By Hb Singh | OPINION |
When you level sexual allegations against popular religious leaders, be prepared for feverish denials and counter attacks. They will retaliate with a thousand arrows bearing tips poisoned with false stories and personal attacks.
And if they are dead and gone – as in the case of outed sexual predators like Yogi Bhajan and Ravi Zacharias – their fanatical followers will accuse you of maligning someone no longer around to defend himself. They’re dead and gone, so why do you want to dig into the past? How dare you!
When the first part of this series was published, I got exactly such a response. An ardent supporter of Yogi Bhajan – the Los Angeles yoga guru who made tons of money peddling Kundalini Yoga (KY) and Yogi Tea – wrote mockingly on the social media: “After death one can write anything.”
FOR PART 1, CLICK HERE
Let us first address this matter. Should we desist writing about dead religious leaders gone rogue? If someone famous is dead now, it may be inappropriate to point out their little flaws that you may have known all along or discovered subsequently. We should let them slide. I would.
But not major flaws like sexual abuse and rape. You don’t sweep them under the carpet, even if they come to light after their death. These are criminal offences. These are actions with real victims, who are probably still reeling from trauma and injury of the actions of the big fish perpetrator.
When discussing Zacharias’ despicable actions, a Christian blogger gave this argument. After the person dies, you discover multiple bodies buried under his house. Now, do you brush off the case, and argue we should do nothing because he is now dead? Definitely not. A proper investigation should follow.
For that diehard fan of Yogi Bhajan, let it be known that when people take up such matters, they are not merely writing ‘anything’. On the contrary, it is about shining light on something very, very wrong perpetrated by the so-called ‘master’. Yes, to many, Yogi Bhajan is still worshipped as a master. His words hold sway, years after his death.
In fact, people invoking this argument are actually enablers of the abuse. They were probably silent if they had known about the abuses earlier, and they are still protecting the perpetrator by trying to silence those courageous enough to sound the alarm bells. So, enough with this nonsense that the person is dead and gone.
GHOSTS OF THE PAST
The purpose of this series is to learn from the Ravi Zacharias expose.
Let us look at the investigation itself. Ravi Zacharias International Ministry (RZIM) – the Christian mega speaker’s multi-million-dollar enterprise named after him – really did not have much of a choice but to undertake the investigation. News of the extent of Ravi’s sexual exploits had spread widely after Christianity Today’s September 2020 article citing allegations by three anonymous sources that he had sexually harassed them at two spas he co-owned. The ghost of the past began catching up. The organisation was forced to do something. Meek denials will no longer suffice.
So, they hired a law firm to dig into the matter. The investigation revealed a damning story. Zacharias was exposed as a sexual predator, his double life unmasked.
We now turn to Yogi Bhajan’s legacy organisations – i.e. the outfits that took over after his death in 2004 at the age of 75. Murmurs of his sexual exploits had made their rounds earlier, but remained under wraps. The 1986 court case taken up by Pamela Saharah Dyson – known as Premka Kaur Khalsa while she was within the Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization (3HO) fold – was settled out of court. The KY circle would have been aware, but nothing much was spoken about it outside.
Hence, more than a decade later, when a group of Malaysians were planning a major event in 1999, as part of the 300th celebration of the Khalsa, they were eager to invite Yogi Bhajan as the key speaker. I was part of the team. None of us were aware of the sexual abuse allegations against him. Either we failed in our due diligence, or these matters were kept well hidden. In the end, the plan did not work out, saving us embarrassments in years to come.
Yogi Bhajan’s legacy organisation was once again forced to face his past ghosts in 2020 when Premka released her book, ‘Premka: White Bird in a Golden Cage (My Life with Yogi Bhajan)’. It detailed his alleged sexual and other abuses. Of course, by this time, he was already dead. But his organisation was alive and kicking, and minting money in his name.
