Constance Elsberg

Healthy, Happy, Holy (3HO)


HEALTHY, HAPPY, HOLY ORGANIZATION (3HO) TIMELINE

1929 (August 26):  Harbhajan Singh Puri (Yogi Bhajan) was born.

1968 (September):  Yogi Bhajan arrived in Canada from India.

1969-1970:  Bhajan settled in Los Angeles and briefly taught yoga at the YMCA and the East West Cultural Center. He and students then founded the Healthy Happy Holy Organization.  Bhajan spoke and taught yoga at solstice celebrations and music festivals.

1971:  Bhajan and eighty-four students traveled to India. They originally stayed with Virsa Singh, who Bhajan referred to as his yoga teacher, but then left his center and began to visit Sikh sites, including the Golden Temple and Akal Takht, where Bhajan was received by authorities.

1972-1973:  Bhajan’s students increasingly embraced Sikhism, and Sikh prayers were added to an already established morning yoga and meditation practice. The Sikh Dharma Brotherhood was incorporated and the Guru Ram Das gurdwara was established in Los Angeles.

1972-1974:  Students established ashrams/teaching centers beyond Los Angeles, many quite small. Approximately ninety-four ashrams created.

1974:  The Khalsa Council was established as an administrative body for Sikh Dharma. Some of Bhajan’s students participated in the European Yoga Festival.

1976:  The Golden Temple of Oregon Inc., a bakery and distribution business, was established, combining previously existing smaller businesses.

1977:  3HO celebrated its first Summer Solstice, beginning a lasting tradition of solstice events.

1980:  Akal Security was created. It began by providing security to local businesses and later grew to become a major national security business.

1980s:  Ashrams consolidated as many adherents established families and moved to the suburbs from urban areas. Bhajan had arranged many of the marriages.

1983-1984:  The Yogi Tea Company was established. It grew into a successful national company.

1984:  Many leaders at the Espanola ashram left the organization complaining of intense discipline and excessive structure.

1985:  The head of the Washington ashram was arrested and indicted on drug smuggling charges. Many individuals left the ashram.

1986:  Two women ex-members brought a suit against Bhajan, the 3HO Foundation, Sikh Dharma Brotherhood and the Siri Singh Sahib of Sikh Dharma (a business holding company) on a number of counts.

1994:  The International Kundalini Yoga Teachers Association was formed as 3HO began to focus increasingly on training yoga teachers.

1996:  Sikhnet, a digital resource for Sikhs worldwide, was launched.

1997:  The Miri Piri Academy was established in Amritsar, India,  the most recent of several Indian boarding schools to which many members sent their children.

2003:  As his health deteriorated, Bhajan centralized control of the profit and non-profit businesses.

2004:  Yogi Bhajan died of heart failure.

2007:  Management sold the bakery business.

2010:  The first Kundalini Yoga and Music Festival was held in the fall. It was renamed in 2011 as the Sat Nam Fest and became a regular event.

2011:  Members of Sikh Dharma International reacted to the restructuring of the businesses by bringing suit in  Sardarni Guru Amrit Kaur Khalsa, et al v Kartar Singh Khalsa et al and State of Oregon v Siri Singh Sahib Corporation et al.

2012:  A court settlement was made final, and the Bhajan-related organizations began to restructure and plan for the future.

2019:  An ex-member, and a central figure in the early years of 3HO and Sikh Dharma, Pamela Saharah Dyson (who was named Premka by Yogi Bhajan), published her memoir.

2020:  In  reaction to Premka’s memoir, members and ex-members revealed incidents of abuse. An organization was hired to investigate accusations.

2020-2021   The investigation found reason to believe that Bhajan engaged in sexual abuse and harassment. Leadership hired consultants to advise on a process of “compassionate reconciliation.” Akal Security ceased operations.

FOUNDER/GROUP HISTORY

As was the case for many of the alternative religions that originated in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States, the Healthy Happy Holy Organization (3HO) grew up around a central charismatic figure. Harbhajan Singh Puri was born on August 26, 1929 in modern-day Pakistan. His mother was Hindu, his father was Sikh, and his schooling was Catholic. In 1947, the partitioning of India resulted in the family becoming refugees and fleeing to to New Delhi. In 1954, he married Inderjit Kaur Uppal, and the couple subsequently had three children. In New Delhi he attended college, and 3HO accounts report that he obtained a degree in Economics at Punjab University and then was employed as a customs and security officer at Delhi airport.  He also pursued an interest in yoga.  Accounts of his early life and of the circumstances under which he came to North America vary, but most agree that he arrived in Toronto in 1968, expecting to take up a position teaching yoga. A 3HO history website states that Harbhajan taught yoga to James George, Canadian High Commissioner to India at the time, and that the Commissioner encouraged him to consider teaching yoga at Toronto University.  When Harbhajan arrived in Canada, however, the teaching position failed to materialize. The would-be yogi was aided by acquaintances and relatives and was finally invited to Los Angeles. There he began to teach yoga at a YMCA and at the East-West Cultural Center (Khalsa, Hari Singh Bird and Khalsa, Hari Kaur Bird n.d.).

