Enough Timothy Leary–it’s time to talk about Ram Dass as a possible leader of liberal religion. Dass was Leary’s friend and they display many of the same hallmarks of liberal religious sentiment: Dass too feels that religion can and should change, he is far from literal in interpreting texts and religious teachings, he is even more affirmative that there are many legitimate viewpoints on religion and that many religions carry value, and he constantly invites individuals to make up their own minds and follow their own spiritual paths. Although somewhat prone to restlessness and depression in his personality, his opinion of human nature is basically optimistic and he not only believes that it can be perfected, but that he has encountered living examples in the world today of such perfected persons.
Be Here Now is his most famous book. It is actually a compilation of several separate works by Ram Dass from the early 1970s. The first, “Journey, the Transformation: Dr. Richard Alpert, Ph.D. into Baba Ram Dass,” is a fairly straightforward autobiography of Alpert/Dass’s years with Timothy Leary, travels in India, and especially his meeting with his guru and initiation into Hindu mysticism. The first part covers much of the same ground as Leary’s books, though in less detail, and the focus is on Alpert/Dass’s pervasive sense of hidden unhappiness. He frames his younger years and academic career as periods of personal dissatisfaction, indicating that his exploration of LSD was an only partially successful attempt to deal with these feelings. He describes his religious upbringing as “political Judaism,” something that wasn’t spiritually nourishing. By setting up a tale of privileged American melancholy, he is able to draw a stronger contrast with the joy and serenity derived from his conversion to Hinduism.
In India, the soon-to-be-Ram Dass encounters various holy men, finally settling on a particular guru named Meher Baba. His conversion is framed in miraculous terms, with telepathy and prognostication figuring prominently in his development of faith in the guru. In fact, Dass seems to have spent very little actual time with Meher Baba and to have received relatively few direct teachings or instructions–his relationship is one of distant lover idolizing the beloved, which is of course a perfectly acceptable situation in Hinduism’s bhakti-oriented path. This fits Dass’s character well—throughout his adventures with Leary and others, there is a persistent note of servility, as if he is most happy and comfortable playing trusted right-hand man to a superior or more popular leader. When he returns to the USA, he draws large crowds to his lectures, yet consistently defers the attention he receives, speaking of himself as an emissary of his guru or even as a conduit of Universal Consciousness. He simply isn’t comfortable putting his own self out front and center before the public.
The second section of Be Here Now is the most unusual–“From Bindu to Ojas” was created in a New Mexican ashram by a group of Dass’s hippie acolytes: they would meditate all day, then hand-stamp the letters of Dass’s manuscript onto large cardboard sheets, which were then illustrated by artists, photo-reduced, and shipped to Japan to be printed on rice paper and hand-stitched into limited edition books. Not the most efficient method of publishing, but the results are striking. Where “Journey” was a linear narrative, “From Bindu to Ojas” is a rambling, prophetic prose poem designed more as an experience than a book. Dass’s intention is to stimulate a quasi-mystical experience in the reader, demonstrating the necessity and ecstasy of turning on to his vision of expanded consciousness. One prominent feature is the use of quotes, terms, and images from virtually every conceivable religion. Like Leary and other New Age proponents, Dass feels that all religions point to similar truths/experiences and that he is free to rummage through them and use whatever he wishes. Thus we get quotes like “It’s all the same trip, it’s all the same, any trip you want to take leads to the same place,” and “It’s Buddha consciousness, it’s Christ consciousness.”
“Cookbook for a Sacred Life” is the third section of the book, which again shows a distinctive character. This section lays out a wealth of fairly orthodox Hindu (as well as a generous helping of Buddhist) teachings and methods of practice, inviting the reader to repeat Dass’s conversion in the first section and obtain the same mystical experience simulated in the second section. Unlike Leary, Dass actively promotes a wide range of explicitly religious beliefs, reporting them as more or less factual. For instance, he talks about how the attitude of the cook affects the eater through vibrations transmitted to the food, about how advanced spiritual practitioners can survive by photosynthesis, and the precise nature and manipulation of various internal charkas (energy centers). Like Leary he provides a prescription for building ideal spiritual communities, lays out intellectual/spiritual lineages, and insists that individual mental cultivation is the urgently required cure for the world’s current social, political, and personal crises.
The final section, “Painted Cakes Do Not Satisfy Hunger,” is an extended bibliography for students to do further research. It draws on thinkers and texts from dozens of religions and philosophies, categorizing them according to Dass’s assessment of their degree of spiritual realization. This is another attempt by Dass to synthesize a religious lineage (not unlike Leary’s inclusion of mini-biographies of many famous psychedelic pioneers)—both pointing to additional resources for the student and legitimizing his viewpoint as perennial throughout history. The degree to which Dass lays out a comprehensive and coherent spirituality can be debated, but Be Here Now certainly offers more clues and resources for religious adventurers than most books twice this size.