At the top of the food chain is Siri Singh Sahib Corporation (SSSC), the umbrella organisation for 3HO which promotes KY, a yoga brand popularised by Yogi Bhajan. 3HO represents the ‘global Kundalini Yoga (as taught by Yogi Bhajan) community’, as stated on its website. Others in the web include Kundalini Research Institute (KRI), International Kundalini Yoga Teachers Association (IKYTA) and Sikh Dharma International (SDI).
After Pamela’s book hits the streets, KY trainers and students were abuzz. For many, they must have felt being hit by a wrecking ball. Many of them had joined the organisation years after Yogi Bhajan’s death, and were blissfully unaware of his past transgressions. They would have felt cheated by the silence of the older and more senior members who would, and should, have known about Yogi Bhajan’s dark past.
At this juncture, just like RZIM, the all-white clad men and women at SSSC and its affiliates were forced to confront the issue. They had no where to run.
In a note dated 18 Feb 2020 and addressed to the ‘3HO, Sikh Dharma and KRI Community’, a clutch of the community leaders got the process rolling. They said: “Credible allegations concerning sexual misconduct by Yogi Bhajan have come forward. Our organizations take these allegations very seriously. We stand united against abuse of power, sexual abuse, any form of exploitation, and any use of sexuality as a vehicle for causing harm.” What a change of heart. Earlier, they were indifferent, resentful even, to such sexual abuse allegations.
Now cornered, SSSC commissioned An Olive Branch (AOB), a Buddhist-based organisation, to conduct a supposedly independent investigation into the allegations. AOB’s stated aim, as outlined at its website, is to ‘bring about greater understanding and reduction of ethical misconduct on the part of religious leaders.’ They perform ‘thorough and compassionate investigations’ for ‘spiritual communities worldwide’, as noted by those who commissioned them.
Let’s be clear. AOB is not geared to conduct full-fledged investigations. Its investigation scope pales when compared to RZIM. The outfit engaged by RZIM had even hired a former FBI agent to help with its investigation. No such thing by AOB.
AOB’s investigation was child’s play, more of a whitewash. All they did was set-up an email, gather feedback, interview people willing to talk, and sift through additional material or documents provided by Yogi Bhajan’s side or witnesses. There was not any real investigation on the part of the external party. They did not call out for documents or communications that will instruct them as to what was really going on.
Agreed, the incidents happened 16 years after Yogi Bhajan’s death. Still, there are documents in the archives that can help in the process. In one court case initiated by Inderjit Kaur Puri, Yogi Bhajan’s widow popularly known as Bibiji – they had presented to the court relevant documents and emails. They even made mention of voicemail messages. Surely a thorough inspection of documents and emails may have flushed out more details on the sexual abuse allegations.
So, in light of that, what outcome do you expect?
When released in August 2020, AOB’s report found that Yogi Bhajan ‘more likely than not’ had ‘engaged in sexual battery, other sexual abuse specifically, exposing minors to pornography, sexual harassment, and unethical behavior’.
“After weighing all of the relevant information available to us, we have sufficient evidence to conclude it is more likely than not that Yogi Bhajan raped three women and that he directed one woman to have anal sex with a young man,” read one of its multiple conclusions to a barrage of allegations levied against the teacher whose real name is Harbhajan Singh Puri.
‘More likely than not’. Seriously?
To begin with, SSSC and its affiliates had designed a superficial investigation to calm the nerves of its members and clients. They let slip an opportunity to come clean with a proper and thorough investigation. Instead, they dished out a lame exercise. The report even carried high praises of Yogi Bhajan. One respondent, called supporter, described Yogi Bhajan as ‘saint-like’ or someone who is ‘like Christ or the Buddha’. That’s on page 19 of the 72 page AOB report. Oh, yes. This report was half-packed with uncritical views of diehard followers.
Its limited investigation scope ensured that it does not go beyond sexual-related allegations. There may be many more things wrong at the movement. But all of that was off bounds, and not within the investigation’s scope. A proper investigation would have allowed a true picture to emerge.
