Ram Dass

7 01 2019

I try to keep my reading material diverse, so I decided it was time again to re-visit “Eastern spirituality”, this time in the form of Ram Dass‘ book, Be Love Now. A reader might be shocked to learn that I didn’t convert after reading one of the latest offerings of from the New Age / Western Hindu guru, though the book wasn’t nearly as awful as I thought it could have been. It turns out that Dass is a leading figure of a core group that congealed around the North Indian thaumaturge, Neem Karoli Baba. This is sort of the most celebrity-driven faction of those interested in Indian spirituality, with seekers as diverse as Steve Jobs and actress Julia Roberts falling under the spell of this figure’s Rama / Hanuman driven-spirituality of “feed everybody / love everybody”.

Neem Karoli Baba was a Hindu mystic from last century whose spiritual practice focused on the Ramayana, specifically the figures of Rama, Sita, and their faithful servant, Hanuman. Hanuman was a giant monkey who helps Rama get Sita back after she is stolen by the demon Ravana. Hanuman is the figure of the pure, selfless devotee, the devotee who longs to merge back into the Divine. Pictures of Hanuman often portray him embracing Rama or opening his chest to reveal Rama and Sita in his heart. Neem Karoli Baba was thought by his followers to be an incarnation of Hanuman. Neem Karoli Baba sometimes manifested himself as a monkey, and he demonstrated that he could bi-locate and read people’s minds.

Ram Dass (born Richard Alpert) was a Harvard professor in the 1960’s who was among the first to experiment with LSD. He went to India with the intention of studying Buddhism. Not satisfied with what he found, he was about to leave the country when he met Neem Karoli Baba who could read his heart and show him that he had much to learn about the life of the spirit. Alpert became Neem Karoli Baba’s disciple, and took the name, Ram Dass or “servant of Ram”. Going back and forth between India and the United States, he spread the simple message of Neem Karoli Baba (who said little and wrote even less), which later turned into the 1960’s New Age classic Be Here Now. Other disciples came along, such as a musician who would come to be known as Krishna Das, who spread the love-driven spirituality to the West.

Overall, I found this religious tendency around Neem Karoli Baba to be deeply unsatisfying. For one thing, Ram Dass’ descriptions of miracle working by his guru was unconvincing to me (miracles are dime a dozen, as I have pointed out elsewhere.) Ram Dass’ descriptions of his guru “shit testing” him (pardon my French), are only a surprise to someone who hasn’t been in touch with an ancient spiritual formation. I realize that 20th century young people were probably alienated from this patrimony, but that doesn’t make these stories any less predictable. I am deeply suspicious of the wanderlust that drives people into “Eastern spirituality”. Is it just the case that the grass is greener over there because mystical brown people, or something like that?

As for the rest of the book, it’s just New Age ecumenical babbling about us all being One or something… love this and that, “Love everybody.” In its proper cultural context of North Indian Vaishnavism and its rituals, it might mean something, but I find it hard to get past the “spiritual tourist” aspect of it all. Context I think is everything. I have been bit at times with the Eastern bug, both in its Christian and non-Christian manifestations. But I have to keep asking myself, “Are you looking for something different, or are you looking for the truth?” I don’t know, but I guess I will keep looking.

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