How the West was fleeced

By spoon-feeding a spiritually starved America with wisdom pellets from the East, Deepak Chopra has turned himself into a one-man publishing empire


Cheryll Aimee Barron
March 10, 1996 1:00AM (UTC)

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet......
-- "The Ballad of East and West," Rudyard Kipling

No one understands what the inner American is craving and yearning for these days as well as a genial, chubby endocrinologist-turned-guru from India called Deepak Chopra. Chopra has not one but two hardcover bestsellers on the current Publishers Weekly list: "The Way of the Wizard: Twenty Spiritual Lessons for Creating the Life You Want" and "The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success." And mighty New York publishers who consider guessing the needs of the great American public their prerogative are all but committing hara kiri in paroxysms of envy.

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With the vengeful glee of an author forced by a string of rejections to publish his first book himself ("Creating Health: The Psychophysiological Connection," 1985), Chopra has scotched the efforts of any one publisher to harness him with the exclusive, multi-book contract to which bankable authors usually submit. His current bestsellers -- published, thanks to the labors of his team of ghostwriters and rewriters, within a year of each other -- were issued by two different firms. His 11 other titles in print are divided between five houses.

Whether or not Chopra's popularity survives the growing backlash against him, no one in the publishing establishment can think of another author with comparable latitude and clout. And oh, how this rankles! Last year, the head of one respected firm, incensed by Chopra's reversal of the usual balance of power, offered me, through my agent, a healthy advance for a book that would unequivocally expose Chopra as a charlatan. Yet not a single publishing executive of several I telephoned recently was willing to criticize him or his oeuvre on the record. "He wants to stay as far as possible from any comment on Deepak Chopra," reported the assistant to a top executive of
HarperSan Francisco, a specialist in New Age thought.

"Of course. Because they all hope, for the sake of the bottom line, that he'll do a book with them," chortled Eden Collingsworth, once president and publisher of Arbor House, who maintains close ties with the Manhattan book business in spite of departing for Los Angeles six years ago to start the magazine Buzz. She ventured a barbed supposition of a sort book people are only muttering to each other in private: "I guess for a publisher, the trick with non-books like his is not to read them before you buy them."

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But millions of Americans, tough-minded business executives among them, clearly disagree. Something in them is resonating resoundingly with, for instance, Chopra's quasi-Hindu "Law of Detachment" in "Seven Spiritual Laws." "Detachment," writes Chopra, "is synonymous with wealth consciousness....True wealth consciousness is the ability to have anything you want, anytime you want, and with least effort."

Thousands of readers snatching copies of that book off shelves today helped to make bestsellers of earlier Chopra works such as "Ageless Body, Timeless Mind" (1993), of which youth-obsessed Americans bought over a million copies
in hardcover. In it Chopra lays out, not for the first or last time, the message that made him famous: there is no objective, material world independent of ourselves, the observers.

Chopra brazenly braids this regurgitation of a core premise of Hindu philosophy with similar-seeming ideas from quantum mechanics to argue that we can use our intelligence or "awareness" to "reinterpret our bodies" and reverse or slow down aging. Entropy, he says, "doesn't apply to intelligence -- an invisible part of us is immune to the ravages of time." Sages and spiritual masters have long understood how to manipulate the flow of intelligence "to keep the physical body orderly and young." He went over this same ground in "Body, Mind and Soul," a lecture broadcast nationwide over public television last year that helped raise over $2 million for PBS in fund-raising drives.

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An investigation of the roots of the Chopra phenomenon suggests that it really is people like me, who grew up in India, and not American publishers, who should be flagellating themselves for not "doing a Chopra."
Possibly even before I could speak, I had learned the World View of many thinking Indians, simplified for children, and reduced to its bare essentials (unkind children sometimes deployed it to tease me about my Western ancestors). It went like this: in the West, people had spent many centuries consumed by a dreary struggle to survive. When not huddled in gloomy caves, the poor things did nothing but shiver, gather wood, build fires and hunt for food and furs.Meanwhile, thanks to a beneficent climate and soil that easily yielded crops in abundance, Indians had the leisure for magnificent cerebral constructions to invent and perfect philosophy and religion, to speculate on and solve the great ontological and spiritual riddles. But, we children were told, in the day now dawning, Westerners had devised enough technological solutions to the inconveniences they were once beset by to have time to seek answers to the great questions. Where was the quest leading them? To India, of course!

