Deepak Chopra muddles words like “consciousness” and “quantum”, but that doesn’t make him a charlatan
Thanks to Julian Marc Walker for his excellent, exhaustive analysis of Chopra’s use of language, and to Rene Tschannen for hosting the Facebook dialogue that stimulated this post.
Deepak Chopra gives me an ambivalence migraine.
On one hand, he’s largely responsible for the groundswell of interest in the art of Āyurveda, which I love and practice. I’ve had many students and clients seek Ayurvedic counsel based upon their exposure to Chopra’s conveyor belt of books. Those who have been especially comforted by him often had unfulfilling experiences with biomedicine that would make a former biomedical practitioner who had moved on to something more transcendent very attractive. In Chopra they found a post-medical expert who mirrored their own post-medical yearnings.
On the other hand, he’s accomplished this through a two-pronged attack on the holism he professes to nurture. One prong consists of the relentless commercialism that continually upsells overpriced products, services, and self-satisfaction to a privileged and starry-eyed market. The other prong is forged in the basic intellectual dishonesty of positioning Vedantic spirituality as science.
Chopra’s commodified Āyurveda creates a parody of accessibility to what should be a very simple and thrifty kitchen medicine. One example would be his endorsement of Zrii, the pyramid-scheme-marketed amalaki-based bottled juice that sells for $40 per 25oz and which gullible yoga teachers were aggressively trying to hook each other on several years ago. The hard-selling was out of hand for a while: thank goodness it calmed down. I remember telling one particularly obnoxious pyramid schemer over the phone that you couldn’t possibly bottle pasteurized juice as a tonic according to the principles of Āyurveda, because juices are basically inert unless freshly squeezed and raw. I also told her that the very notion of a universal tonic violated the principles of constitutional therapy – how could any single thing be good for everyone? She ignored me and continued pounding out her script to tally up what my residual income could be if I signed up ten Zrii suckers of my own, and they turned out to be heavy users.
Another example would be the “Perfect Healing” retreats offered by the Chopra mothership in San Diego, which will set you back about $8K for six days and $10K for ten, once you factor in travel. There are plenty of expensive retreats out there for the well-heeled, but the Chopra Center’s ten-day version claims to offer full panchakarma, a series of cleansing and rejuvenative activities that actually cannot be performed in ten days. “Perfect Healing” as a program name, while it establishes a connection with the parent-concept innovated by Maharishi Ayurveda (MAV) constitutes egregiously false advertising. And while the Chopra Center’s abbreviated panchakarma will turn some people on to the sweet experience of a period of simplified diet, contemplation and an extended rhythm of self-massage, sweating, and herbalized oil enema, it’s a total overreach to use the old term. Panchakarma traditionally lasts for an undetermined period, to account for the differences in how individuals will respond to the therapies. It seems that if he’s not pasteurizing and bottling amalaki, he’s pasteurizing and bottling therapy, and he has to mangle basic herbology and tradition to squeeze it in. People expect it to work to the extent they are enthralled by the placebo of a brand, rooted in the charisma of a person. Unsurprisingly, the glow from such retreats is short-lived, as many clients have related to me, leaving them unsure as to whether it was the spa treatments or Chopra’s beneficent gaze, or simply being away from the rat race that made them feel better for a while. Some of them sustain a sense of self-empowerment for some time, however, and this is a good thing.
More problematic is Chopra’s spiritual claim – posited as “scientific” – that “Consciousness” (the capital “C” is crucial here) is eternal, immaterial, apart from and beyond organic life, and influences matter in magical ways. Consciousness is the baseline constituent of reality, says Chopra. Consciousness holds everything. A recognition of the eternal pervasion of Consciousness is all it takes for healing on the mundane level (you know, where we all happen to live, in some form of unreality or illusion). As a spiritual belief this is one of a multitude, and may have integrative benefits on a psychic level, which may in turn positively impact our psychoneuroimmunology. But to posit “Consciousness” as the “ground of being” rather than as an evolute of bio-complexity that can introspect as a scientific fact is a gross misappropriation of science. Yet, Chopra’s scientism is crucial to his overall marketing platform, just as it was for that of his teacher, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of MAV, which is a wealthy multinational with an unfortunate habit of making false medical claims (see essays by Newcombe, Jeannotat, Humes in Modern and Global Ayurveda: Pluralism and Paradigms, ed Wujastyk and Smith, SUNY, 2008).
