By Gurnam Singh | OPINION |
Very honest and courageous words from Santam 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!
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.
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.
* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.
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)