An excerpt from an interview with Ramananda John E. Welshons
NILS MONTAN: When did you actually meet Ram Dass?
RAMANANDA JOHN WELSHONS: In May of 1973 while I was an undergraduate at The University of South Florida in Tampa. I was asked by the Director of the University Program Office to help set up a series of lectures for Ram Dass on the campus at USF.
Our first meeting was just sublime. We met at the Holiday Inn on Fowler Avenue. Krishna Das was with him. After visiting on the lawn at the Holiday Inn for a while, a group of six of us piled into my 1968 Volkswagen Van and drove to “The Natural Kitchen,” a local vegetarian restaurant I frequented. We sat across the table from one another at lunch. In one moment, Ram Dass and I spontaneously locked eyes, and the entire physical universe just melted away. There we were – Ram Dass and I – just gazing into each other’s eyes . . . floating together in The Eternal Light of God . . . while sitting at the local vegetarian restaurant with our forks stuck in our tofu and brown rice! In that moment, we embarked on a delicious adventure that has lasted nearly forty years. As a result of my connection with Ram Dass, I began to feel a deepening inner connection with Meher Baba, and eventually – also – with Neem Karoli Baba. Ram Dass really helped me to integrate the path known as Guru Kripa, or the path of devotion to the Guru. Now – nearly forty years later – Ram Dass is my spiritual brother and dear, dear friend, Stephen and Ondrea are also like a brother and sister, and Meher Baba and Neem Karoli Baba are like my father and my favorite uncle.
I was also very influenced by Dr. Allan Y. Cohen. Allan is a wonderful psychologist who had been a student of Ram Dass and Tim Leary at Harvard, and later became a devotee of Meher Baba. He is a dear friend and an amazing human being. I went to see him in Berkeley, California in the summer of 1973, and gave him a long tale of woe about how I felt my life was meaningless. He chuckled, looked deeply into my eyes, and said, “John, there is a simple prescription for that.” I said, “Really? What is it?” I was desperate. And he said, “Whenever your life feels meaningless, start doing more things for other people.”
A few months later – at the end of 1973 – I went to India and spent many weeks with the close disciples of Meher Baba. That was an amazing, amazing experience. Ten years later – in 1983 – I went again with Ram Dass, and spent time at Neem Karoli Baba’s ashram in Vrindaban. Both of those journeys were life-changing and consciousness expanding. The India stories are far too involved to get into right now. We’ll have to do another interview someday for that. Suffice it to say that India – in those days – was like being on another planet. Very few of our Western comforts and conveniences were available. Much of the time we lived in the same manner that people in rural India had lived for thousands of years – no electricity, no plumbing, no telephone . . . you know? We were thrust into a culture that was so deeply immersed in its very extraordinary – and ancient – spiritual traditions. I mean – like in Delhi, one of the taxi drivers Ram Dass and I rode with kept a small puja (altar) on his dashboard with a photo of Ram and Sita and Hanuman. Every time he picked up passengers he would stop for a moment and say a prayer to Lord Ram – praying that he would get his passengers to their destination safely. I’ve never had a taxi driver like that in New York City!
At the same time, India threw me into a full-scale confrontation with all of my greatest fears and insecurities because there was so little access to modern conveniences, and such a profound awareness of mortality. You know, after landing at Mumbai Airport in 1973, my friends and I got into a taxi to go to Victoria Train Station. I had only been in the taxi for about five minutes when I saw a big truck – like a garbage truck – that went around picking up dead bodies every morning – the bodies of people who lived on the streets and sidewalks who had died overnight. That really set the tone for the first trip. If I had to sum it up on one sentence, it would be “there are so many, many ways to die in India!”
– Nils Montan is a writer and social commentator who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Southern Brazil