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ETpro's avatar

Does having a name like Ram Dass make someone more spiritual?

Asked by ETpro (34202 points ) November 15th, 2012

Would author, lecturer and celebrated guru Ram Dass have been just as effective in spreading New Age Spiritualism in his native USA had he remained Richard Alpert, as he was named at birth? How about people whose middle name is “of” as in Jesus of Nazareth, or “the” as in John the Baptist?

You have to be world renowned before anyone will take “the” seriously as your middle name. Peter the Great made the cut. But you just have to be born somewhere to be an of. I gave thought to being an “of” but James of Portlock somehow lacked the spiritual ring I’d need to be a first-rate guru. Too many people would know that Portlock, VA’s only claim to fame was the fact it was the fertilizer capital of the nation.

Why do so many people let adopted, phony names influence their assessment of a person’s character?

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25 Answers

tom_g's avatar

I don’t know anything about Ram Dass/Dick Alpert, but what you’re talking about is probably larger than spiritual gurus. The advertising industry is designed to tap into psychological blindspots in order to market a product or an entire industry. I’m not sure if they still do it, but tv used to have all kinds of cremes and pseudo-scientific health products that would claim “special European formula” or some crap. Sometimes they would even have someone with British accent describing the product. It was supposed to give some validity to the product. If Chris McShmitty from across town was pushing the stuff (“Get yahw wicked awesome creme heaahhh…”) people would probably ignore it.

Maybe we are drawn to the exotic. It seems that we’re easily impressed. Churches have known this, and spend much of their money on bling for their buildings. If it looked like the local Elks lodge, and the priest was wearing a Nike shirt and shorts, it might not appeal to as many people. Just a guess.

Of course, I am sure there are many people who are attracted to the actual content of Ram Dass’ message or whatever. Personally, that becomes a hindrance for me. Much of Buddhist philosophy resonates with me. But I instantly shut down when Becky Smith is suddenly wearing Tibetan robes and is called lama something. I know it shouldn’t matter, but it is one more thing that separates me from the actual content of the person’s words.

Anyway, those are my rambling thoughts. Not sure if I answered the question.

ragingloli's avatar

It sounds like “rammed ass”. So no. It actually makes you sound like a bottom.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

No. If I hear a bullshit name I figure bullshit message.

bookish1's avatar

So a Hindu name is bullshit, @Adirondackwannabe ?

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

@bookish1 I stand corrected. It isn’t bullshit. It’s also Sihk I see on looking further. My apology.
I don’t see how it would increase spirituality but to each his own.

cazzie's avatar

Dass is slang for a toilet where I live, so it sort of hard to think of it as a name, initially, but if I understand/learn cultural context, I can forget the initial childish reflex. As for the others I am pretty sure they didn’t call themselves those names, but those names were given to them by others, perhaps. I would find it poetic if a ‘spiritual guru’ would call themselves after a place famous for fertilizer. That would, indeed, be a fair amount of ‘bullshit’. *giggle

psyonicpanda's avatar

I had to actually read the details because the first thing it saw was Ram D ass…so I have no idea about this topic and will leave it up to those that do.

jazmina88's avatar

I love this author. Names dont matter. He makes the name spiritual.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

@bookish1 I flagged my first response. Thanks for calling me on that.

thorninmud's avatar

Let me start by saying that I don’t know anything about Ram Dass, or how he came by his name, so I’ll speak to the general question.

Getting a new name is part of the process of ordination in many traditions. Ordination is generally considered to be a radical change in one’s life direction, a renunciation of a former way of life. It’s mainly to make the ordained take this shift seriously that he or she is given this new name, required to to dress a certain way, cut their hair, etc. All of this is a constant reminder to him or her that things are not as they used to be. It’s also a signal to the world at large that this person is to be held accountable for living up to their commitments.

So an ordained name doesn’t signal any kind of spiritual attainment, but it does signify a spiritual commitment. It doesn’t confer authority. It’s not a marketing ploy. It’s an obligation.

I completely understand how contrived this appears to people in our culture, and how it can seem ostentatious to take on a foreign-sounding name. But consider that all of the outward signs of ordination were originally intended to mark the person as someone who had given up trying to seeking popularity, and was no longer concerned about meeting popular standards. By turns, society may think having a buzz cut, a robe, and a strange name is cool, or they may roll their eyes at it. To the ordained, that’s not a concern.

