PROPHET OR PROFITEER?

Written By: Daniel Honan | Photography By: The Nantucket Project

This September, Deepak Chopra will headline The Nantucket Project and defend his renowned life’s work.

There are many ways to describe Deepak Chopra, and not all of them are very nice. But let’s start with the positive. Time magazine dubbed Chopra the “poet-prophet of alternative medicine.” It’s a fitting designation, seeing as the sixty-eight-year-old from New Delhi has successfully crafted a personal brand as a spirituality and wellness teacher like no other. Boldly borrowing from mainstream medicine and Hindu teachings alike, he has neatly wrapped it all up into a “make-your-own spirituality” movement. Chopra offers followers an unconventional path that is both free from organized religion and scientific orthodoxy. His holistic approach to health is also seen as an antidote to the prescription drug-pushing excesses of Western medicine.

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 6.43.42 PMAnd people are clearly buying what he’s selling. Chopra is a publishing phenomenon with twenty-one New York Times bestsellers to his credit. His adherents are a who’s-who list of Hollywood and business royalty that has included Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Lady Gaga and Paul Tudor Jones (with whom Chopra has co-founded Just Capital, a nonprofit aimed at changing corporate behavior). Mikhail Gorbachev has called Chopra “one of the most lucid and inspired philosophers of our time.”

Now for his detractors. Some choose to judge the book by its cover, and simply can’t get past Chopra’s crystal-studded eyeglasses and celebrity endorsements. His financial success is also seen by some as evidence of his inauthenticity as a spiritual teacher. After all, it’s hard to imagine the Pope promoting a line of anti-aging products that costs $10,000 per year. To his most hostile critics, Chopra is seen not only as the poster boy for spiritual platitudes and inspirational quotes on Facebook, he is also a dangerous charlatan who peddles “pseudoscience,” “spooky physics” and questionable remedies to gullible New Agers. Chopra’s promiscuous use of buzzwords such as “quantum” and “consciousness” is derided as “Choprasplaining.”

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 6.43.53 PMOn September 22nd, Chopra will take the stage at The Nantucket Project to explain, and defend, his life’s work. His talk will be filmed live and later released as a feature-length documentary directed by his son, Gotham Chopra. TNP co-founder and CEO Tom Scott sees Chopra’s participation at the Project and in the film as an exercise in intellectual humility. “To stand before our audience and directly address these criticisms — some perhaps fair, others unfair — is obviously something Deepak doesn’t have to do. So I really respect the spirit of it,” he says. Scott’s TNP co-founder Kate Brosnan adds, “What Deepak will be discussing on a pretty fundamental level is whether the universe has a purpose. That debate is bigger than Deepak Chopra, so we’re grateful to have him put himself on the line to launch this discussion.”

One word in Deepak’s teaching that strikes a particular nerve is “consciousness.” Science doesn’t offer a theory of consciousness. In fact, the exact definition of consciousness is open to debate. How and why are we aware of ourselves? This is known as “the hard problem” in neuroscience. To Chopra, this elusive thing called con- sciousness is the answer to everything. Following Eastern religious tradition, Chopra argues consciousness is part of every atom and binds the cosmos together. To put it another way (as Chopra famously did at a conference in New Delhi): “Charles Darwin was wrong. Consciousness is the key to evolution and we will soon prove that.” That statement has ruffled a few feathers to put it mildly.

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 6.43.34 PMBut Chopra is not without allies in the scientific community. One of them, the cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman, will be speaking at The Nantucket Project this year. Hoffman is going to present the case that our perception of reality is all just a fantastic hallucination. So where does consciousness come from? The brain? Hoffman has developed mathematical models that prove that’s not the case. That is why Hoffman credits Chopra for his contributions to our evolving understanding of consciousness. And yet, as a scientist, Hoffman will not concede, a la Chopra, that ancient wisdom had it right all along and that science is just now catching up.

Of course, all of these concepts are difficult to fully wrap your mind around. Thankfully, Deepak Chopra will be on the stage at the White Elephant walking project-goers through his philosophy. Whether he is a prophet speaking the truth or a profiteer peddling fairytales will then be up to you to decide.

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