His arrival coincided with a surge of interest in eastern religions as youth who had been active in the countercultural and political movements of the time increasingly embraced spiritual pursuits.  Thus, while many of his original students at the East-West Center were residual, older, students of yoga, Bhajan’s classes soon were joined by young hip students. Some of his early students belonged to communal groups: the Juke (or Jook) Savage performance group, the Hog Farm commune, and The Committee, a comedy collective, all significant in counterculture history.

Harbhajan’s stay at the East-West Cultural Center was brief, but one of his students, Jules Buccieri, and a number of figures in the Los Angeles music and countercultural worlds, offered support and a place to teach. They dubbed him “Yogi Bhajan” the name by which he is best known.  A building known as “the Castle” served as a gathering place for members of various communal groups, some of whom took yoga classes with Bhajan (Law 2000:93). Also, at the time, rock music festivals were becoming a significant cultural phenomenon, and various Eastern spiritual figures attended these festivals and related events such as Solstice celebrations and an event called “The Holy Man Jam” in June 1970 in Boulder Colorado. The spiritual teachers would speak or offer yoga classes. 3HO members locate Bhajan at a number of these early festivals (see Khalsa, H.S.B and Khalsa, K.B no date; Law 2000; Mankin 2012; Barrett 2007). [Image at right] Some of the attendees became his students.  One, for example, named Dawson, met Bhajan at a Solstice celebration. Dawson evidently wanted to try communal living and had purchased land for that purpose.  As soo[n as he met Bhajan he offered his twelve acres as an ashram site (Gardner 1978:123-28).

Thus Bhajan gathered many of his first students in a rather haphazard way, at such events or through contacts with his yoga students, but a certain amount of order and planning soon followed.  Both he and the students were disposed to create communities, and they quickly established centers which they referred to as ashrams. At first, their centers resembled the communes that were a hallmark of counterculture life, although the routines that residents followed within them were strict compared to the lifestyles of many of the communes formed at the time.  Bhajan advocated early morning yoga, meditation, and a vegetarian diet.  He trained students as yoga teachers and then sent them out to establish teaching centers, evidently intending to create a network of ashrams, just as other spiritual teachers were doing. He formed 3HO as an umbrella organization.

Bhajan led a group of eighty of his students to India in 1970. The original purpose of the visit was evidently to visit Maharaj Virsa Singh, who Bhajan referred to as his teacher or master. But there appears to have been a falling out between the two when Bhajan and his students arrived, and the group left Virsa Singh’s compound, Gobind Sadan, and went instead to visit a number of Sikh gurdwaras (See, Deslippe 2012:369-87). They eventually went to Amritsar and the Golden Temple where Bhajan and his students were recognized at an official reception, and some students took Amrit (initiation into the Khalsa, a community created by the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh).  After that visit Bhajan and his students claimed that Bhajan had been named as the Siri Singh Sahib, which they rendered as Chief Sikh Religious Authority for the Western Hemisphere. The actual nature of the recognition has, however, been an occasional source of contention (See, Issues/Challenges).

After the visit to India, 3HO ashram residents who evinced an interest in Bhajan’s religion were encouraged to learn about it and even to become Sikhs. Slowly but steadily the numbers who adopted a Sikh identity, or at least increasingly oriented their behavior and outlook towards India, increased. Students began to adopt Indian clothing and soon to “tie turbans.” The organization had attracted a number of skilled musicians, and some of them began to learn to play and sing Sikh kirtan. In 1972, they opened their first gurdwara (Sikh temple) at the Guru Ram Das Ashram, in Los Angeles, and in 1973 they created a new organization, the Sikh Dharma Brotherhood (later renamed as Sikh Dharma International). Ashram residents were increasingly encouraged to convert to Sikhism. 3HO and Sikh Dharma remained separate legal entities, with 3HO dedicated primarily to yoga and Sikh Dharma to the religious faith, but in daily life their membership, beliefs and practices were often entwined.

Bhajan toured the country teaching at the different centers. He also served as a spiritual advisor and leader and soon began to arrange, or approve, marriages for ashram residents.  He encouraged them to settle down and become “householders,” saying that good Sikhs should not withdraw from the world, but rather live ethically within it. His adherents turned their attention to adapting to their new lifestyle, raising children, and finding ways to earn a living. As the 1970s ended, a recession made this more difficult, and practical matters loomed large. Ashrams were consolidated as students left center cities, seeking better places to raise children.

Although this was a time of establishing a lifestyle and legitimizing the organization in the eyes of the public, and in the eyes of Punjabi Sikhs, the 1980s were also a time of considerable stress. The organization showed signs of fragmentation. Much of the leadership of the Espanola ashram left in the mid-1980s, complaining of “intense discipline” (Lewis 1998:113). 3HO and Sikh Dharma were embroiled in a number of legal cases. For Bhajan, upheaval in Punjab compounded the strain.

