Ram Dass: Samsara veiled by Nirvana

The book BE HERE NOW by Ram Dass both exemplifies the New Age movement’s appropriation of eastern spiritual practices into a western framework of thought, and implicitly illustrates that any embodiment of a religious practice is highly influenced by the pre-existing conditions of the practitioner.

At the time of writing BE HERE NOW Ram Dass divides his life into three stages: the social science stage, the psychedelic stage, and the yogi stage. Ram Dass was born as Richard Alpert in 1931, and became a Psychology Professor and Therapist at Harvard in 1961. “I wasn’t a genuine scholar, but I had gone through the whole academic trip. … But what all this boils down to is that I was really a very good game player” (Dass). Through some of his clients, Dass was introduced to community of hip young people, with hom he engaged in material, alcoholic, and sexual orgies as release from his neuroses. “I felt that the theories I was teaching in psychology didn’t make it, that the psychologists didn’t really have a grasp of the human condition, and that the theories I was teaching, which were the theories of achievement and anxiety and defense mechanisms and so on, weren’t getting to the crux of the matter” (Dass).

Dass became in involved with Aldous Huxley’s experimentation with the effects of psychedelic drugs such as psylocybin (synthetic mushrooms) and LSD on others and themselves. Among themselves and their test subjects they developed a theoretical hierarchy of drug experience, from common heightened perceptual sensitivity, to dissolution of self, to “pure” perception of the world as energy. After a cycle of “turning on” and “coming down” Dass became conditioned to the drugs to the point he’d take five to ten times the normal dose to get a high; he felt it was time to move on, and went to India.

Bringing LSD with him and sharing with the locals in India, Dass reported that an old Buddhist Lama said: “That gave me a little headache.” Another monk responded: “That was good, but not as good as meditation” (Dass). Impressed by the guru Maharaji who could take the same doses of LSD as Dass but feel no effect of the drug, Dass became enamored with the mental acuity and fortitude of eastern traditions. With a conversion experience out of his existential misery, he changed his name and briefly studied Maharaji’s Raja Yoga before returning to the west. “Since his most recent return to the west from India he has been floating about on an ocean of love… carried by the winds of desire of beings he can serve” (Dass). He wrote BE HERE NOW in 1971 about his spiritual experience he attributes to the guru.

The core book of BE HERE NOW, titled FROM BINDU TO OJAS adopts a graphical format of presentation. Pen drawings and non-linguistic symbols accompany freely laid out type, printed on unbleached brown paper. Although many readers’ first reaction is to dismiss this as crazy, this presentation carries the reader along an abstract spiritual path that is very effective at representing the subtleties of Dass beliefs and experience. Although the meandering journey that is the book may seem unintentional as it spirals from clarity of a few words on a page to confusion with words printed over words printed over drawings, the text intentionally foreshadows its own development in subtle ways that immediately become clear upon a second reading. Figures 1 and 2 show typical pages of the book.

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Figure 1: page 57                                                        Figure 2: page 37

BE HERE NOW illustrates that individuals influence the embodiment of whatever religion they ascribe to; in addition to the invocation of Buddhist imagery such as lotus flowers, the concatenation of being, or the sound of Om (which punctuates the end of every page) the text exhibits Christian thought about the kingdom of heaven, unconditional love,  and god of infinite power and compassion, and a preoccupation with Existential concerns such as death anxiety, The Allegory of the Cave, and emptiness of identity that plagued Dass in his earlier years. His monologue refers to Aldous Huxley’s “I am I” and Istigkeit (Is-ness) discussion from The Doors of Perception. He also follows the thinking of the beat generation, asserting: “What meditation is all about is to cool you all out” (Dass). Further equation of Rama as God, all women as the Veil of Maya and thereby Sansara, and invoking Herman Hesse’s German pseudo-Buddha, Siddhartha, to solidify his arguments further illustrates the scope of Dass’s conceptual conglomeration. The book extolls its own paradoxes that arise from this wide-reaching syncretism.

Although Dass adopts an countercultural attitude to Protestantism, the book contains myriad praise for Jesus as enlightened being: “Start to live in the Tao (the Way) Jesus said: I am the way! The way is the way is the way” (Dass p. 30) Although Dass may criticize mainstream Christianity, he adopts the contemporary view of therapeutic faith, and invokes Jesus as a therapeutic figure to deal with suffering, concluding the book with: “Do you think that when christ is lying there and they’re nailing the nails in he’s saying, ‘oh man, does that hurt!’? He’s probably looking at the guy who’s nailing him with absolute compassion he digs why the cat’s doing it. … You’re standing on a bridge watching yourself go by” (Dass p. 107)

An appendix of the book refers to itself as “Cook Book for Sacred Life,” but contains a series of short essays on life rather than literal recipes. Dass puts forth a theory for successful exercise, meditation, sleeping, diet, literal eating, sex, and interior design. This fits the trend in New Age literature that presents pseudoscientific guidelines for living based on theology or aesthetic principles. A second appendix titled “Books to Hang Out With” provides a list of further reading, including the Bhagavad Gita, the Holy Bible, and the Tao Te Ching.

The book bears a graph to clearly separate itself from the “profit motive.” Figure 3 shows the mark.

 

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Figure 3: Cost Distribution

Interesting to note, the numbers in the circle chart sum to 8.88 rather 1.00, 100%, or $15.15 (the book’s cost) Given the emphasis on numerology in New Age, this 8.88 likely correlates with 888, a transliteration of “Jesus” in Christian numerology. Additionally, the cost of the book, $15.15 (an odd increment for trade) may numerologically refer to John 15:15, which can be translated as: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” This sentiment fits, as Dass chooses to name his movement the Hanuman Society. (In the Indian epic the Ramayana Hanuman is the loyal follower and friend-servant of the Hindu patriarchal figure Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu.) In BE HERE NOW, Rama was equated to God. Interestingly, Dass describes an overwhelming desire during his existential malaise to be a servant, that is, free from freedom; Dass found the role as servant-friend he desired in the God he understood through the lens of Indian spirituality. Currently, later in his life, Dass is seriously exploring Judaism to resolve his childhood dissatisfaction with himself, his family, and his culture.

His conversion experience represented in BE HERE NOW confirms that his religious writing is thematically influenced by his own development as a person. An individual’s preconceptions and needs take primacy in shaping whatever religious ideas they embody.

 

Citation:

Dass, Ram. (1978). BE HERE NOW. New York, NY: The Crown Publishing Group.

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