Born Richard Alpert in 1931, Dass graduated from Stanford University with a Ph.D. in Psychology. He went on to participate, with Timothy Leary, in a research program into altered states of consciousness at Harvard, utilizing large amounts of LSD under relatively uncontrolled circumstances. Those same activities got him fired from that faculty in 1963.
Four years later, Alpert journeyed to India, meeting two relevant people there: Bhagavan Das, and the man who soon became his guruNeem Karoli Baba or “Maharajji” (“Great King”).
Bhagavan Das had grown up in Laguna Beach, California, coming to India on his own in 1964 at age eighteen, and later becoming one of Ram Dass’ teachers. As Ram himself described their first encounter:
Of course, Dass also considered the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia to be a “bodhisattva”
(Meier, 1992), so “consider the source” in that regard. And indeed, as if to warn us of the gulf which more often than not exists between the real state of any guru or teacher, compared with the pedestal upon which he has been put by his followers, Das himself, years later
(1997), gave his own honest evaluation of his earlier spiritual state:
At other times, the boons of such “powers” included Das’ waking up to a seventeen-year-old blond girl (Swedish) on one side of his Nepalese cowshed bed, and a silent, young Frenchwoman with long, black hair on the other side.
In any case, Bhagavan Das soon left that sylvan paradise behind to drop acid with Alpert in Kathmandu, and then reluctantly road-tripped with him back to India. He soon introduced that new uptight, bisexual (and “too interested in him”) friend to Karoli Babapartly in the hope of getting rid of him
(Das, 1997). To Karoli, Das gave Alpert’s friend’s Land Rover vehicle, while Alpert himself claims to have once fed the guru twelve hundred micrograms of LSDmany times the “safe” dosagewith no apparent effect.
Of course, such high reviews of Maharajji naturally came from very hero-worshiping angles. By contrast, Andrew Cohen’s former guru, H. W. L. Poonja, offered a perspective on the same sagely individual which is either more balanced, or more unbalanced, as may be left for the reader to judge:
When I had asked [Poonja] what his opinion was of the now famous deceased guru Neem Karoli Baba, he went on to describe in detail about how he had met him and that he knew that he was completely insane and “mad,” but that many people mistook his insanity for Enlightenment.... Several years later [following Cohen’s and Poonja’s bitter separation] when devotees of Neem Karoli would go to [Poonja] he would praise him as the highest (Cohen, 1992).
The following story, from a female disciple of Baba, does nothing to settle the question as to insanity versus enlightenment:
The first time he took me in the room alone I sat up on the tucket [a low wooden bed] with him, and he was like a seventeen-year-old jock who was a little fast! I felt as if I were fifteen and innocent. He started making out with me, and it was so cute, so pure. I was swept into it for a few momentsthen grew alarmed: “Wait! This is my guru. One doesn’t do this with one’s guru!” So I pulled away from him. Then Maharajji tilted his head sideways and wrinkled up his eyebrows in a tender, endearing, quizzical look. He didn’t say anything, but his whole being was saying to me, “Don’t you like me?”
But as soon as I walked out of that particular darshan [the blessing which is said to flow from even the mere sight of a saint], I started getting so sick that by the end of the day I felt I had vomited and shit out everything that was ever inside me. I had to be carried out of the ashram. On the way, we stopped by Maharajji’s room so I could pranam [i.e., offer a reverential greeting] to him. I kneeled by the tucket and put my head down by his feetand he kicked me in the head, saying, “Get her out of here!”....
That was the first time, and I was to be there for two years. During my last month there, I was alone with him every day in the room....
Sometimes he would just touch me on the breasts and between my legs, saying, “This is mine, this is mine, this is mine. All is mine. You are mine.” You can interpret it as you want, but near the end in these darshans, it was as though he were my child. Sometimes I felt as though I were suckling a tiny baby (in Dass, 1979).
Of course, devoted disciples of the homoerotic pedophile Ramakrishna viewed his “divine” motherly/suckling tendencies just as positively.
At any rate, after a mere few months at the feet of Neem Karoli Baba, Ram Dass returned to the U.S. at Karoli’s behest, to teach.
Hilda [Charlton] referred to [Ram Dass] as the “doorway of enlightenment for America,” incarnated for the age, having once been one of the Seven Sages on the order of Vishwamitra: a full master (Brooke, 1999).
Beginning in 1974, at the height of his fame, Ram spent a good amount of time with a female spiritual leader in New York City: Joya Santana (now Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati), a claimed stigmatist and fellow follower of Karoli Baba. As Dass himself tells the story:
Joya kept reiterating that she had come to Earth only to be an instrument for my preparation as a world spiritual leader and that ultimately she would sit at my feet....
Joya further professed to be the Divine Mother herself (Dass and Levine, 1977).
