Deepak's Instant Karma

IF A BEARER OF TRUE enlightenment arrived among us, what would he leave on your voice mail? Perhaps something like this: ""Listen, this is Deepak. I just had a funny feeling that there was a karmic connection somewhere when I saw you. . .I send you lots of energy, love and the spontaneous fulfillment of your desires in the field of infinite possibilities.'' Or like this: ""This is Deepak, calling from the unified field ... I want to tell you about my experience with space. I've developed a very intimate relationship with space, and it's a great relationship ...'' Or, if you had enough room on your machine, like the former CEO of his company, Infinite Possibilities International, he might improvise whole book chapters from remote hotels--enlightenment on the fly, inscribed onto the ones and zeros of a modern digital answering device. You pick up the phone, and in the realm of infinite possibilities, you don't know where or when you're going to get off.

Right now, though, the Bearer of True Enlightenment--50, graying slightly at the temples, with a distinct Indian accent--is in a Barnes & Noble bookstore in New York, where the field of infinite possibilities is dwindling to a nettlesome one. His new best seller, the ""The Seven Spiritual Laws for Parents,'' is not on evident display. It is a karmic how-to manual (""Today we tell our children, "Don't say no--go with the flow' ''), and its lack of full frontal ubiquity is getting under the Armani of the BTE. This is a bad bit of broccoli in what he calls the ""quantum soup,'' the field of energy and information of which our material bodies are merely illusory space-time manifestations. And at the moment, a particular space-time manifestation whose name tag reads ""Eddie'' has little to offer in the way of enlightenment. ""I am the author,'' Chopra prods. Eddie taps dully at a computer and asks, ""That was Chopra, right?''

Deepak Chopra, M.D.--educator, author, lecturer, endocrinologist, Hollywood guru and scribe of the Playboy essay ""Does God Have Orgasms?''--is, by his own metaphysical lexicon, a manifestation of our collective conscious. In a culture that craves a spiritual, mind-body fix, he is a fixer: handsome, charismatic, an erudite amalgam of hard science and celestial seasonings, drawn selectively from the Vedic texts of ancient India. To his critics, he is a dabbler with an M.D., making millions by conflating sound medicine with New Age hoo-ha. But to the growing legions inside his tent, dissatisfied with the parental shadow of both mainstream religion and medicine, he is a gift: the Buddha as benevolent technocrat. A classic immigrant success story, he came to this country in 1970 as a Western-styled physician and conquered it as the credentialed point man--Lord of Immortality--for the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Transcendental Meditation movement. Since then he has sold more than 10 million books, in 30 languages. Now he wants to expand his reach: into movies, TV series, a spiritual cable channel, CDs, a chain of healing centers on which the sun would never set (graphic). And like many modern moguls, he has tapped a self-sustaining cycle where our anxieties and our media feed each other: after a 1993 appearance on ""Oprah,'' where he told viewers they didn't have to grow old, his book ""Ageless Body, Timeless Mind'' sold 130,000 copies in one day. ""It was a media-generated phenomenon,'' he says. From then on, he was golden.

To roll with Chopra for a couple of days is to enter a secret fraternity: baggage handlers, shoppers, nurses, attorneys, waitresses, students, maybe you, me--all game, apparently, to consider a universe that is something other than what their senses tell them it is. As Chopra writes in ""Ageless Body, Timeless Mind,'' ""In their essential state, our bodies are composed of energy and information, not solid matter ... [Y]ou can change your world--including your body--simply by changing your perception.'' His first lecture on this jaunt, in the small Canadian city of London (it's on the Thames), draws nearly 1,100, at $35 a head, which doesn't count the dozens who stop him on the street, in restaurants, in airport lounges. They are mostly female, mostly professional. Chopra immerses himself in them as in oxygen, courteously asking each for an address and promising to send a book. ""Women are more open,'' Chopra posits. ""And they're better healers.''

In a shopping mall in London, Chopra is explaining the connection between a journalist and his coffee cup. ""This is you,'' he says, pointing to the cup. ""You think it's a cup, but it isn't.'' Dressed in workout clothes, with no cell phone or watch, Chopra seems admirably at ease in the mall, so much so that he doesn't even check his placement at the bookstore. ""It's the conscious energy field that is manifesting as the cup and yourself. The same field.'' On the five-day ""silent'' retreats he takes every three months, sometimes with his wife, Rita, Chopra says he can actually see this field.

""I've never really explained this to anyone like this before,'' he says, launching into an explanation he appears to have delivered countless times. It is a careering ride through Shakespeare, Blake, the Songs of Solomon, Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, the Persian poet Rumi, the Gospel According to John, Kafka, T. S. Eliot, ancient Vedic texts and a tumble of technical medical literature--from neuropeptides to the healing powers of meditation, in a single leap of faith. Largely through meditation, he says, we can live to 120, lower our blood pressure, control our weight, stave off stress-related illness. Or, as he writes in ""The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success,'' ""when your actions are motivated by love ... the surplus energy you gather and enjoy can be channeled to create anything that you want, including unlimited wealth.''