What’s slippery is that when Chopra uses the word “Consciousness”, he doesn’t seem to know that he’s replacing a neuropsychological term with a theological one. He does it with the seamlessness of someone religiously convinced, resulting in a hopeless confusion of paradigms. A look at his opening statement at “The Nature of Reality” panel at Chapman University (I can’t find the date on this) will illustrate:
Is there an ultimate reality? For me, the answer is ‘yes’; that ultimate reality is the ground of existence, which many Eastern wisdom traditions have called Consciousness…. Here’s my definition of Consciousness. Consciousness is the ground of existence… that differentiates into everything we call reality. Our thoughts: can you have thoughts without Consciousness? The answer is ‘no’. Our cognition, our perception, our behaviour, our speech, our biology, our social interactions, our personal relationships, our environment, our interaction with the forces of nature, these are differentiated aspects of this very fundamental reality which we cannot conceive of because it is the source of our conception, and we cannot perceive because it is the source of our perception. When we ask if there is an ultimate reality and will science ever be able to disclose it, I say ‘no’; it will never be able to disclose it because science is an activity in Consciousness. Science, mathematics… can you imagine a world outside of Consciousness? No you can’t, because you have no way of stepping out of Consciousness. Okay, so you’re experiencing me in your (C/c)onsciousness, I’m experiencing you in my (C/c)onsciousness, I’m experiencing body in my (C/c)onsciousness, and even my scientific methodologies are in (C/c)onsciousness.
Wherever you see capital-C “Consciousness” in Chopra’s speech, substitute “Brahman”, and you’re much closer to what he means, and what he has learned, devotedly, in whatever school of Vedānta he’s grown up in. Chopra’s Consciousness/Brahman is a totalizing, absolute, absorptive, integrating, transcendent phenomenon that has no scientific analogue, unless we admit a proto-scientific term like “Ether”, and then endow it with hyper-subjectivity. The paragraph reads like a paraphrase of the Sāṃkhya devolutionary narrative, or like the involutionary plunge described by Sri Aurobindo. Step-by-step might reveal the tangle.
…that ultimate reality is the ground of existence, which many Eastern wisdom traditions have called Consciousness…
Um, no. Sanskritists have translated “citta” and “Brahman”, and several other metaphysical terms with the word “Consciousness”, but no one in the contemporary study of consciousness uses the word to describe anything beyond the capacity to introspect, to become self-aware. When scientists of consciousness are working on their subject, they are not studying “the ground of existence”, but a particular property of complex neurological function which some organisms display and others do not. So Chopra begins with a confusion in translation.
Consciousness is the ground of existence… that differentiates into everything we call reality.
Based on this initial confusion, “Consciousness” is now used to begin the Vedantic creation story, redacted straight from the Upanishads.
…can you have thoughts without Consciousness? The answer is ‘no’. Our cognition, our perception, our behaviour, our speech, our biology, our social interactions, our personal relationships, our environment, our interaction with the forces of nature, these are differentiated aspects of this very fundamental reality…
The creation story moves from subtle to gross, and, like Sāṃkhya and Vedānta, lumps its devolutes together in a messy, polysemic salad. This would be permissible if Chopra stuck to “Brahman”, which as a absolutist category (like the word “Life”, perhaps) can contain “cognition” and “biology” within the same frame. But because he uses the word “Consciousness” incorrectly, he’s forcing those who actually know what it means to parry the absurd claim that the capacity to introspect creates biology, social interactions, and the environment! This is fine in Sāṃkhya, which claims that the tamasic (slow, confused, occluded) aspect of ahaṃkāra (the individuation principle) produces materiality. But it won’t wash in the lab.
Unfortunately, Chopra’s confusion then runs even deeper, as he remixes his usage of “Consciousness” to include a smidgin of what neuroscientists might recognize as their subject — lower-case “c” “consciousness”:
… can you imagine a world outside of Consciousness? No you can’t, because you have no way of stepping out of Consciousness. Okay, so you’re experiencing me in your (C/c)onsciousness, I’m experiencing you in my (C/c)onsciousness, I’m experiencing body in my (C/c)onsciousness, and even my scientific methodologies are in (C/c)onsciousness.
Notice how he pivots now to temporarily limit the term to perception. “Consciousness” has moved from the totality of Brahman to acts of “consciousness” or awareness. But how could it not? When we begin with a translation boondoggle that conflates theology with science, we shouldn’t be surprised when the word oscillates between the two in meaning. Chopra may or may not be internally aware of whether he is using a capital or lower-case “c” in any given utterance, but the rest of us are certainly in the dark.
