Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswati, president and spiritual head of the Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh, India, performed Yogi Bhajan’s last rites rituals and ash immersion in Mother Ganga. This ashram on the banks of the Ganges River is devoted to Shiva, the Hindu god of yoga.
The ashram’s Web site still includes a link to Yogi Bhajan’s last rites announcement from 2005, under “Pujya Yogiji’s ash immersion.” (Note: The link was removed after publication of this story.)
The description says: “A very special ceremony was held in honor of the passing of the great saint, the one who brought Sikh Dharma to the West and who turned thousands of Westerners off of drugs/alcohol and onto spirituality - Siri Singh Sahib Yogi Bhajan. Pujya Yogiji entered mahasamadhi (yogic death) in October, and in January, a huge yatra of devotees from across the world brought his sacred ashes to India. The yatra came to Rishikesh on the 18 January for the divine puja and final rites ceremony."
Yogi Bhajan died on Oct. 6, 2004.
SikhNN emailed the two Hindu last rites images and a screenshot of the announcement to Parmarth for confirmation.
“Yes, this is definitely the ash immersion,” said Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, a spokeswoman for the ashram. “The puja, ceremony of rites, happens first and then the ashes are actually immersed.”
According to her blog, Sadhvi Bhagawati is a Los Angeles native who has been in seva of the swami for more than 17 years. She is often pictured with him on the Parmarth Web site.
“I don't remember exactly how many (of Yogi Bhajan’s followers) came though,” she told SikhNN. “Maybe somewhere between 15-30, I would say.”
The first image that was discovered (right) shows Yogi Bhajan’s wife, Inderjit Kaur Puri, two sons, Ranbir Singh Bhai and Kulbir Singh Puri, daughter, Kamaljit Kaur Kohli, and some of his followers sitting in front of Yogi Bhajan’s garlanded photograph with the swami leading the puja.
Although Sikhs believe ashes can be spread anywhere, it is the symbolic combination of Hindu last rites puja with ash immersion in the Ganges that has elevated the significance of this event among Sikhs.
And because Yogi Bhajan and his family had previously been to Parmarth and known the swami for decades, and because his followers regularly participated in pujas, artis, havans and yoga festivals at this ashram - even now - this image of his Hindu last rites at Parmarth has become emblematic of Yogi Bhajan’s beliefs and teachings, which Sikhs consider to be heretical.
According to the Rahit Maryada, a Sikh is defined as one who only follows the teachings of the 10 Gurus and Guru Granth Sahib, and does “not owe allegiance to any other religion.”
The obscure image of Yogi Bhajan’s Hindu last rites puja was first published in a 2005 article, ‘Harbhajan Singh Yogi Asleat’ (The Reality of Harbhajan Singh Yogi), on the Sikhmarg.com Web site. It was from shortly after Yogi Bhajan’s death, said Gurcharan Singh Jeonwala, author of the article and television commentator from Toronto. He did not know at the time where the image came form or that it was from the last rites puja.
The image again surfaced a few months ago during a cursory Internet search, said Gursant Singh, who was Yogi Bhajan’s disciple for more than 30 years. Previously known as Guru Sant Singh Khalsa, he left Sikh Dharma in 2009 after discovering real Sikhi in Punjab, he said.
Gursant Singh suspected that the image was from Yogi Bhajan’s last rites because he recognized his family members and the swami. It did not take long for him to find the announcement on the Parmarth Web site.
A second image, a close-up of Yogi Bhajan’s garlanded photograph from the last rites puja, with a giant statue of Shiva in the background, was sent in a news release from his religious organization, Sikh Dharma International. The Oct. 8 email included a link to a video that shows images of Yogi Bhajan’s “memorial yatra in India after his passing.” One of the images was of Yogi Bhajan’s garlanded photograph.
Several characteristics of the two images identify them as being from the same event. Both show two different angles of the last rites puja. Yogi Bhajan’s garlanded photograph appears in both images. And the circle of lights around the Shiva statue match other images on Parmarth’s Web site from December-January 2005, the same time period as the last rites puja. The lights were removed by October 2005. Together, the two images reveal the bigger picture.