Esther Konigsberg, M.D., 38, is one of the pilgrims who found her way to Chopra. In 1993, as a family practitioner with three kids, she borrowed her father's Jag and popped one of his cassettes into the dash: Tony Robbins, motivational guru, interviewing a well-spoken man named Deepak Chopra. ""When I heard Deepak speak,'' she says, ""I knew everything he said, but I could never put it into words. I knew it was true, both personally and professionally.'' Then she went to a conference based on the self-help series ""Chicken Soup for the Soul,'' where she decided she wanted to learn more about the guy on the tape. ""You go through life and everything's working,'' says Konigsberg, an observant Jew, who now teaches Chopra's ""Primordial Sound Meditation'' and weeklong ""Magic of Healing'' courses in addition to her part-time family practice. ""You have a great husband, great kids, great job. But life falls short of expectations.'' She was especially frustrated by how much she couldn't do for her patients. ""When I heard Deepak, I realized what was missing. My connection with myself was missing. I was too externally focused.''

For the generation raised by Dr. Spock, this message was candy. ""He set the stage,'' Chopra says of his La Jolla, Calif., neighbor, who has become a friend and supporter. ""He was already moving toward the paradigm: freedom, moving away from punitive authority.'' In a 1996 survey conducted by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, 12 percent of the parents of children under the age of 18 said they had tried LSD. This crowd doesn't necessarily shake out to be Chopra's audience, but it does signal a generation with an interest in what might be called alternative states of awareness, and a shared folk literature brought back from the edge. The Beatles tried the drug and found their way to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (pre-Chopra); the rest of us consumed the trip as the White Album. The doctor himself tried LSD twice in the '60s, as a medical student in India, and experienced a ""refined state of consciousness,'' which he deems as valid as any other--consciousness is consciousness, it's only our ""superstition of materialism'' that convinces us otherwise. Was the drug easy to come by? He laughs. ""I got it from two exchange students from Harvard Medical School.''

To reach these seekers, Chopra takes a road well traveled. In the book ""Within the Context of No Context,'' George W.S. Trow describes a mid-1970s experience at Erhard Seminars Training, better known as est. Trow writes, ""People had, for ... years, brooked no authority whatsoever on any subject, and this man, Erhard, realized that the time had come to insert within the realm of total permission--because the point of Erhard Seminars Training was to open up even more options, even more freedom, even more everything--some little bit of discipline.''

Since est, liberal spiritual bubbles in America have worked this formula: a little bit of authority in a field of infinite license. Anything that limits personal freedom is darkness--except for these seven spiritual laws, these 10 celestine insights, this map of your erroneous zones. For people who rebelled against the inconveniencies of mainstream religions--thou shalt not--Chopra offers an appealingly well-padded path to nirvana. ""They say you have to give up everything to be spiritual,'' he says, ""get away from the world, all that junk. I satisfy a spiritual yearning without making [people] think they have to worry about God and punishment.''

What makes Deepak run? On a propeller flight to Montreal, he tilts his head back, slips into meditation and right to sleep, a trick he learned as a resident working marathon shifts in a Boston hospital. When he wakes, 15 minutes later, he's ready to talk. The world, he proposes, is in a period of transition, from the age of information to an age of awareness. He considers himself one of the transition team. ""In 10 years, I'll be sunk in oblivion, because I've already introduced that intention in my heart.'' This is, you might suggest, a fairly heady ambition. ""I would like to think of myself as discontented rather than ambitious,'' he says. ""Oscar Wilde once said, "Blinding ambition is the last refuge of a failure'.''

It is a distinct part of his charm, this dexterity with a literary pearl. But he has used this particular Wilde quip four times in a weekend--what's he getting at? He says he enjoys wealth but is not attached to it, and his habits aren't fussy: hazelnut coffee in a shopping mall, lunch at the Four Seasons hotel, it all seems one to him. ""People make a big deal about me wearing Donna Karan suits,'' he says. ""I only wear them because she sends them to me. I don't pay for them. And they're nice.'' Visitors to his La Jolla home, assessed last year at $2.25 million, describe the property as spectacular but the house as unassuming. ""Let me tell you something,'' he says one night, with unprompted defensiveness. ""If I was just in this for the money, I would stay home and write books. I make a lot of money writing books. But I like to be out among people. When they tell me they've gotten off drugs or that their cancer is in remission after they read my books, they're doing things that I couldn't do.''

