Pseudoscience & Religion

Deepak Chopra And His New-Age Claptrap

Along with photographs of skimpily clad girls, a prominent feature of Times of India, the largest selling English daily in the country, is its peddling of new age claptrap. In addition to two daily columns – Speaking Tree and Sacred Space– the newspaper has a separate section in its Sunday edition to cater to the needs of new age buffs. Named “Mind Over Matter“, the section carries assorted stuffs – book extracts, book reviews, Q&A column, etc. Though the paper does feature prominently the activities of all peddlers of nonsense, Sri Ravishankar and Deepak Chopra are perhaps TOI’s pet new-age gurus.

Unlike astrological predictions that appear in newspapers, the inane stuff being mouthed by these guys is in-fact harmful to the persons who take them seriously. It is not my argument that astrology is a harmless exercise. No. The astrologers have indeed been playing havoc with the lives of millions of ordinary and even educated Indians. But the astrological columns that appear in newspapers are generally not taken seriously by the readers. On the other hand, the writings and speeches of the new-age gurus such as Ravishankar, Deepak Chopra, or Ramdev are read with utmost seriousness by their followers. Given the influence these men exercise on their followers, it is necessary to dissect their writings and expose them. With this intention, I reproduce below a write-up that appeared recently in the section “Mind Over Matter”.

Intuition meditation

Last winter I was meditating for an hour twice a day trying to develop intuition. After these sessions I was sure if I opened my eyes I would see something. I was very afraid of this ‘being’ or energy. Do you have any insights as to what caused this fear?

I suspect it probably was an unwelcome entity that you sensed. It is important to make self-realization your unambiguous intention. Setting your sights on anything less than complete enlightenment opens you up to the possibility of inadvertently inviting in beings that may not be in your best interests.

–         Love, Deepak

(Sunday Times of India, Bangalore edition, 19 October 2008)

It is not clear whether the question was a creation of Deepak Chopra himself or was asked by a reader of the newspaper. Let that pass. What worries me is the content.

The questioner (real or fictitious) has evidently gone deep into the new-age crap put out by Deepak Chopra and other of such characters. The question and answer contains a number of imprecise words and phrases. These are the hallmarks of every new-age rant. The words – intuition, being, energy, self-realization, enlightenment, etc – do not have any precise meaning here, but are used as if they are pregnant with spiritual import!

A right answer to such a question would have been something like this (For the sake of brevity and convenience, I assume that the questioner is a man, though a large proportion of the new-age buffs are women):

Gentleman, you are hallucinating. Intuition is only a lucky guess that happens to be true and you can not develop it by any means, including meditation. Frequently such “intuitive knowledge” is false, even though you might have forgotten the wrong insights/intuitions.  In fact, you have already gone through an intuitive phase when you were a child. If one accepts the theory of Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist, children pass through an intuitive phase before they reach a phase of rational thought. During that phase, children “just know” things to be true which in fact are not true.

Meditation itself is a contentious subject and may by useful at the most as a method of relaxation. Most of the claims made with respect to the benefits of meditation by the ‘gurus’ such as Deepak Chopra, Maharshi Mahesh Yogi, Swami Ramdev, and the double Sri Ravishankar are patently false, or even dangerous at times to the wellbeing of an individual.

One of the most popular ‘techniques’ used in meditation is very conducive to experience hallucination, because “by taking fewer and shorter breaths, the person meditating does not supply the brain with its normal oxygen levels and may thereby hamper its normal function” (Page 163, The Handbook of Practical Psychology, B.Richard Bugelski & Anthony M. Graziano, Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1980).

There is no energy or “being” (other than ‘beings’ who are physically present around you at the time of meditation!) that could be invoked, inadvertently or not, through meditation, however “intense” the meditation is. Despite decades of scientific investigations into paranormal phenomena, no supernatural beings or energies have ever been detected, except of course in the fertile imagination of paranormal-mongers.

