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Deepak Chopra's search for God

Author's latest book tackles 'the mystery of mysteries'

Chopra  

ATLANTA (CNN) -- Deepak Chopra and Starbucks seem to go well together.

He is the former chief of staff at Boston Regional Medical Center, now the spiritual-medical-self-help guru who has taken age-old ideas from scientific and religious studies and turned them into best-selling books, while forming the Chopra Center for Well Being in La Jolla, California. In the process, he has reaped enormous commercial success.

Starbucks, meantime, is the corporation that has taken the age-old idea of drinking coffee and turned it into a frothy, overflowing, Venti-sized empire in the midst of its own commercial glory.

And at this moment, Chopra and Starbucks are as one, in the geographical sense, at least. It's a warm Atlanta day outside the cafe on 14th Street. Inside, sitting at a corner table -- jazz descending from an overhead speaker, interrupted only by the sacrificial screech of low-fat milk being steamed -- Chopra sips on a Grande Latte (with a lot of white sugar added).

"I'm not selling pornography. I'm selling wisdom. I'm not selling cigarettes. I'm doing something for people's benefit."

— Deepak Chopra

Chopra, his black hair tinged with a frosting of white on the tips of his short sideburns, wears a look of utter calm as he talks about the origin of the universe, the existence of God, and things much less complicated, like an idea he has to eliminate poverty around the world. These are things Chopra considers during most waking moments, and many meditating ones.

As if to prove it, he opens his brown leather wallet. A section of it is filled with small pieces of folded notebook paper. He takes them out, scatters them on the table, opens them to reveal his handwritten scrawl.

"If I get a good idea, I'll immediately jot it down," he explains. "These are all book ideas. Sometimes the insights are so amazing, I'll say, 'Where did that come from?'"

It's moments like this when one is apt to say, "Is this guy for real?" How can a person who devotes his life to the study of our existence in the grand scheme of things keep the sole tangible evidence of his random thoughts on scraps of paper that look like they might blow away any second?

Isn't he worried that he might lose the meaning of the universe or something?

Chopra shrugs: "I stick them in my wallet. They're more precious than the money."

Because of his ideas, Chopra will be making more money soon. His latest book is now on shelves, owning the kind of title that carries an anti-Nietzsche boast: "How To Know God: The Soul's Journey Into the Mystery of Mysteries" (Crown Publishing Group).

"It's been audacious to try to write a title like this," admits Chopra, currently on a 21-day book tour. "I've always done that. Always reach for more than you can."

The book is Chopra's investigation of religions, nature, and personal experience to claim that humans are "hardwired" to know God -- even if they don't believe in God. It's precisely the type of book that religious conservatives are likely to place in the cylindrical file next to the latest musings on Scientology.

But in a world that agonizes over issues like ethnic cleansing, AIDS, and elementary school shootings, "How To Know God" is finding an audience on both the scholarly front, and at the local bookstore.

Dr. Candace B. Pert, a physiology and biophysics professor at Georgetown University, calls the book "a brilliant, scholarly yet lyrical synthesis of neuroscience, quantum physics, personal reminiscence, Eastern, Western and spiritual thinking." On the Publisher's Weekly best-seller list, "How To Know God" sits at No. 14 this week (just below "The Art of Happiness," which uses the ideas of the Dalai Lama to lead the reader to potential bliss).

'It's been a lifelong quest'

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Chopra was six years old when the idea of God and all those unanswerable questions were thrust upon him. Now 53, he tells the story of how he was staying with his grandfather in Bombay when a telegram arrived from his father, who was studying to be a cardiologist in London. The telegram said that he had passed his exams.

"My grandfather took me and my brother to the roof of his house," Chopra recalls. "He took out his rifle and he blew rounds into the sky for ten minutes to celebrate. Then he took his bugle out and he blasted the whole neighborhood with his bugle, he was so thrilled about his son. Then he took us to the circus, and then he took us to the movie 'Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.'"

The celebration was short-lived, however. Chopra's grandfather passed away that night while Chopra was sleeping.

"I started asking people, 'Where has he gone?'" Chopra says. "I couldn't believe that somebody could be with you and take you to the movies and then disappear completely. And so it's been a life-long quest. Where did we come from? What are we doing here? Is there meaning or purpose to our existence? Do we have a soul? What happens to us after we die?"

"How To Know God," then, is the culmination of this pursuit.

"This book has been incubating in my consciousness for many, many years," he says.

'We did both'

Chopra says he studied at St. Columbas in India. It was run by Irish Christian missionaries.

"My dad said, 'In school, be a Catholic. At home, be a Hindu.' So we did both," Chopra says.

He eventually went to All India Institute for Medical Sciences in New Delhi and studied neuro-endocrinology, infatuated with finding out how "thoughts translate into molecules." At Boston Regional Medical Center, Chopra's experiences led him to study alternative healing and the relation of body, mind and spirit.

And he started writing books. He has penned 25 so far. Among them are "Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine" (Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, 1990), "Ageless Body, Timeless Mind" (Random House, 1993), and "The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success" (Amber-Allen Publishing, 1995).

