By Suma Varughese
A profile of Deepak Chopra—successful doctor, ayurveda apostle, best-selling author, TV host, New Age guru
Few have reinvented themselves as fluidly and tirelessly as Deepak Chopra. He first hit the headlines in 1987 as the wonder doctor and transcendental meditation (TM) guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s spokesman, introducing America and, by extension, the world to the marvels of ayurveda. His medical bestsellers, based on ayurveda’s founding principle of mind-body unity, became a byword not just for alternative therapies, but also the philosophy of quantum physics itself. Perfect Health, Unconditional Life, Perfect Weight, Ageless Body Timeless Mind—the titles proclaimed the promise of unlimited possibilities with breathtaking daring.
Indeed quite a turnaround for a man who was once a textbook study of allopathic success, complete with a thriving private practice, lectureships at the Tufts and Boston universities’ schools of medicine—and soaring stress levels.
But don’t look now. He’s changing. Yet again. The MD prefix is off for good as Chopra unveils his debut novel, The Return of Merlin. The mind-body books have been replaced by more general subjects such as The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success. And his versatile baton is now conducting the imperceptible beginning of a new movement, the Global Network for Spiritual Success. Composed of readers of the Seven Laws, its over 20,000 members meet in local groups to practice one law every day of the week. Says Chopra: ‘The establishment of the Network represents the fulfillment of one of my most cherished dreams.’
More statistics of the kind dreams are made of: Chopra’s series, Body, Mind and Soul : The Magic and the Mystery, had the highest ratings ever on public television in the USA; his television adaptation of the Seven Spiritual Laws is already proving to be a success; his works have been translated into 25 languages; he is the author of 15 books and more than 30 audio and video tape series, all highly acclaimed. The television adaptation of his book, The Way of the Wizard, promises to have Hollywood stars play the parts of Merlin and Arthur and, it follows, is bound to go the bestseller way.
And you do not have to be a wizard to appreciate the potential, in terms both spiritual and material, of his two new projects. The first, a 24-hour satellite TV channel devoted to spiritual matters, in collaboration with Dave Stuart, co-founder of the rock group, Eurythmics. The channel is an extension of Chopra’s faith in the importance of global communication networks in spreading consciousness. Music, movies, video, self-help tidbits and Chopra’s own seminars will relay the spiritual word.
Most of Chopra’s forays have been spectacularly successful, others less so; but for him, the journey is the thing. He could easily echo T.S.Eliot : ‘We shall not cease from exploration.’ Or, to put it in Chopra’s words : ‘Life is a field of infinite possibilities.’
A face-to-face encounter on a trip to Mumbai, western India, permits one to put him through his paces on a few more counts. There is the important matter of his soul, or his humanity, if you will. Sitting in a coffee shop, dressed in slacks and T-shirt, a thickest ruddy-faced man with suspiciously black hair, he is tranquil, unhurried, acquiescent.
Chopra is easy to be with and to talk to. He does not attempt to intimidate or impress—he is, quite simply, what he is. And that level of self-acceptance is always impressive.
The Deepak Chopra success story hinges on integration, that quintessential New Age ability to fuse all aspects of oneself into a harmonious whole. How else has he managed to be both supremely successful and extremely happy? Enormously productive, yet equally relaxed? Materially well endowed, yet spiritually alive?
To the outside world that looks askance at Chopra’s external image of indecent wealth, his coterie of celebrity clients such as Demi Moore, George Harrison, Michael Jackson and Oprah Winfrey, and his obvious success at the box office, are surefire signs of his quackery and insincerity. But Chopra is his philosophy’s best advertisement, though he vigorously resists being confused with the message. He observes: ‘The messenger is only trying to be the message.’
It is this same ability to fuse and integrate contradictions that is behind his success as a writer. Indian wisdom and American lifestyle, allopathy and ayurveda, transcendental meditation and quantum physics. He works on each of these separate strands of himself, forcing them to yield their particular essence. Thus he has the credibility of an Indian drawing upon his heritage, a successful allopath testifying to ayurveda’s avowed superiority and a naturalized American displaying familiarity with local needs and health problems.