Your experience of the presence of a ‘being’ was most probably a creation of your imagination, brought out by your belief in the ‘power’ of meditation. It could also be a case of hallucination as explained above. Next time you experience the presence of any such energy or ‘beings’, please open your eyes. You will see that that there are no ‘beings’ around that have come to haunt you in the absence of a “less-than-complete-enlightenment”! You will also realize (or you will be ‘enlightened’!) what junk these ‘spiritual’ bestsellers are!

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Manoj TV

12 Comments

  • I do remember reading that the stimulation of certain regions in the brain can cause people to feel the presence of such beings. I can’t find a link right now, but I will keep looking.

    My views on Deepak Chopra and his ilk are best expressed in this pithy quote from “Bender’s Game”, the latest Futurama movie:
    “As Deepak Chopra taught us, quantum physics means anything can happen at any time for no reason.”
    Now, if Matt Groening had a column …

  • Hi Manoj,

    Excellent post. I wanted to comment on your statement:
    “Meditation itself is a contentious subject and may by useful at the most as a method of relaxation. ”
    Some recent research has shown actual physiological effects of meditation, beyond just relaxation. I think what we need to criticize is the attribution of non-material causes to it, not the entire concept itself. Chopra and other mystics start with the assumption of a dualistic mind. This is baseless. We should use science to study the actual reality behind such brain phenomena.

  • I liked the quote on Quantum Mechanics given by Sundeep Peswani . The new age spiritualists such as F.Capra & D.Chopra has indeed messed up Quantum Mechanics.

    As to Ajitha comment, I have not come across the study he mentioned. Is it possible for you to provide any internet link on the study? It is to be pointed out that I value meditation as a relaxation technique.

    I lso would like to quote from a recent book co-authored by Dr.Simon Singh & Prof Edzard Ernst:

    “Evidence

    Research into meditation is scarce and often seriously flawed. Truly independent evaluations are rare. Nevertheless, it seems likely that meditation offers many of the benefits associated with relaxation. Some alternative therapists suggest that meditation can have a direct impact on serious conditions, such as cancer, but there is no evidence to support such claims.

    Some reports suggest that mental illnesses can be exacerbated through meditations, so patients with such problems should not use it.

    Conclusions

    Meditation can be relaxing and thus increase wellbeing. In this way it can prove to be useful for many people. In the absence of mental illness, it seems to be a safe form of therapy”. (Page 317, Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial; Bantem Press, London 2008)

  • Yes,
    This is one study that I had bookmarked:
    http://psyphz.psych.wisc.edu/web/News/Meditation_Alters_Brain_WSJ_11-04.htm
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A43006-2005Jan2.html

    (Check out the Washington Post article first. There is undeniable evidence that there are physiological brain changes produced as a result of meditation)

    These studies are from quite legitimate sources. Its from a couple of years ago and since then there have been more elaborate studies using functional MRIs and stuff. Maybe Srinivas can be more helpful here.
    I agree with you that these mystics throw around such words as general panacea to all ailments. That is dangerous. However, dismissing everything they say may not be the right strategy. There is obviously something going on and until we can determine using double-blind studies that it is purely placebo effects, physiological causes are the naturalistic explanation/ alternative solution. The studies point go beyond establishing simple relaxation effects and show actual changes in the brains of meditation practitioners. One thing to remember, however, is that the term meditation is very general and the studies are talking about a specific form of meditation.

    If there is any legitimacy to these effects, it would be a mistake to leave it to be exploited by these mystics who are claiming them to be supernatural effects.