“So that makes him a Hindu?” said Kulbir Puri, Yogi Bhajan’s younger son, angrily.
“Muniji was his spiritual son,” he told SikhNN, referring to the swami by his nickname. He described the ceremony as more of a memorial service honoring a spiritual leader.
SikhNN informed him that a Parmarth spokeswoman confirmed the pictures were from Yogi Bhajan’s “divine puja and final rites ceremony” and “ash immersion,” just as it said in the announcement.
“Somebody just wrote it up,” Kulbir Puri said. “We were just there.
“His rites were done in Kiratpur Sahib,” he added. The ashes “probably were” immersed in the Ganga, but “also in Espanola,” New Mexico.
Yogi Bhajan went to every religious circle, including ashrams, churches and mosques, Kulbir Puri said. He was honored at many places of worship, but his ashes were not taken to all of them, he said.
When asked why his ashes were taken to Parmarth, he then said: “No, they were not. Not that I recall.”
SikhNN emailed the two images to Kulbir Puri after the interview for further clarification. He did not respond.
SikhNN also emailed the two images, the announcement and other images of Yogi Bhajan’s followers performing rituals at Parmarth to Satpal Singh Kohli, Yogi Bhajan’s son-in-law, for comment.
“No, yogiji’s ashes were immersed at Kiratpur Sahib followed by Ardas at gurdwara by late Jathedar Tarlochan Singh ji,” he said by email. “There was no ashes immersed at Parmarth ashram. The attached photos are from visits to Parmarth by various persons during many different visits.” He did not acknowledge that his wife and in-laws were in one of those pictures.
Satpal Kohli is also known as Bhai Sahib Satpal Singh Khalsa, ambassador of Sikh Dharma and chairman of the Guru Ram Das Sikh Mission of America. And his mother-in-law, Inderjit Puri, is also known as Bibiji.
While both Satpal Kohli and Kulbir Puri explained the Parmarth connection as simple “visits,” images and posts on Web sites belonging to Yogi Bhajan’s organizations, family and followers show a connection to Parmarth that crosses the line from interfaith diplomacy to active participation.
Images from December 2001 on Satpal Kohli’s Web site, grdsma.com, show him, his wife, Kamaljit, Bibiji and Yogi Bhajan, all with tilaks on their foreheads, lighting divas with the swami at Parmarth.
A tilak is a dot on the forehead that Hindus believe is the third eye of Shiva. A diva is an oil-and-wick lamp used for the Hindu arti puja. And a puja is a Hindu ritual performed as an offering to one or more deities.
According to Satpal Kohli’s June 2010 post on Yogi Bhajan’s Sikhnet.com Web site, the swami said he “met Yogi Bhajan almost 30 years ago and was in constant touch with him throughout his life.
“Yogi Bhajan visited him many times at his ashram in Rishikesh,” Satpal Kohli said. “Pujya Muniji said Yogi Bhajan used to roar like a lion, and that even today he could still hear him roaring.”
Many of Yogi Bhajan’s most well-known followers have frequented Parmarth for yoga festivals and have participated in pujas, tilaks, artis and havans. They include Guru Singh, a member of the Initial Board that controls all of Yogi Bhajan’s organizations, such as Sikh Dharma International, 3HO and SikhNet; Snatam Khalsa, a kirtan and devotional music singer; and Gurmukh Khalsa, the celebrity yogi from Hollywood. Yogi Bhajan’s Chardi Kala Jatha also has performed kirtan at Parmarth.
In March 2005, less than two months after Yogi Bhajan’s Hindu last rites at Parmarth, Gurmukh Khalsa was back at the ashram for another yoga festival, and pujas, tilaks, artis and havans. A havan, also knows as homa, is a puja using fire.
The nature of Yogi Bhajan’s teachings and practices, which he imparted to his disciples and is enforced by his family and leadership, can best be summarized by a single quote from another of his close followers, Ek Ong Kaar Khalsa, posted on his Web site, 3HO.org:
“It is living as a yogi on the inside, and as a king on the outside.”