Nonetheless, businesses grew slowly and steadily through the 1980s and then surged in the 1990s. Yogi Tea, today one of the nation’s largest natural tea companies, originated with an entrepreneurial idea to market Bhajan’s version of spiced Indian tea. Similarly, a small bakery, Golden Temple Bakery, grew slowly through the 1980s and then began to expand along with a growing market for health foods in the U.S. A security company, Akal Security, began as a local business in New Mexico, then grew in the wake of the September 11 attacks and became a major U.S. security company before closing in February 2021. With the growth of successful companies and an intensifying interest in yoga in North America and Europe, 3HO and related organizations slowly changed.

By the 1990s, there was a culture shift. There were few communal businesses left, and rising early and overtly being a Sikh was considered more of an option than an implied directive. This period also saw an increased interest in yoga world-wide. To serve the changing times, Yogi Bhajan created the International Kundalini Yoga Teachers Association, dedicated to setting standards for teachers and the propagation of the teachings” (Sikhi Wiki n.d.).

Multiple centers of activity had arisen around Bhajan. But Bhajan’s health was failing, and he died of heart failure and related problems in 2004. Before his death he made plans for the future, laying out the nature of a future leadership structure. Rather than name a successor he divided leadership responsibilities among a number of roles. He also consolidated the for-profit businesses under a holding company. With several leadership roles and centers of activity it is probably not surprising that tensions surfaced, particularly when the management of one of the businesses, Golden Temple Inc., sold that company without consulting with the other related organizations and leaders. This led to a trial in 2011 that pitted different parts of the 3HO/Sikh Dharma family of organizations against each other as Sikh Dharma International (joined by the state of Oregon) took the managers to court and prevailed. (See, Issues/Challenges)

Early members strongly critiqued North American culture, depicting it largely as a wasteland, but, in spite of their critiques and roots in the counterculture, it is striking how closely 3HO and Sikh Dharma have followed broader cultural trends. The organizations grew out of the counterculture, music festivals, communalism, and experimentation of the 1960s and early 1970s.Then members grew more conservative, religious, family oriented, and entrepreneurial as did the country in the later 1970s and the 1980s. Their companies rode the wave when the natural food business grew dramatically in the late 1980s and in the 1990s. They also became larger and more assertive, as did corporations around the world. The recent discussions of abuse parallel the current revelations of the Me Too Movement, and the Sikh Dharma International website features a “mantra…for healing and support during this time of COVID-19.”

DOCTRINES/BELIEFS

Bhajan and his students adopted what they called a “technology for living.” It consisted primarily of yoga, meditation, a vegetarian (mostly Ayurvedic) “yogic diet” and a variety of healthy routines. 3HO was created as a vehicle for sharing and elaborating on the lifestyle. As the website describes it:

There’s a yogic art and science to all aspects of human life. There’s a yogic way to get up in the morning, to go to sleep at night, to eat, to breathe, to brush your teeth, to take a shower, to communicate, to raise children. Every aspect of life has an enlightened, efficient, and effective way to do it. Yogi Bhajan studied and mastered this technical and spiritual knowledge in India, and brought this gift to the West (Healthy Happy Holy website n.d. “The Healthy Happy Holy Lifestyle”).

One of Bhajan’s particular skills as a leader was his ability to connect his students’ backgrounds to his own and to integrate a variety of values, beliefs and orientations. For example, as many early members brought countercultural and New Age values to their new life in 3HO, Bhajan borrowed from the New Age Movement and referred to the current time period as the Piscean, a time marked by greed, inequality, materialism and insecurity. He told his students that he would prepare them for the new age, the Aquarian.  This would be a better time, but the transition would be difficult and so they must strengthen and purify themselves to withstand the passage by following the lifestyle that he prescribed.

Values his students brought from the counterculture to 3HO included a holistic approach to life, a desire for community, a distrust of large-scale corporations and of bureaucracy and materialism, a commitment to social change, a willingness to experiment with lifestyles and individual consciousness, and a hunger for meaning, They also sought empowerment in the face of a culture they found at the least unsatisfying, or, at worst, oppressive and destructive. (Elsberg 2003:55-72; Miller 1991; Tipton 1982) Many of Bhajan’s teachings addressed these values and concerns.

Bhajan taught classes that he referred to as kundalini yoga classes, and others that he called “White Tantric.” The Kundalini yoga, he said, was suitable for daily practice, but White Tantric required his presence. Although Bhajan spoke about the two types of yoga as if they were separate entities, in fact, Tantra traditionally is the broader term that encompasses kundalini yoga. Bhajan taught that his yoga would eventually lead to individual enlightenment and to an experience of oneness with the universal consciousness. He taught that Kundalini energy, said to lie at the base of the spine, rose through the invisible “subtle body” with its channels and nodes (chakras) until it was finally united with pure consciousness. In addition to leading to eventual enlightenment, in 3HO the yoga was said to cleanse and heal, especially by strengthening the nervous system and balancing the glandular systems. Many physical positions and movements were also said to perform various practical functions such as easing stress, enhancing stamina, and improving digestion. These practices addressed his students’ interest in consciousness and change, their desire to create congruence in all arenas of life including mind and body, and their need for personal empowerment.

