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How a Cult-turned-Corporation Hijacked American Sikhism
A Punjabi conman created the “Kundalini Yoga” brand and turned a 550-year-old religion into a commodity that centered whiteness.
Michaela Stone Cross
July 27, 2020
Harjit Kaur (name changed for their protection), the daughter of Punjabi Sikh immigrants, was pregnant with her first child when she decided to take a Kundalini Yoga prenatal class.
“I actually avoided Kundalini Yoga,” said Kaur. “I saw white people in turbans and was like, ‘No.’” She ended up enjoying her class more than expected and ended up paying $3,500 to attend a workshop.
“It was an awful experience,” said Kaur. “There’s this weekend where they teach everyone about ‘Sikhism.’ The trainer had a trash bag full of dirty rags and had people tie the rags on their heads to crown themselves.” Her classmates repeated appropriated Sikh terms and took selfies in their turbans. One trainer even imitated an Indian accent to teach the class. Kaur was the only Brown woman in the room.
“My jaw just dropped,” said Kaur. “Nobody noticed or cared.”
Kundalini Yoga, as promoted by the Kundalini Research Institute, is a modern yoga practice trademarked by the Siri Singh Sahib Corporation (SSS). If that name sounds Indian, it’s not — SSS is a multi-billion dollar American nonprofit, commonly called by its oldest division 3HO. Yogi Tea, SikhNet, and Akal Security are among the several subsidiaries of the Siri Singh Sahib Corporation.
Yogi Bhajan, a conman-turned-guru, started 3HO, which stands for “Healthy, Happy and Holy Organization,” in 1970. A former customs inspector at the New Delhi airport, Bhajan capitalized on hippie culture during the 1960s and 1970s by convincing his white followers that he was a famous Indian yogi. In many ways, Bhajan was the quintessential phony guru: promising his followers ancient Eastern wisdom and a higher level of consciousness, while exploiting them for money, power, and sex. After Bhajan died in 2004, the #MeToo movement opened up a sea of rape and child molestation allegations against Bhajan.
But one thing made 3HO very different from the average cult: 3HO latched onto Sikhism — also known as Sikhi — and thus attained a level of legitimacy that New Age movements like the Hare Krishnas never got.
“When I wanted to be a yogi, I happened to be a Sikh, and I wanted to play games,” said Bhajan in a lecture. By stringing together Hindu pujas, Sikh mantras, certain yoga practices, and cheap aphorisms (“If you cannot see God in all, you cannot see God at all”), he created a new religion, and a lot of merchandise — Yogi Tea is named after Bhajan.
“Seeing Sikhi being pimped out for clearly business reasons, by people who come from mercantile communities, it’s really creepy,” said Rahuldeep Singh Gill, a second-generation Punjabi Sikh and scholar of 17th-century Sikh texts. Gill grew up attending an all-white 3HO gurdwara in Massachusetts, back in the 1970s when there were hardly any Punjabi gurdwaras around.
“The community hadn’t created enough capital to buy their own land — they would just go from house to house,” said Gill. “We didn’t call it 3HO, we called it ‘the American gurdwara.’”
3HO calls their practice “Sikh Dharma,” a term Bhajan used for his mishmash of Sikhi, Hindu rituals, and New Age pseudoscience. Practitioners observe many outward aspects of Orthodox Sikhism, such as praying five times a day, wearing a turban, not cutting one’s hair, and the daily preparation of free food (langar).
“Yes, they were proper Sikhs,” said Harjinder Kaur Gill, Rahuldeep’s mother. The Gills say that the 3HO community warmly welcomed them: Rahuldeep played tabla, his father sang Kirtan. 3HO even sponsored his father’s American residency. The family became so close to 3HO that they even helped find a German 3HO member a Punjabi wife.
“That was in the ’80s too. So there was some threat involved,” said Gill, referring to the anti-Sikhi pogroms sweeping through India at the time.
While 3HO’s gurdwara services were pretty similar to the traditional practices — with the major exceptions of vegetarianism and yogic spiritual practices — there were some obvious differences. 3HO Sikhs were known as “Gora Sikhs,” meaning Caucasian Sikhs. But it wasn’t just that the 3HO members were white — they also wore white clothes and white turbans, and built white gurdwaras, unlike traditional colorful Punjabi temples.