Yet there are other ambitions. Like many entrepreneurs who are only as famous as their connections, he is a profligate namedropper: Karan, Demi Moore, George Harrison, Mikhail Gorbachev, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Nobel winner Oscar Arias, Bonnie Raitt, Defense Secretary William Cohen, Prince Charles and--but he doesn't want to talk about it--the late Diana. ""Rich and famous people very often are more creative, more exciting, more interesting,'' suggests Hollywood power broker Sandy Gallin, a Chopra friend and sometimes representative. ""Why wouldn't he be attracted to them?'' For a guy who preaches the spiritual law of Defenselessness (""I will relinquish the need to defend my point of view''), he takes puckish delight in answering his critics, sometimes in court (sidebar). On his 50 or so lectures per year (10 percent, he estimates, are for charities) he holds book signings but no question-and-answer sessions--a cult of personality spun around a refutation of the self. And he is endearingly naked in his desire to be loved. ""My biggest fear all my life,'' he says, ""was the fear of lack of approval. That was my driving force. But,'' again entering what appears to be the familiar field of infinite possibilities, ""I'm in the process of relinquishing that fear.''

In a movie script he's written entitled ""The Lords of Light'' (no worse than a lot of what's out there), Satan comes to earth in the form of a spiritual cult leader who seduces the masses with utopian promises. Give or take the ability to engulf the world in flames, this is not far from what Chopra's critics accuse him of doing. William Jarvis of the National Council Against Health Fraud, whose profile has risen along with the doctor's, accuses Chopra of substituting superstition for medicine, and depriving patients of several centuries of scientific advances. He is especially critical of the Chopra Center for Well Being in La Jolla, where patients with anything from cancer to stress get Ayurvedic massage, aromatherapy and spa food, for upwards of $2,750 a week (lodging not included). ""I think people like Chopra are delusional,'' says Jarvis. ""And when you're delusional, you think you're the messiah. This is more dangerous than a flat-out con artist.'' Chopra counters that his books stress the importance of Western medicine, and the Chopra Center is fully staffed with licensed M.D.s. Some pilgrims are disillusioned when center doctors recommend an oncologist or a surgeon rather than a new mantra.

Chopra's seduction, instead, is more subtle. He clearly answers both a spiritual and medical longing. But like, say, fashion magazines, he also stimulates the anxieties he purports to relieve. Discussing the death of Diana, for example, or the rise of Hitler, he contends that both are products of our ""collective psychosis,'' in which we all participate. Our health problems, both collective and individual, are evidence of cultural malaise. You're sicker than you think, he implies; here is the cure.

At the same time, while Chopra inspires devotees, even he acknowledges that few are along for the whole ride. ""I can [lecture] for three hours about the meaning of life,'' he says. ""What do they want to ask about? Sesame-oil massage.'' Most Deepakophiles interviewed by NEWSWEEK found more benign inspiration than quantum revelations in his work; many mixed and matched Chopra with other spiritual or self-help figures. ""I don't say things like "I can't do that' or "that can't be done','' says Mark Wesolek, 40, a salesman in suburban Chicago. ""I leave myself open to any possibility, and that allows me to have richer experiences.''

And there is another side to Chopra, behind the enlightened pedant, to which he does not call attention. At a recent retreat in Asheville, N.C., one attendee mentioned an acquaintance suffering from liver disease back in New York. Without prompting, Chopra called the patient, discussed her fears about an organ transplant, talked her into the operation--and talked her out of what she calls her desperate plan to ""go to India and meditate and wait for death.'' He sent her one of his books, an herbal remedy, and a massage therapist he had trained. He did not charge for his services.

The figure of the snake-oil salesman is an enduring piece of American iconography. It pops up wherever there are desperate people. But the key to the snake-oil con is that, for reasons no one understands, sometimes the cure works. Chopra asks: Why does it work for some people and not others? Can it work for everyone? So if skeptics note a whiff of snake oil about him, there is also a nagging, enticing question: what if he is right?

Walking up New York's Fifth Avenue one morning, Chopra recounts a story from his first days in America. He was working at a hospital in Plainfield, N.J., earning $202 every two weeks, when he stopped into a Volkswagen dealership. Nice cars, he told the dealer, but he had no money. They talked: a little give, a little take. For $50 down, and $25 monthly payments, he left with a new red VW Bug. It is one of the few personal anecdotes he volunteers, and a fitting one for Chopra's odyssey. Because there is a confidence game here, but there is a car as well: conjured from the unified field, a rubber-and-steel ticket to infinite possibilities. If this is possible, what else? Chopra laughs. When he got that car, he says, ""I thought, America is a great country!''

Writings Nineteen published books, a monthly newsletter and a forthcoming translation of the Persian poet Rumi

CDs Two-album deal with Tommy Boy Records. One mixes South Asian music and Western pop with Chopra's lyrics; another, poetry with music

Services The Global Network for Spiritual Success links 5,000 members in 100 study groups in 50 countries

Supplements Herbal products like OptiEnergy and OptiCalm, plus seasonings and massage oils

Lectures Chopra speaks around the world, from India to Ireland, charging $25,000 a talk

Seminars Three five- to seven-day programs, with titles like "Journey to the Boundless"

Movie scripts One script, "The Lords of Light," has been dubbed "'Independence Day' meets 'Siddhartha'"