The early growth of 3HO coincided with the burgeoning women’s movement, and so gender roles were significant and even more so given the significance of Tantra in 3HO life.  In Tantra,  the divine is said to have both a male and a female aspect, and the feminine energy is sometimes referred to as a goddess or Shakti. Bhajan drew on such Tantric beliefs, sometimes referring to women as shaktis and as “the grace of God.”  He also favored traditional male and female roles, seemingly justifying them in part by referencing Tantra. He complained that women in North America had become “imitation men.”  A woman, he said, should be “a living tranquility, peace, harmony, grace and sophistication” (Bhajan 1986: 30).A woman was able to “change every negative thing around her to be positive” (Bhajan 1979:211).

Women, however, have to use their powers wisely. If they do not  then they can, and often do, cause great trouble. In fact, he often criticized women students, and women in general. He attributed some of what he perceived as bad behavior to exploitation and insecurity created by western society, and some to a failure to yield to men and simply be pleasant and womanly (Bhajan 1986:30, “Women in Training series”).

In its earliest manifestation, 3HO was influenced primarily by yogic and Hindu traditions.  But Bhajan soon added another layer of Sikh beliefs and practices and integrated those with the earlier teachings. Some adherents took organizationally specific vows which combined aspects of Bhajan’s “technology” with Sikh beliefs.  Some took actual Sikh vows (amrit).  They established Sikh gurdwaras (places of worship) and many began to wear the Sikh markers of identity. In fact, there was much to appeal to a countercultural sensibility and to the need to find a meaningful way to live in the world. Not only did the students gain through Sikhism an additional set of beliefs and practices that could structure their lives and provide meaning, they also learned to perform beautiful music (kirtan), and gained access to another continent and another culture with its traditions and stories, to a whole new identity in fact. They were told that yoga would awaken their spiritual energies, and empower them as individuals, and the Sikh teachings and practices would channel the unleashed energies in positive directions. Sikh values would foster “group consciousness” and piety (Kundalini Research Institute. 1978:18). And Bhajan clearly benefited as well, gaining increased stature and authority as he became not only a yoga teacher but a representative of a major religion.

In spite of the appeal of many Sikh principles and practices, there were difficulties implicit in taking a new and religious direction. The counterculture was not friendly to organized religion, valuing self-expression and improvisation over piety or submission. In fact, many members left when Sikhism was introduced. Bhajan had to take some care to continue to frame Sikhism in such a way that the remaining members could accept it and align it with their pasts and his yoga teachings.

One way that Bhajan did this was to offer a vision in which he and they created a western Khalsa (The Khalsa translates as “the pure ones” and refers to all initiated Sikhs. It is sometimes referred to as a brotherhood). Thus they would still be part of a movement, as they were in the counterculture and New Age circles, and could still bring about social change, but it would be embedded in the Sikh religion: “We will have our own industries, our own businesses, and we will provide our own jobs and our own culture. We will grow to be a nation of 960,000,000 Sikhs in fulfillment of the prophecy of Guru Gobind Singh” (Khalsa 1972:343).

Bhajan also maintained that yoga and Sikhism were historically entwined (a claim with which many Sikhs would disagree), and he merged Sikh and yogic traditions with his emphasis on “sound currents.”  From the earliest days, Bhajan included phrases from Sikh prayers and scripture into some of the yoga sets that he taught. Students chanted these although they did not know then that Bhajan was incorporating the Sikh Shabd Guru (the songs and words of the Guru). He emphasized the sounds and sound patterns of the prayers as much as the actual words. Also central is the idea that the Shabad Guru is another “technology” that enables users to cope with the rapid change associated with transitioning to the Aquarian age.

According to Bhajan’s predictions, November 11, 2011 marked the start of the transition to the New Age, and adaptation during the transition has remained a central concept. [Image at right] In his later years, Bhajan spoke more frequently about the coming pace of change and its impact on the “sensory system.”  He predicted that people would be “more perturbed, not able to bear enough, not having much tolerance, and very argumentative” (Bhajan n.d. 3HO website), and now 3HO yoga teachers talk about managing in the new environment and “beginning to evolve a sensory system that allows them to live as intuitive, multi-faceted beings” (Healthy Happy Holy Organization website n.d. “The Sensory Human”).

Given the growth of public interest in yoga, kundalini has increased its reach, and there are numerous teachers and teacher training courses. These courses have been taught with the requirement that all teachers carefully follow Bhajan’s instructions. Recently, however, accusations against Bhajan and some teachers have surfaced, and there are yoga teachers who no longer feel they should follow in Bhajan’s footsteps. There is considerable internal questioning and division, and the future outlines of the belief system are difficult to discern (See, Issues/Challenges).