Ashes to ashes to ashes
Yogi Bhajan was cremated in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on Oct. 9, 2004. His ashes were divided into at least three parts and dispersed at Kiratpur, Rishikesh and near Espanola, New Mexico.
His last rites yatra first went to historic Kiratpur, in Punjab, on Jan. 11, 2005, for akhand paat at Gurdwara Patalpuri Sahib, and the first ash immersion in the Sutlej River.
“The Punjab government provided a 21-gun salute at the immersion,” Satpal Kohli told SikhNN. “I was personally present at the immersion of ashes at Kiratpur Sahib. A delegation of approx(imately) 100 people from Sikh Dharma from around the world were present at Kiratpur Sahib.”
According to a eulogy published on Sikhnet.com, the yatra met at his house, ‘Dashmesh Sadan,’ in Anandpur, before heading to Kiratpur. Students from his Miri Piri Academy, in Amritsar, also attended the ceremony.
The Tribune newspaper reported on the ceremony.
“Although Yogi had died, he would remain with us to guide in the work of spreading his teachings,” Bibiji told the Tribune, conspicuously mentioning “his teachings,” and not those of the Sikh Gurus.
Before immigrating to the US, Bibiji was a disciple of Gobind Sadan, an interfaith cult in New Delhi that is based on the worship of Sri Chand, Guru Nanak’s ascetic son whom he renounced for starting the Udassi religion. Yogi Bhajan, known as Harbhajan Singh Puri at that time, also became a disciple of Maharaj Virsa Singh, founder of Gobind Sadan, then left him after less than two years in the US, and declared himself the Mahan Tantric.
SikhNN could not reach Bibiji for comment by phone or email, and Satpal Kohli declined to forward any other contact information for her.
“(Un)til further notice, we are not inclined to give any interviews,” he told SikhNN by email.
Rishikesh also was a stop for part of the yatra to observe the Hindu last rites, but its announcement was not found on Sikhnet.
The last of Yogi Bhajan’s ashes were immersed in the air, by helicopter, at Ram Das Puri in April 2005, wrote Sat Khalsa, Sikh Dharma’s secretary of religion, on its sdministry.org Web site.
Ram Das Puri is a large area near Yogi Bhajan’s compound, in Espanola, New Mexico. His followers gather there during summer solstice and walk around in a large spiral for the annual healing walk on their ‘Peace Prayer Day.’
According to Yogi Bhajan’s 3HO.org Web site, Ram Das Puri was a sacred place for the Hopi Indian indigenous tribe. Yogi Bhajan claimed that unnamed “Hopi elders” told him “a white-clad warrior from the East would arrive and create a white-clad army to protect the Unified Supreme Spirit,” and that Yogi Bhajan was the white-clad warrior whose coming they had predicted.
But the Hopi Indians have not heard of or have any record of Yogi Bhajan in relation to Hopi ancestral lands, or in any other context, said Terry Morgart, legal researcher for the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office in Kykotsmovi, Arizona.
“White-clad warrior from the East” sounds more like a prophecy from a Sedona, Arizona, enclave with New Age people than Hopi, he said.
The Hopis have a belief in a “true white brother from the East” whose coming is predicted, “white” meaning pure, he added.
“(But) we have never heard any Hopi say this (true white brother from the East) is Yogi Bhajan, never heard any Hopi refer to a “Unified Supreme Spirit,” and Hopis are not warriors,” Morgart said.
“Hopi sayings are often stolen by others and reinterpreted for their own purpose,” he added. “It sounds self-serving by self-proclamation.”
The Hopi story is one of many self-proclamations Yogi Bhajan made to add credibility to his new yogic religion, sources in this report said.
In ‘From Maharaj to Mahan Tantric,’ an academic deconstruction of Yogi Bhajan’s creation of Kundalini Yoga, published in the December 2012 issue of the journal, ‘Sikh Formations,’ by the University of California at Santa Barbara, Philip Deslippe writes:
“Like a small restaurant that places mirrors on opposing walls to create the appearance of depth, it is from the singular person of Yogi Bhajan that all information about the (spiritual) lineage and practice of his Kundalini Yoga originates.”