WHAT ABOUT PEOPLE AROUND YOGI BHAJAN?
So, the investigation zoomed onto Yogi Bhajan. Though he wielded immense control, still, he was no one-man operator. He ran an ashram, he supervised an enterprise. He was lord over a money making machine. But there were others around.
There were secretaries and directors. Some of them are still around. What role did they play, if any? Were they equally guilty in this enterprise? Did they have a hand in the string of sexual abuses that Yogi Bhajan was ‘more likely than not’ to have committed? Perhaps some of them chose to close their eyes and ears to the nonsense that was happening right under their noses, or around them?
All these question were left unanswered by design. It was never part of the investigation. So they escaped scrutiny, throwing the already dead Yogi Bhajan under the bus.
Someone should comb the present day leadership list and see who should have known something about the sexual abuses of the past. Then we may know who had remained silent. These would be the enablers of the sexual abuse and other potential shenanigan that went on.
LIES. MORE LIES.
Ravi Zacharias had been a pretender for decades. Steve Baughman, who practices law in the San Francisco Bay Area, was among the few who started calling out Zacharias for whom he truly was. But to no avail. His voice hardly made a dent in the thick armor that surrounded the Zacharias machinery.
Among the early red flags that caught Baughman’s attention were the preacher man’s supposed credentials. Zacharias had claimed for himself academic credentials that he did not have. He claimed to be “a professor at Oxford” and a “visiting scholar at Cambridge.” He repeatedly told his audience – packed large auditoriums around the world – that he had been “educated in Cambridge.”
In mid-2015, Baughman found out that Zacharias was never a visiting scholar at Cambridge University. He had written confirmation from the university. He brought this to RZIM’s attention. How did they react? They cut off all communication with him.
In 2018, Baughman released a book entitled ‘Cover-Up in the Kingdom: Phone Sex, Lies, And God’s Great Apologist, Ravi Zacharias’. Even this did not do much to slow down. Instead, he kept up the double life, travelling all over the world, with prolonged stints in Thailand in the guise of writing. All expense paid by his ministry.
“His claims were false, and his Christian business colleagues knew it. They remained silent. Ravi Zacharias was too useful to the Kingdom. He had written dozens of books, had a weekly radio show that reached over 2000 outlets, he packed large auditoriums around the world, and in 2016 his ministry brought in $42,000,000. This was a large boat that nobody in the Christian business world wanted to rock,” he writes.
There are some similarities with the story of Harbhajan Singh Puri @ Yogi Bhajan. If you care to listen carefully, you will find inconsistencies in his narrative as to how it all started. Some researchers have caught him making up stuff about his yoga lineage and masters.
Let us introduce you to Philip Deslippe, an American religion historian from University of California Santa Barbara. He wrote a ‘detailed and evidence-based account’ of the origins of KY in the article “From Maharaj to Mahan Tantric” published in the academic journal Sikh Formations in 2012. The article challenged the KY official history claiming it as an ancient and secret tradition prior to Yogi Bhajan’s open teaching of it. Students are told that the practice contains secret teachings passed down the line from masters before him. It is presented as an extension of some age old practice. Yogi Bhajan and his troops have successfully marketed the yoga teachings worldwide. They have teachers and students in many countries, including in Europe, Africa and Asia. They are present in Malaysia and Singapore, as well.
But is KY truly a hand-me-down from an age old practice? Not quite. Deslippe argued that it was ‘a bricolage created by Yogi Bhajan himself’, deriving from two main figures. In other words, Yogi Bhajan had put stuff together, and whipped up the KY cocktail. It was, after all, not as magical as he had made it out to be.
Rejecting the KY component will be tough because teachers, students and fans have invested time, money and a great deal of emotion into the teaching. For some, it defines them! For others, it connects them to the wider family. And there is the financial element. Too many people have invested too much of themselves in it. Today, it’s a money making machine for Yogi Bhajan’s legacy organisations and for many of its key people.