RITUALS/ PRACTICES

3HO and Sikh Dharma offer a varied ritual life. Major rituals and practices include performing kundalini and white tantric yoga, Aquarian Sadhana, and attendance at Solstice celebrations. Specifically Indian or Sikh practices include wearing Indian clothing and Sikh markers of identity, including turbans, accepting arranged marriages, singing of kirtan, the celebration of Sikh holidays and rites of passage, and visits to the Golden Temple in India.

Bhajan told his first students that he was teaching them Kundalini yoga because it was a particularly powerful form of yoga, a practice that would answer the needs of youth as they faced rapid social change. Kundalini yoga, as Bhajan taught it, is physically vigorous, combining controlled deep breathing with a variety of yoga postures and mantra recitations, some of which may be maintained for long periods of time.

If Bhajan taught that Kundalini yoga would enable people to navigate the new Aquarian Age, he also taught that the yoga would empower each practitioner so that he or she was less at the mercy of personal needs and emotions and better able to shape the world, rather than simply respond to it. His students would be able to not only weather the changes wrought by the transition to the Aquarian Age but also to guide others who found the transition difficult.

All of these benefits were said to apply to white tantric yoga, along with other benefits as well. Tantric thought assumes an ultimate Oneness that has dual aspects: matter and spirit, formless consciousness and the natural world.  Spirit is identified with the male principle and matter with the female, with the feminine giving form to infinite consciousness (Pintchman 1994:110). “White Tantric” appears to build on these ideas, but with Bhajan’s distinctive additions. The classes include many of the same movements and chants that are used in a kundalini yoga session. One difference, however, is that white tantric is performed in rows, men facing women, each with a partner. [Image at right] Additionally, the anticipated effects are different. Tantra is said to “balance” male and female energies and to “cleanse” the individual.   Each person’s experience is said to be different, but each “gets what he or she needs at that point in their journey along the path. It is a very deep and transformational cleansing process…” (Khalsa 1996:180). Bhajan was said to take on the karma of participants so that leading a session was a difficult and painful process for him. Bhajan claimed to have inherited the title “Mahan Tantric,” which, he said, made him the only person who could officially teach White Tantric.  Originally, his presence was said to be necessary so that he could internalize and alleviate the pain and subconscious struggles of the individuals participating (Elsberg 2003:44-53) Later, he videotaped his classes, and the videos are said to have the same effects as Bhajan’s physical presence. Music also became an important part of the practice and Bhajan asked musicians to record chants and mantras. (Sikh Dharma website “50 Years of Music”)

Yoga and Sikhism are brought together in the practice of Aquarian Sadhana, which includes prayer, meditation, yoga and Sikh worship. Evidently Bhajan originally varied the format every year and then finally settled on a specific version that is continued today (Khalsa, Nirvair Singh n.d. Sikh Dharma website). As officially described, “Morning Sadhana is the daily practice of waking up in the amrit vela time (two-and-one-half hours before the sun rises) to meditate and chant God’s Name….”  (Sikh Dharma .org website). It begins with Japji, the Sikh morning prayer composed by Guru Nanak. That is followed by Sikh prayers, Kundalini yoga sets, and then by specific “Aquarian Meditations.” These meditations are short songs of praise which are performed for a designated period of time. They are said to accomplish specific purposes such as “protection against all negative forces, inner and outer, which are blocking us on our true path” (Aquarian Sadhana 3HO organization website). Sadhana may be performed individually or in a group and may last for two-and-one-half hours (See, Har Nal Kaur n.d. ). The recommendation to rise early and meditate during the “amrit vela” is a Sikh universal. The Aquarian Sadhana is the distinctive 3HO and Sikh Dharma version (See, Elsberg 2003: xiii-xvi, 174-77).

Kirtan refers to devotional chanting and song, and it has long been an essential part of Sikh practice and important in 3HO and Sikh Dharma. There is also a broader spiritual kirtan movement which appeals to practitioners from several religious traditions, including Sikh Dharma. Chants and mantras may be set to New Age or blues forms, or may reflect other musical genres and may be accompanied by dancing. Sites include yoga studios and yoga festivals, concerts, and gurdwaras. The tone may be devotional, or may tilt toward entertainment. A 3HO-related business called Spirit Voyage sells recordings of kirtan and organizes some events, and 3HO holds “Sat Nam Fests” in different parts of the country  (Khalsa, N.K. 2012:438).

Members of Sikh Dharma also participate in more traditional Sikh events. They may choose initiation into the Khalsa (amrit sanskar). They attend Sikh festivals, such as gurpurbs (celebrations marking historical events such as the births of gurus) and hold Sikh weddings [Image at right] and other rites of passage. They may join an Akhand Path, a continuous reading of the Guru Granth Sahib from beginning to end, to mark a gurpurb, a wedding, birth, death, or a move to a new home.

