Dass’ Love Serve Remember Foundation confirmed his death in a statement, although did not reveal a cause. On Dass’ personal Instagram, it was revealed that a memorial service would be announced shortly.
Born Richard Alpert, Dass was a trained psychologist who taught at Harvard University in the Sixties, which is how he linked up with psychologist and writer Timothy Leary and became immersed in the world of psychedelics. Later in the decade, he would venture to India and study under the Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba, who would give Alpert his new name, Ram Dass, meaning “Servant of God.”
When Dass returned to the United States, he became a guru in his own right, lecturing around the country and, most notably, releasing a wildly popular book, Be Here Now, in 1971, which would sell more than two million copies.
The first part of the book recounted his transformation into Ram Dass, and it would go on to inspire George Harrison, who included a song titled “Be Here Now” on his 1973 album, Living in the Material World. In a 2000 interview with Billboard, Harrison also suggested he picked up the phrase “All Things Must Pass” from Dass as well.
As The New York Times reports, Richard Alpert was born April 6th, 1931, a child of great privilege whose father worked as a lawyer and was president of the New Haven Railroad, and also helped found Brandeis University.
Alpert majored in psychology at Tufts University, studied for his master’s in the subject at Wesleyan University and, despite failing his oral exams there, became a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University. He taught at Stanford for a short while before being appointed a professor of psychology and education at Harvard, which is where he met Leary.
Alpert began to experiment with psilocybin and LSD with Leary. After both were fired from Harvard in 1963 — Alpert for giving drugs to a student, Leary for abandoning his classes — the two started a commune of sorts in upstate New York where they continued to experiment with psychedelics.
Around the same time, Alpert’s increased tolerance to LSD meant the drugs weren’t hitting as hard, and in 1967 he ventured to India where he met Neem Karoli Baba, known as Maharaj-ji, and had his great spiritual awakening. Along with earning his new name, Ram Dass spent months meditating, learning yoga, and studying the Maharaj-ji’s teachings before returning to the United States in 1968.
Dass would go on to publish an array of books during the Seventies and traveled the country as a lecturer. As the decade passed, he shaved his beard and began to think more critically about his 400 LSD trips, although he remained dedicated to his central teachings of love and compassion. He also became particularly interested in helping people confront death not as a tragedy, but as a spiritual journey. When Leary was dying in 1996, it was Dass he called to sit by his side.
In 1997, Dass suffered a hemorrhagic stroke that left him partly paralyzed and unable to speak. Over time, he regained his speech and was able to start lecturing again via the internet and other recordings.
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He continued to write as well, publishing his last book, Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Loving and Dying, in 2018 (co-authored with Mirabai Bush). He was also the subject of several recent documentaries, including Ram Dass, Going Home and Ram Dass, Becoming Nobody, released earlier this year.
In a September interview with The New York Times, Dass was asked about his Zen approach to death and the moment he knew he was ready to die. “When I arrived at my soul,” he said. “Soul doesn’t have fear of dying. Ego has very pronounced fear of dying. The ego, this incarnation, is life and dying. The soul is infinite.”