit forested pockets of Northern California—much like the Japanese soldiers who holed up on atolls for years after WWII—the prime time of flower power is long past. Ram Dass, now 56, has also changed. “In the ’60s, while other people were out marching and protesting the war in Vietnam, I was looking inward,” he says. “Around the mid-’70s I began to learn to play a part in the world. I knew that I would never be free as long as I was pushing away the suffering around me, my political responsibilities and my family.” Long estranged from his father, a Boston lawyer who occasionally referred to his then-berobed son as “Baba Rum Dum,” Ram Dass worked to heal the rift. His father is now terminally ill and Ram Dass serves as his caretaker. More publicly, he has become a gentle but persistent activist on behalf of the Seva Foundation, a Chelsea, Mich.-based charitable group he co-founded with Dr. Larry Brilliant, a former World Health Organization official who helped eradicate smallpox in India.
Seva has helped fund reforestation projects in Latin America and health education for Native Americans in South Dakota, but its principal goal is to fight blindness in India and Nepal. “Eighty percent of the world’s blindness is preventable or curable,” says Ram Dass. So far, he estimates, Seva has financed 75,000 cataract operations in those countries. Perhaps more important, it has trained local doctors to perform the operations themselves. “We don’t want to be one of those agencies that comes in, then walks out and leaves them weaker than ever,” says Ram Dass. “We try to inspire them to do better, work faster, to motivate them. We want to be done with our work there in four or five years, leaving them with the ability to finish it.” The group is supported by corporations and individuals, including Ram Dass, who raised $500,000 during a 60-city lecture tour this past year. “Seva pays my expenses when I am lecturing for them, but they are minimal. I stay in a Holiday Inn or at friends’. It is getting better for me, doing without too much income. I am comfortable. I used to cling a little bit.” He admits he still yearns for a Jaguar; so far he has successfully resisted temptation.
Given his upbringing, it’s not surprising that Ram Dass has had difficulty shucking the material world. His father, George Alpert, was an aggressive Boston attorney who helped found Brandeis University before taking control of the New Haven Railroad in 1956. Alpert senior dreamed of a medical career for his son, but Ram Dass, academically minded, collected degrees from Tufts, Wesleyan and Stanford universities and then moved on to Harvard as a psychology professor. “I was a middle-class bachelor,” says Ram Dass. “I had antiques, sports cars, even an airplane. We weren’t called yuppies in those days, but that’s what I was.”
His use of hallucinogens in the early ’60s “changed my way of seeing the world,” he says. “It showed me that who I thought I was wasn’t all I was. It started me on a quest to discover the deepest parts of my being.” When he and Leary were drummed out for allowing undergraduates to participate in drug experiments, the pair took off to Mexico and opened a “psychedelic training center.” Expelled by Mexico, they eventually settled into a 63-room mansion in Millbrook, N.Y., owned by heirs to the Mellon fortune. The perpetual party lasted two years for Ram Dass, until he tired of Leary’s confrontational style of dealing with authority. “Timothy was, in a way, an Irishman fighting the English,” says Ram Dass of Leary, who is still a close friend.
Two years later he landed in India, where his introduction to a guru named Neem Karoli Baba changed his life and, soon after, his name (Ram Dass means “servant of God” in Hindi). Although he had taken “hundreds of pills” during his druggiest years, meditation and fasting, he says, began to make pharmaceuticals superfluous. “Once I started to learn the Eastern methods of arriving at the same places, the drugs became uninteresting,” he says. “If you’re in Detroit, you don’t have to take a bus to Detroit.”
Ram Dass now returns to India every other year for a spiritual recharging. No longer an outspoken proponent of LSD, he does admit to dabbling on occasion “because I am part of an old explorers club, and I think it shows me things I have forgotten.” Nowadays he takes most of his trips in a 10-year-old Volvo, kept at his father’s Cohasset, Mass., home, where Ram Dass beds down for a few days each month when he’s not on the road for Seva. Although he is not currently involved in a major-league romance, he has given up the sexual abstinence of his earliest post-India years: “I was a horny celibate,” he tells lecture audiences. He is keeping another vow: not to touch the money he will eventually inherit from his father. Years ago “Neem Karoli told me I was not to accept the money,” says Ram Dass, who plans to donate his inheritance to Seva. “I saw that there was a web of paranoia around it. From that moment, I was free.
“I love my life now,” he adds. “I have been given a gift that I can’t even understand.” Nonetheless, he keeps trying. “Let’s face it,” he says, “I’m like everyone else—trying to figure out what life is all about, doing the best I can.”