Sikh Dharma also helps to coordinate Baisakhi Day celebrations in Los Angeles.  This major festival marks the birth of the Khalsa (and is a harvest festival as well in Punjab). The Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh scripture) is escorted to the Los Angeles Convention Center where kirtan is performed by major musical groups, there are speakers, langar (free meals), and a parade through downtown Los Angeles.

3HO was originally a syncretic form, blending a number of traditions.  It required some emotional and intellectual agility to maneuver between varied perspectives, and required considerable perseverance to follow the required discipline. Early adherents rose early, attended sadhana, worked a full day, and tried to maintain positive relationships in an ashram. They adopted Indian clothing and Sikh names and turbans and were sometimes mocked for their garb. Many had their marriages arranged by Yogi Bhajan. They aimed to reach enlightenment and to be constantly aware of a higher reality, yet had to live everyday lives and support families and an organization. Sadhana, kirtan, special clothing, and Sikh symbols have been aids in their effort to connect higher and everyday realities and to create a meaningful spiritual life. For those whose attachment is primarily as yoga teachers and students (not as Sikhs), there is perhaps less need to blend traditions, but the vision of the body as a series of energy channels and chakras, of the self-evolving towards a higher consciousness via diet, yoga, kirtan and discipline, and of the group as dedicated to the task of guiding people through the changing times still apply.  The symbolism, imagery and actions associated with their ritual life provide a means to tie self and organization, past and present, imagination and practical life.

ORGANIZATION/ LEADERSHIP

Over the years, the original 3HO Foundation was joined by a number of related organizations as members converted to Sikhism, established businesses, and expanded the number of ashrams within and beyond North America. Indeed, 3HO members have evinced a propensity for creating organizations.  Bhajan encouraged his first students to become teachers and to establish ashrams, which they did, so that by 1972 there were ninety-four official ashrams, (albeit many quite small), as well as a number of teaching centers. There were over 200 3HO Kundalini Yoga centers in twenty-eight countries by 1995 (Stoeber 2012:351-68).  As they began to adopt Sikhism, the students also opened gurdwaras and created the Sikh Dharma Brotherhood (later Sikh Dharma and then Sikh Dharma International) to oversee and administer them. Bhajan and some students founded the Kundalini Research Institute (KRI) in 1972 to research the impacts of yoga, to publish yoga instruction manuals, and, later, to oversee the training and certification of yoga teachers. Today, the KRI website says its mission is to “uphold and preserve the authenticity, integrity, and accuracy of the Teachings of Yogi Bhajan through trainings, research, publishing and resources(Kundalini Research Institute website. 2020 “About”). Its Aquarian Trainer Academy lists 530 yoga teachers/trainers and 414 teacher training programs worldwide.  (Kundalini Research Institute Trainer and Program Directory 2020) There is also IKYTA, the International Kundalini Yoga Teachers Association created originally “to oversee teaching standards and propagate the practice,” and now also serving to provide resources and support to KRI certified teachers (See, IKYTA website 2020  “About;” Stoeber 2012:351–68).  As the women’s movement spread in the U.S. and Canada in the 1970s, 3HO women established the International Women’s Camp, also known as the Khalsa Women’s Training Camp, which has continued. As their families grew, they also organized camps for the children as well, and soon their parents began to send them to boarding schools in India. The most recent is the Miri Piri Academy in Amritsar.

Bhajan encouraged his students to start businesses, and in many cases these newly-minted  entrepreneurs hired fellow yoga students or contributed some of their earnings to local ashrams or to the 3HO Foundation or to Sikh Dharma. These were known as “family businesses.”

3HO Foundation members are found nationwide in many professional and technical fields.  Some have started manufacturing businesses such as health food products, furniture, and massage tools; others have become very successful in sales and distribution of products such as insurance, health food, shoes, and school supplies; and 3HO Foundation restaurants can be found in many cities in the country….” (Khalsa, Kirpal Singh 1986:236). Other businesses have provided services such as counseling and therapy and treatment for drug addiction based on yoga.  (See, Mooney 2012:427)

The largest of the businesses have been Golden Temple Bakery, Yogi Tea (affiliated with East-West Tea Company), and, until recently, Akal Security.  The Bakery at one point was providing products for Trader Joes and Pepperidge Farm, as well as selling its own brands. Its managers, however, sold their cereal division to Hearthside Foods Solutions for $71,000,000 million in 2010, a deal which was followed by protracted internal legal disputes (See, Issues/Challenges). Yogi Tea is blended and packaged in Oregon and also overseas in Italy and Germany. The company describes the teas as ayurvedic, and many are intended to accomplish specific healing purposes (stress relief, digestive support, etc.). These teas are sold by Whole Foods, Giant, Trader Joes and CVS, among others.  Akal provided airport security and screening, facility security, and security for DHS Federal Protective Services (See, Issues/Challenges).  Through a subsidiary, Coastal International Security, it also worked overseas, providing security for consulates under construction, protective services consulting, and emergency response services.  (see Akal Global; Elsberg 2019:89-111;  Khalsa International Industries and Trade; Siri Singh Sahib Corporation; Yogi Tea Official Site.)

