When I look at Punjabi Sikhs discussing Bhajanism, as it so often happens these days, it’s obvious that they cannot comprehend how anyone who seems to have become a Sikh could possibly be interested in things Hindu.
I suspect this is because, for them, having been born a Sikh, the abhorrence of Hindu practices has been taught to them since birth. It’s second nature. That is not true for the Westerners who turn to Bhajanism.
In 1969, I was looking to live a more spiritual lifestyle and had been experimenting with psychedelic drugs, such as LSD, for more than two years. Then, I decided I had had enough. The ecstatic states of mind I had originally experienced through these chemicals had long since faded, and I was looking for a way of recreating these feelings through a healthy, spiritually-oriented lifestyle.
I came across a book, “Autobiography of a Yogi,” by Paramahansa Yogananda, a Hindu yogi who came to the US in the early 1920’s and founded a spiritual organization – part Hindu, part Christian – that still thrives today. The book was first published in 1948 and is more popular today than ever. It has been translated into dozens of languages and is considered a hugely inspiring book.
I read it again and again. This book had a very powerful effect on me, making me determined to live a spiritual lifestyle, in some kind of Hindu way. I just had no idea where to start.
Just before Christmas of that same year I went to hear a man called Baba Ram Dass. His birth name was Richard Alpert. He had been famous a few years earlier as one of the cohorts of LSD-guru, Timothy Leary. He also had been an active promoter, and user, of LSD and other psychedelic drugs.
Alpert, like myself, had grown tired of the bad effects of these drugs. Looking for enlightenment, he went to India where he found a Hindu guru in the foothills of the Himalayas, known as Neem Karoli Baba. He became his guru, and gave Alpert a new name, Baba Ram Dass. He told him to go back to the U.S. and spread his teachings and inspire people.
Baba Ram Dass was inspiring, and funny. He was an excellent speaker. He presented his guru’s very Hindu teachings in a way that made them attainable, logical and practical.
I had finally found the key to change my own lifestyle. I became a vegetarian and gave up alcohol. I had already given up drugs. I also tried to meditate, and made a commitment to myself to live a spiritual lifestyle.
Less than a month later, I began attending Yogi Bhajan’s yoga classes and totally committed myself to practicing and sharing his yogic teachings.
Yogananda died in 1951. Baba Ram Dass, who is now known as Ram Dass, is in his 80’s, somewhat incapacitated because of a stroke, and rarely appears in public. These men are gone from the public eye, but their teachings still have a tremendous effect.
Why do I mention these names? What do these essentially Hindu teachers have to do with Bhajanism?
After I joined 3HO, I talked to my fellow Bhajanists and I discovered that - almost without exception - they had read and been inspired by “Autobiography of a Yogi.” They all knew who Baba Ram Dass was and had either heard him speak or read his very popular book, “Be Here Now.” That was true in 1970 and I suspect it is still true today.
Most of Yogi Bhajan’s students came to his teachings after being inspired by Hindu teachers, just like I was. I was looking for a Hindu practice. Instead, I happened upon Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini Yoga which, while it was not wholly Hindu, it was close enough.
Initially, I could not tell the difference. Although, being aware and well read, I soon figured it out. Many Bhajanists never do. And why should they? If they understood that the yoga they were practicing was intended to lead them into a cult, they would run a mile in the opposite direction.
Back in the early 70’s, Yogi Bhajan would invite Hindu swamis to his Los Angeles ashram to speak. I also remember him having a Vedic astrologer there to perform a Hom, a Hindu fire ceremony. There was no formal kirtan in those days, just a lot of songs that people made up and sang. If someone’s song included names of Hindu gods and goddesses, there was no sense of disapproval from Yogi Bhajan. The idea of Adi Shakti, worshipping the primal female power, was a big part of his teachings – as it still is. Perhaps his teachings of that time could best be described as quasi-Hindu, with various Sikh topics mentioned here and there.
That is how Yogi Bhajan’s 3HO started. It was NOT in any way started as a Sikh organization.
Recently I saw a quote on Facebook that I want to share here to help Sikhs of Punjabi origin understand just how prevalent Hindu ideas are amongst Westerners who aspire to embrace a spiritual lifestyle. I have often said in Internet discussions that there is a strong tendency towards Hinduism and its practices amongst the “New Age” people, the kind of people who make up the majority of 3HO yoga students. Perhaps this quote will help people understand just how strong it is:
“I lean towards Hinduism. Reincarnation, karma, celebrations, Bikram yoga, chanting, devotional singing, conscious sexuality, vegetarianism, meditation, flowers, incense, dance, slowing down, reconnecting, love, light, laughter and leisure. All good, good things, and even better because there are millions of kind, open loving souls who lean in too. Hare Krishna.”
Notice how many of the things that seem to inspire her are either not found in Sikhi or are frowned upon.
