Ram Dass, Spiritual Teacher And Psychedelics Pioneer, Dies At 88 His name meant "servant of God," a title given to him by a Hindu mystic he met in India in the '60s. Ram Dass wrote books popularizing New Age thinking and toured the U.S. lecturing about mindfulness.
NPR logo

Ram Dass, Spiritual Teacher And Psychedelics Pioneer, Dies At 88

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/790769546/790929862" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Ram Dass, Spiritual Teacher And Psychedelics Pioneer, Dies At 88

Ram Dass, Spiritual Teacher And Psychedelics Pioneer, Dies At 88

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/790769546/790929862" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Spiritual leader and author Ram Dass has died. He was an icon of the '60s counterculture movement for his research of psychedelics. Then he became a teacher, spreading a message of mindfulness and unconditional love. He died Sunday in his home in Maui at 88 years old. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Ram Dass' spiritual teachings talked people through big concepts.

DALE BORGLUM: Love everybody, serve everybody, and remember God.

LIMBONG: That's Dale Borglum, the director of the Living/Dying Project, a nonprofit he started with Ram Dass that offers spiritual support for people who are dying.

BORGLUM: He had this remarkable ability to take these complicated teachings from the East and explain them in ways that westerners could fully understand and incorporate into their lives.

LIMBONG: Ram Dass liked to use himself as an example. He was born in 1931 and gave this lecture in California about the body.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAM DASS: All your thoughts, your body - this is a 1931 model that is decaying in a perfectly lawful and orderly fashion.

LIMBONG: He talks about thinking about yourself beyond your physical form.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DASS: And you feel yourself caught in stuff that's just happening to you. You didn't ask for it. If you think, you are the form.

LIMBONG: When Ram Dass, born Richard Alpert, was a professor in Harvard's psychology department, he was successful. He'd earned an upper-middle-class living with all the stuff that comes with it but felt a certain malaise, a certain anxiety. One day, he experimented with psychedelic drugs, and he saw himself as separate from his body. He writes in his popular 1971 book "Be Here Now," quote, "I felt a new kind of calmness, one of a profundity never experienced before." In 1960, he got together with colleague Timothy Leary and began researching psychedelic drugs and their effects. He told WHYY's Fresh Air in 1990 about how crucial the surroundings and conditions were.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DASS: And then we began to see how set and setting were so important, that a person could have them and have a religious experience. They could use them to escape. They could use them for creative work. They could use them for therapeutic change.

LIMBONG: The two were fired in 1963 for giving drugs to students, but they continued their research in a mansion in upstate New York, drawing a crowd. Alpert eventually burnt out of the psychedelic drug scene, and there was a falling out with Leary, so he took a trip to India in 1967. There, he learned about yoga and meditation and found his guru, whom he called Maharajji, who gave Alpert the name Ram Dass, meaning servant of God. Ram Dass came back to the United States and began teaching. At first, he wore white robes and sported a long beard, but he eventually abandoned the look. He started groups like the Living/Dying Project and the Prison Ashram Project, which connected volunteers and incarcerated people, and the Seva Foundation, which focused on public health in developing nations, as a way of expressing his spirituality.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DASS: I think I wanted to renounce my lack of compassion for the have-nots that came out of my middle-class fears. I didn't grow up in a family that had great social concerns. I mean, we were charitable, but we weren't really caring in that way.

LIMBONG: In 1997, he suffered a stroke that made moving and speaking difficult for him. He had to learn to depend on people. He invited people to come to his home in Maui. He started using the internet, guiding meditations on YouTube, posting lectures on his podcasts. He was uncomfortable with his status as an icon. He was, after all, just a mere mortal. But for his followers and friends, he was a conduit for something bigger than mortality. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF A FOREST MIGHTY BLACK'S "REBIRTH")

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.