New Age Supersage

11 minute read
Ptolemy Tompkins

To chart the transformation of Deepak Chopra from just another proponent of holistic health and nutrition into the international supersage he is today, one needn’t look further than the covers of two of his books. On the back of 1997’s The Path to Love, Chopra stares out at us wearing a black coat and white collarless shirt that give him a vaguely clerical look. His expression is earnest, but a little geeky. On the back of this fall’s The Daughters of Joy: An Adventure of the Heart — Chopra’s third novel and his second book published this year — all that has changed. A glint of gray shows at his temples, and the tentative half smile of the earlier picture is replaced by a confident, twinkly-eyed grin. Dressed in a black pullover more Melrose than Madras and posed with the easy confidence of someone used to working with photographers and stylists, Chopra has the look of a guru who has arrived.

And arrived he has. Chopra’s Mission Control — the Chopra Center for Well Being in La Jolla, California — attracts thousands of visitors and millions of dollars’ worth of business each year. His list of friends and admirers runs from Demi Moore to the Dalai Lama. Chopra’s 29 books have sold over 10 million copies in English alone and been translated into more than 30 languages. His overall yearly profit exceeds $15 million. His son Gotham and daughter Mallika are each following in his footsteps, Gotham with books and TV gigs and Mallika with a website on human potential. Traditional and alternative medicine, Far Eastern spirituality, New Age philosophy: Chopra’s is the name preeminently associated with them all.

Of all the Asian gurus who in recent decades have managed the crossover into the hearts and minds of Westerners seeking enlightenment beyond their own borders, Chopra has arguably been the most successful at erasing apparent differences between East and West by packaging Eastern mystique in credible Western garb. When Larry King turned to him for answers in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, viewers saw a man with a mind completely at home with both tradition and modernity and a heart big enough to mend their differences. Plenty have tried, but no other contemporary importer of Asian wisdom has managed to embody this synthesis in as appealing a package as Chopra has.

Born in New Delhi in 1947, Chopra started out with dreams of becoming a novelist before his cardiologist father convinced him to go to medical school instead. He came west at 21, ending up as an endocrinologist and chief of staff at Boston Regional Medical Center. Fueling himself with coffee, cigarettes and alcohol, dispensing pharmaceuticals that numbed symptoms but often made no deeper impact on his patients’ illnesses, Chopra found himself thinking more and more about the heritage of traditional healing he had left behind with his move to America. In 1985, after hearing a lecture by Transcendental Meditation guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Chopra became interested in Ayurveda, an ancient Indian science of healthy living based on an understanding that the physical body has its roots in the world of spirit. Convinced that it held secrets the modern world was in dire need of, Chopra turned his life around. He stopped the cigarettes and alcohol and plunged into a study of Ayurveda and other sciences of traditional healing. Soon he was downloading In-dia’s vast corpus of wisdom on the subject into a series of slim, digestible volumes with names like Perfect Health and Uncondi-tional Life. From insomnia to obesity to cancer, no modern misery went unexamined.

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With 1993’s Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, Chopra broke through in earnest. The book became a best seller, got Chopra wide coverage in the media and established his image as a man of science with the soul of a mystic. In the years since, Chopra has steadily enlarged his reputation from that of healer to philosopher-at-large. East and West, mind and body, science and spirit: Chopra’s smiling, ever more confident face has become an icon of the hope that the world is entering a new age of synthesis and understanding where all such rifts will become mere memories.

Anyone with a glancing knowledge of the writings of the human-potential movement of the past 40 years will have no trouble finding in Chopra’s work influences, both hidden and acknowledged, from beyond India’s borders. Abraham Maslow, Teilhard de Chardin, Joseph Campbell, Carlos Castaneda and other counterculture standards blend into the mix with a healthy helping of contemporary psychologists, biologists and physicists. “Our brains are hardwired to know God,” Chopra has said, in a characteristic splice of old-fashioned mysticism and modern techno-speak. In The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, he explains that “the physical universe is nothing other than the Self curving back within Itself to experience Itself as spirit, mind and physical matter … The same laws that nature uses to create a forest or a galaxy or a star or a human body can also bring about the fulfillment of our deepest desires.”

Chopra’s take on those desires is one of the aspects of his thought that most sets him apart from the traditional Eastern texts he sources. Does union with the cosmos mean renouncing one’s wealth, one’s fame or other such amenities? “If you have guilt, fear and insecurity over money or success or anything else,” Chopra writes, “these are reflections of guilt, fear and insecurity as basic aspects of your personality.” Having thoroughly examined and come to know your true nature, he argues, “you will never feel guilty, fearful or insecure about money or affluence or fulfilling your desires because you will realize that the essence of all material wealth is life energy, it is pure potentiality. And pure potentiality is your intrinsic nature.”