And, to put things in perspective, consider how many of us Americans carry the names of Hebrew religious figures.

augustlan's avatar

[mod says] We opted not to remove @Adirondackwannabe‘s first post, because it led to helpful posts identifying the origin of the name.

wundayatta's avatar

I’ve known of Ram Dass since the 70s, it seems. I’ve never heard him speak. I’ve never read any of his books, although people keep recommending them to me. I have only read a few quotes here and there, and maybe the odd interview or two with him, of which I recall nothing at this point.

He’s part of the culture, as far as I’m concerned. He’s made a name for himself as a wise person. I know a lot of people who admire him.

Personally, I don’t really like it when people change their names. Especially when they take a name from another culture. I know a lot of people who go by their Indian names, and it leaves me a bit cold. It seems fake to me.

What little I have read of Ram Dass does not impress me. I mean, some of it makes sense, and he seems quite capable of talking about Buddhist ideas and explaining things in that way, but frankly, @thorninmud impresses me more. He explains things in a more realistic way, with less flowery language. I’d rather read @thorninmud‘s book, if he ever wrote one (or has written one) than Ram Dass’ books.

I’ve found that a lot of Buddhists seem to find overly opaque ways of explaining things. It is possible to say things in a way that Western minds can understand more easily. It’s not magic. It shouldn’t have much mystery.

But I think that some people think it should have mystery, and taking on an Indian name is part of that element of mystery. It suggests you know things that Westerners don’t know. Therefore people should listen to you or worse, pay you to talk to them.

I don’t like that. I understand that it takes money to run an organization that sends speakers around and teaches folks spiritual ways. But I don’t like it. I prefer it when people invent this stuff for themselves or meet with each other as equals. It’s always kind of ironic to go to a yoga institute and pay big money to meet a guru who then tells you he is equal with you. Really? No. Not so much. No one is paying me big bucks to talk to them. No one ever will. And if they did, I’d have to give them their money back, probably with interest.

So for me, the name doesn’t add anything. It’s the connection they have with me through conversation that makes me feel they are more or less spiritual. I am pretty comfortable with my own spirituality these days. I don’t think I’m going to get any more big spiritual revelations between now and the end of my life. From now on, it’s just practice. And maybe I would have figured that out much earlier in life if somehow I hadn’t gotten the impression there was magic to be found from wise people. There is no magic. There is only practice.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

@augustlan Okay, good if it’s helpful. That was my redneck background showing through.:)

thorninmud's avatar

@wundayatta “From now on, it’s just practice. And maybe I would have figured that out much earlier in life if somehow I hadn’t gotten the impression there was magic to be found from wise people. There is no magic. There is only practice.”

Beautifully said.

gailcalled's avatar

Richard Albert and Timothy Leary were the triggers for part of the drug culture in the 1960’s. They were both at Harvard and making big headlines in The Harvard Crimson. They had a big influence on me and my generation, at least in the local arena. I started to work at the Harv. Observatory in 1958 and followed their exploits with fascination. JFK was on the Harvard Board of Overseers and came to visit in 1959. The contrast between his culture and that of Albert and Leary was interesting.

I read Ram Dass’s book, “Be Here Now” rather as a sceptic might read the bible. with fascination and curiosity but ultimately as an observer.

“After returning from a visiting professorship at the University of California, Berkeley, Alpert accepted a permanent position at Harvard, where he worked with the Social Relations Department, the Psychology Department, the Graduate School of Education, and the Health Service, where he was a therapist.

Perhaps most notable was the work he did with his close friend and associate Timothy Leary. Leary and Alpert were formally dismissed from the university in 1963. According to Harvard President Nathan M. Pusey, Leary was dismissed for leaving Cambridge and his classes without permission or notice, and Alpert for allegedly giving psilocybin to an undergraduate.”

Albert, somewhere in his writings, tells the story of how he repaired the estrangement he had with his nice Jewish dad, who was not happy with his son’s behavior.