I know the lady who wrote this. She is a good and well-meaning person. She is typical of millions of Westerners who find no satisfaction in their religions of birth – mostly Christianity and Judaism – and are looking for another spiritual path. She is NOT a Bhajanist. In fact, she may never have even heard of 3HO. But her attitude and feelings are typical of the type of people who start taking Kundalini Yoga classes and eventually get involved with Bhajanism. That is why I used her words.
I believe this turning towards Hindu practices in Yogi Bhajan’s 3HO/Sikh-Dharma-International is happening because most of the people who come into his organizations, then and now, are oriented towards Hinduism and are looking for a Hindu lifestyle. Plus, since Yogi Bhajan’s death, there is no one with the authority to keep a lid on this kind of behavior. These innocents don’t see anything wrong with Hindu practices because no one has given them any education about Sikhi, particularly about Sikh history. No one has told them about the many brave souls who sacrificed so much to maintain Sikhi as a separate entity from Hindutva.
Yogi Bhajan operated on a “bait-and-switch” principle, which is a term used in retail sales. It means: To offer goods at an impossibly low price and then, when the subject shows up, to switch them to buying something much more expensive. Yogi Bhajan used his intoxicating and trance-like form of yoga to pull young people in, and then coerced them into his Sikhi-ness. Many, many of his students rebelled at that point and left the organization. During my time in 3HO, the turnover rate was very high.
In my case, in 1970, less than a year after studying Kundalini Yoga, I went to London to teach yoga. I wanted to learn Gurbani Kirtan and so began to study with a giani in Southall. As soon as I did, Sikhi took me over. I found that I loved it. Kundalini Yoga faded from my life, although I still taught it for income, and practiced it to keep fit and for health reasons.
In 1972, I returned to the U.S., a very committed Sikh. Yogi Bhajan was not happy with me. He told me I had come too far, too fast. He was only just beginning to introduce Sikh practices into his teachings. I didn’t care. I wanted Sikhi. That was enough for me.
I also encountered negativity from many of my fellow Bhajanists who felt threatened by my reciting Gurbani and singing Gurbani Kirtan. It was very obvious that they were there for the yoga, and yoga alone.
When Yoga Bhajan was alive, he would make sure that the organization sufficiently appeared to be oriented towards Sikhi to keep the Punjabis happy – or at least in the dark. Now that he is gone, there is no need for anyone to suppress their Hindu leanings. And we are seeing the results.
For me, the situation is tragic. Yes, Kundalini Yoga is expanding rapidly across the world. And within that movement there are some who are taking to Bhajan’s version of Sikhi, known as Bhajanism. But remember though, the Bhajanism movement has always been wide but not deep. Out of the perhaps 5,000 Westerners who embraced Bhajanism over the last 45 years, the number who turned to Sikhi after leaving Bhajanism can be counted on the fingers of two hands. Even the number committed to Bhajanism within the organization is hardly overwhelming – by some estimates 2,000 to 3,000 followers.
When Yogi Bhajan was alive, most of those who became Sikh-like did so because he told them to. When they became disenchanted with him, which a huge percentage did, they dropped his Sikhi-ness as fast as they could. For many, his Sikhi-ness was an awkward and uncomfortable fit, a burden on their lifestyle.
A great opportunity had been lost: To spread Sikhism amongst Westerners.
Unfortunately, Bhajanist Sikhi-ness still has to be taught today - by legal definition - according to the “teachings of Yogi Bhajan.” The settlement for the recent bitterly fought court cases in Oregon contained the following as part of the instructions for those who were to administer the settlement:
“(They shall be) working in the best interest of the entity and in service of such related entity’s mission to support and advance the practice of the Sikh Religion or the technology of Kundalini Yoga, as both were taught, by the Siri Singh Sahib Bhai Sahib Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji, aka Yogi Bhajan.”
What about Sikhi according to Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Kakkars and Amarit Sanchaar of Guru Gobind Singh ji, and the Sikh Rehit Maryada?
We now have an organization that is essentially schizophrenic. Are they Sikhs or are they Hindus? Do they want to embrace ideas such as naked yoga, gay yoga or yoga as an aid to sexuality? These ideas have all recently appeared on the Internet. They were promoted by people who are apparently part of 3HO, some even wearing turbans.
All this has come to pass since Yogi Bhajan’s death. It would have been unthinkable when he was alive. He would have put a stop to these perverted forms of his yoga, instantly. But now the cat is out of the bag. And no one is in charge. It is for this reason that the ever-present under current of Hinduism has now come to the surface and is being allowed to proliferate.
About the author: Antion Vikram Singh, originally named Vic Briggs, was the musical arranger and lead guitarist for the 1960s rock band, The Animals. He became a Sikh and kirtanyaa in 1971, and has subsequently recited kirtan in gurdwaras in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and India. In 1979, he became the first non-South Asian Sikh to sing Gurbani Kirtan at Darbar Sahib, Amritsar. He also is the author of the forthcoming book: "From Rock Star to Ragi, Volume 2 - The 3HO Years."
Commentaries are the opinions of the authors, and not necessarily that of Sikh Free Press.