Deepak Chopra (born 1946) is an alternative medicine expert to some, and a money-making guru to others. He has sold over 10 million books in 30 languages, and is a friend and advisor to celebrities. His core belief, as Richard Acello of the San Diego Business Journal noted, is "that the human body and spirit are intimately connected."
Born in New Delhi, India in 1946, Deepak Chopra was the eldest son of Krishan Chopra, a prominent cardiologist who served as the dean of a local hospital and a lieutenant in the British army. Chopra and his younger brother Sanjiv were raised in a privileged Hindu household. They read the classics of British literature and memorized the streets of London.
In high school, Chopra wanted to be a journalist or an actor. It was a character in the Sinclair Lewis story Arrowsmith, that inspired him to become a doctor. In his 1988 autobiography, Return of the Rishi, Chopra described the Lewis novel: "It had what I needed—the hero was a doctor and the doctor was a hero. At moments he was almost a god, bringing healing to skeptical mortals like an angelic doctor."
Chopra attended the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. He also developed an interest in existentialist philosophy. In 1995, he told Chip Brown in an Esquire, magazine interview, "I was motivated by an idealistic fever to find what you would call, for lack of any other expression, the meaning of life. I'm still struggling with that."
Practiced Medicine in the United States
Chopra spent his first six months after completing medical school treating rural villagers in India. In 1970, at the age of 23, he came to the United States with his new wife, Rita. Chopra served as an intern for $200 a month at a 400-bed hospital in Plainfield, New Jersey. The hospital needed replacements for staff members who had been sent to Vietnam. His first duty as a doctor in the U.S. was to declare a patient dead. As he shared in Return of the Rishi, he soon learned that being a doctor had "little to do with healing and making people happy."
Three years later, Chopra was board-certified in internal medicine and endocrinology, serving as a teaching and research fellow in endocrinology at a hospital affiliated with Tufts University. He worked in Boston-area hospitals, later spending a year in Everett, Massachusetts. In 1980, Chopra went to New England Memorial Hospital, where he was named chief-of-staff by the age of 35.
Smoking too many cigarettes and drinking too much coffee and alcohol in an effort to relieve the stress of his busy life, Chopra decided that he had to make a change. He turned to his philosophical interests, reading a book on transcendental meditation (TM). The practice of TM helped him quit drinking, quit smoking, and unwind.
Two Life-Changing Meetings
In 1981, while on a trip to New Delhi, a friend took him to see a master Ayurvedic physician, Brihaspati Dev Triguna. Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word meaning "science of life," and focuses on balancing the flow of energy in the body. Triguna advised him to spend more time with his family and to take more time to sit quietly, among other things. The ancient wisdom of the Indian sages, or rishis, provided the basis for Chopra's new path. His visit to Triguna and its benefits to his own life, sparked his interest in pursuing an Ayurvedic approach to medicine.
In 1985, Chopra met the founder of the TM movement, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, in Washington, D.C. The Maharishi, once a regular guest on the Tonight Show and spiritual advisor to the Beatles, had been promoting Ayurvedic medicine and marketing products for it. Chopra and his wife were invited by a colleague at Harvard to attend a lecture given by the Maharishi.
After listening for several hours, the Chopras discreetly got up and walked into the lobby. Moments later, the Maharishi approached them, handing each a flower. He asked them to come up to his room. The two hesitated, knowing they would miss the last flight to Boston that night, but went anyway. They talked for two hours. "Maharishi did not lay out the details of Ayurveda for us that night, but he made the theme vividly clear. Health and disease are connected like variations on one melody. But disease is a wrong variation, a distortion of the theme," Chopra recalled in Return of the Rishi.
Left Traditional Medicine
Chopra left his endocrinology practice to become the Maharishi's corporate officer and run an Ayurvedic clinic in Lancaster, Massachussets. In explaining why he left traditional medicine, Chopra told Acello, "I think it was just the fact that there is a lot of frustration when all you do is prescribe medication, you start to feel like a legalized drug pusher. That doesn't mean that all prescriptions are useless, but it is true that 80 percent of all drugs prescribed today are of optional or marginal benefit."
Chopra did not give up material or personal success by leaving traditional medicine. He was the sole stockholder of Maharishi Ayur-Veda Products International until 1987, and was also a millionaire. In 1989, the Maharishi gave him a title that translated into "Lord of Immortality." Chopra's prolific writing career began soon after. In 1989, he published Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/ Body Medicine, which argued that one can overcome disease and stall the aging process through meditation and clean living. The next year, Chopra wrote Perfect Health: The Complete Mind/Body Guide. This was followed in 1991 by Unconditional Life: Discovering the Power to Fulfill Your Dreams. Chopra appeared on the popular television talk show, the Oprah Winfrey Show, to promote his latest book. Shortly after that appearance, it sold 130,000 copies in one day and Chopra was featured on the cover of People magazine.
