Even God has a website. The portal for god.com does not exist, but bhagwan.com and bhagwan.org are under construction, whereas allah.com is already on line as the ‘mosque of the Internet.’ Meanwhile, jesus.com is a dating service (which runs a contest whose prize is a shower with Jesus, an undivine man who operates the website as a joke), and shiva.com is a private company. Mahakali.com, by the way, is the site of cyber-Hinduism, with pictures and pilgrimages all for sale.
Then there is howtoknowgod.com, the website of Deepak Chopra. Like most NRIs, Chopra came to the United States with technical skills gained due to the forethought of the Indian State’s science establishment. Trained at the All-India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) as an endocrinologist, Chopra taught allopathic medicine at Tufts University and Boston University School of Medicine before he became Chief of Staff at New England Memorial Hospital. Because of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, 83% of the Indians who entered the US from that year until 1977 came with advanced degrees in the sciences. Chopra was one of those people, but he moved from an NRI statistic to a cult phenomenon when he began to traffic his ethnicity. By the early 1990s, Chopra was more than a doctor: he was the holy figure of the corporate New Age. When President Clinton was in Delhi he remarked that ‘my country has been enriched by the contributions of more than a million Indian Americans, which included Dr. Deepak Chopra, the pioneer of alternative medicine’ (21 March 2000). The key phrase is ‘alternative medicine’.
The US medical system is in crisis, with about 40 million people without health insurance, with the rates of chronic illness on the rise, with pharmaceutical companies relentless with their prices, and with doctors overworked in understaffed for- profit hospitals. As allopathic medicine reels from a for-profit sucker punch, the Sly Baba appears with his overpriced seminars on ‘alternative medicine’. Chopra is only the latest incarnation of a stream of Godmen who came from India to make their money on American shores. Harvey Cox, in a fine book from 1977, noted that ‘the business of America is business, and that includes the religion business. The greatest irony of neo-Oriental religious movements is that in their effort to present an alternative to the Western way of life most have succeeded in adding only one more line of spiritual products to the American religious marketplace. They have become a part of the “consumer culture” that they set out to call in question.’ The proto-New Age found its market amongst the Beat generation, many of whom appeared frustrated by the shallowness of their lives, surrounded by seductive, but empty consumer goods. The Civil Rights movement drew some of this disenchantment, but many young people flirted with the mysterious East as a protest against the affluent US.
Chopra, who believes in coincidences, arrived just as conservatives began to shape public policy in the US, and it was becoming acceptable to say that the poor are poor because they are either genetically deficient, stupid, lazy or else unlucky. Chopra says much the same thing, for he blames the sick for their own illnesses. ‘I know that taking responsibility means not blaming anyone or anything for my situation (and this includes myself).’ ‘Don’t struggle against the infinite scheme of things,’ he wrote, ‘instead, be at one with it.’
In 1952, Meher Baba’s Hinduism began to address these Beats, but many got their real dose of the ‘East’ after 1959 when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a physics teacher, imported his Transcendental Meditation system to Hawaii and then, to the mainland. Buddhism took root with the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery at Freewood Acres, New Jersey in 1955, home to Robert Thurman, leading Buddhologist and father of Uma. Following TM, Swami Satchinananda founded the International Yoga Institute in the 1960s and preached Hatha Yoga. A. C. Bhaktivedanta, who once worked for a chemical company, found himself in New York City in 1965 and created the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), the home of the Hare Krishnas. Swami Muktananda, in 1970, introduced Siddha Yoga and Maharaj Ji, a year later, set up his Divine Light Mission. The Godmen sold a tonic that was as American as Indian. It was essentially about sales as much as the soul. In the 1960s the Maharishi taught the white youth to drop out, in the 1980s Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh turned them on, and in the 1990s Deepak Chopra came to heal their middle-aged bodies and guilty minds. Chopra, who believes in coincidences, arrived just as conservatives began to shape public policy in the US. For a brief moment in US history, the social progressives won the allowance that the poor cannot be blamed for their own problems; that perhaps the injustices of history had to be overcome by the affirmative acts of a benevolent state. But this era was at an end when Ronald Reagan became President in 1980, after which it was acceptable to say that the poor are poor because they are either genetically deficient, stupid, lazy or else unlucky. When confronted with statistics on homelessness, Reagan said that those on the streets had chosen to bear the rugged outdoors, as urban frontiersmen. Why, Reagan asked, should the state be responsible for the errors of individuals? Chopra says much the same thing, for he blames the sick for their own illnesses. ‘I know that taking responsibility means not blaming anyone or anything for my situation (and this includes myself).’ ‘Don’t struggle against the infinite scheme of things,’ he wrote, ‘instead, be at one with it.’
