Arriving in India in 1964 was like walking into a concert
that had been playing for five thousand years
with seven hundred million people in the band.
--Bhagavan Das, It's Here Now (Are You?)
I'd been in school for, like, a month; drunk on freedom, pleated skirts, Dylan, and somebody's else's pot smoke drifting 'cross the quad. I didn't know this guy riding the crest of the crowd from Jesus on a donkey.
Tim Leary in 1965 was just another guy on campus with an idea. For about an hour. The fact that two hours after meeting him I'd have elected him President should come as no surprise. He was mesmerizing and he spoke the truth.
Turn on, tune in, drop out.
It was the mantra of my generation. All the best people were doing it, but I was not one of them. I turned on, sure, and tuning in was easy. But there's something about the rrun constitution: we're a family of tough-nuts; we ALWAYS take the road less-traveled. We get the shit kicked out of us and then come back for more. It's a character flaw, to be sure.
By the time I got back from Vietnam I hated the world and everybody in it. I was busy looking for what was left of my sanity when my best friend Ed the Fishman handed me a book: Be Here Now, "a cookbook for a sacred life," written by Tim Leary's old partner in crime, Dr. Richard Alpert, now Baba Ram Dass.
After getting kicked out of Harvard for his LSD experiments with Leary, Alpert had gone to India and found his life's calling, just like The Beatles but without the money. 'Course, in Alpert/Dass's case, money wasn't an issue, not like you'd think: his father'd founded Brandeis University AND the Albert Einstein School of Medicine. He was the president of a couple of railroads out of Boston. His favorite son Richard was on the fast track too.
Till he met Bhagavan Das in India.
It's all in the book: how this prototypical American hippie born Kermit Michael Riggs in 1945 left the states a month after Dallas, fed up with America and his place in it.
"I think that shot kind of did something to me,"
the man who became Bhagavan Das (Servant of God) said in an interview decades later.
"The Viet Nam war was raging on. I just knew I had
to get out of America. I needed to find out just what
my life purpose was. I realized that I was really
looking for God, once I got on the road."
Riggs/Das knocked around India and Nepal for seven solid years during the height of the Vietnam War, renouncing—we are told—everything. He lived the life of a religious ascetic in a manner practically NO American can ever claim to have done. This includes the bedbugs, the dysentery, the robberies, starvation, jaundice, and the corpses floating like Huck Finn's raft on the Ganges. He saw dead babies torn apart by dogs; became infested by more than thirty-five parasites that required months to eradicate. But he was also initiated into all manner of spiritual esoterica by such living masters as Lama Kalu, Anandamayi Ma, Karmapa, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Dudjom Rinpoche, and people nobody's ever heard of.
In the process, in between the tantric sex and the starvation, he introduced Richard Alpert to his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, and the rest, truly, is "New Age" history.
When Bhagavan Das finally returned from India in the early 70's, he was what we've come to call a superstar. Tall and strikingly good-looking, he became the long-haired poster boy for that peculiar brand of Hinduism that was floating around America in those days. Alan Ginsberg wrote poems about him. Alan Watts and Jerry Garcia hung out, along with Peter Max and Bob Dylan. Jimi Hendrix's manager Michael Jeffries produced a recording at historic Electric Ladyland of Das singing kirtan, the Hindu devotional chant better known to Americans as the stuff those guys in the yellow robes wail at airports. Bhagavan Das's earliest record, AH, was the first example of what has come to be called "world music."
I was having breakfast one morning with my dear friend, the one who lived in India for ten years, who was in turn hosting her friend, who hasn't been out of India in over thirty years. It was interesting, talking with these women of a certain age who'd both made decisions so different from my own way back when.
"Listen to this," said my friend, "I think you'll like it."
She proceeded to cue up a CD of the most amazing music I've ever heard. Darshana, the ex-patriate, immediately recognized what we were listing to as kirtan, the aforementioned traditional music of India. But mixed in and around the lyric and acoustic percussion were street beats, samples from—could it be?—Led Zeppelin, and hip-hop rhythms as righteous as anything Tupac ever laid down.
"What is THAT?!" I exclaimed.
"Oh," says my friend. "An old friend of mine. Michael. Or Bhagavan Das, either."
"Wha?!" I go. I mean "Waaah?! THE Bhagavan Das?!"
My friend shrugged. She'd been in India the whole time. Superstar Bhagavan Das neé Kermit Michael Riggs meant nothing to her. Far as she was concerned, he was just another American hippie looking for better drugs and transcendental copulation.