In other words: don’t worry, Demi.

Chopra’s news on pain — desire’s unfortunate partner down here in the phenomenal world — is equally cheering. In How to Know God, Chopra explains that for one who is enlightened, “a rotten tooth, a tumor or a detached retina” can each be seen as “a cluster of photons, a warped image made of light … My identity floats in a quantum fog as photons wink in and out of existence. Observing these shifting patterns, I feel no attachment to any of them. They come and go; I am not even troubled by having no permanent home. It is enough to be bathed in the light.”

It’s a smooth, seductive rap, unfolding in much the same way in book after book. The Daughters of Joy is no exception. Unlike Chopra’s previous novel Soulmate, which dwelt at length on specifically Eastern ideas like karma and reincarnation, Daughters focuses on a figure long popular in Western myth and legend, and among contemporary New Agers as well: the Wise Woman. Its slim plot revolves around Jess Conover, a young reporter at a Boston newspaper. Confused, adrift and emotionally anemic, Jess stumbles, seemingly by chance, on a classified ad in a newspaper: “Love has found you. Tell no one. Just come.” Could the message somehow be intended for him? Chopra’s loyal readers won’t linger a nanosecond on that question. Jess’s apparently random discovery of the ad, they will know, is an example of what Chopra calls “SynchroDestiny,” a process in which the world around us lays out clues in order to draw us into its deeper levels. Jess wrestles his doubts aside long enough to call the number and drive out to the New Hampshire farmhouse of Dolly, a motherly, enigmatic sage who has, indeed, placed the ad just for him.

Jess soon learns that he has stumbled into a sisterhood of modern mystical sorceresses who, page by page, short-circuit every last one of his ingrained, materialist expectations about the universe and his true place in it. Mysterious potions are drunk, lingering glances exchanged, and the mundane world falls away to reveal a visionary landscape of miracles, marvels and fulfilled hearts — one that, Jess discovers, had been there all along, just waiting for him to stumble on it. “We didn’t lead you into an illusion,” Dolly explains to Jess as he struggles to find his bearings in this dizzying new world. “Dear me, the places you came from, the things you’ve trusted all your life, the people you’ve invested in — those are the illusions.”

As is the rule with Chopra’s books, the proceedings finish up with clearly laid-out instructions to help the reader find the magic lying at the heart of his or her own world. “Life is set up to bring you every needed situation in its own right time.” “Judgment is a negative belief system held in place by stuck energy.” “Fear is the spiritual opposite of love.” And so forth. “Damn it,” Jess remarks at one point in his adventure. “I was caught between sobbing and screaming. En-chantment overload will do that.”

Ever since his early days as an advocate of alternative healing and nutrition, Chopra has been a magnet for criticism — most of it from the medical and scientific communities. Accusations have ranged from the dismissive — Chopra is just another huckster purveying watered-down Eastern wisdom mixed with pseudo science and pop psychology — to the outright damning. Chopra’s extravagant claims for Ayurveda and other traditional healing techniques can, some have argued, create false hope in genuinely ill people and dissuade them from seeking medical care and guidance. Chopra has weathered all such claims, either with smiling equanimity or, on occasion, a call from his lawyers. In 1996 London’s Weekly Standard published an article accusing him of such unsavory activities as plagiarism and soliciting a prostitute. Chopra sued and scored a resounding victory, forcing the paper to recant its charges and print an apology.

That Chopra is a smoothie — who in his quest to construct a pleasing and seamless model of the universe tends to jump to easy conclusions and to spackle over problematic gaps and inconsistencies in the ideas he presents — is obvious to all but his most starry-eyed fans. But grousing about such crimes — as many do — does little to explain his enormous popularity. Chopra is as rich as he is today not because he has been dishonest with anyone, but because his basic message — that love, health and happiness are possible, that mystery is real and that the universe is ultimately a friendly and benevolent place where orthodoxies old and new can meet and make peace with one another — is one that he wants to believe in just as sincerely as his readers do.

“Nothing feels more impossible than human suffering,” says a character in The Daughters of Joy. “We get trapped in it because we’ve lined up our unsolved problems like horses on a merry-go-round. Every day the same horses go around inside our heads. Old grievances, unforgotten pain, resentment, anger, failure and insecurity — the circle keeps turning.” Through his books, videos and workshops, Chopra offers a ticket off that merry-go-round. He is hardly to blame if, to date, there has been no shortage of takers.

Ptolemy Tompkins’ recent books include The Beaten Path: Field Notes on Getting Wise in a Wisdom-Crazy World and Paradise Fever: Growing Up in the Shadow of the New Age

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