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Fractured as it is, the mind/body landscape features one uniting figure. Deepak Chopra, 49, is a physician, an endocrinologist who came to the U.S. in 1970. He is also a mystic in an ancient tradition, Hinduism. But his true genius lies in synthesis, in an amalgamated vision he can express in the language of computers or Arthurian magic or devotional verse.
Chopra says that on a cosmic level, we all exist simultaneously throughout the universe. And he, for one, certainly seems omnipresent. Since the runaway success of his book Ageless Body, Timeless Mind in 1993, he has written one best seller after another, selling an astonishing 6 million copies. His videotapes (which include Growing Younger, a co-production with Time-Life Video) are legion. A Chopra Website is in the works as well as a CD-ROM touted as "the ultimate Chopra experience." For those who do not read, watch television or surf the Net, the man himself will most likely soon appear nearby. In a recent six-week span, Chopra spoke in Denver, New York City, Puerto Rico, Los Angeles and Sacramento.
He hates the term guru, yet that is the term applied to him by Demi Moore, who (along with Naomi Judd and George Harrison) sits on the board of advisers for his soon-to-open healing center in La Jolla, California. Other devotees include Michael Jackson, Donna Karan and Michael Milken. Chopra remains unvalidated by the gatekeepers of higher culture: Bill Moyers has yet to interview him. Nevertheless, PBS stations have not seen fit to abjure the millions they make by playing Chopra's vastly popular lecture tapes during their subscription drives. Dozens of CEOs swear by him publicly, and his lawyer maintains that "it is mind blowing, the list of [Chopra intimates] at the highest levels of government in a variety of countries--including this one."
Chopra may have done more than anyone else in the U.S. to create a vocabulary for the intersection of faith and medicine. 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 an entire pre-existing cultural tradition. And Chopra, harnessing his spectacular ambition and extraordinary communication skills, was ideally equipped to exploit the tensions inherent in being Marcus Welby via Delhi. Like all great teachers, he was telling Americans something they already knew, in this case about health. At the same time, he was hinting at something they didn't know, a simplified Hinduism that was fascinating to a nation of seekers. Says Richard Perl, CEO of Chopra's new corporation, Infinite Possibilities, somewhat grandly: "The world is using Deepak as a catalyst for a step it's ready to take."
First, however, Chopra had to take some steps of his own. A dark anecdote in his 1988 memoir, Return of the Rishi, foreshadows some of his later concerns. Chopra's father, a successful British-trained cardiologist, was in England when he learned that his own father was taking Ayurvedic medicine, the traditional Indian herbal cure, for a heart condition. The doctor disapproved. "His success in the system demanded his belief in the system," Chopra writes, and from London he "demanded that my grandfather abandon this nonsense and call in a Western-style heart specialist." The old man did, "and died two weeks later."