Many of us children scoffed. Western marvels like skyscrapers, television and jumbo jets plainly counted for more than the mumbo-jumbo of Eastern mysticism. Looking around us at Indian poverty and dirt, the World View seemed to us a trifle desperate. It was a bit like an impoverished ex-dowager duchess subsisting on boiled turnip tops predicting that nouveaux riches would come to her begging to be taught table manners.

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Chopra's rocket-like ascendance shows that it is we who were terribly mistaken.

I met Chopra in Southern California two years ago, after I watched him mesmerize an audience. He was a chunkily corporeal figure spouting his airy, misty ideas with an earthy conviction typical of his people, Punjabis from India's richest agricultural state, the Punjab. At question time he drew on his prodigious memory to quote verbatim and impromptu from the writings of Einstein, Shakespeare and Tagore, and from the Hindu scriptures. He glided down aisles, microphone in hand, like a small tractor on castors. He switched easily between a small cast of personae: puckish, coolly authoritative, unctuous and princely, like the adored eldest son of a cardiologist father he described in his 1988 memoir, "Return of the Rishi," published before the world had ever heard of him.

At our meeting, it was immediately obvious that he, too, had been injected with his dose of the World View. Why were millions of Americans turning to Hindu spiritual practices like yoga? "There's a time and a place and a historical reason for why somebody goes into this," he answered demurely. "It is when your basic needs are met. You say, well, I've got my home, my cars, my family. Is this enough?"

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But Chopra's particular path to guruhood demonstrates that the Easterner who would instruct the West in how to live must first become adept at the Western modus operandi. This he did brilliantly. Migrating to Massachusetts in 1970 from India, where he was trained in Western medicine, specializing in endocrinology, he was only 37 when he became chief of staff at New England Memorial Hospital in 1985.

Not long after that, seeking a cure for heavy smoking and drinking brought on by overwork, he discovered transcendental meditation and (after being a scoffer in his youth) Hindu philosophy. The practice of TM eventually led him to its inventor, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In Chopra, the Maharishi suspected, he had the perfect bridge for exporting to the West India's ancient system of holistic folk medicine, Ayurveda, which is part of Hindu doctrine.

And the Maharishi was right. Since the publication in 1989 of his third book, "Quantum Healing," Chopra's cross-cultural translations of Ayurvedic theory and practice have won him millions of fervent Western devotees.

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For Westerners made uneasy by Eastern mysticism, Chopra has sugarcoated the cosmic Ayurvedic model of sickness and health with conceptual parallels with physics and a lot of its language. For example, "You are not looking at the field in every wave and particle, the field is your extended body....you are a local concentration of information and energy in the wholeness that is the body of the universe."

And he has combed Western scientific literature for controlled studies that apparently confirm old Indian precepts. In "Perfect Health," for example, he proceeds from the Indian saying, "If you want to see what your thoughts were yesterday, look at your body today," to two facts apparently established by Western research: More heart attacks occur at nine o'clock on Monday morning than at any other time, and people least likely to suffer fatal heart attacks are exceptionally happy in their work. "Certain people who hate their jobs get out of them on Monday morning by giving themselves a heart attack," he posits.

Chopra's timing could not have been better. His missionary work on behalf of Ayurveda coincided with a huge swell of dissatisfaction with increasingly costly Western medicine. He, more than anyone else, is responsible for today's exploding interest in alternative medicine in America and some treatments are now seen as legitimate enough to be covered by medical insurance.

Basic Ayurveda is about taking responsibility for one's own health. Despite the exotic regimens and foods it prescribes, it even reminds Westerners of the sort of timeless, commonsense advice their grandmothers dispensed. Get enough sleep. Eat sensibly. Move your bowels regularly. Ayurveda elaborates on what most of us have always known instinctively that our mental, spiritual and emotional states do affect our bodies; that treatment for illness is ideally tailored for the differences between people.

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So far, so good. But East and West can understand the identical message in radically different ways. Easterners really are more at ease with slippery metaphysical ideas than are practically-minded Westerners. They are also better able to gauge when and how to apply precepts derived from those ideas, and what to expect or not expect in the way of results.

Last August, New York magazine reported the case of a California woman who sued Chopra and some of his colleagues after her husband died of leukemia after taking Ayurvedic treatments for nine months (at a cost of over $10,000) at organizations allegedly linked to Chopra. The suit alleged that the woman's husband had been filled with false hopes. She believed she had grounds for complaint in spite of her husband's having signed a form acknowledging that Ayurveda was not a substitute for conventional cancer treatments.

