Ram Dass was working on his new book, "Be Love Now," written with his longtime friend, Rameshwar Das, when a letter arrived from a stranger: "I believe you may be the father of my older brother."
What?! Ram Dass dismissed it at first, thinking, "Someone's trying to hustle me." A world-renowned spiritual leader, Ram Dass was formerly Richard Alpert, the psychology professor at Harvard who was fired with Timothy Leary for experimenting with LSD. He's bisexual with a preference for men, has never wanted children and teaches that spiritual love is of a higher order than personal love. He famously said, "If you want to see how enlightened you are, go spend a week with your family." Having a son, if true, would challenge his beliefs about love.
Two weeks after the letter arrived, a friend of Ram Dass offered to check it out. He spoke with the putative son and arranged for DNA tests, and the results came back in October 2009: Ram Dass is the father of Peter Reichard, a 53-year-old banker in North Carolina who'd never heard of Ram Dass and was raised with no religion.
When I heard the news, I was shocked. What would the son of Ram Dass be like, and how had this come about? I spoke with them both and learned that Peter was conceived in 1956, when there was no birth control pill and DNA had not been discovered. Alpert, then a lanky grad student at Stanford, had a brief affair with Karen Saum, a feisty and beautiful history major who was planning to marry another man who was living in New York and whom we'll call Hans. She and Hans had agreed to have an open relationship until they began their life together.
Right after graduating, Karen joined Hans and soon learned that she was pregnant. She told Hans that there was a slight chance that it was Dick Alpert's baby, but there was no way to determine that. Hans said it didn't matter; they'd raise the child as their own.
Fast forward to 2009. Peter's brother Lawrence hears from a mutual friend of his mother Karen that she has long harbored a suspicion that Peter may be the son of Ram Dass. When the DNA results came back, Ram Dass was flummoxed. He'd avoided creating family ties, believing they might hold him back from attaining spiritual freedom. But friends started congratulating him. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who's conducted workshops with Ram Dass, cried out, "Mazel tov! It would have been a shame if that wonderful seed wouldn't have continued." Ram Dass said, "My DNA continues? That doesn't mean a thing to me."
Peter Reichard also had the rug pulled out from under him. He looks like Ram Dass -- tall, with the same features and receding hairline. But he speaks with a Carolina drawl, eats pork, enjoys cigars and describes himself as "pretty shallow. Spirituality does not run deep in me." He had to go on a crash course to learn about Ram Dass. "For months," he said, "I was drinking from a fire hose."
In August I visited Ram Dass at his home in Maui and Peter in North Carolina. Although Ram Dass is paralyzed on the right side due to a stroke, he practices contentment with what is, including his physical state. Love seems to permeate the air.
I asked him why the spiritual love he cultivates for all beings didn't kick in when he learned about Peter. "It was the family thing," he said. He'd loved his mother and cared for his father when he was dying, but he had no concept of what having a son would be like.
Ram Dass and Peter began speaking on the phone each Sunday and visited twice in person, and Ram Dass came to love Peter and his wife and daughter. "Peter is such a sweet guy," he says, and they've found that they share many traits, including compassion, playfulness and the ability to ease tensions. Ram Dass developed a deeper understanding of the love parents feel for their children and began to see that personal and soul love are not mutually exclusive but can coexist in nourishing ways.
"Peter and I are meeting as father and son," Ram Dass said, "but underneath that, we're two souls. I'd like us to get beyond the roles; then we'll really have something. I'll give up Ram Dass-ness, he'll give up Peter-ness, and here we go."
I tell him I don't think I've ever given up Sara-ness.
"I know you haven't," he said with a playful laugh. "That's why I'm in the business I'm in."
"I want to...," I said.
"That's not good enough." He made a beckoning gesture with his finger and said, "Come on."
I know this is hard to convey, but at that moment, something released in me and bliss came rolling in. For the rest of the day, I sat before the windows looking out on the ocean, feeling love for everyone and everything, including the hardest case -- myself.
I hope to write a book about Ram Dass and Peter, how their connecting late in life has changed them, and how their story reveals the ways our culture and our families have evolved from the '50s to the present.
In the meantime, check out Ram Dass' "Be Love Now," published by Harper One, which describes how love is a state of being available to us all, no matter where or with whom we find ourselves.
This is the 40th anniversary of the publication of Ram Dass's game-changing book, which sold two million copies. An e-book is available at Apple's iBookstore with many extras: video of Ram Dass that's never been released, an audio version of his original "Be Here Now" lecture, and two guided meditations.
Follow Sara Davidson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/thesaradavidson