Wahe Guru Ji Ka Khalsa Wahe Guru Ji Ki Fateh
Here are some sections from Verne A. Dusenbery’s chapter called “On the Moral Sensitivities of Sikhs in North America” where he studies the different reactions that “Jat” Sikhs and “Gora” Sikhs displayed over the assassination of Indira Gandhi. I am not sure he understands either side; the Punjabi Sikh side or the Yogi Bhajan Sikh side fully. Dusenbery doesn’t mention that “Gora” Sikhs responded the way they were instructed to respond by Yogi Bhajan. They didn’t know anything about Indian politics or modern Sikh history.
At any rate, Dusenbery was there on the scene, studying us all. This is my main intent in sharing his words; to remind Sikhs how interesting we are, and to share with nonSikhs further scholarly evaluations of Yogi Bhajan’s strange rise and cross-cultural impact on Sikhi worldwide.
The assassination of Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984, allegedly at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards, provoked mixed reactions from Sikhs in North America. News reports immediately following the assassination included pictures and accounts of Punjabi Sikhs celebrating her death in the streets of New York. Nevertheless, the CBS Morning News, on the day following the assassination, was able to find Sikh representatives who, although upholding the legitimacy of Sikh grievances, were willing to condemn Mrs. Gandhi’s murder. Thus, viewers of CBS Morning News were presented the comments of Harbhajan Singh Purl (the “Siri Singh Sahib” or self-styled Chief Religious and Administrative Authority for the Sikh Dharma in the Western Hemisphere) and one of his Gora (literally, “white,” i.e., Western) Sikh followers.
At the time of the CBS broadcast I was outraged that the media should once again have constituted “Yogi Bhajan” (as Purl is also known) and one of his few thousand Gora Sikh followers as representative of the tens or hundreds of thousands of Sikhs (overwhelmingly of Punjabi ancestry) residing in North America. If CBS considered itself obliged to find a “moderate” Sikh to condemn the murder, I felt it could have found a more representative Punjabi Sikh than Harbhajan Singh Purl, a former Indian customs official who founded the Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization in 1969 shortly after his arrival in the United States; and CBS certainly need not have included one of his non-Punjabi followers as a spokesperson for the Sikhs of North America.
Subsequently, I have come to rethink my position. In fact, it now seems to me quite appropriate that a Gora Sikh—a North American Sikh “convert”—should have made the most unequivocal repudiation of the murder by a Sikh that I heard in those confused and emotionally charged moments following the assassination. The different moral sensitivities displayed by the Punjabi Sikh celebrants outside the Indian consulate in New York and by the Gora Sikh spokesman in the CBS studios provide the outlines of what I consider a cross-culturally illuminating morality play.
…My distinct impression was that these new North American Sikh converts preferred to celebrate the more socially and temporally distant and morally unequivocal heroic martyrdoms of the Sikh Gurus, and other early exemplars, as these are recounted in the Sikh hagiographic tradition. Recent historical figures, whose political and personal motives were perhaps more transparent and, thus, morally more complex to North Americans, seemed to provoke ambivalence. In any case, my Cora Sikh informants repeatedly emphasized that they were a “religious” group and, therefore, did not involve themselves in Indian “politics.” As later would be the case in their response to Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination, their actions indicated that, despite affirming Guru Gobind Singh’s teachings that “when all else fails, it is right to draw the sword,” they were not totally comfortable resorting to murder to avenge the “insult to the Panth” suffered as a consequence of Hopkinson’s perjured testimony or Mrs. Gandhi’s desecration of the Akal Takht
In 1968, Harbhajan Singh Purl, whose refugee Khatri Sikh family had come to New Delhi from Pakistani Punjab at partition, quit his job as a customs official at Delhi’s International Airport and left for Toronto to become a yoga instructor. However, the Canadian who had recruited him for the position had died in the interim. Puri was, thus, without job or sponsor. Fortunately for him, he soon secured sponsorship from a Punjabi Sikh in Los Angeles where he settled and began teaching yoga courses (at the East-West Cultural Center, at a local community college, and out of a storefront). Now calling himself “Yogi Bhajan,” Purl proved a compelling teacher. Having found a receptive core of students (initially middle-age, female, “spiritual seekers”; subsequently young, white, middle-class refugees from the “counterculture”), he soon established for them an ashram, a “spiritual commune,” as his students would have it. There he taught his “Kundalini Yoga: The Yoga of Awareness,” offered occasional “Tantric Yoga Intensives,” and imposed upon his followers the structure and disipline of what he called “the healthy, happy, holy way of life.” In 1970, the Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization (or 3HO) was formally incorporated as a tax-exempt educational organization. By then, Puri was already sending his newly trained “student teachers” to other cities in North America to teach Kundalini Yoga and to establish additional ashrams. During the early 1970s, the organization primarily sought to recruit new members through yoga classes and establish new ashrams where, Puri now claims, members were being purified and prepared to accept their calling as Sikhs. At this point, however, Puri “continued to teach about Sikh Dharma in an indirect way” (Khalsa and Khalsa 1979:119).
Puri had, however, slowly begun to disclose his own Sikh background and to introduce Sikh teachings to his closest followers. In 1971, he took eighty-four of them to India where they visited the Golden Temple and surrounding shrines. At the Akal Takht, the highest scat of Sikh spiritual and temporal power, the group was cordially received, and Puri was honored for his missionary work. Returning home with what he represented as a mandate to spread the message of Sikhism in the West, Purl began to supplement and supplant his primarily yogic explanation of “the healthy, happy, holy way of life” with a more explicitly Sikh account. Purl also began to use the title “Siri Singh Sahib,” a title which, he claimed, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (the organization legally empowered to control the historical Sikh gurdwaras in the Punjab) had given him and which he rendered, liberally, as the “Chief Religious and Administrative Authority for the Sikh Dharma in the Western Hemisphere.” In 1973, Puri was successful in having the Sikh Dharma Brotherhood (later recast in nongender specific language as, simply, Sikh Dharma) officially registered as a tax-exempt religious organization legally empowered to ordain Sikh “ministers” who would have the authority to perform marriages, to provide the last rites, and to administer the amrt[*] pahul.
Puri’s own transformation from “Yogi Bhajan” to the “Siri Singh Sahib” corresponded roughly to a change from a yogic to a Sikh identity on the part of 3HO members. The change did not take place overnight; but once convinced by Puri that his “healthy, happy, holy way of life” was an orthodox Sikh one, most 3HO members did not hesitate to make a formal commitment to their new religion. And Purl provided unprecedented opportunities for 3HO members to express their commitment, not merely holding the traditional amrt pahul ceremonies but introducing Sikh “initiations” and “minister ordinations” as well. Members’ change from yogic to Sikh identity also corresponded to a change in emphases within the organization from recruiting new members and founding additional ashrams to maintaining the established group, raising a second generation, and gaining credibility as upholders of Sikh orthodoxy in North America.
Today, three to five thousand Gora Sikhs live with their families in or near the approximately one hundred 3HO ashrams in North America (and in scattered cities abroad). Their visibility (e.g., their distinctive white uniforms and Indian-sounding names), their aggressive pursuit of “religious rights” (e.g., exemptions from dress codes and saftey rules that would require their giving up turbans and other external symbols), and their frequent critical commentary on the practices of Punjabi Sikhs in North America (see Kaur 1973, 1975) have made them known beyond what their numbers might otherwise warrant. Punjabi Sikhs in North America, in particular, are well aware of their existence. And this is particularly so in places, like Vancouver, where Gora Sikhs have attempted to become involved with the local Punjabi Sikh gurdwaras.