Aside from peddling yoga to the Western world, Yogi Bhajan was also into teaching Sikhi, armed with a big title.
In a court document, it was claimed that in 1971, Yogi Bhajan was ‘designated the Siri Singh Sahib, the Sikh leader for the Western Hemisphere.’ What brazen lie! First, the title is disputed. That is a story for another day. Second, what a mighty claim. They should have just anointed him Sikh leader of the universe! To think that they would state such ostentatious lies in official documents. Imagine what more behind closed doors.
Yogi Bhajan had given the Sikh teachings some twist of his own. He had tried to inject, or weld, yoga deep into its psyche. Followers may do well to examine if his narrative of the Guru’s message stands the test.
The lesson here is that even the best and the most eloquent amongst us are capable of lying. Yes, they are religious preachers and leaders, but it does not mean that they are not capable of lying. We must always be alert. Catch them early, so that they don’t keep growing their lies. They maybe be rockstars or sants or babas, but be clear, they are humans, after all.
We now look at what took place post-investigation. RZIM and Yogi Bhajan’s legacy organisations reacted in very different ways.
Within a month after the release of the report, Sarah Davis, RZIM CEO and Zacharias’s daughter, released a statement acknowledging the pain and suffering caused by her father’s actions, and announced a slew of actions to be taken. She admitted that her father was involved in ‘antithetical’ activities. They announced that RZIM would change its name. And that they will start pulling down his online videos and books.
RZIM is showing the world that it is trying to move forward. They have engaged an external party to undertake a thorough and independent assessment of the organisation’s management. Remember, the board and management failed big time in reining in Ravi, the face of their organisation, when they were already noises out there that something was rotten in RZIM.
But no such inkling at the Yogi Bhajan empire. Aside from pulling down a photo or two or making some cosmetic changes, It’s business as usual.
On the family front, not so much of a squeal from Yogi Bhajan’s family. His wife has maintained silence on the issue. We have not come across any statement from Bibiji on the abuse perpetrated by her husband. The same goes for their children: Ranbir Singh Bhai, Kamaljit Kaur Kohli and Kulbir Singh Puri.
Asia Samachar had checked with a number of people who have been following the developments at the Yogi Bhajan legacy organisations. They say that the family has avoided discussing the matter publicly because they are engaged in a number of lawsuits with the organisation. We may be looking at potentially hefty settlements here.
In a SSSC trustees report for the first quarter of 2015, there was an entry entitled ‘Meditation with Bibiji’. It reads: “Over the past few months, we have been engaged with Bibiji, Ranbir Singh, Kulbir Singh, Kamaljit Kaur, and Avneesh Kaur in extensive discussions to resolve the ongoing litigation and issues, and bring healing to our Dharma.” Dr Avneesh is married to Ranbir.
When Yogi Bhajan died, he left half of his estate to his wife and half to a group of 15 female former assistants. Some of the legal suits are related to this. In one of the cases, Bibiji claimed that her husband’s advisers improperly excluded her and their children from the management boards of two non-profit organisations her husband started. At the end of the day, these court battles come down to power and money.
The family and the organisation can do better in how they are dealing with the fallout of Yogi Bhajan’s sexual abuse scandal. The real story is still buried in the bosoms of people running the show at the organisation.
Hb Singh is a Kuala Lumpur-based journalist with some experience in dealing with Sikh organisations, both from within and outside. He met Yogi Bhajan in person in 1999 in Anandpur Sahib.
* This is the opinion of the writer, organisation or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.
Yogi Bhajan’s fall from grace. The ‘sexual abuse’ is just the just beginning (Asia Samachar, 20 Aug 2020)
Yogi Bhajan ‘more likely than not’ raped his followers (Asia Samachar, 15 Aug 2020)
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