Paradoxical thinking holding the tension of the opposites is as natural as breathing in the intellectual tradition of India. Unlike many Westerners, Indians have no trouble with combining Ayurveda and modern medicine to treat the same illness, despite differences between these approaches that are in many respects sufficiently great for one to invalidate the other. Quintessentially Indian in this way is the story of C.V.Raman, the physicist awarded a 1930 Nobel Prize for his study of light. Before a solar eclipse 50 years ago, he raced home from his Calcutta laboratory to take a superstitious ritual bath. He is reported to have said, when pressed for an explanation, "The Nobel Prize? That was science. A solar eclipse is personal."

Chopra himself is keenly aware of the limits of East-West exchanges. Of meditation, he said, "See, in the West we try and define it in terms of objective findings including alpha states and hormones and physiological responses. But meditation is a subjective experience that can't be defined." He sighed. "You know, it's just a Western obsession to want to define and label things."

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Apparently looking to minimize misunderstandings by dressing up some of his messages in the myths and esoteric traditions of the West, Chopra invoked shining Camelot in his novel, "The Return of Merlin." In one of this year's Chopra bestsellers, "The Way of the Wizard," Merlin reappears, instructing the future King Arthur and the knights of the Grail about mastering life on earth. When not conjuring emeralds or potatoes for lunch out of thin air, Chopra's Merlin holds forth in a wild jumble of recycled Hindu doctrine and Jungian psychology. For instance, in the book's Chapter 11, Carl Jung's intricate interpretation of the psychological meaning of medieval alchemy becomes: "You are your own alchemist, constantly transmuting dull, lifeless molecules into the living embodiment of yourself."

The second current Chopra hit, "The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success," suggests that another tack with which he hopes to head off disenchantment among his followers is to switch from a focus on healing to getting rich.

Lifting the burden of guilt from Americans under the sway of the Christian characterization of money as "the root of all evil," Chopra's laws offer spiritual sanction (and techniques) for today's obsession with making a bundle. Many people, like a woman working for Chopra who told me she learned of his existence when he spoke to members of the New Age church for which she had left Catholicism, feel they do need such sanction. "The New Age churches believe a lot of the same things Deepak does," she said. "That, for one thing, there's nothing wrong with prospering, that one person being prosperous doesn't mean another person has to be poor."

Even if Chopra does insist, in "Seven Spiritual Laws," that material wealth is only one component of success, the book is heavily permeated by the assumption that it is the component of greatest interest to its readers. "And when you are grounded in the knowledge of your true self," pronounces Chopra, "you will never feel guilty, fearful or insecure about money. Or affluence. Or fulfilling your desires."

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The huge spectrum of subjects on which Chopra has chosen to pronounce is consistent with the fundamental, and persuasive, Ayurvedic idea that all spheres of life are closely interconnected. Ayurveda is usually translated as "the science of life." It is pointless to try to brand him a charlatan for presuming to such wide ranging authority, or for the insubstantial will-o'-the-wisp quality of many of his explanations. Much of the Hindu philosophy he oversimplifies and trivializes, often with clownish results, is all but impenetrably abstract, arcane and mystical to people other than religious scholars or philosophers.

Earlier this century, another transmitter to the West of ideas derived from this great tradition, Jiddu Krishnamurti, also won legions of followers (Chopra eventually among them: in 1994, he spent close to $5,000 for the entire contents of the catalog of the Krishnamurti Foundation of America, which includes every last book and taped talk by Krishnamurti). But Krishnamurti's interpretations were almost as intellectually demanding as their source material; lacking Chopra's common touch and homogenizing skills, Krishnamurti had only a fraction of his impact.

Christian missionaries clubbed heathens over the head to force them to adopt their views of God and the universe. But purveyors of Hindu ideas like Chopra and other New Age pundits are like parent birds stuffing tidbits into the eagerly upturned beaks of chicks. Of their own free will, Americans are paying to acquire Chopra's books and videos, tuning into PBS broadcasts of his lectures and begging him to address groups of admirers in person.

Instead of seething and carping, New York publishers unlucky enough not to have their lists graced by a Chopra offering might do better to buy their own copies of
"Seven Spiritual Laws" and hone their "wealth consciousness." Learn, for instance, that "if you do not experience stillness in your consciousness....you could throw the Empire State Building into it and you wouldn't notice a thing." And try not to snigger, but to concentrate.


Cheryll Aimee Barron

MORE FROM Cheryll Aimee Barron


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