Chopra, the doctor, has moved from the pledge to heal to a doctrine that blames the poor for their poverty, and then asks them not to do anything about it! If the poor are asked not to struggle, Chopra himself is ever active in quest of a gilded present. In March 1996, Chopra’s Seven Spiritual Laws of Success entered the ranks of the bestsellers, a success foreshadowed in the book itself. ‘Material abundance in all its expressions happens to be one of those things that makes the journey more enjoyable,’ he wrote. I’m amazed by the number of projects he has under his belt, the sheer density of websites associated with him (the latest, mypotential.com, is a multimedia website run by his daughter, Mallika Chopra). In 1992, Chopra founded the American Association of Ayurvedic Medicine, he was appointed to the National Institute of Health’s Ad Hoc Panel on Alternative Medicine, he became the Executive Director of the Sharp Institute for Human Potential and Mind Body Medicine and he became involved with the Ayurvedic & Indic Traditions of Healthcare working group of the Dharma Hinduja Indic Research Center at Columbia University.
At the center of all these projects is Chopra’s mentor, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The Maharishi is the original Guru of the Green, the man whose main product (Transcendental Meditation) shares the same initials as Trademark. TM has moved from a version of meditation to an industry in its own right, with ashrams across the world and even a Maharishi Institute of Management to teach ‘professional values’. By the late 1960s, the Maharishi moved to the center of the Hippie craze, mainly because of his relationship with celebrities like the Beatles (who visited him in Rishikesh). In 1967, during the Summer of Love, the Maharishi came to New York City. ‘The hungry of India, China, anywhere,’ he noted at a press conference, ‘are lazy because of their lack of self-knowledge. We will teach them to derive from within, and then they will find food.’ A shocked reporter asked him if this was not an unkind thought. ‘Be absolutely selfish,’ replied the Maharishi, as the poor in India suffered the effects of a major drought. ‘That is the only way to bring peace, to be selfish.’ Far from the tapasya of religiosity, the Maharishi made the path for the air-conditioned sadhus who now visit the US annually as guests of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America.
I’ve always thought that religion was a way to make us uncomfortable with the contradictions of the world. Religion is meant to be painful, to encourage us to transform the world in the image of an ideal, which is sometimes called God. The Gurus of the Green seem to care principally about their bank accounts. Which brings us back to howtoknowgod.com. With an emphasis on Dot Com. His Gift of Love seminar costs about $295 per person, a true ‘gift’ given with endless ‘love.’ Alternative medicines, such as ayurveda, are a valid and viable approach to the woes of the body. Allopathic treatments frequently go after the symptoms of an illness and leave the cause aside, mainly because allopathy does not take into consideration the psychosocial context of a patient’s life. When we fall ill, it is not just the pathology that matters, but also our ecology, the places in which we live. Ayurveda, as in the classic text of Agnivesa from the 8th Century BCE, asks the physician to collect ‘knowledge about the patient such as in what type of land the patient is born, grown or diseased.’ ‘Holism’ in this ayurvedic heritage means that the mind and body of the patient must be seen in light of the social world (such as one’s employment situation and the state of one’s house).
‘Truly wealthy people never worry about losing their money,’ he wrote in a book entitled Creating Affluence in 1993, ‘because they know that wherever money comes from, there is an inexhaustible supply of it.’
Chopra, and other New Age gurus, add spirituality to the body but they leave out the social milieu of the patient. The sly babas draw from the vast, and sometimes useful, corpus of ancient wisdom on healing, but they make of that heritage marketable indulgences that are sold to a harassed elite and middle-class who want to relax, but who cannot afford to change the context that makes them tense. Aromatherapy, Music therapy, Bliss Technique, Diets, Pulse Diagnosis, Primordial Sound, Marmas, Panchakarma—these become the main features of alternative medicine.
The worthy Ayurveda appears as a circus of the transcendental. In line with this thought, the Maharishi’s operation is on the road toward the creation of Maharishi Veda Land near Niagara Falls, Ontario (Canada). At this fun park, visitors will be able to go on such rides as Magic Flying Chariot and Corridor of Time, and the complex is to have ‘the world’s only levitating building.’ As the project got stuck in time, the Mayor of Niagara Falls wondered if ‘the Veda Land folks are working on a different time frame than the rest of us.’ So at least this is a theme park, with little pretension about the woes of the world.
But in the early 1990s, the Maharishi moved his US headquarters to Washington, DC with the theory that the ‘Maharishi effect’ (his presence) would reduce the crime rate and promote world peace. Defeated by his rhetoric, the Maharishi turned tail and moved to Fairfield, Iowa, telling his followers that ‘I would not advise anyone to stay in the pool of mud.’ The mud-pool being Washington, DC, home to mainly African Americans and to the US government—a place that needs healing, but not that purveyed by the gurus of the green.