As the number and scope of businesses grew, Bhajan established organizations to train and support managers and oversee the businesses. He created an entity called the Core Management Team which consisted of individuals with business knowledge and experience.  Their task was to spot talent, provide guidance and advice, weed out ineffective managers, and report to Bhajan.

There were also charities established by people associated with 3HO/Sikh Dharma, to which the businesses contributed.  At the time of Bhajan’s death there was an entity called the Charitable Contributions Committee tasked with deciding how to allocate funds given by the for-profit businesses to the nonprofits, including 3HO.

As his health failed, he created holding companies for all of the businesses and left fairly complicated instructions for the governance of 3HO and related entities after his death. Administrative authority went to one of the boards he created, Unto Infinity LLC. The boards of directors and CEOs of the corporations were to continue in their positions.  Bhajan’s wife already held the title of “Bhai Sahiba for Sikh Dharma of the Western Hemisphere.” Upon her husband’s death she was given the responsibility to advise Unto Infinity and the Khalsa Council (an advisory council made up of Sikh ministers) on religious matters and made “responsible for the perpetuation and standardization of the teachings on the practice of Sikh Dharma as taught by the Siri Singh Sahib.”

The various entities were all to be overseen by the Siri Singh Sahib Corporation (SSSC), which would be activated upon Bhajan’s death. Because of the trial, it was not actually functioning until 2012. It is described as “the highest governance authority for the Sikh Dharma-3HO Family of constituent organizations.” It is tasked with integrating the affairs of the profits and non-profits, managing assets, and serving an oversight role.

These arrangements appear to place significant power in the hands of Sikh Dharma personnel, perhaps because it was members of the Khalsa Council and Sikh Dharma International who prevailed in the lawsuit. The Khalsa Council, created in the 1970s and originally an organization of ministers appointed by Bhajan, seems, along with the SSSC, to have taken on new and broader responsibilities. The Khalsa Council did not meet during the 2011 trial and its aftermath.  Since then it has been trying to define a new role for itself and to addressed divisions between organizations, generations, and overseas and U.S. groups. In 2017, Gurujodha Singh, as president of the Siri Singh Sahib Corporation, reported to the Khalsa council and spoke on “Aquarian Leadership and group consciousness.” Agenda items reveal a number of concerns at the time: a desire to integrate Kundalini Yoga and Sikh Dharma, to update organizational practices, to clarify ethical standards, to improve oversight of boards, to better include and empower members of the millennial generation, to respond to younger people’s desires for efficient use of technology, and to find ways to work better with overseas constituents (Khalsa Council 2017).  At a 2015 meeting younger speakers said that they would like “the legacy generation and millennial generation to move forward with efficiency and purpose,” and “create an online showcase of the diverse programs and services being offered by our global sangat.”

ISSUES/CHALLENGES

Those of Bhajan’s students who embraced the Sikh religion found that they were required to position themselves within the wider world of Sikhism. The syncretic quality of 3HO life may have been at the heart of its appeal to many of its practitioners, but it also offended some ethnic Sikhs who thought that Bhajan’s teachings violated Sikh orthodoxy and basic principles. Criticism was particularly strong when 3HO and Sikh Dharma were first founded. Sikhs of Punjabi descent living in the United States criticized Bhajan for teaching yoga, for awarding a number of titles that do not exist in other Sikh communities, and for encouraging devotion to himself as if he were a guru (the only Sikh guru is the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib), among other criticisms.  Members of Sikh Dharma, in turn, criticized ethnic Sikhs for being insufficiently devout and for not always adhering to the dress and behavior standards of the Khalsa. They did not appear to recognize, or accept, the varying degrees of devotion and adherence that exist within the ethnic Sikh community or the extent to which identity has been rooted not only in the Sikh religion but in Punjabi culture. Bhajan and his adherents claimed that Bhajan had been appointed as “Chief Religious and Administrative Authority of Sikh Dharma of the Western Hemisphere,” and viewed this title as equivalent to appointing him as the leader of all Sikhs in the West, while ethnic Sikhs saw the title as being relevant only to Bhajan’s organizations. Such criticisms are muted now as 3HO/Sikh Dharma has been established for some time and has taken its place among many Sikh groupings that are not entirely orthodox. However, Bhajan’s tendency to draw on multiple sources when it suited his purposes remains an issue for scholars and many ex-members (Dusenbery 2012:335-48; Dusenbery 2008:15-45; Nesbitt 2005; Dusenbery 1990:117-35; Dusenbery 1989:90-119; Dusenbery 1988:13-24). Indeed, Philip Deslippe finds that in Bhajan’s spiritual narratives “there lies a progression of forgotten and abandoned teachers, figures invented and introduced, and a process of narration and mythologizing born out of cultural context, temporal events, and pragmatic necessity” (Deslippe 2012:370).

