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COVER STORY

So Rich, So Restless

Deepak Chopra Is a One-Man Multimedia Empire. His 19 Books--Which Offer a Mystical Pathway to Finding Spiritual Fulfillment and Aging Gracefully--Have Sold Millions. Celebrities Adore Him. Still, He Wants More.

September 07, 1997|TONY PERRY | Tony Perry is The Times' San Diego bureau chief

"The basic theme is that Satan has escaped and surfaced in the Middle East, the birthplace of the three major religions of the world," Chopra says, "and it is affecting the collective psyches of our world and creating a lot of devastation. We have become predators. The CEO of London Films says it's 'Independence Day' meets Siddhartha."

For Kushner-Locke, the Chopra screenplay tells of an American assassin who flees to India and experiences a spiritual rebirth. There will be talk of man's relationship to the cosmos but enough muscularity to satisfy the action-picture genre.

Like many a mega-figure in American life, Chopra has developed a certain wariness with the press. He's been mocked more than a few times in print (the New Yorker devoted a full page to a sendup titled "Car Talk With Deepak"). These days, he generally gives interviews only when a new book is due. Once engaged, however, he is cordial and open--a mix of charisma and diffidence.

Asked to explain his success, Chopra wanders a bit in metaphysics and then lands on a cinematic simile. "I happened to be at the right time for a lot of people obviously interested in this stuff," he says. "So I come along, and if I didn't come along, somebody else would have. We're all just blips on the ocean of consciousness. They come, they go. They seem very important because you are in them, but when you look at it in the span of time, it's not important. It's like a good movie. For those who saw it, it's significant."

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The oldest son of a British-trained cardiologist in India, Chopra grew up in a privileged, intellectual household permeated with talk of poetry (particularly his favorite, Tennyson), Hinduism and cricket. He graduated from the prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences, and in 1970, at 23, he came to the United States to practice medicine.

He completed residencies in internal medicine and endocrinology, lectured medical students at Tufts University and Boston University, and by 1980 was chief of staff at New England Memorial Hospital. He was also smoking a pack a day, getting looped on Friday nights to unwind and was stressed to the hilt by the medical politics of a big hospital. As he recounts in his 1988 memoir, "Return of the Rishi: A Doctor's Story of Spiritual Transformation and Ayurvedic Healing," he happened during this period to pick up a book about transcendental meditation.

Through TM, he quit smoking and drinking and learned to decompress. Later, on one of his frequent trips to India, he began to learn more about the traditions he had left behind. He was captivated by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the guru who burst onto the world stage in the 1960s as a regular on the "Tonight Show" and spiritual advisor to the Beatles. Chopra became the tinny-voiced, bearded one's acolyte and corporate officer.

In 1989, Chopra published "Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine," in which he marshaled poetry, Hindu aphorisms and current advances in Western medical science to argue that the body is controlled by a "network of intelligence" that--once programmed correctly through meditation, clean living and a new way of viewing the world--can vanquish disease and forestall aging.

The rest is history: "Perfect Health: The Complete Mind/Body Guide" in 1990, "Unconditional Life: Discovering the Power to Fulfill Your Dreams" in 1991, and in 1993, Chopra's masterpiece, the book that landed him on "Oprah" and in People magazine, "Ageless Body, Timeless Mind: The Quantum Alternative to Growing Old."

By 1993, Chopra had split with the Maharishi, in effect, to go into business for himself. Chopra says the split was over the Maharishi's attempt to control Chopra's writing and speaking. The Maharishi, now living and teaching near Amsterdam, is not offering his version.

Joan Duncan Oliver, editor of New Age magazine (circulation 250,000), says that the Chopra explosion represents a perfect joining of man and moment, of message and market. "He really has everything society wants right now," she says. "He has credentials since he's a doctor, he has the Eastern perspective that people tend to value and he has absolutely mastered the ways of media. He communicates in short, concise ways, and he promises that success, fulfillment, happiness and health are attainable. What a guy!"

To be sure, much of what Chopra preaches is opaque, ethereal, just out of reach. Anyone who has grappled with Shelley or Keats or a course in physics knows the feeling. If only the veil of this parallel universe, where truth is beauty and beauty is truth, could be pierced and those intimations of immortality be made accessible.

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