    Finally, I did some googling and came up with this recent study. I haven’t read it yet, maybe you can check it out and let me know:
    http://www.plosone.org/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0001897

    Also, Sundeep, in response to the first part of your comment, you may be interested in checking out V.S. Ramachandran’s talk in the Beyond Belief series, part 1 (linked to under ‘Information’ on our homepage)

  • Hi Manoj, I found your blog as you had posted a photo of mine on your blog some time back (swastika on hood). I rather enjoy your blog. Though if you have seen mine, you may wonder what I think of yours as our views may differ slightly to widely.
    I rather enjoy reading your view points being often opposite of mine or somewhere in between my disagreement and agreement.
    On this post, I rather liked some of the topics you bring out in your proposed answer.
    I have to say as an American who did live in India a few years (studied my Master’s in Chennai) and a believer of many aspects of Indian/Hindu spirituality, I actually hesitated to have much to do with Deepak Chopra. I find many of those gurus making money in US do it simply for that reason alone and may not have pure intent. In any case, though I always was hesitant to read his books, I did in the early 2000s.. the one aspect I liked of his book (after learning about Ayurveda and some Indian spirituality by those living it- average joes -or rams if you will- of Chennai)is he was able to explain some of the more challenging aspects of ayurveda in easy to understand western terms and ways of talk. This appealed to me. Of course, him selling his ayurvedic wares at 10X the cost you’d find in any ayurvedic shop in India is another aspect I am not too happy about….But he has opened up some Americans to a new way of thinking on their wavelength, and for that I give kudos.

  • the problem with the results associated with things like meditation etc. are there are no control groups for the efficacy of the mantra given by the so called guru. Every one of them emphasizes the value of the mantra and the guru. If the stimulation of a particular spot can have a beneficiary effect, that will be there regardless of the mantra or the guru. for example instead of a mantra given by a bloated, self serving guru, one could use a word like say coca cola repeatedly and looks for the same effects, whatever they may be. I had joined for Mahesh yogis TM about 30 years and had been given a mantra and told not to reveal it to any one. It was AMBA.I was told that this word is an exclusive one selected specially by the guru after assessing me. When some of us who had been initiated compared notes we found that there were only five words. To preempt the initiated from comparing notes and thus finding out the fraud, we were told not to reveal the mantra!

  • In response to Alaivani:

    Yes, meditation, yoga, ayurveda etc do have some benefits. But the proponents of these ‘ancient arts/sciences’ should not make any unsubstantiated claims to hoodwink the public. They should use less gibberish to explain their ‘sciences’.

    And, I don’t understand what you mean by “a new way of thinking on their wavelength”. Will you please clarify?

    – Manoj

  • HI Manoj…
    I totally agree anything given too much ‘media hype’ with too much emphasis on the fantastic benefits should be questioned. We should not blindly follow.
    “A new way of thinking on their wavelength”.. Let’s see if I can shed light on what I meant…
    Teaching/exposing westerners to Ayurvedic/Indian philosophies can be challenging because so many (Sanskrit) terms are bloated with different meanings. Words can be translated into English differently and making sense of this all when presented in a typical Indian way of teaching is quite different than how we are used to learning stuff in America. Deepak Chopra’s talent I believe is that he has learned two things well- Ayurvedic teachings and the mindset of the American public and how to combine these two in such a way he has imparted knowledge of Ayurveda in a way Americans can not only understand but relate to in our daily lives…(I have been told this by other Americans and also Indians settled in US for many many years.)

  • I agree that Deepak Chopra is good at marketing ayurveda here in the US. The problem rationalists have with ayurveda is not how it is marketed but its efficacy itself. The study of ayurveda if done through legitimate scientific methods would be perfectly acceptable. The problem is that many of these practitioners refuse to submit to these tests, often because they know that their wares will fail the double-blind studies that they would be required to pass.
    Many ayurvedic “medicines” do more harm than good. There have been many studies that have shown the presence of toxic heavy metals like lead and arsenic in high concentrations in these drugs. Often these metals are intentionally added.
    Other than this problem, there is the issue of administering useless ayurvedic “medicines” on those who have serious illness that require real medical treatment.
    These and other reasons make the practice of non-scientific traditional medicined extremely dangerous and responsible for much death and suffering.

    Please check out Meera Nanda’s article on Ayurveda here http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=190

  • Excellent post Manoj, I agree with what you say. TOI is meant for reading while on the pot ! and Deepak is full of it! I guess bullshit sells…..