Initially, Bhajan spoke of his teacher, Maharaj Virsa Singh, and said that he had become enlightened as Virsa Singh’s student. But Bhajan appears to have broken with this mentor in the course of the visit to India in 1971. Bhajan later claimed to have studied with a different teacher, Sant Hazara Singh.  He said that Hazara Singh had anointed him as the “Mahan Tantric,” the only person in the world who had approval to teach Tantric yoga. This is the version of Bhajan’s yoga background that can be found today on the 3HO website, but it has been called into question.

A potentially serious issue is that of safety.  Sikhs of Punjabi descent living in the United States have been attacked by white nationalists and by individuals who evidently view them as potential terrorists or as unwelcome Muslims. The best known incident is the tragic shooting at the Oak Creek gurdwara in Wisconsin in 2012, but there has been other incidents of violence directed at Sikhs.

Sikhs worldwide are known for their entrepreneurship, and people in Sikh Dharma International have embraced that heritage. The results have included some impressive corporate successes (See, Organization/Leadership), but there have also been problems. In the 1980s, the then head of the Washington ashram and an associate were accused of “the importation of multi-ton quantities of marijuana during the 1983-1987 time period.”  (Elsberg 2003:211; United States of America v. Gurujot Singh Khalsa 1988) Several telemarketing scams have been prosecuted.

On a larger scale are the events that led to a trial which took place in 2011. Sikh Dharma International was directly involved, but the conflict reverberated throughout the various organizations related to Sikh Dharma and suggested tensions between different centers of power. In this case, the managers of the Golden Temple Bakery, working with one of the holding companies that Bhajan had established, Khalsa International Industries and Trades Company, created a joint venture, one which enabled them to sell the bakery for $71,000,000  and keep a considerable share of the profits. A final settlement in 2012 required the board members to step down, although they received settlements. It was a costly trial.

Another business, Akal Security, was a source of concern from time to time over the years and ceased doing business in February 2021. In 2007, the Department of Justice announced that Akal Security “will pay the United States $18,000,000 to resolve allegations that it violated the terms of it contract to provide trained civilian guards at eight U.S. Army bases” (Department of Justice: July 13, 2007). There have also been several filings citing alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (Shaak March 20, 2017).

Bhajan’s teachings about women reveal, at best, considerable ambivalence.  Although he referred to women as “shaktis” having great creative power, he also criticized them for being manipulative, sensual, loud-mouthed, changeable, shallow and even “obnoxious.” (Elsberg 2010:310-13) These attitudes, and Bhajan’s behavior towards women, appear to have had significant long-term consequences. In 1986, two female ex-members accused Bhajan of assault and battery and other charges. The case was settled out of court (Felt, Katherine v. Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji et al; Khalsa, S. Premka Kaur v. Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji et al). Recently, one of the Plaintiffs (then known as Premka, now as Pamela Saharah Dyson) published an account of her association with Bhajan. Her description of his manipulation of her own and others’ lives and his sexual relationships with his “secretaries” (Dyson 2019) has led to an outpouring of allegations and bitterness.  Members and ex-members have accused Bhajan of sexual harassment and abuse. The leadership sponsored a number of listening sessions (SSSC “Listening tour” 2020; “Committees and Commissions”). This led to the SSSC hiring a private firm to investigate, to whom thirty six individuals reported abuses. The firm also interviewed individuals who wished to defend Bhajan’s record and speak of the good that he had done. The resulting report finds that, more likely than not, “Yogi Bhajan engaged in sexual battery and other sexual abuse, sexual harassment and conduct that violates Sikh vows and ethical standards.” (An Olive Branch 2020:6) The report also finds instances of Bhajan, and some of his associates, using threats, slander and even armed guards to control members’ behavior.

These troubling allegations have led many to question their loyalty to 3HO and associated organizations. Some argue that the practices that Bhajan taught are valuable and can be separated from his personal behavior, others that all he touched is tainted and that it is unconscionable to continue as before. This is of immediate concern to Kundalini yoga teachers who are deciding whether to continue to instruct students in a practice so closely tied to Bhajan’s name and version of yoga. There is considerable polarization, distrust, and anger, along with a desire to find a way forward. Given the findings of the report and the loss of income from Akal Inc., 3HO and associated organizations are likely to face significant challenges in the months ahead. As the report concludes, “A key question for the community will be how to identify, restore, preserve, and take forward what is of value to the community as a whole.” (An Olive Branch 2020:71)

IMAGES
Image #1: Yogi Bhajan (Harbhajan Singh Puri).
Image #2: Bhajan at the pop festival in Palm Beach.
Image #3: 3HO Solstice class “Carrying Us into the Aquarian Age.”
Image #4: White tantric yoga ritual.
Image #5: Preparations for a wedding.

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Publication Date:
11 April 2021

 

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