Tainted by sexual abuse, Yogi Bhajan’s legacy in jeopardy

So, as Snatam Kaur in her moving statement highlights, now is not the time for recrimination but healing, and for believing and supporting those victims who have and no doubt will come forward to break their silences.

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Yogi Bhajan
By Gurnam Singh | OPINION |

Very honest and courageous words from Snatam Kaur on the revelations of sexual abuse by the former head of the 3HO organisation, Yogi Harbhajan Singh. This is not the first and will certainly not be the last case of a charismatic spiritual leader exploiting human vulnerabilities for ulterior motives with devastating impact on victims.

Sexual abuse scandals involving high profile individuals, from media moguls such as Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein, to less well known figures in the Catholic Church, have regularly hit the headlines. Many of these cases involve historical allegations of abuse and it is only with the advent of the internet and social media that the wall of silence is being shattered.

Talking about and discussing sexual abuse is probably one of the most difficult things to do. For the victim, the fear of self-blame, shame and not being believed often results in a self-imposed purdah. On the other hand, perpetrators, especially those holding powerful positions in society, will deploy every weapon possible to evade justice, and sadly many do succeed!

Yogi Harbhajan Singh, once hailed as a hero of the Khalsa Panth for his efforts of taking ‘Sikhism’ to non-Panjabi people in the Western Hemisphere – for which he was was allegedly awarded the honorific title of ‘Sri Singh Sahib’ by the Akaal Takht, the supreme temporal authority of the Sikhs – is now seen in the same light as Weinstein and others. The difference being that during his life Harbhajan Singh was never actually convicted for any criminal offence.

Harbhajan Singh’s life story is a quintessential Hollywood ‘rags to riches’ tale. From relative obscurity, as an airport worker in India, in a short period of time he finds himself rubbing shoulders with Presidents and Popes. By adorning the trappings of an Indian Guru, and a persona to match, he followed a well trodden and lucrative path taken by Yogis to the West Coast of America. His business was simple, to apparently save wealthy rich Americans from an aimless life of materialism. He had a cure for their ‘miserable existence’, which was a mix of yoga and spiritually; and for sure there were many Californians who were happy to ‘purchase the product.’

Like the more famous Rajneesh, aka Osho, Harbhajan Singh quickly built a loyal following amongst a class of mostly educated white hippies, who were happy to experiment with whatever seemed new and distinctive, and what more ‘far out’ can you have than a very tall bearded man from the East offering an exotic mix of Yoga and Eastern mysticism laced with a strong dose of Gurbani and a whole range of mantras and chants for any number of ailments!

Yogi Bhajan with Indian president Giani Zail Singh

In a relatively short period he managed to inspire 1000’s to adopt a completely different lifestyle. In the process, he managed to build an international following, business empire and status that was afforded to high ranking royals, politicians, diplomats and oligarchs. The rest is history and no doubt his legacy, albeit tainted by the sexual abuse charges, lives on. Though there had been rumblings for years about Harbhajan Singh’s alleged indiscretions, it is only in recent years, perhaps inspired the the ‘me to’ movement, that a steady string of mostly former female followers/students, have found the courage to speak out.

SEE ALSO: Yogi Bhajan’s sexual exploits under investigation  

It would be wrong to suggest that everything that Harbhajan Singh did was bad and for sure he did inspire many to refrain from drug taking and generally unhealthy lifestyles. And for sure he brought Sikhism to many in the West that were oblivious to it. So, as Snatam Kaur in her moving statement highlights, now is not the time for recrimination but healing, and for believing and supporting those victims who have and no doubt will come forward to break their silences.

In many ways the 20th Century is not only a period of decolonisation, womens rights and social justice, but of the exposure of what is often a hidden crime against humanity, that is sexual abuse. Whether it involves children or adults, girls/women, boys/men, when there are asymmetric power relations, and when the mechanisms to check the power exercised by individuals is weak, non existent or dysfunctional, then physical, emotional and sexual abuse is almost inevitable.

Much of this abuse happens behind closed doors and therefore is not registered in the public imaginary. But, thankfully today we have began to shatter the myths and aura associated with ‘God Men’, politicians and famous celebrities, and hopefully we can move forward with a reasonable expectation that the errors of the past will not be repeated in the future. But we cannot stop until every human being is able grow up feeling safe and secure from the evil of sexual abuse with the knowledge that if they speak out they will be believed.