The Sikh reaction
SikhNN reached out to the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee and the Akal Takhat, in Amritsar, for comment on Yogi Bhajan’s last rites puja and for input on what Sikh scriptures, history and heritage say about yogis and yoga.
“This is not related to me,” said SGPC Secretary Roop Singh, also known to be a Sikh scholar. When asked whether a yogi can be a Sikh, he said: “I have no comment.”
SikhNN could not reach Akal Takhat Jathedar Gurbachan Singh by email or by phone. “He is busy,” a spokesman said from his cell phone.
Gurbachan Singh had granted SikhNN an interview in August, after returning from his US tour during which he announced the formation of a new committee to represent Sikhs in the US to the Akal Takhat. He appointed Satpal Kohli, a long-time ally, as its convener.
Former Akal Takhat Jathedar Darshan Singh, in Canada, said he was hearing of Yogi Bhajan’s Hindu last rites puja and ash immersion at Parmarth for the first time. And he also did not previously know that Yogi Bhajan’s family and followers were long-time devotees of Parmarth.
“Where the ashes go is of no significance in Sikhi,” he told SikhNN. “Gurbani says we come from dust and we return to dust. What matters is how he led his life, which was not Gurmat. So when he died, they did not mention this (Hindu last rites) to the public.
“Leaders like Yogi Bhajan have no Gurmat samadhi (awareness of the Guru’s way),” he added. “They know how to collect followers but know nothing of that which is in Guru Granth Sahib.”
The yogic school of thought is rejected time and again in the Guru Granth Sahib, beginning with Guru Nanak’s Japji Sahib, paurhee 28. The most intense rejection occurs in a section known as, ‘Sidh Gohst.’ During three debates with the yogis of the Himalayas, the youthful Guru Nanak critiqued and refuted, in the most eloquent but absolute manner, their philosophy and practices, and their efforts to have him join them.
Bhai Gurdas also wrote with vivid detail in his Vaars that everywhere and every time Guru Nanak debated the futility of yoga, the yogis gave up their asanas, beliefs and lifestyles. Gorakhmata, the most important center of yogis in Uttar Pradesh, even changed its century-old name to Nanakmata.
Yogi Bhajan having his last rights as a Hindu is very significant because it is specified in the Rehat Maryada that Sikhs should not make a special trip to the Ganga, Kiratpur or Kartarpur for ash immersion, said Kuldeep Singh, a trustee of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, an interreligious advocacy group.
“The puja is more significant because we do not perform any other ceremony,” he told SikhNN. “It shows allegiance to Hinduism.”
“It’s one thing to go once (to Parmarth), but to do in a routine way is really very disheartening from those who claim to be devout Sikhs,” said Sukhmander Singh, a civil engineering professor who, in May, organized the conference, ‘One Granth, One Panth and the Sikh Rehat Maryada,’ at Santa Clara University, in California. Scholars from the US and Punjab presented their papers.
“This display of worship would raise a question mark in any Sikh’s mind whether they really only worship Guru Granth Sahib,” he told SikhNN. “The Guru does not believe in putting one foot in two boats.”
"The purpose of a Sikh's life is to be one with Nirankar in this life, not after death, as yogis believe," said Manohar Singh Grewal, a scientist originally from Boston, now settled in Vermont. “He claimed to be representing all the Sikhs but if he truly was a Sikh, he would not do that” Hindu last rites puja.
Manohar Singh met Yogi Bhajan in late 1975 or early 1976, in Boston and in Los Angeles.
"Guru Gobind Singh has sowed the seed of the Khalsa wrongly,” Yogi Bhajan told Manohar Singh, in Los Angeles. He divulged the yogi’s utterings to the New England sangat after one of Yogi Bhajan’s followers was taken to task by the sangat for calling Indian Sikhs patits.
