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|Sage in his golden age By Jim Remsen||
Ram Dass reposes in his 'swanboat' as a library is named for him at the Omega Institute, a New Age retreat along the Hudson River in Upstate New York. Photograph by Nancy Wegard.
RHINEBECK, N.Y. - Ram Dass, Sixties
figurehead turned New Age grayhead, was the man of the hour.
The Omega Institute, a New Age retreat center
tucked in the hills above the Hudson River, was grand-opening a library in his
name. Accolades poured down like rose petals.
Speakers praised the pioneering apostle of Hindu
spirituality as "a pure soul," "an intrepid traveler of the universe" who
displays "an authenticity to his being." Singers led 300 acolytes and spiritual
seekers in rousing devotional chants in his honor.
When one speaker called Ram Dass "a visionary," the crowd erupted - but not in applause. In awkward laughter.
Sitting in his wheelchair on the dais, their guest of honor had gone loony on them. Like a jack-in- the-box, he was bobbing his shaggy head, rolling his eyes, wagging a finger toward the speaker, silently guffawing at the accumulated praise.
|Ram Dass is 70 now, hobbled by a stroke and long past his counterculture heyday. But the Hindu apostle and New Age icon is still writing an "ripening into God."|
Oh, that Ram Dass. The iconic "hippie guru," now 70 and hobbled by a near-fatal stroke, still has the Sixties prankster in him. His stream of books, chiefly the two-million-selling Be Here Now, have brought adulation, but he playfully resists it. To him, fame and its baubles - like libraries - are really spiritual tests instigated by his own "rascally" guru, a long-dead Indian yogi.
If You Go:
Ram Dass doesn't travel so much these days -
he'll be making his first Philadelphia appearance in a decade on Oct. 13 - and
the stroke frequently leaves him struggling for words. But when his turn came to
speak at Omega, he managed a few wry comments.
"You must wonder what it's like to be a person
who's named after a library," he quipped, rubbing his pate with his good left
hand, the right one limp in his lap. "It feels peculiar, very strange. ... But I
really like having it here instead of at Harvard."
People laughed knowingly. Harvard was the place
where his fame, his notoriety, all began a lifetime ago.
Before he was Ram Dass, he was Richard Alpert,
high-spirited son of a prosperous, assimilated Jewish family in Boston. An
academic wunderkind, he became a young psychology professor at Harvard in 1958.
Among his faculty colleagues was the restless
Timothy Leary. The two made headlines by experimenting with LSD and openly
promoting psychedelics. The school made headlines by throwing them out on their
ears. It was 1963.
Footloose, Alpert floated to India. A fateful
encounter with the mind-reading guru Shri Neem Karoli followed in the Himalayan
foothills. The aged sadhu, or wandering holy man, helped Alpert open a spiritual
third eye. Alpert was reborn as Ram Dass ("servant of God" in Sanskrit) and, two
years later, returned home with a mission of spreading Hindu teachings on
compassion, meditation and dharma, or "right living" to a Western audience.
A captivating writer and speaker with a gift for
the playful riff, Ram Dass became a fixture in the American counterculture. He
explored higher consciousness via meditation and his mind-altering "chemical
teachers." And in 1971, he produced Be Here Now, a kaleidoscopic "manual for
conscious being" that became a runaway best-seller.
As the cultural revolution lost steam, Ram Dass'
heyday passed, but he persevered. He became a circuit rider to New Age
communities around the country. Like other New Age celebrities, he churned out
inspirational books and tapes for the seeker set. He set up humanitarian
projects such as the Prison Ashram Project and the hospice Dying Project.
Northern California eventually became his base.
There, he bombed around in his MG, surfed, and gave weekly, taped dharma
Then came the 1997 stroke, which paralyzed his
right side. Ram Dass underwent speech therapy, acupucture and painful physical
rehab. The ordeal was captured in a documentary, Ram Dass Fierce Grace, released
earlier this year.
Ram Dass considers the stroke a spiritual
wake-up call - "fierce grace" - from his ascended guru. And he turned the
experience into grist for his latest book, Still Here (Riverhead Books, $22), a
how-to on "soul consciousness" in the face of aging and ill health.
The goal for golden agers, he writes in a mellow
pastoral style, is to give up the ego's dread of death and begin "the long
process of ripening into God." The book encourages things like "joyful
dependency," "approaching change with curiosity," even "inviting your fears over
One Omega participant, Kathleen Murphy, said Ram
Dass' teachings "cause me a lot of love and happiness." Murphy, 57, of Sewell in
Gloucester County, said she was raised in Catholicism, moved into Zen Buddhism,
and felt pinched in both.
A friend turned her on to Ram Dass a few years
ago. She now helps edit Ram Dass' tapes and is the coordinator of his
"He's helped existence make sense for me,"
Murphy said. "Beauty and love pour out of him and the people associated with
Ram Dass is only a minor figure to Indian-born
Hindus, said K.L.S. Rao, editor of the Encyclopedia of Hinduism. But Rao said
Ram Dass' teachings are accurate and "well accepted" by Hindu scholars.
In an interview in his cabin at Omega, Ram Dass
grew reflective, more sage than rascal. As devotional chant music from a nearby
class floated in the window, he reposed in his wheelchair - "my swanboat" - and
noodled about the cosmos.
A Hindu to the core, he said reincarnation
applies to all people everywhere, whether they accept it or not.
Even to his Jewish bubbe, who didn't know karma
"Sure," he said softly. "She's just a soul. ...
Some souls take an incarnation as a Jew."
So why was he born into a Jewish family? The
answer came slowly.
"It had the ingredients that I would have needed
at this juncture: compassion, love for knowledge and learning, community,
family, identification with suffering," he said. "I think I'm getting finished
with knowledge. Not with wisdom but with collecting knowledge."
Ram Dass said he once took part in an African
ceremony designed to connect people with their ancestors. His forebears were
revealed to him not as Jews but as - voila - his impish guru.
Knowing his teacher had overwhelming
supernatural powers is why Ram Dass acts up when anyone tries to put a halo on
his own head.
"There are people who want to use the name guru
for me," he said with a snort. "When I hear that, I feel they just haven't seen
a real one."
By Jim Remsen
Contact info for Jim Remsen at 215-854-5621 or
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