As for Yogi Harbhajan Singh, he is no longer on this planet and therefore rather than expend energy flogging a ‘dead horse’, we should be supporting the survivors/victims and ensuring that such abuse does not happen again. We also need to launch a crusade against the many fake Indian ‘Gurus’, who claim to possess miracle powers and a direct line to ‘God’ and the cults that they lead, whether that is in their ‘’ashrams’ in India or across the world.

[Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at Gurnam.singh.1@warwick.ac.uk]

* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.

 

RELATED STORY:

Yogi Bhajan’s sexual exploits under investigation (Asia Samachar, 7 March 2020)

The case for Panjabi ethnicity (Asia Samachar, 16 Jan 2020)

Sohan Singh Bhakna: Founder of revolutionary Ghadr Party (Asia Samachar, 21 Jan 2019)

 

ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs / Punjabis in Southeast Asia and beyond. Facebook | WhatsApp +6017-335-1399 | Email: editor@asiasamachar.com | Twitter | Instagram | Obituary announcements, click here |

2 COMMENTS

  1. in response to your excellent points we have amended the piece to sate he was ‘allegedly’ awarded the title.
    There is no doubt he regularly used the title and, in spite of what Gurcharan Singh Torah apparently said, Harbhajan Singh used the title with impunity after 1978 without being challenged by the SGPC or Akaal Takht. The truth is the powerful and corrupt have no problem getting endorsements from the SGPC/Akaal Takht. Just. look at how the cult leader Ram Rahim was pardoned by the Akaal Takht Jathedar under the order of the Badals!!

  2. Let’s set this straight. Yogi Bhajan was NEVER “awarded the honorific title of ‘Sri Singh Sahib’ by the Akaal Takht, the supreme temporal authority of the Sikhs” This was a myth, propagated by none other than Yogi Bhajan himself. I’m surprised that Gurnam Singh as an academic never bothered to actually research this controversial topic.

    Please read this Sikh Free Press article which shows statements from Jathedar Sahib of the Akal Takhat, Sadhu Singh Bhaura proving he wanted to excommunicate Yogi Bhajan from the Panth! http://sikhfreepress.org/headlines/2667/american-yogis-distort-sikh-scripture

    On Sept 5th, 1977,Gurucharan Singh Tohra – who had succeeded Sant Chanan Singh as president of the SGPC – said in Time magazine, “that his council has given ‘full approval’ to 3HO and recognizes the yogi as a preacher. Tohra, however, says that this does not mean the Bhajan is the Sikh leader of the Western Hemisphere as he claims. The Sikhs do not create such offices. Nor, Tohra adds, has the committee given Bhajan the rarely bestowed title of Siri Singh Sahib, which he uses.”
    Rarely bestowed? How about never bestowed.

    Later that year, on October 10th, Siri Akal Takhat Jathedar Sadhu Singh Bhaura issued the following hukamnama Note this was the same Jathedar who presented the siropa to YB in 1971. “The title of Singh Sahib or Singh Sahib has never been bestowed by me on any person, since 1965 when I was appointed Jathedar, Siri Akal Takhat Sahib, Amritsar. This is the permanent tradition of Siri Akal Takhat Sahib Amritsar that no such title as Siri Singh Sahib exists or can be bestowed by anyone, including even Jathedar Siri Akal Takhat Sahib.” Sadhu Singh, Jathedar Siri Akal Takhat Sahib Here the Jathedar of the Akal Takhat Sahib, the ultimate temporal authority for Sikhi, makes it very clear. There is no such title, never has been and no one has the authority to bestow it.
    In 1978, Jathedar Sadhu Singh announced his intention to excommunicate YB from Sikhi for teaching Tantric and Kundalini yoga. What happened after that is unclear but before too long Sadhu Singh was no longer Jathedar of Akal Takhat Sahib. Given YB’s mastery of bribing and influencing Indian politicians it is very possible that he had a hand in Sadhu Singh’s exit. The conclusion? It’s very clear.

    There is no historical or dharmic precedent for the title of Siri Singh Sahib. And that goes for all the strange titles that YB gave himself and his followers. 2) No one in any position of authority bestowed the title of Siri Singh Sahib on YB. In fact, no one HAD the authority to bestow such a title. 3) There was no official approval for this title by either the Akal Takhat Sahib or the SGPC – not that the SGPC had any authority to issue such a title. 4) There is absolutely no source anywhere – other than from 3HO websites – that such a title was given. The only source for 3HO was YB himself. It’s time for the Bhajanists to face the truth.

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