This and other such incidents of Yogi Bhajan claiming to be better than Guru Gobind Singh were documented in ‘Sikhism and Tantric Yoga,’ a scathing expose by an eminent Sikh scholar, Trilochan Singh, who also was the chief translator of the UNESCO publication, ‘Sacred Writings of the Sikhs.’
Although Yogi Bhajan made these statements to a small number of Indian Sikhs, he openly claimed the same to all his followers, via in his lectures and publications.
“In my personal experience as gross human body, it is the first time in the world the real perfect shape of the Khalsa came into existence,” Yogi Bhajan said in a lecture, printed in his publication, ‘Sikh Dharma Brotherhood,’ in 1976. “It didn't happen in the time of Guru Gobind Singh. I see and now look back at the Sikh history. We have done—a handful of us—a more tremendous sacrifice for the sake of humanity on this planet than anybody can even relate to.”
“(Yogi Bhajan) did a lot of things that were anti-Sikh,” Manohar Singh added.
“They look good on the outside,” said Gurcharan Singh Jeonwala, referring to Yogi Bhajan and his followers. “But if their behavior is bad then they are no more Sikh.”
While Indian Sikhs seemed stunned by the revelation of Yogi Bhajan’s Hindu last rites, his former students were not surprised.
Gursant Singh was more angry than surprised.
“It’s just appalling, completely against Sikh teachings,” he said. “We are supposed to worship one God and one Guru, not these other gods and goddesses. It’s alarming that we are being misled by his followers who continue to do every single word Yogi Bhajan said.”
A yoga class in 1977 led to Gursant Singh's 32-year devotion to Yogi Bhajan, often playing the role of body guard and personal assistant. In 2008, he was allegedly implicated in a scam with a marriage broker to collect Rs. 1,500, about $25, from prospective brides in India. He lived in Darbar Sahib for more than six months while awaiting a court date. In his interactions with the Sikhs of Punjab, he discovered that he was not following Sikhi, he said.
He fled the country after 18 months out of concern of receiving a fair trial, which could take up to eight years to be scheduled. He escaped to Nepal and back to the US, in 2009. He then also fled from Yogi Bhajan's disciples. Gursant Singh became a Sikh and has since been speaking out on the Internet against Yogi Bhajan's teachings.
Antion Vikram Singh Meredith, a former Yogi Bhajan devotee, was not shaken by his Hindu last rites but it did stir some disturbing memories.
“In the whole of the 20 years I was with him he would do Hindu type stuff,” he said. “For example, he would have the family pandit come and do a homa – Hindu fire ceremony – for his healing in his Delhi home, in the room where they kept Guru Granth Sahib.”
Vikram Singh, a rock star turned Indian-classical Gurbani kirtaniya, made history in 1979 as the first non-Indian to lead an all-white jatha at Darbar Sahib. He also sang kirtan for sangats in California and London.
Vikram Singh left Yogi Bhajan in 1990 because he planned to take money from his San Diego followers, he said. “But it was really about seeing through the illusion that we were there to promote Sikhi and change the world. It was clearly obvious that the whole thing was mostly about generating money for (Yogi Bhajan) and catering to his ego. The main reason I didn’t leave much sooner was because I was scared that I might lose my Sikhi if I left the organization. I had been disillusioned for some years.” Vikram Singh remained a Sikh.
Kamalla Rose Kaur, a former Yogi Bhajan disciple who left after 20 years, in 1992, also was not moved by his dual last rites.
“Discovering that Yogi Bhajan split his ashes between Sikh and Hindu funerals did not really surprise me,” she said. “I have grown to expect there to be a big gulf between official Yogi Bhajan activities, and the secret side of his story - in death, as well as in his life.”
Kamalla Rose Kaur found her way out of the Yogi Bhajan faith when she joined San Jose State University as a religious-studies major.
“I began to understand that I wasn’t really a Sikh - and that I might have joined a cult,” she said. “I was practicing Californian-style New Ageism - I had become an excellent astrologer down through my association with Yogi Bhajanism, (and) I knew all about color therapy, crystals, foot reflexology, past-life regressions and extreme forms of water therapy, specifically cold showers at 3:30am, each and every day.