He's become so popular, Time magazine named him one of the 20th century's most prominent figures, calling him the "poet-prophet of alternative medicine." Celebrities like Madonna and Demi Moore have joined Chopra in his ultimate crusade, which, simplified, professes the Beatle-esque theme that all you need is love to make this world a better place.

Using science to prove faith?

Naturally, Chopra has endured his share of criticism. His brand of new age philosophy has been called "McSpirituality" by at least one preacher (Perhaps there might be a new pun available in the Starbucks name?). And some observers don't appreciate when Chopra casually uses official terms previously reserved for those who studied the work of Einstein.

Wendy Kaminer, author of "Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials: The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety," says Chopra has a bad habit of misusing the word "quantum" -- for instance, he often calls the energies of the universe a "quantum soup" that we are destined to alphabetize.

"He's taking a single word from the realm of science -- quantum -- and using it in ways that are meaningless," Kaminer told the Kansas City Star. "It's an attempt to use science to prove your faith."

There's also grumbling over the fact that Chopra has made loads of money by distilling advice that has been handed out for centuries through religions like Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity. Isn't there something wrong with that, even in these "Who-Wants-to-Marry- a-Multi-Millionaire?" times?

Chopra shrugs.

"I'm not selling pornography," he says. "I'm selling wisdom. I'm not selling cigarettes. I'm doing something for people's benefit."

'I have a brilliant idea'

Of his riches, he says, "I have created enormous wealth in my life, but I've spent it off. Wealth is energy that is part of the energy of the universe, and the universe is extravagant, abundant, wasteful. In every seed there's a promise of thousands of forests ... I don't accumulate wealth. I generate it."

As he says this, Chopra's eyes light up with the mischievous spark of a salesman who has just found a potential customer. He has something new to sell. He has a plan that he needs to "generate."

"I don't even want to talk about it right now, because somebody might steal the idea," Chopra teases.

Come on, he is urged.

"I am going to attempt to eliminate poverty from the world," he says with confidence. "I have a brilliant idea, and it's based on information technology, and that's all I can tell you. But it's fool-proof when it manifests, with other people's help."

Is Bill Gates, or anyone rich like him, involved?

"I don't need any wealthy people to do this," he says. "I need people with a heart. Ideas can transform. Everybody will benefit."

He finally hints that it will involve "the cooperation of regular people, multi-national corporations and retailers." He will announce his plan in less than three months.

"I have made a commitment in my lifetime to see the elimination of poverty," he says. "In my lifetime. In the world."

He's serious. Chopra believes he can change things for the better, especially with the advent of the Internet.

"I see the future of information technology as actually accelerating the evolution of our species into the spiritual domain," he says.

'We should be looking at ourselves'

Chopra also wants the human race to heal its relationship with the Earth. He believes, as Native Americans do, that nature is part of our spirituality, the great equalizer that must remain in harmony with our own needs.

"If you look at this planet from an outer space vantage point, human beings are like cancer cells," he says. "They're eating up the Earth."

They're also visiting upon each other unfathomable tragedy, witnessed in last week's Michigan school shooting where a 6-year-old boy allegedly shot to death a 6-year-old girl because she slapped him on the arm.

Chopra believes a balance of good and evil is the nature of our existence here, but sometimes things go haywire.

"What happens is from time to time we go completely imbalanced, and (it's) when we do that then you have Holocausts, Hitlers, psychopaths," he says. "Hitler is a phenomenon of the collective madness. If people were not collectively psychotic, there would not be a Hitler. We blame Hitler -- they could have gotten rid of him in one day if they didn't want him.

"So whenever these things happen, we should be looking at ourselves. The Dalai Lama says, 'You start with yourself. When there's a critical mass of people that transform, then everything goes into balance.'"

These are the kinds of things Chopra talks about at Starbucks.

'Generation. Organization. Delivery of the universe.'

At one point, a woman walks up and asks for his autograph. He gladly accepts her request and pulls out a pair of reading glasses. Not any pair, mind you. The frames are an explosion of color -- splashes of hot pink, lime green, Barney purple, Caribbean blue, lemon yellow.

They rest over his eyes like lights circling a marquee to a Broadway play titled, "I am unconventional, but many, many people buy my books," or something like that.

At the very least, Chopra is a guy searching for answers to the world's big questions.

He taps the cover of his book, points to the biggest word in its title: "GOD."

"Generation. Organization. Delivery of the universe," he says, finding a word or phrase for each letter. "Suddenly, I was looking at the word 'God' and I said, 'You know, that's what it means.'"

The interview over, Chopra leaves his empty latte cup on the table and heads outside the Starbucks to where his book-tour escort is supposed to meet him. She's not there, but rather than wait for her, Chopra starts searching.

He walks through the parking lot, past the Einstein Bagels next door, wandering by a Volvo and an SUV, actively glancing around for his ride until he disappears around a corner.

It's safe to say he won't stop searching until he finds her.



RELATED STORIES:
Discovering 'The Art of Happiness'
February 28, 2000
Writer searches for happiness with the Dalai Lama
January 27, 1999
Nobel prize spoof honors offbeat inventors
October 9, 1998

RELATED SITES:
'How To Know God'
Random House

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