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Today thousands of Americans are immensely grateful to Chopra. Some focus on his commonsense advice. Says Henry Schlegel, a New York City-based private-banking executive: "He reinforced something that I knew: stress affects your body. So I dealt with it. My sense of well-being came back." Lynn Hackett, who braved an endless bookstore line in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to get Chopra's signature, feels a deeper connection: she says her brother's brain tumor has decreased dramatically since he first read Ageless Body. He also took radiation treatment. But thanks to Chopra, he changed his diet and his thinking. "It started him in the right direction," she says. "All of us in the family have become much more spiritual."

Nonetheless, the immense frustration some critics feel about Chopra's vagueness, his seeming unwillingness to distinguish between fact and metaphor and his chronic overpromising is not simply intellectual nitpicking. Last year New York magazine reported on a lawsuit to which Chopra was party. A man with leukemia had adopted Ayurvedic practice and was allegedly deemed cured. When he died shortly afterward, his widow sued. The suit was eventually dismissed, and in a letter to New York, Chopra noted that he was only minimally involved. His letter, however, made no attempt to defend the man who allegedly pronounced the "cure," which is odd, since he was someone described in Chopra's books as "perhaps the greatest...Ayurvedic physician alive today."

In the past few years Chopra has abandoned clinical activity completely, declining even to apply for a California medical license. When the Chopra Center, providing a combination of Western, Ayurvedic and East Asian treatment for outpatients, opens this August near its founder's lavish home in La Jolla, the doctoring will be done by others. Chopra, who says his various businesses have made him between $10 million and $15 million (not all of which he keeps--he is known as a lavish donor to charities), is still selling herbs, but Richard Perl says he hopes to "spin off" that operation. He explains, "I see us providing the knowledge component of an overall regime. We're a software company."

And the software is shifting from concrete how-to advice toward the realm of poetry and performance. Chopra's last big book, The Return of Merlin, was a novel. Nonfiction, he told Publishers Weekly, leaves people saying, "'Where is the evidence?' And it's so boring to try and address that! [But] if you write fiction...with intensity and passion, you reveal yourself--and you write the truth." Merlin was a best seller, and Chopra optioned it as a possible mini-series. He has cut a deal with Tommy Boy records to put his thoughts and poems to music. With Dave Stewart, formerly of the rock group the Eurythmics, he has written a screenplay about a hit man who finds enlightenment in Bombay. There is talk of a Chopra musical.

"It's my destiny to play an infinite number of roles, but I'm not the roles I'm playing," says Chopra. "If I confuse myself with the roles I'm playing, then I get caught up in the melodramatic hysteria of ordinary, humdrum existence."

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