Early this year, I was in Dallas, Texas, a speaker, along with Deepak Chopra, at the annual South Asian Students’ Association meeting. In an immaculate suit with a hint of India, Chopra was recounting some hair-brained story about coincidences. I felt restlessness in the air, amongst the few thousand students who filled the hall in anticipation of some of that famous knowledge that fuels theme parks, chain websites and failed political campaigns (as in the Maharishi’s comical Natural Law Party). Then Chopra said something extraordinary. Desis in the US, he said, work far too much, and our hard work will do nothing to alter the world. My ears perked up, because this is quite true. South Asian American men have the highest rate of heart disease, and too many of us succumb to overwork without exercise. Although many young desis are in the fight for social justice, the elders don’t seem to be as excited by the prospect of a protest. But Chopra went off as if on the Magic Flying Chariot, something about how the poor don’t need hard work, but a little bit of magic. I was stunned: our desi Merlin plans to end exploitation with a handful of dust! I asked him about that remarkable sentiment, but he was nonplussed. India is a great country, he droned on, slated to be one of the wealthiest in the new century. Yes, there is poverty, but that is slated to be abolished, not by social struggle, but by magic.
Luckily Chopra responds to facial expressions, and so looking straight at my tangled eyebrows, he admitted that he plans to set up a website to sell his products, and that 10 per cent will go to the betterment of the world. Magic can be mundane too. A sigh of dissatisfaction and disappointment went through the room. I was looking for some panache as well, but all we got was pedestrian. The young students who filled the room in January did not seem satisfied to leave the woes of the world to the charity industry. Will a few dollars here and there make the rich compassionate and will this small amount of money enable social transformation? As we left the room, the discussion turned in this direction. In the afterglow of the youthful protest against the WTO in Seattle, few young people seem willing to let aged solutions like charity exhaust their hopes for justice. The overindulgent may use charity as a salve for their weary consciences, but the youth that look to Seattle as a beacon do not want to barricade themselves from the poor.
The global protests against the inhumanity of poverty cannot be answered with the tithe, and I think that Chopra felt a bit out of sorts as we left the auditorium. In India, amongst the well heeled who come to hear him speak, he may not get this kind of reception. In fact, his counterpart in India, the self-described Queen of the Ayurveda and Indian Ambassador of Beauty, Shahnaz Husain, does not sell her range of products wrapped in a philosophy of life. She is quite blatant, eager to make a profit and to beautify the elite with her 470 products sold in 600 Indian stores as well as in 140 other countries. Her growth rate of 30 per cent would have been expanded with her initial public offering that was held off, but she is sure to profit widely from her new line of creams and lotions made from 24-carat gold. Chopra, in the US, tries to assuage guilt, but Husain does not need to help along an Indian elite who seem all the more estranged from the poverty that surrounds them. Chopra’s oils, facelifts and mantras are designed to exorcise the elite from guilt, whilst Husain just wants to make the world beautiful in her image.
The street children in India, Chopra writes, ‘have no belongings other than their beautiful souls. Even amidst the immense poverty and destitute conditions, one finds in the children no trace of violence, no hostility, no rage, no anger. There is a simple, sweet innocence even among the extremely impoverished.’ The poor cease to be human, with the capacity to struggle and aspire.
The carefree elite co-exists with poverty as it sells itself two myths: the first is that the poor must be blamed for their lack of thrift (as we’ve seen above), and the second is that the poor enjoy their freedom from worry over possessions and desire. The street children in India, Chopra writes, ‘have no belongings other than their beautiful souls. Even amidst the immense poverty and destitute conditions, one finds in the children no trace of violence, no hostility, no rage, no anger. There is a simple, sweet innocence even among the extremely impoverished.’ The poor cease to be human, with the capacity to struggle and aspire. If the Indian poor are unhappy, it ruins the tourists’ trip as well as the image of the Spiritual East, one that is far from the Materialist West. Blind to the woes of the poor, Chopra tells his overindulgent readers that there is ‘only one kind of poverty, and that’s spiritual poverty.’ If you are rich, he says, ‘if all you think about is money, then you are very poor. Wealth and poverty are states of mind.’ ‘Truly wealthy people never worry about losing their money,’ he wrote in a book entitled Creating Affluence in 1993, ‘because they know that wherever money comes from there is an inexhaustible supply of it.’
The rich often allow their guilt to get the better of them, and some of them fashion themselves as poor to gain wisdom. Chopra compassionately argued that ‘you don’t have to give up anything.’ Enjoy. Chopra conducts his form of Indian healing for renegade Cowboy capitalists. A white American once thanked an Indian for his religious teachings. He turned to her, and said, ‘I am not teaching religion. I am selling my brain for money to help my people. If you get some lesson out of it, that is your benefit, not mine.’ ‘To the hungry,’ he said, ‘religion comes in the form of bread.’ This is not Chopra. It is Vivekananda, in 1893, during his visit to the US. Vivekananda was forthright with his criticism of imperialism and in his hope for the freedom of humanity. Chopra is more keen on his private communication with God and his own divine lesson that ‘every adversity, every disaster, every rough episode is a message in love from God.’ The Divine Dollar at howtoknowgod.com perhaps, certainly not the ragged divine in whom the wretched pin their most noble hopes. At least I hope it’s not the same person, don’t you?
This story was first published in the January 2001 issue
Image courtesy: Shutterstock