That Mother image evidently did not, however, couple sufficiently with Dass’ psychological training in Oedipal complexes and the like, to prevent the predictable from allegedly occurring between Joya and him:
He even found a convoluted way to justify a sexual relationship with Joya [which she insists did not occur], despite the fact that she required all of her students to take a strict vow of celibacy and publicly took one herself. Joya professed no physical desires, and Ram Dass willingly accepted her explanation that by having sex together, she was actually teaching him to become just as unattached to physical desire as she claimed she was
That reported “thrill of learning,” unfortunately, was not to last:
There were just too many “signals,” like the moment Joya and I were hanging out and the telephone rang. She picked up the receiver and in a pained whisper said, “I can’t talk now, I’m too stiff” [i.e., in samadhi], and let the receiver drop. Then without hesitation she continued our conversation as if nothing had happened. I realized how many times I had been at the other end of the phone....
I began to see the similarity between what I was experiencing and the stories I had heard about other movements, such as Reverend Moon’s group, the so-called Jesus Freaks, and the Krishna-consciousness scene. Each seemed a total reality that made involvement a commitment which disallowed change....
It seemed that [Joya’s] incredible energies came not solely from spiritual sources but were [allegedly] enhanced by energizing pills. Her closest confidants now confessed many times they were ordered to call me to report terrible cries [sic] they knew to be untrue. They complied because Joya had convinced them that it was for my own good.
Such stories of deception came thick and fast. I had been had (Dass and Levine, 1977).
In happier days, the married Bhagavan Das too had, for a time, been part of the same energetic “scene” with Joya:
We were having a huge meeting and Joya said, “Bhagavan Das, stand up!” I stood up and she said, “Shivaya stand up! Shivaya, take Bhagavan Das to a whorehouse right now!” The next thing I knew I was in a whorehouse in Manhattan on Christmas Day
“It’s a Wonderful Life.”
* * *
So where are they now?
Well, Neem Karoli Baba passed away in the autumn of 1973.
Ram Dass himself sadly suffered a serious stroke in 1997, providing him with the personal background to complete a touching and (thankfully) relatively non-mystical book on agingStill Here.
The sixty-something Joya, in no danger of “sitting at Ram Dass’ feet” at any point in the near future, continues her teaching activities at her own Kashi Ashram in Florida. That environment itself, along with its “Ma,” has been uncomplimentarily profiled numerous times in various local, regional and national newspapers and magazines since the mid-’70s, as documented at
Also see Tobias and Lalich’s
(1994) Captive Hearts, Captive Minds.
And what of the “mythical being,” Bhagavan Das, in America?
I ... found myself onstage before thousands of people, I named babies and blessed people, and people fell at my feet. I felt like a king with my patrons and movie stars, but I was still a kid, a guru at twenty-five, sitting on a tiger skin in a Manhattan town house....
After three years of “spiritual life” that was really a party [drugs, groupies, etc.], I got sick of it and wanted to be home with my children. I rejoined the world and [ironically, given the Land Rover incident] sold used cars in Santa Cruz, I became a businessman, and I gradually lost my sense of [the] divine completely
(in Kornfield, 2000).
At one point during that Faustian descent into the business world, after having experienced a profoundly moving vision of the crucified Jesus, Das actually became a born-again Christian, thereby returning to his family’s Episcopalian roots.
I was now officially in Bible college, and I was going to be a pastor....
I got rid of everything but my Bible, which I worshiped. I’d go to bed with my Bible, I’d sleep with it, and I’d hug it. And God woke me up at all different times of the night....
I would go into Denny’s restaurant with my Bible, constantly looking for souls to save. I did nothing but read the Bible and pray
Thence followed Bhagavan’s “speaking in tongues” with his local, polyester-wearing congregation. Also followed an affair with a blond, teenage choir girl “in tight blue jeans,” which got Dasin his forties at the timebranded and counseled as a “fornicator” by the church.
None of that latter disrepute, however, could shake the ex-yogi’s inner peace:
I felt completely saved and totally free. The freedom I had felt in that tantric sexual experience with the choir girl was like being with Mary and Jesus
Praise! “Gimme that ol’ time religion,” “ménage a Trinity,” etc.
Further, by Das’ own (1997) admission: Alcoholism, AA, a nearly six-figure income selling insurance, another “wild ‘n’ nekkid” Scandinavian teenager, and back into smoking pot and doing magic mushrooms. Finally turned on, tuned in and dropped out of the business world, rediscovered himself as “Bhagavan Das” the mystic, hooked up with another eighteen-year-old girl whom he took as both a lover and disciple, etc.
All of which, one must admit, is still markedly less eye-poppingby California standards, at leastthan was Das’ earlier cooking of (energy-transferring) placenta soup for his wife (which she, and he, ate) after the births of two of their children, during his yogic days.
“Been here, done that ... what now?”
Indeed, “What now?”