” His father, George Alpert, was a lawyer in Boston, president of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, one of the founders of Brandeis University and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, as well as a major fundraiser for Jewish causes. While Richard did have a bar mitzvah, he was ‘disappointed by its essential hollowness’. He considered himself an atheist and did not profess any religion during his early life, describing himself as ‘inured to religion. I didn’t have one whiff of God until I took psychedelics.’ ”

They made raspberry jam together.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

@ETpro WoW. I haven’t thought about him in years and years. Pretty sure I still have my original copy of Be Here Now somewhere. Nearly everyone I knew had a copy of it on their bookshelves at Sonoma State back in the early ‘70s. A much different time… Thanks for the memories, buddy.

dabbler's avatar

“Make someone more spiritual” or “make someone seem more spiritual” ?
The seem question has been addressed well enough above, some people are impressed by the cover of a book, etc.

Actual sanskrit can refine the vibrations of the nervous system, including hearing and saying the name ‘Ram Dass’, which in turn could assist someone to become more spiritual. I would expect that effect to be very minor, though, compared to the effects of personal action and intention.

Shippy's avatar

The only time I thought a name could define me, was when I wanted to be a porn star, and call myself Fanny Blister.

Yetanotheruser's avatar

Ram Dass took his name as part of a religious (spiritual) evolution, much the same way as (Christian) nuns or monks may take another name when they take their vows.

YARNLADY's avatar

Changing names definitely changes people’s perception of a person, and when a person’s perception of the world changes, a name change seems like an appropriate response.

In some cultures, a person often starts out with a temporary name, and changes it when his/her real name becomes apparent. I named my oldest son Nicky, but as he got older, it became clear that his real name was Fox, so he changed it. He has now been known as Fox since he was 12 years old.

ETpro's avatar

@tom_g Yes, clearly lots of people do judge a book by its cover without even thinking that’s what they are doing.

@ragingloli Ha! Indeed it does sound like that.

@Adirondackwannabe Also, to be fair to Ram Dass, his guru in India, Neem Karoli Baba, gave him the name. He didn’t just take it himself to make himself more like an Eastern guru.

@bookish1 I’d say adopting a mysterious sounding name just to sell some new religion is BS, but Ram Dass came by his new name through legitimate channels.

@cazzie Great job tying a string of seemingly unrelated facts together into one scent.

@psyonicpanda I can see how that interpretation might have made for a far more interesting question.

@jazmina88 Indeed. Thanks.

@thorninmud Thanks for your clear, insightful answer. The name Ram Dass means “servant of God” drawing from the incarnation of God as Lord Rama. It was given to Alpert during his studies in India under guru Neem Karoli Baba AKA Maharaji-ji.

@wundayatta I totally understand your reaction to adopting foreign sounding names. But I imagine that if I traveled half way around the world and succeeded in impressing some vaunted guru to the point that he gave me a special name, I’d go by it. I completely agree about using one’s own cultural knowledge to clarify instead of veil the lessons one teaches.

@gailcalled Yep. That’s the Richard Alpert, all right. Those were the days, weren’t they?

@Espiritus_Corvus the 60s and 70s sure were a different time from today. It’s a walk down memory lane for me too. Glad to share it.

@dabbler Speaking of chants, here’s one to Lord Rama.

@Shippy Ha! Great name.

@Yetanotheruser Yes, as noted above, it was given to him by his guru.

@YARNLADY Interesting observation. In what way did your son show you Fox should be his name?

YARNLADY's avatar

@ETpro People were always saying what a fox he was, meaning in looks and in fox-like cunning.

dabbler's avatar

@ETpro Nice chant! A little on the soft side but well executed, in my opinion.

Bill1939's avatar

I first heard Ram Dass speaking on the radio in a series of broadcasts in the mid sixties, and was so impressed I bought his book “Be Here Now.” It was a major factor in my evolution from Roman Catholicism to a broader spiritual philosophy. He spoke at our university in the seventies and I got to briefly speak with him. I loved him then, and still do.

ETpro's avatar

@YARNLADY Very cool. Sounds like your son is quite a dynamic young man.

@dabbler Glad you enjoyed it.

@Bill1939 You actually met him after having been affected so powerfully by his work? That’s amazing. A true small world story.

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