“Never put anyone out of your heart,” the late Hindu holy man Neem Karoli Baba told his disciples, among them writer, lecturer, and holy man in his own right, Ram Dass, and his friend, regular travel buddy, writer and photographer, Rameshwar Das. These two men share many affinities, among them a decades-long passion for Eastern philosophy coupled with an ability to purvey these ideas to a similarly fascinated American public.
They also share a love of Martha’s Vineyard: Ram Das has visited countless times and lectured at the Whaling Church. Rameshwar Das a few years back married his wife, Kate Rabinowitz, on her parent’s property off Christiantown Road in West Tisbury.
Now both men will be reunited, in a fashion, on Island on July 3 at the Simon Gallery on Main street in Vineyard Haven, Ram Dass via Skype from his home in Maui, and Rameswar Das in person, as they talk about their new co-authored book, Be Love Now: The Path of the Heart (HarperOne, $27.99).
A bit of background for those who haven’t followed Ram Dass through every step of his dramatic life. In his original career as Richard Alpert, Harvard professor of psychology, he was notorious before he was famous. In the early 60s, he and fellow professor Timothy Leary wrote about their experiments with mind-altering drugs, in particular LSD and mescaline. Mr. Leary famously declared to a generation of young rebels, “Turn on, tune in, and drop out.”
More conservative ranks of the American public were frankly horrified.
Both professors were fired for their exploits, but whereas Mr. Leary continued to pursue the psychedelic angle, Mr. Alpert found himself increasingly drawn to intimations of higher consciousness beyond psychedelics. Like Aldous Huxley before him, who wrote about his own glimpses of Nirvana through pharmaceuticals in Doors of Perception, Dr. Alpert knew there had to be better, more lasting ways of connecting with an expanded world view.
The enterprising ex-Harvard professor visited India and met Neem Karoli Baba, hereinafter referred to with the honorific, Maharaj-ji. Under the influence of the enlightened master, Dr. Alpert agreed to toss his drugs, deepen his already flourishing meditation practice, and change his name to Ram Dass, translated from the Sanskrit as Servant of God.
Ram Dass’s first book, Be Here Now, published in 1972, brought a new vocabulary into the consciousness-raising movement, the title itself a skillful reminder to keep one’s awareness focused on this moment. “Every breath is the first and last,” was another of Maharaj-ji’s pithy reminders to his followers.
Be Here Now, a blue-and-white covered, thick 12-inch square of a book printed on brown paper, is a sassy, wholly original compendium of wisdom from all the mystic traditions, with crazy cartoons, sacred art, jaggedly composed quotations, even recipes. Generally people who follow what we’ve come to call the spiritual path can cite one book that blew their minds and pointed them in an entirely new direction. A large percentage of seekers have found Be Here Now to be that life-changing book.
Ram Dass also urged dedication to service, creating four foundations, Lama, Seva, Hanuman, and Love Serve Remember. Rameshwar Das, reached by phone recently at his home on Long Island said, “Almost all the revenues from the books and lectures of Ram Dass have gone into the Lama Foundation.”
In 1997, Ram Dass, long one of America’s beloved gurus, churning out new books, constantly in motion to lecture around the world and to replenish his spiritual roots in India, was felled by a disastrous stroke. Later he wrote in his book Still Here, that he’d been “stroked by God.” After his life preceding the stroke — a life he had always described for himself and others as “our predicament” — he now grappled with the further challenge of overcoming lack of speech and movement. Speech has now sufficiently returned, but the 80-year-old theologian is confined to a wheelchair and beset by other ailments, including a near-fatal kidney infection. Hence his visit from Maui by Skype during the book-signing tour of co-author Rameshwar Das.
Be Love Now is primarily an affectionate memoir of Ram Dass’s travels in India and his associations with other gurus along the way, mainly with the gold-complected, bearded, shaven-head, round Mararaj-ji, normally photographed bare-chested in hot Southern India weather, or wrapped in a blanket in Northern mountain climes. The book is rife with photographs, a particularly delightful one depicting Maharaji-ji draped in a plaid blanket, hunched with an amused expression over a copy of Be Here Now.
In the foreword of Be Love Now, Rameshwar Das describes how in the spring of 1967, a sophomore at Wesleyan, he took a course in “Freedom and Liberation in Ancient China and Buddhism” which led to a nascent interest in Taoism and Buddhism. Without this first impetus, he might have paid scant attention to the flyer announcing a guest lecture on Eastern metaphysics by Richard Alpert, a talk that many expected would largely concern psychedelics and recommended dosages. About 50 students attended the event that began at 7:30 p.m. Mr. Albert, fresh from India, floated into the room as the newly incarnated Ram Dass, draped in a white robe, wearing sandals, and possessed of a flowing beard.
He began to describe life in his Maharij-ji’s ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas. Some of the students found the experience too weird, and they departed. But after a while the lights dimmed, Ram Dass’s disembodied voice mesmerizing those who stayed, and the group dispersed at 3:30 in the morning.
Rameshwar Das writes, “To a 20-year-old on an intensely personal quest for identity, this was revelatory. The idea that there were other beings who had made and completed this journey of inner exploration that I had only imagined was astounding.”
Thus began his own travels to India and time spent in the rarefied presence of Neem Karoli Baba. The great guru died, or “left his body,” as Hindus prefer to say, in 1973. Rameshwar Das also participated in the early days when Ram Dass lived in a tiny guesthouse on his father’s farm on a lake near Franklin, N.H., when rotating troops of Ram Dass’s hippie followers pitched tents on the grounds.
One of this early cohort was Island photographer Peter Simon, currently still in close touch with both Ram Dass and Rameshwar Das, and presiding over a large cache of photos taken from those days, many of which appear in Mr. Simon’s 2001 book, I and Eye: Pictures of My Generation.
If this reporter’s hour-long chat with Rameshwar Das is any indication, then time spent in the company of this funny, friendly, wise man will prove a valuable experience.
Finally, the book is, unsurprisingly, full of inspiration such as apprehending the mantra, “I am loving awareness.” Taking it with you throughout the day, you see the world as if you’ve just received your first pair of glasses.
The Be Love Now book signing party is on Sunday, July 3 at the Simon Gallery at 54 Main street in Vineyard Haven. From 5 to 7 p.m. the gallery offers meet-and-greet time with Rameshwar Das as well as Flatbread canapes and drinks, followed by a video “visit” by Ram Dass, taking questions via Skype on screen, is scheduled for 7 p.m.