Not only is claiming the primacy of Brahman/Consciousness as a scientific axiom meaningless, it’s neither necessary to a vibrant practice of Āyurveda today, nor is it really true to Āyurveda’s history. As Kenneth Zysk shows in his fascinating Asceticism & Healing in Ancient India: Medicine in the Buddhist Monastery (Motilal, 2010), the Vedantic inflection in Caraka’s saṃhitā (collection) of medical aphorisms is likely an orthodox brahminical palimpsest upon what was originally a non-denominational and eclectic sramana (wandering) tradition, codified first by early Buddhist monastics, amongst whom any hyper-subjectivist posture similar to Vedānta would have been extremely rare. Even though Vedānta has persisted as the spiritual framework for Ayurvedic practice into the present age, I believe that these three strikes against it are an invitation for it to crumble away: (1) it is no longer defensible for a healing tradition that wishes to gain stature in relation to biomedicine; (2) it reinforces the alienating dualism between “Consciousness” and matter (or “spirit” and “body”) that a more naturalistic understanding of Āyurveda is capable of dispelling; (3) it’s a socio-political construction anyway. For practitioners like Chopra, however, letting the Vedantic paradigm slide would necessitate substantial rebranding. There’s a pointed continuity between the totalizing thrust of Vedanta, the marketing meme of “Perfect Health”, and Chopra’s continuous intimation of the possibility of miraculous healing.
Chopra has been taken to task for his conflations of spiritual and scientific terms, and hard. Sam Harris, Michael Schermer, Leonard Mlodinow, and Richard Dawkins have all demolished him in debate, leaving him with little but his swagger, diamond-encrusted glasses, and self-reflexive orientalist chic.
But he keeps coming back for more, going so far as to invite his trouncers to further debate. Which is why I think it’s important for those who oppose him, especially within yoga culture, to refrain from calling him a charlatan. Nobody goes out for public beating after public beating as Chopra does without being an earnest and dogged believer. Honestly, it’s like watching Rocky Balboa in a rope-a-dope: hopelessly outclassed by a triple-team of Apollo Creed, Mister T, and that Russian dude, leaning into shot after shot snapping his head back, flailing in the corner with his mishmash of Rumi, Blake and outlier scientific misquotes. This is not a man who is knowingly trying to deceive others. Charlatans avoid confrontation. Manipulators do not invite humiliation. But there’s Deepak, at every roundtable he can elbow his way onto, leading with that charming rubber chin.
Even if we could empirically prove that Chopra was consciously manipulative in his exaggerations and conflations (which would be impossible without a full fMRI setup watching his neurons as he debates) those of us who simply want him to be transparent about the difference between scientific and spiritual languages and methods would still be better off ditching the ad hominem, because indulging it is just gas on the fire of a larger socio-political battle that no one wants to see worsen. Calling him a charlatan alienates his vulnerable followers, ignores his own transparency about his techniques, misses cultural and linguistic subtleties that everyone could learn from, and needlessly darkens the stain of postcolonial acrimony.
First, regarding his own transparency, consider Chopra’s amazing confession of how he uses scientific language during his stare-down with Richard Dawkins:
DAWKINS: “So where did the ‘quantum theory’ come into that [notion that a ‘shift in consciousness’ precipitates a ‘shift in biology’]?
CHOPRA: “Oh it’s just a metaphor. Just like an electron or photon is an indivisible unit of information and energy, so a thought is an indivisible unit of consciousness.”
DAWKINS: “Oh, it’s a metaphor! It has nothing to do with quantum theory as we know it in physics!”
Later, Chopra defends his metaphoric usage to the word “quantum” by laying claim to it, declaring that quantum physicists themselves have “hijacked the term for their own purposes”.
Chopra’s nonsensical jiu-jitsu here makes sense if we recognize that here he is self-consciously announcing his use of the declamatory mode of artha vāda (hyperbole in spiritual teaching), which takes as its express purpose the creation of wondrous affect. All of Chopra’s speech carries the implication that the listener will derive psycho-spiritual benefit from listening. It would never occur to Dawkins to speak this way, nor to gaze at an interlocutor as though he were giving holy darśana.
