WHEN I WAS GROWING UP, WHITE/AMERICAN SIKHS WERE A STRANGE PHENOMENON
By Amandeep Madra | EDITOR’S PICK |
When I was growing up White/American Sikhs were a strange phenomenon. Wafting about dressed solely in white-totally at ease in their adopted identity while I was still uncomfortable in my own skin. It always seemed that someone had whispered into their ears some great Sikh secret.
That someone was the charismatic, larger than life, bejeweled Sri Singh Sahib Harbhajan Singh Yogi (Yogi Bhajan). He was the one who turned thousands of west coast hippies into good Sikhs, he was a master of a thing called Kundalini Yoga & the virtual god-head of their org (3HO)
He’d started 3HO in the US in the early70s and by the 80s thousands of Americans had joined, attracted by White Tantric Yoga (something no India Sikh has ever heard of), so devoted were the Americans that they totally adopted the identity & even sent their kids to Indian schools.
They were given peculiar ‘spiritual’ names (only $40!), often names that no Punjabi Sikh would ever take; Waheguru Kaur, Sri Chand Singh, Hari Naam Simran Singh.
They lived in 3HO ashrams and threw their collective energy into 3HO businesses while their kids went to 3HO schools.
I met Yogi Bhajan once in the mid-90s. He came to Southall to meet youth & lecture in English. I didn’t understand his new-age talk, two distinct impressions though 1/ He was horrible to the white Sikh around him-utterly brutal and 2/ he suggested we meditate to a picture of him!
Punjabi Sikhs have a complicated relationship with Yogi Bhajan’s 3HO. We like the people, we respect their devotion, we like their clean living but we’re deeply conflicted about the notion of conversion, the kundalini yoga, the Baba worship. The 2 communities never really mixed.
Controversy always swirled around YB himself; criminality by followers, accusations of sexual impropriety, financial abuse – usual Baba stuff. When Yogi Bhajan died in 2004 he was respected and honoured widely & his organisation morphed into a corporation of successful businesses.
Any sense of a respectable legacy is however now in question. One of Yogi Bhajan’s 1st American students, & his ‘second in command’ during the 70s, Pamela Dyson, has just published a deeply insightful and calmly-written memoir of her time with Yogi Bhajan amazon.com/Premka-White-B…
The memoir opens with her dealing with a hemorrhage from a botched Indian abortion that the married Yogi Bhajan had forced upon her after learning that he had made her pregnant. The book ‘Premka’ lays out years of coercive sexual behaviour from him, toward her and others in 3HO.
Without judgement she lays out YB’s genius and his demons, his magnetism and his fierce ambition. Her astonishing Amrit ceremony in the 70s, coercive control, International politics, unforgivable mixing of Sikh and new-age mumbo-jumbo in 3HO and of course years of sexual abuse.
Easily written, it’s a tough read as it lays out years of manipulative control over his followers. I believe the victims but I’m also reminded that some of the finest people I know who found so much meaning though YB & 3HO. My friend @ShabdSingh has written eloquently about this.
I was bought to this story by the brilliant @PhilipDeslippe whose paper ‘From Maharaj to Mahan Tantric’ demonstrates that YB’s Kundalini Yoga was (in essence) made-up in the 70s from other traditions & sold to Americans as an ancient and lost Sikh teaching.
With the publication of ‘Premka: White Bird in a Golden Cage (My Life with Yogi Bhajan)’ the 3HO and Kundalini world is starting to come to terms with the character and the origins of its founder. The story continues to emerge as people who have long suppressed their stories are only now starting to come out.
It’s unclear how this chapter will close. YB’s legacy isn’t just a White American Sikh community or Kundalini Yoga, he also inspired a generation of Sikh Babas who mix new-age yoga and Sikh practice and sell that to eager westerners. I hope this episode sees an end to that, too.
I HOPE MANY IN 3HO ABLE TO MOVE FORWARD
By Jodh Singh | EDITOR’S PICK |
I’m from very much a traditional Sikh background, but I met a lot of 3HO locals who helped me revive my interest in Sikhi through the focus on the spiritual nature and the emphasis on exegesis of Sikh texts in English.
Speaking from my personal experience – I never even knew what Kundalini was, or who Yogi Bhajan was, because we simply shared our views on Sikh matters, Gurbani, and Gurmat Sangeet. I found out later that many of them did revere him and practiced Yoga, but kept it in their private sphere.
What then surprised me was “traditional” Sikh groups I interacted with online had such vitriol for the 3HO folks, saying they were opportunistic pretenders or bringing Hindu practices into Sikhi. Perhaps some may be, but I’m glad I had the real-life experience that was different and allowed me to see positives.
In the end, I do believe the survivors, and hope that many 3HO are able to move forward from this with an understanding that may keep their spiritual practice of Sikhi intact while dissociating with the individual who brought them to that path. & hopefully increased convergence.
Amandeep Singh Madra, an independent historian and co-author of a number of books on Sikhs, including Eyewitness At Amritsar. Jodh Singh (Jung Nihang) is interested in thought, practice and history of the Sikh tradition. The articles above have been adapted from their Twitter entries at @amanmadra and @JungNihang, respectively.
Yogi Bhajan’s sexual exploits under investigation (Asia Samachar, 7 March 2020)
Tainted by sexual abuse, Yogi Bhajan’s legacy in jeopardy (Asia Samachar, 7 March 2020)