Opportunities in California
In 1993, Chopra decided to go into business for himself, leaving the Maharishi's company. Of his break with the Maharishi, he told Brown in 1995, "Maharishi more or less told me I should stop writing books and doing workshops. I should either stay with him and join him in proselytizing, or leave." Chopra decided the time was right for a change. He and his wife and children, daughter Mallika, and son Gautama, left for La Jolla, California.
Chopra went to work for Sharp Health Care in San Diego County. The Sharp Institute for Human Potential and Mind-Body Medicine was opened, with Chopra as its executive director. A $30,000 grant from the Office of Alternative Medicine in the National Institutes of Health helped fund a study of the impact of Ayurvedic methods in controlling blood pressure, cholesterol, weight, and stress. Chopra's plan for a book proving the efficacy of Ayurvedic methods was postponed, however. Having undergone a change in ownership in 1996, Sharp ended its association with Chopra and the Institute. Not long after, Chopra opened the Chopra Center of Well Being, a 14,000-square-foot facility on Fay Avenue in downtown La Jolla.
Chopra never applied for a California medical license. He wanted to be free to teach and write, among other things, so he quit using "M.D." at the end of his name and started writing fiction. Chopra explored Celtic folklore in The Return of Merlin. He set up companies that would manage his seminars, media, and television appearances, as well as produce and sell Ayurvedic products. Chopra also set up a cable television station, the Global Healing Channel. He now has a multimedia company with six subsidiaries and over 100 employees called Infinite Possibilities International.
Controversy and Lawsuits
In 1991, The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) printed a rejoinder to an article Chopra and two other Indian-born physicians had written about the benefits of Ayurveda and herbal medicines. The JAMA editors expressed their concerns when they discovered that the authors were linked to the commercial Ayurvedic venture and accused them of misrepresentation. Chopra, as president of an association of Ayurvedic physicians, sued the Journal, accusing it of defamation and religious bigotry. The multi-million dollar lawsuit was settled out of court for an undis-closed amount two years later.
Other doctors have been opposed to Chopra's methods. Dr. Stephen Barret, author of The Health Robbers: A Close Look at Quackery in America and William Jarvis, professor of public health at Loma Linda University and president of the National Council Against Health Fraud, have asserted that Chopra's theories are not subject to peer review.
Tony Perry, writing for the Los Angeles Times noted that charges of sexual harassment, plagiarism, and libel have been leveled against the controversial physician. "Chopra is an aggressive adversary," he wrote. In 1997, the Weekly Standard, a Washington DC-based political magazine, was forced to issue an apology to Chopra, who had been referred to as a "huckster" and a "Hindu televangelist" in a feature story.
Alternative Medicine Gained Legitimacy
Many are impressed by Chopra and his beliefs. Members of the media have called him a "New Age superstar" and a "one man healing machine." In a 1996 feature story, Time magazine offered praise for his contribution, "Chopra may have done more than anyone else in the U.S. to create a vocabulary for the intersection of faith and medicine." Mainstream medicine has begun to listen. In November 1998, JAMA devoted an entire issue to alternative medicine.
"There's a whole grassroots movement in the United States that is dissatisfied with our prevailing system of medicine, where doctors have become superb technicians who know everything about the human body and really lousy healers because they know nothing about the human soul," Chopra told Lynn Sherr on Good Morning America on November 11, 1998.
Chopra has also entered the recording industry—with some help from the pop superstar, Madonna. In the fall of 1998, raSa records, a label that has a joint partnership with the New York-based hip hop label, Tommy Boy, released A Gift of Love. The album featured Chopra and friends reading the poems of Jalaluddin Rumi, a 13th-century Muslim mystic. American celebrities reading on the album included Madonna, Demi Moore, Martin Sheen, Blythe Danner, Goldie Hawn, and Debra Winger, among others. Composers Adam Plack and Yaron Fuchs created subtle background music.
In addition to serving as the educational director of the Chopra Center for Well Being, Chopra also has a successful website (www.chopra.com) which features "the online store of infinite possibilities." Much material is offered free of charge. A different universal law is explained and a new meditation is offered every day. As Uri Geller explained in the Times of London, "Deepak believes in dharma, a force which directs your life when you agree to go with the flow. You cannot shape dharma —it happens. The multiple coincidences that appear to buffet your path are really synchronized aspects of destiny—synchrodestiny. It's an intriguing notion and one which he explains for free online."
In looking at the success Chopra has enjoyed, Time reflected, "Other American doctors preceded him in their insights about the spirit's healing power. But Chopra, by accident of birth and nationality, was ideally positioned to tap into an entire pre-existing cultural tradition." Perry added, "People are listening to other voices, and Deepak Chopra is one of those voices."
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"About Deepak Chopra," Deepak Chopra Home Page, http://www.chopra.com/aboutdeepak.htm (October 21, 1999).
"The Chopra Center for Well Being, Healing Retreats and Spas, November/December 1997 Cover Story," Deepak Chopra Home Page, http://www.chopra.com/news001.htm (October 21, 1999). □