I grabbed the CD case. Sure enough, there he is: the same guy from Be Here Now, thirty years after the fact. I thought he was dead. Or at least ascended into Heaven on a waft of sinsemilla or something.
Is it possible this guy is still around?
Well, not only is it possible, it's a bloody miracle. Because what happened—after his fifteen minutes of fame—what happened was Bhagavan Das crashed with a big old disastrous American-style thud. He came back to the land of the Big PX, as we used to call it, and he went straight to hell.
I devoured the extant literature, the interviews and newspaper articles. And I read his autobiography. It's not a pretty tale, but it is definitely instructional.
In the first place, in a self-deprecating style devoid of artifice, Bhagavan Das relates in It's Here Now (Are You?), A Spiritual Memoir some of the seamier aspects of searching for God in all the wrong places.
In Ram Dass's version of their meeting, for example, Riggs/Das is some sort of other-worldly being, the very embodiment of Self Realization. As Bhagavan Das recalls it, however, he was sleeping with two women in a cow-pen, high on hashish, when the most up-tight American he'd ever met came to call. He was in it for Dr. Richard Alpert's righteous Owsley acid is the way the story really goes. Alpert/Dass's love for Riggs/Das was more profane than it was holy, according to the avowed heterosexual subject of this writeup. None of this has subsequently been denied by Alpert/Dass. In fact, it's the whole point.
The point. What's IT all about? Who am I? Why am I here? Where is God? We're only people. We make mistakes. God doesn't care, so long as we come back to her.
WE are not in charge. God is in the driver's seat. She was piloting the plane that killed Jimi Hendrix's manager two weeks after he recorded Das's album, ending his recording career before it got started. When God, through Das's guru, told him to RETURN to America and Das refused, God brought America to HIM, in the form of this academic demon, Alpert. God turned the LSD-drenched Bhagavan Das-returned-from-India into exactly what he always wanted to be: a skirt-chasing, pill-popping, cocaine-snorting drunken boor who had to have a monitor every time he was anywhere near his old flame, Ram Dass.
The point is: Change. Ebb-and-flow. It's all there is. If we vow to serve God (and we should), then once we've done that, we have to redouble our efforts. We have to perservere in our devotion. Because the darkness, too, remains, like a hungry dog on the edge of the cremation grounds.
Back in the states, Michael Riggs, the pride of the hippies, fucked himself stuporous. He sold used cars for a living. He peddled Encyclopedia Britannicas to the Marine Corps, selling more in a year than any man ever had before or since. He had three children by two women at the same time. He became a born-again Christian. Quit Alcoholics Anonymous. Smoked dope with the hopeless and the famous. Ate peyote with the King of Native America. And life kicked his ass in a thousand undignified ways for years.
Today, Bhagavan Das, born Kermit Michael Riggs in Laguna Beach, California, travels the word singing all the names of God. As a master of kirtan, Hindu devotional chant, he is unmatched in the West. But he'd be the first to admit, hey, it's not a race anyway, it's just what he does.
Bhagavan Das Now, the CD my friend put on a few weeks ago that caused me to take this trip, was produced by Mike D. of the Beastie Boys, which explains its "street" feel. He too had read Das's book. He too had been doing spiritual work. He too met somebody who knew somebody.
And, funny thing, that Somebody just happened to be God.
I think Tim Leary was right. Everyone must create his own religion. You must start your own religion. I have my own religion. Every sadhu has his own religion in India. They say every lama has his own religion in Tibet. Find the way you can genuinely be you. What do you like to do? Find God there. Find out what your special gift is and where you find that connection, what really makes you happy, and follow that way.
The peace that comes from letting go and surrendering is incredible. Again and again it keeps coming back to letting go of our own will to have a plan about where we're going and a goal. It seems that we spontaneously align with the Plan of God for us. I think that's the whole "follow your bliss" thing. It's really Thy will be done, not mine. Jesus said it all. Love the Lord with all your heart and soul, and your neighbor as yourself. That's it. There is no one out there but us. And if we can just put God first, Om first—offer the food up, offer the day up—then there is peace.
Bhagavan Das, It's Here Now (Are You?)
Be Here Now, Dr. Richard Alpert, Ph.D into Baba Ram Dass.
Hanuman Foundation, Crown Publishing, New York, 1978
It's Here Now (Are You?), A Spiritual Memoir, Bhagavan Dass, Broadway Books, New York, 1997