A rich source of enlightenment

Interview; Deborah Ross
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Deepak Chopra - MD, author, spiritual guru to the Hollywood A- list and huge fan of the Duchess of York ("so spunky", he gasps admiringly) - is never out of the American non-fiction bestseller charts these days.

In terms of sales, it's a struggle to think of anyone comparable over here. Unless, of course, you count Delia Smith which, naturally, makes you wonder about the difference between our two cultures. When the British sense an emptiness in their lives, do they sidestep the search for spiritual fulfilment and deeper truths in favour of a hearty portion of Delia's bread and butter pudding? (Butter one side of the bread, then marmalade the other, and very sustaining it is, too.)

"Delia who?" Chopra inquires, his thick eyebrows arching into hairy apostrophes. She's a cook, you explain.

"Oh," he says, as enlightenment spreads across his chunky, treacle-eyed, rather prominent-nosed face. "I see." But then, with some exasperation, he adds: "The one thing I have never understood about you British is your obsession with cookery. And gardening. And pets."

He shakes his lustrously thick, black hairdo disappointedly. Oh dear, you commiserate, we are rather hopeless on the self-improvement, self- discovery front, aren't we? Complete non-starters, even. But he won't go quite as far as that. "Actually," he says, brightening considerably, "I think the British are more interested in what I do than the Americans, but they just won't admit it ..." He then chortles jovially. As he can well afford to do.

Since his first book, which he published himself for $5,000 a decade ago, Deepak Chopra has become, if not the rock star of the new spirituality, then at least the Andrew Lloyd Webber. There's nothing particularly new about anything he says. Indeed, a lot of it may even be rubbish. But, good heavens, it seems to be catchy, hummable stuff. And if Chopra isn't currently playing in every capital in the world, he very soon will be.

At the last count, his 15 books had sold more than six million copies and been translated into 25 languages. He is in huge demand on the lecture circuit where he can talk for hours without recourse to notes and is always rapturously received.

His apostles include Demi Moore, Michael Jackson, Dave Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor, Donna Karan, Hillary Clinton and even Prince Charles, who last year invited him to a meeting of GPs and academics to discuss ways of integrating "non-traditional forms of healing into the Western scientific framework".

It was a formal do, and he didn't get to talk to Charles in any depth, "but he did make one telling remark". Ohhh, pass it on, you urge. "He said: `When I talk to the architects, the doctors call and go mad. And when I talk to the doctors, the architects call and go mad." Sorry, could you repeat that? Chopra does. But, frankly, it doesn't make any more sense the second time around. Not that I say so. Chopra now has a very knowing look on his face, and I don't want to appear sensationally thick. So, instead, I say: "What a brilliant remark!" And look very knowing, too.

Chopra doesn't just deal with the affluent, as he is at pains to point out. Poor people are fine too and, recently, "I even did a series on public television in America." As a result, baggage handlers come up to him at airports and say: "Hey, I saw you on telly. And what you said was really deep, man." But is it?

What he is selling is a version of the ancient Hindu system of Ayurvedic medicine topped up with liberal portions of Western philosophy ("I've read Bertrand Russell!"), existential reflection and empowering rhetoric of the "love can inspire us with its power" sort. If you want to be rich, read Creative Affluence or The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success. If you want to be slim, read The Perfect Weight. If you want to live to 130, then go for Ageless Body, Timeless Mind. And if you want to "rediscover the love we long for, one which is rich and meaningful, satisfying and lasting", then read The Path To Love (Rider Books, pounds 9.99) which only came out here last week but has already entered a second print run, the first run of 25,000 having sold out. Or so the publishers say. (With Fergie moving back in with Andrew, could she have bought the lot?)

Anyway, he is in London to promote the book. And I don't think anyone could accuse Chopra of being lax on the self-promotion front. When you first speak to the publishers, they say they can only squeeze you in after GLR, the BBC World Service, branches of Waterstone's, and every TV chat show you have heard of plus one you haven't which is apparently hosted by Selina Scott. "Oh yes, Deepak will be doing Selina," his publishers gush excitedly. Gosh, doing Selina, that's every man's fantasy, isn't it? "Mr Chopra is not like that," they curtly reply. But he'll be worn out by the time he gets to me, won't he?

"He may be tired physically, but not spiritually," they assure you. You meet him at his hotel, the pounds 250-a-night St James's Court, just round the corner from Buckingham Palace. When he first enters the room, you are looking out of the window and he rather creeps up on you from behind, so to speak. Certainly, you do not hear him come in. But then he wears the sort of soft leather shoes that just whisper expensively across carpets.

There is nothing freaky or scary about either his dress or behaviour. He has taken hippiedom and transformed it into yuppiedom. There are no flowing robes, no open-toed sandals. He does not, at any point, fall on his knees and chant "mishymishymoo" while clanging handbells and lighting thin sticks of smelly things.

