Oregon Attorney General John Kroger and former religious leaders of Sikh Dharma International, the community founded by Yogi Bhajan, are suing Unto Infinity, which controls the dharma and all the other for-profit and non-profit businesses, and the six executives of Golden Temple Management, which oversees the Golden Temple of Oregon food company, for squeezing funding to the religious community and for unjustly enriching themselves.
Kartar Khalsa is the only male member of the board of directors that comprises Unto Infinity. The other three members of Unto Infinity are women who served on Yogi Bhajan’s personal staff. He also is chief executive officer of Golden Temple Management.
According to a 2009 document from the Khalsa Council, an organization of 200 dharma ministers, Yogi Bhajan was the highest administrative and religious authority before his death in 2004. With failing health and expecting his own demise, he restructured his organization to carry on his mission. In 2003, he created Unto Infinity as the chief administrative authority and placed the chief religious authority with leaders of the dharma. He replaced himself, the highest authority, with Siri Singh Sahib Corporation, which was to include board members from both the administrative and religious authorities. But the corporation ended up with board members only from Unto Infinity.
Kartar Khalsa took the stand on June 7, facing charges that he and Yogi Bhajan’s lawyer, Roy Lambert, masterminded an extremely complicated 2007 reorganization of his multi-million dollar businesses.
The reorganization was crafted in response to a cash crunch caused by the 18 million dollar fine that Akal Security, the group's largest company and also one of the largest security contractors in the United States, had to pay the government for alleged contract fraud with the Army, Kartar Khalsa said. The lawsuit was settled out of court in 2007.
The reorganization also included the selling of Golden Temple foods to the top managers of the company for $100 each. Golden Temple Management executives ended up making millions.
To date, Kartar Khalsa has banked 20 million dollars, which doesn’t include his large share, 45 percent, of the profits from the 2010 sale of the cereal division to Hearthside Food Solutions. The attorney general is asking for that money back, about 17 million dollars. Included in the sale was the ownership and use of the Golden Temple brand name and logo.
When asked about the significance of the name, Golden Temple, Kartar Khalsa told the court that the Golden Temple is a Sikh temple in India. When asked if he felt remorse for selling the brand name Golden Temple to a non-Sikh company, he said, “No. It was just part of the deal.”
But with increased media attention in this case, and with similar issues in India, some Sikhs are becoming increasingly concerned by the use of Sikh terms in brand names and logos for commercial purposes.
According to a December 2010 IndiaExpress.com report, “The Sikh clergy also ordered that Gurbani should not be used for the commercial purpose and on hoardings and bill boards meant to sell the commercial products.”
The World Sikh Council – America Region, a group of 47 American gurdwaras and organizations, also took a firm stand against the use of religious names and symbols.
“WSC-AR does not support use of trademarks that closely resemble Sikh religious association, whether it is Golden Temple, Waheguru, Nanak or other such inference for marketing purposes for any for-profit business, or under the statement that it is for a portion that will go to charity,” said Manmohan Singh, general secretary, in a statement emailed to SikhNN.
“With historical merchant trade in India, where such inferences are typical, the public here has not objected, but now with the increased population presence and awareness, these must be addressed for misuse of religion.”
Hearth Food Solutions did not return numerous calls for comment on its use of the Golden Temple brand name. One spokesperson, under condition of anonymity, said the company was not aware of the religious significance of Golden Temple or that its use may offend the Sikh community.
The source also said that all the employees from the dharma, wearing Yogi Bhajan’s bana of unshorn hair and all-white turban and clothing, who previously worked at Golden Temple foods before the sale, are still working there under the new ownership. But none of them mentioned anything controversial about the use of the name.
After the 2007 restructuring, many of the top brass in Yogi Bhajan’s empire dropped his bana.
Kartar Khalsa ditched his turban and shaved his beard three years after Yogi Bhajan’s death.
“I consider myself to still be a Sikh as Yogi Bhajan first told me - a seeker of truth,” he explained to the Judge Leslie Roberts and others in the courtroom.
In the trial video, which is being recorded by the Courtroom View Network, Kartar Khalsa can be seen on the witness stand wearing a black suit, white shirt and dark tie. His thinning hair is pulled back into a French braid flattened against the back of his head, giving the impression that he has cut his hair.
After the 2007 restructuring, Kartar Khalsa also separated from his wife of more than thirty years. It is widely known that he is now romantically involved with fellow Unto Infinity board member, Peraim Kaur Khalsa. The two live together in Oregon and have been seen together at public events.
Kartar Khalsa first met Yogi Bhajan in 1973. In 1974, he took “Sikh vows” by participating in a ceremony created by Yogi Bhajan to initiated students into the dharma, he said. He was first exposed to the community through Kundalini Yoga classes.
“The common way it first starts is with Kundalini Yoga classes,” he said. “Those who choose to become Sikhs and Sikh ministers start that way.”
But contrary to Sikhism, Yogi Bhajan’s followers are Udasis, a sadhu sect that follows Sri Chand, Guru Nanak’s elder son whom he disowned. Udasis practice tantric yogas such as Kundalini. Sikhs do not.
Ajeet Singh Khalsa, another of the Golden Temple Management executives, testified the next day that he had little knowledge of the workings of his boss, Kartar Khalsa’s, inner circle.
He said he has no pension and never went to college, so it is unlikely he will ever find work at the same level of responsibility if he loses his job as a result of his being a part of Golden Temple Management.
Ajeet Khalsa, director of operations, testified that he began taking Kundalini Yoga classes when he was 15. He moved into the Guru Ram Das Ashram in Eugene, Oregon, and began working at the Golden Temple bakery at 17.
Starting out on the night shift, cleaning up the factory, Ajeet Khalsa slowly rose up through the ranks over more than thirty years, he said. He married a Punjabi woman and studied Sikh music together.
In 1979, Ajeet Khalsa became part of the historic kirtan jatha, the first group of Caucasian Sikhs to recite kirtan at Darbar Sahib, the Golden Temple of Amritsar.
One June 8, he testified that he is no longer a Sikh and that he “gave up the appearance last fall.”
When asked if he had ever questioned Yogi Bhajan about the distribution of company profits, he said: “Asking Yogi Bhajan about where the profits went was a dicey situation. I’d seen people ask that before, and his response was heavy handed.”
Note: Anju Kaur, staff journalist, contributed to this report.