“What they fed us was inherently white supremacist,” said Gill. “Now that I look back on it. But we never made the connection. We were like, ‘They’re practicing our religion. We’re telling them when they’re wrong.’” Bhajan taught his followers that Indian Sikhs had lost touch with their Sikhi, and that the brand of Sikhi he’d brought to the West was the real thing. Bhajan went to great lengths to keep the white 3HO community entirely separate, feeding his followers a corrupted Sikhi that he used to control and exploit the community as well as sexually abuse women.
“We weren’t really interested in the teachings,” said Gill. “We were just trying to eat langar, find the sights and smells of home.”
To Gill, the 3HO members were “sweet-hearted, good-for-nothings” — no doubt, most of them were. The problem was that 3HO was able to seize the mantle of Sikhism in America, during a time when most Punjabi Sikhs were immigrants focused on survival, without much of a political voice.
“That was in the ’70s,” said Gursant Singh, an ex-3HO member and a now-practicing Sikh. “Most [immigrant] Sikhs didn’t know English, there was no organized group of Sikhs that would be able to challenge Yogi Bhajan. The only organized Sikhs [outside South Asia] were in the U.K.”
“My parents were working all day, not chanting all day,” said Kaur. “They were not thinking about yoga teachers — they were thinking, ‘How do I build a life for my children?’”
Bhajan was able to call himself the representative of Western Sikhi, a kind of “pope.” That legacy lives on to this day: 3HO still runs SikhNet, the largest Sikh website dedicated to Sikh news and practice with over 800,000 visits per month.
“Even though 3HO Sikhs make up a tiny minority of all Sikhs in the United States, they show up disproportionately on promotional campaigns by advocacy groups,” said Philip Deslippe, a religious studies Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Because they are ‘a friendly white face,’ and they present Sikhi not as just South Asian but as multicultural.”
“We are one of the most misunderstood, misrepresented faiths,” said Sundeep Morrison, a Punjabi Sikh activist currently working on a documentary about 3HO. “About 60% of Americans don’t know what our faith entails. Yogi Bhajan centered whiteness in Sikhi, he made up his own pseudoreligion, which I consider a cult. I don’t call it ‘white Sikhi,’ I call it ‘Bhajanism.’ He conflated an over 500-year-old faith [Sikhism] with an over 5,000-year-old practice [yoga], and presented it to white people and centered whiteness in it.”
Sikhi explicitly condemns practicing yoga as a spiritual path. Bhajan’s pseudoreligion and the Kundalini practice centers yogic practices, even using Sikh Gurbani mantras as yogic chants and spells. The Kundalini practice has a major following, including celebrities like Russell Brand, Kate Hudson, and Alicia Keys.
“They take our turban and they turn it into a magic meditation hat,” said Kaur. “They sell our names as spiritual names to use on weekends. For $40, you can get one in a week.”
Kundalini Yoga as a brand has a larger voice in white America than the 500,000 Sikhs who live in the U.S. Sikhs have died for their dastars, while white Kundalini practitioners wear turbans to “open their crown chakras.”
Morrison said that she has reached out to many 3HO members but they stonewall her. She claims that they delete Yelp comments by Punjabi Sikhs and generally refuse to listen to the community.
“What’s happening is the appropriation and commodification of Sikhi,” said Morrison. “They don’t want to listen to anybody who wants to have a conversation.”
A video of Guru Jagat, a prominent Kundalini teacher, called “Woman Whitesplains Sikhi,” has gone viral. The clip is from an intersectional feminist panel Kaur hosted, in which Pakistani American activist Samia Khan-Bambrah addresses her concerns about the practice.
“My experience with Kundalini has been triggering,” Khan-Bambrah said on the panel. “Because my father-in-law’s been wearing a turban in this country since 1968 and it’s not a pleasant experience. And, on a Brown body, it looks very different than it does on a white body. And I don’t know that everyone knows that.”