“Shamefully, I had taught all of this as part and parcel of the Sikh religion, grossly misinforming California audiences for many years. My religious studies professors thought poorly of the ignorant messing with the doctrines of major world religions, so they confronted my New Age ways. They encouraged me to read the Sikh Guru and study what others had to say.”
When Kamalla Rose Kaur began to write about her findings in Yogi Bhajan’s publications, she said she felt so threatened she divorced her husband, gave him custody of their children, and left penniless. She is still studying Sikhi, and still in touch with her children.
Kamalla Rose Kaur also runs an Internet forum for Yogi Bhajan’s former students who write anonymously for fear of reprisal. They will not grant any interview even though they have never been attacked or threatened after leaving.
Pritam Singh was one of Yogi Bhajan’s early followers who left him after only three years, in 1976. He also was not surprised by the Hindu last rites.
“I think he was a Hindu,” he said “Yogi Bhajan believed in magic and the powers of deities. He was a magic yogi who taught magic. He took the Sikh religion and turned it into magic Sikhi. Do special mantras in special positions… Do Japji Sahib with yoga… Isn’t that exactly what Hinduism is, mix everything? When you mix it all up you get confused as to what it is (he is) teaching...
“At the core of it is real corruption of the real message of the 10 Gurus and Guru Granth Sahib,” he said. “The Americans don’t have a clue. The Indians can’t handle the truth, the real stuff.”
Pritam Singh is now a Buddhist and a real-estate magnate in Key West, Florida. He helped Trilochan Singh publish his book in 1977.
“The story is what is happening and what they are teaching,” he said. It’s nuts and has nothing to do with Sikhism… The long-term affect is that they are the ones that Americans think are real Sikhs.”
Pritam Singh left Yogi Bhajan because of how he dealt with people, he said. “He was abusive. He had a Jim Jones quality.”
A cult by any other name
By definition, a cult is a group of people with heretically different and schismatic beliefs from those of an established group, often with extreme devotion to its founder(s), and lives outside of conventional society, usually under the direction of a charismatic leader.
Three US cult experts have declared Yogi Bhajan’s oldest organization, Happy Healthy Holy (3HO) organization, a cult.
Yogi Bhajan’s 3HO appears on a list of cults identified by the Cult Awareness and Information Center.
The center defines a cult as: “Any group, which has a pyramid type authoritarian leadership structure with all teaching and guidance coming from the person/persons at the top.”
Contrary to Sikhism, Yogi Bhajan created a pyramid of ministers with titles, and made himself their pope-like leader. Bibiji and Siri Sikdar Sahiba Guru Amrit Khalsa now play that role.
Cult expert Rick A. Ross called Yogi Bhajan an "absolute authoritarian figure,” in a 2004 obituary written in the New York Times. His list of “destructive cults” also includes 3HO.
Another cult expert, Steven Hassan, said in his 2010 Huffington Post blog post that he was disturbed by 3HO’s mainstream connections.
“Over the past 30 years I have helped former members who alleged sexual and psychological abuse by and under Yogi Bhajan. There have been allegations of various criminal activities, and also Security Exchange Commission convictions of members of Yogi Bhajan's inner circle. Several former students of Yogi Bhajan claim that when attempting to leave the group, they were threatened with violence. There is an unsolved murder of a member that is still under investigation, and also haunting suicides.
“Members of Yogi Bhajan's group claim to be Sikhs. However, according to mainstream members of the religion, by adhering to the doctrine of Yogi Bhajan, they are violating more traditional Sikh teachings,” he added. “Yogi Bhajan's teachings are closer to a synthesis of Kundalini yoga, tantric and New Age practices than anything originating from Sikh teachings.”
Hassan has helped Yogi Bhajan followers leave 3HO. On his 'Freedom of Mind' anti-cult Web site, he lists alternate names for the 3HO cult: Sikh Dharma Brotherhood, Siri Singh Sahib Foundation and Kundalini Yoga.
_________________________From Sikh News Network archives.