Within Chopra’s Vedantic paradigm, which is suspicious of reason as a mundane and egotistical tool, spiritual benefit is often elicited with this purposeful cognitive dissonance of hyperbole, to generate the feeling that when the intellect fails, something radiant hovers in its ruins. We might say that Chopra is simply obfuscating, but a more informed analysis might reveal that he is following the forebears of his paramparā in using language with the implicit notion that nothing in māyā can really mean what we think it means. Ultimate meaning is silent and inexpressible, according to Vedānta. This is reflected in the performative difference between Dawkins and Chopra: Dawkins must be pinched and quizzical as he struggles to foster cognitive clarity; Chopra can be soft and sonorous and moist in the eyes as he waves the anxiety of clarity away.
Beneath this linguistic disjunction roils a painful postcolonial echo. One of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s primary goals was to “scientize” yoga and ayurveda, and to evidence-test the effectiveness of Transcendental Meditation. (Given that each TM mantra is unique, I don’t know how their studies could propose adequate controls, but that’s another issue.) Mahesh’s efforts were a continuation of other secularizing projects amongst Indian pandits reaching back to Swami Kuvalyananda and Sri Yogendra, among others (see Alter, Yoga in Modern India, Princeton, 2004). Chopra belongs at least thematically to a long lineage of thinkers who have paradoxically strived to use “western” terms and methods to re-invigorate and reify Indic modes of knowledge that had been degraded by Western influence. While Chopra’s pronouncements and especially the results claimed by his clinics and attributed to his products should be subject to close scrutiny, it should be considered that he may be embroiled in a complex cultural movement much more than an agent of privatized intellectual dishonesty.
On a deep level, we’re watching Dawkins and Chopra enact a mytho-cultural theatre. Beneath the specific content conflict we can see echoes of the “west” presuming intellectual superiority as it interrogates an “east” it no longer completely oppresses, while the long-suffering “east” responds with melancholic dignity and a Mona Lisa smile. I think many find the dialogue compelling, whether irritating or pleasurable, because of this dark undercurrent.
Chopra is a true believer. When I listen to him I hear someone still vibrating with a spiritual conversion, and is trying to square it with what he learned in medical school. I can say from experience that this tension can transmit an evangelicalism that both is highly un-self-aware and self-assured at the same time. This is important to understand: more than sloppy science, it is the charisma of his inflated self-confidence that I think attracts thousands. Dawkins the skeptic might get BBC contracts, but the charismatic believer scores the Oprah Network, and positions himself as a daddy besides. Precious few daddies are aware of the strings they’re pulling.
But beyond the impoliteness of calling an earnest spiritual believer a charlatan, there’s a diplomatic reason for avoiding the term when critiquing someone like Chopra: it’s easy for accusations like it to be thrown back in the opposite direction.
Chopra’s misprisions are taking place within a much larger debate over ownership, appropriation, and epistemology that modern yoga has amplified. On one side, non-denominational, evidence-hungry practitioners from both inside India and beyond are innovating the yoga they have found in their nomadic, postmodern lives. They actively distance themselves from Yoga’s religious contexts. There’s a boatload of folks in the ambivalent middle. But then on the other side, Hindutva activists are bearing down on all fraudulent interlopers into the Indian heritage of Vedism and yoga, who they strangely accuse of being closeted Hindus who paradoxically hate all things Indian, and will do anything they can to sever their fascination from its Indian roots. Here I present Dr. Rajiv Malhotra, who has devised a powerful rhetoric that suggests that most “westerners” who profess serious enough interest in Indic thought and yoga to actually practice it are plagiarizers, distorters, thieves, and misanthropes.
The first 10 minutes drives home the mood, although the rest of the presentation is well worth watching. The problem is that while Malhotra has crucial and eloquent points to make about transcultural exchange in the shadow of power inequities, and he provides an excellent roadmap of the diaspora of Indic views, his argument overextends its terms. He is far too willing to armchair-psychoanalyze “westerners”, imputing arrogance, bigotry, and self-hatred to every non-Indian who cracks a shastra or unrolls a mat. His accusations of intentional malice are a great example of how dialogue about important issues of fact can continue to be derailed by sectarian resentment.
If we’re going to critique Chopra as an interloper into science let’s keep it clean of the ad hominem, and not feed the cultural projection beast, as hungry as it is. Critique the material only; force ever greater transparency about the distinctions between science, spirituality, and poetry. Don’t allow him to perpetuate a transcultural and transhistorical language error that confuses scientific terms with religious terms. Allow for the possibility that, like many of us, he is less of a manipulator than one who is manipulated by history, baffled by this clash of ages, and reaching for poetry in the storm.