Instead, he is wearing a deep grey polo shirt offset by a paler grey suit. Nice suit, you say. "It was a gift," he says. From whom, you ask. "Oh, just Donna Karan." And his fingernails! So beautifully manicured and buffed that they catch the light like tiddlywink-shaped slivers of pearl. Are you vain, you ask him. "No, no, no ... not at all," he protests. You like good clothes though. Yes, he concedes, a little sheepishly, "I do like good clothes."

Certainly, he is very rich, has made pots and pots of money. But how much exactly?

"I've spent $15m in the last three or four years, so I must have earned at least that much," he states matter-of-factly. Fifteen million, you gasp. "I charge $25,000 per lecture," he reports with considerably more glee.

But isn't there something rather immoral about making so much money at the expense of people who might be rather lost? No, he insists, there is not. Much of his money comes from his books - "I've seen people fighting over them on the streets of Colombia," he boasts - and as a bestselling writer why shouldn't he cash in on his success? "Does John Grisham have to defend what he does?"

No, but he's doing something rather different, isn't he? Mr Chopra thinks not. But then quickly adds: "I do as much as I can for charity."

But what has he spent this $15m on? Nice suits? Some, one assumes, haven't been gifts from Donna. Or has it been nice cars, nice houses and expensive baubles for the wife?

No, he insists, you are wrong on most counts. He has sunk most of the money into the deliciously-named Chopra Center for Well Being and Infinite Possibilities which he opened a couple of years ago in La Jolla, California, and which charges $3,000 for a five-day stay. Yes, his house in La Jolla is a big one on the beach from which, every morning, he can "walk to the ocean to watch the dolphins play". But, no, he doesn't have an ostentatious lifestyle. He goes skiing every winter, and scuba-diving each summer. And, yes, he does drive a big swanky Range Rover but only because he has to. "My wife insists upon it. I am a terrible driver. I think of other things when I should be watching the road. My wife thinks I will be safer in a Range Rover."

He was born in the Punjab to a cardiologist father who worked for the British Army and, at one time, was Lord and Lady Mountbatten's ADC. "Oh yes, my father worked for many famous people." Deepra himself didn't initially want to be a doctor. He wanted to be a journalist. He was a voracious, precocious reader. He had read all of Kipling, Conan Doyle, Dickens and Tennyson by the time he was 12. Plus, he had an uncle who was a journalist and didn't seem to do much beyond sit in coffee bars arguing heatedly with all his smart friends. That's the life, he thought.

However, his father very much wanted his son to be a doctor. He studied medicine at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences where he met Rita, his wife of 25 years. She was the niece of a patient of his. On their first date he took her to the movies on his Lambretta. "Do you like the Beatles?" she asked as they settled into their seats. And he had to confess: "I'd never even heard of them." He was, you gather from this, a very committed student.

Anyway, in 1970, Deepak and his new bride decided to go to America. Because of the Vietnam war, there was a shortage of doctors, "and we were offered free tickets and everything". He specialised as an endocrinologist and was, he says, a very good doctor.

But he quickly became disillusioned with conventional medicine. He could not, he says, cope with the emotional detachment required.

Eventually, he started reading up on Indian mysticism. Then he bought a book on transcendental meditation. Then he met the Maharashi Mahesh Yogi, sometime guru to The Beatles, at a Washington function and was smitten. Soon after, he quit his hospital job to serve as the Maharashi's US ambassador and salesman. This he did until 1993, when the two fell out because Chopra wanted to go down a more commercial route. So he did. And he hasn't looked back since.

How, though, did he build up his celebrity clientele?

Does Michael Jackson just phone you up one day and say, "Hey, I'm in a spot of bother, and you might be just the guy to sort it out."

Apparently not. It works like this: "Ten years ago George Harrison contacted me. Now, I didn't care two hoots about him being famous, but we met, and liked each other and he became a friend. Then, he mentioned me to Dave Stewart ... Celebrities mix with other celebrities. They are like people who drink in the same pub." Although in this instance "they are all drinking in the bar of spiritual interest".

Does he enjoy being a celebrity himself, you wonder. Oh no, he says, it is very inconvenient. People in public toilets turn to look at him, and sometimes he gets their pee down his Donna Karan. But, that said, he is "flattered by all the attention". And he does very much enjoy the lecturing. "The energy that comes out is just unbelievable," he howls excitedly.

Now, I don't know if Deepak Chopra does it for you. Maybe he does. But he doesn't do it for me. No matter how hard I try to meditate, and "make my heart a space filled with light", nothing happens. But when I tell Chopra this, he doesn't seem much bothered. "It doesn't work for everyone," he shrugs.

Not like Delia's bread and butter pudding. Which always hits the spot.