Above all, he has the poet’s gift of passion and idealism. No wonder his books stake a permanent place in the New York Times’ bestseller list: Ageless Body, Timeless Mind for 20 weeks; Seven Spiritual Laws for 56 weeks on its self-help section. Chopra’s lecture programs take him all over the world, including Australia, Scandinavia, Western Europe, Eastern Europe and Latin America.
If Chopra’s life is a textbook study of integration, the path he took has been the classic urban Indian one. Born in Delhi in 1947 to leading cardiologist Dr K.L. Chopra, his early dream to become a journalist was deflected by Sinclair Lewis’ book Arrowsmith. The portrait of an untiring medical researcher, heroic in his war against microbes, fired his imagination and he chose to become a doctor.
After passing out of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in 1969, he set out with his bride Rita to the USA. Rising quickly in the profession, he held senior positions at prestigious hospitals and went on to become the chief of staff at the New England Memorial Hospital in Stoneham, Massachusetts. He also set up a private practice in endocrinology and internal medicine. His high-powered career left him addicted to coffee and cigarettes, with a nagging feeling that he hadn’t come any closer to ‘the essence of life’.
A turning point came in 1980 when he learnt transcendental meditation, followed by advanced TM courses. He says : ‘It changed my whole life, my diet, my work, my relationship with my patients and with others. I became 10 times more efficient.’
But what really gave his life a direction was a chance meeting in 1985 with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who introduced him to ayurveda an suggested he take it up. For a doctor at the top echelon of his profession, it was not easy to start anew in a paradigm that made nonsense of all that he stood for. It was the decisive crossroads of his life. A restless night later, Chopra decided to follow the Maharishi.
He soon became the sole spokesman for ayurveda in the West. He lectured on the ancient Indian system at John Hopkins, Harvard, the WHO, and appeared on the Oprah Winfrey and Donahue chat shows. Simultaneously, he treated patients from all over the world with ayurveda. It was during this phase that the books, upon which so much of Chopra’s current reputation rests, began to appear.
Creating Health: Beyond Prevention, Towards Perfection (1987) ran the gamut of diseases, and offered solutions based on the mind-body link. The Return of the Rishi: A Doctor’s Search for the Ultimate Healer traced his own route through life and medicine. It was followed by Quantum Healing which presented a lucid and cogently researched link between the body and the mind, drawing upon research in neuroimmunology, molecular biology, cerebral function and cellular physiology.
With each book, Chopra has argued with increasing conviction and evidence that consciousness is the only reality. ‘Your body is…a flowing organism empowered with millions of years of intelligence. This intelligence is dedicated to overseeing the constant change that takes place inside you. Every cell is a miniature terminal connected to the cosmic computer,’ he rhapsodizes in Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, which sold a million copies in hardcover alone.
But evolution is an ongoing process; in time it took him away from Maharishi. On Guru Purnima in 1990, Maharishi indicated he was uncomfortable with Chopra, who he felt was too eclectic. Chopra moved away to chart his own course. ‘I am too free a person to belong to an organization,’ he says. ‘I also wished to explore my creativity.’
His creativity found expression in The Return of Merlin, in which he recreated the fable of Camelot in modern times. The underlying message is that the wizard Merlin’s eternal secrets can help us to transcend the problems and conflicts of our times.
As for his own quest, he once said that ‘it started with a simple desire to quit smoking. Now I find that I am looking for God. And once in a while I have glimpses of her.’
Is feminine consciousness next in line for Deepak Chopra? He has, after all, apologized in The Way of the Wizard for the political incorrectness that has turned Merlin into a ‘he’. He adds : ‘Wizardess is a clumsy word, so please know that wizard applies to women as well as men. If anything, the return of the magical has been greeted more quickly by women in our society than by anyone else.’
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