Ram Dass (b. 1931) is an American contemporary spiritual teacher, originally named Richard Alpert, and the author of the seminal 1971 book ‘Be Here Now.’
He is known for his personal and professional associations with Timothy Leary at Harvard University in the early 1960s, for his travels to India and his relationship with the Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba, and for founding the charitable organizations Seva Foundation and Hanuman Foundation.
Alpert was born to a Jewish family in Newton, Massachusetts. His father was a lawyer in the Boston and one of the founders of Brandeis University and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, as well as a major fundraiser for Jewish causes. While Richard did have a bar mitzvah, he was ‘disappointed by its essential hollowness.’ He considered himself an atheist and did not profess any religion during his early life, describing himself as ‘inured to religion. I didn’t have one whiff of God until I took psychedelics.’
After returning from a visiting professorship at the University of California, Berkeley, Richard accepted a permanent position at Harvard, where he worked with the Social Relations Department, the Psychology Department, the Graduate School of Education, and the Health Service as a therapist. Perhaps most notable was the work he did with his close friend and associate Timothy Leary. The two were formally dismissed from the university in 1963. According to Harvard President Nathan M. Pusey, Leary was dismissed for leaving Cambridge and his classes without permission or notice, and Alpert for allegedly giving psilocybin to an undergraduate.
In 1967 Alpert flew to India, where he traveled with the American spiritual seeker Bhagavan Das, and ultimately met the man who would become his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, whom Alpert called ‘Maharaj-ji.’ It was Maharaj-ji who gave him the name ‘Ram Dass,’ which means ‘servant of God,’ referring to the incarnation of God as Ram or Lord Rama. Alpert also corresponded with the Indian spiritual teacher Meher Baba and mentioned Baba in several of his books.