Guru Jagat responds by saying that Bhajan — who on the record voiced his belief that rape victims subconsciously are asking for it — was “an intersectional feminist before that thing was coined.” She then claims that he was the first Sikh to give women turbans (Sikh women have always been able to wear turbans) and then goes on to claim that “the word ‘yoga’ did not come from the East, it came from the Bible” and that Hindu gurus took the word from America, calling it Sanskrit.
“I always thought, ‘Do they think they’re doing Sikhism better than us?’” said Harjit Kaur. “And then I realized, ‘Oh, they actually do.’”
Sikh leaders and advocacy groups have remained quiet about 3HO for several reasons. For a start, the group is small, with only about 3,000 to 5,000 members. For another, many see 3HO Sikhs as encouraging orthodoxy in a land where many lose touch with their faith. And lastly, converting white people to a highly persecuted, minority religion has cache for many Sikhs.
“It’s kind of a feather in their turban,” said Singh. “For the traditional Sikh community to have Westerners who ‘convert’ to Sikhi. So they overlook the most un-Sikh-like practices.”
In return, 3HO can eschew its status as a cult. Before a press conference, Singh — who was attempting to join the army at the time — was advised by a 3HO-hired publicist. “They said, ‘You’re going to be asked, ‘You belong to a cult. Why should we let a cult into the U.S. Army?’ And I would say, ‘No, I belong to a religion, a 500-year-old religion. We believe in one God.’”
3HO leveraged this legitimacy for financial gain, particularly by securing government contracts for Akal Security, a subsidiary of the overarching Siri Singh Sahib Corporation. “Akal” means “deathless” or “eternal,” and is a word charged with meaning for any Sikh.
“I remember going through TSA [airport security] at one time and seeing Akal Security and the TSA,” said Gill. “You know kirpans [a ritual dagger some Sikhs carry]? They knew we weren’t dangerous like that. It was kind of refreshing.”
Akal Security’s website describes itself as a “proud American company” in all caps. It doesn’t mention Sikhi, nor its board of directors. Meanwhile, Akal is one of the largest private American security companies and has even worked with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain “illegal immigrants,” some of whom have been Punjabi Sikhs.
“People don’t realize that this is a massive corporation that is recognized as a tax-exempt church,” said Morrison. “The Solstice festivals you attend, the Kundalini classes you take, do you really know where your money is going?”
But the message is clear. Sikhi is used by the corporation when it’s convenient, dropped when it’s not. The 3HO community has varying levels of complicity. There are the festivalgoers, who drop Molly and dance to Gurbani mantras set to techno beats. There’s the Kundalini crowd, which attends problematic classes. There are the 3HO leaders, who still worship Bhajan and sell sacred Gurbani mantras as a way to improve your sex life. And then there’s the baptized “Gora Sikhs,” practicing a corrupted Sikhi.
“3HO Sikhs are people who have to figure out if they’re part of a business conglomerate rooted in yoga teacher training and other products, or if they’re part of a 500-year-old tradition that now has a global face,” said Gill.
Singh is now married to a Punjabi woman and practices Sikhi, having disavowed “Bhajanism.” “I’m thankful to my wife and other traditional Sikhs I’ve met who have really helped me learn about Sikhi,” said Singh. “True Sikhi.”
“Sikhi doesn’t belong to anyone,” said Morrison. “It’s open to all. But practice with context, practice with history, with knowledge. Know what your POC [people of color] Sikh brothers and sisters have gone through, the struggle that they continue to go through.”
Kaur, despite her negative experience with Kundalini, still teaches her own form of Kundalini.
“Sikhi has fundamentally been changed,” said Gill. “I don’t think Sikhs realize. For better or worse, Bhajan has fundamentally changed Sikhi. You now have all these questions: what does it mean to have a relationship with the Punjab? Do we need charismatic leaders to spread this tradition?”
Singh, who first converted to Sikhism through 3HO, has nothing good to say about his former teacher.
“I would have really liked to have seen what Sikhi in the West would have done without him,” said Singh.
Michaela Stone Cross is a freelance writer from Philadelphia. She currently lives in Mumbai, where she spends most of her time trying to explain why she’s there. She’s written for several publications, including VICE.