Studying Sikhs in North America – Verne A. Dusenbery

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.

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About Verne Dusenbery

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[18]

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.[19]

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.[20]

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6 Comments

Filed under Fighting Authoritarian Groups, Sikhi

6 responses to “Studying Sikhs in North America – Verne A. Dusenbery

  1. Gurmit Singh

    Indira Gandhi was shot dead. Yogi died despite his 3HO acrobatics. Hence, I could hardly comment.
    As said earlier, there is no question or gora sikh or
    American Sikh or Punjabi Sikh. Once Sikh Faith is
    embraced, we become Sikhs and should follow Gurus’ Teachings and Divine Word enshrined in the Guru Granth Sahib with devotion and humility. And avoid travelling on two boats. thanks

  2. kamallarosekaur

    I agree that “Gora” Sikh and “Jat” Sikh are ugly terms and should be dropped immediately. Yogi Bhajan followers do in fact wear white, so calling them “White” Sikhs may not be a racist slur. However, nonSikh readers of my race will read it that way. As for Jat, it is a caste. Even if Sikhs cling to caste, Sikhi does not. Calling someone a Jat Sikh is insulting; like called Jewish women, Jewish American princesses, or JAPs for short. Bleach!

    I only posted a small part of this chapter. I left out what Dusenbery said about Sikhs of Punjabi descent. I don’t approve of how he used the word “vendetta” and blamed izzat or “honor” for Sikh’s reactions, and asserted that Westerners would feel different.

    Indira Gandhi forgot to fire her Sikh bodyguards. Down through the years I have never had one soul, nonSikh or Sikh, in my world not respond, “That was really stupid of her.”

    The Khalsa is a Knighthood and Dusenbery doesn’t really seem to understand that; not yet at least. He would have written quite differently had he lived in our parent’s generation, during WW2.

    As might well be expected, Dusenbery understands Yogi Bhajan Sikhs better, except he fails to understand that the characters involved were being personally coached by Yogi Bhajan – daily. He doesn’t mention Yogi Bhajan friendship with Indira Gandhi and he didn’t know what the CIA was up to, of course.

    His reporting, however, is very very detailed and accurate. I just disagree with a few of his interpretations.

    Now it is very possible that Dusenbery has changed his opinions some since writing this chapter. The West is just learning about Sikhs and Sikhi. Western scholars make mistakes, and then prove themselves to be real scholars by calmly changing their stance as they discover new facts and better models.

    Again, my first reason for posting parts of this article was to remind us all how well studied we all are. All these Eastern Masters arrived in the West in the early 1970s and a whole mini-generation of middle-upper class Western children joined these groups/cults. Yogi Bhajan’s group has turned out to be one of the most successful; right up their with Scientology and Rev. Sun/Moon’s group. We have been studied all along and we are still being studied.

    Sikhs and Sikhi are fascinating and understudied. The fifth biggest religion in the world and yet largely unstudied. That is changing quickly. Sikhi is now being taught in comparative religion classes.

  3. Verne A. (Van) Dusenbery

    FYI, this chapter has been reprinted in my book of collected essays, _Sikhs at Large: Religion, Culture, and Politics in Global Perspective_ (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008), along with another of my earlier essays, “Punjabi Sikhs and Gora Sikhs: Conflicting Assertions of Sikh Identity in North America” to which I added a more updated, post-Yogi Bhajan “Postscript”.

    (In that “Postscript” I address by way of a footnote the problematic nature of the terms “Gora Sikhs” and “American Sikhs” as used for 3HO/Sikh Dharma members. But “Gora Sikh” is the term most often used by Punjabi Sikhs, so my use of the term does reflect common usage. And, its continued use, like the use of terms like “Jat Sikh,” seems to support the argument I make therein that 3HO/Sikh Dharma Sikhs have been treated like a distinct caste or sect by most Punjabi Sikhs.)

  4. kamallarosekaur

    Hi Dr. Van,

    Thanks so much for posting here. I sure want to read that other article, “Punjabi Sikhs and Gora Sikhs: Conflicting Assertions of Sikh Identity in North America”.

    My very limited academic training is in Religious Studies, and I hold the SGGS (Sikh scripture) as my alive and well teacher and guide.

    Putting those two things together, I feel sorry for Guruji and honest Gurmukhs in this world because Sikhs get studied before Sikhi.

    The Sikh scripture/Guru defines clearly who and what a Sikh is; not Sikhs. Being from the Punjab or having a Sikh Sant for a Grandpa, doesn’t make you a Sikh. You are only a Sikh if you yourself engage with the SGGS and follow the teachings.

    “Sikhs” of many sorts, will tell you this. Guruji defines Sikhi, “Sikhs” do not.

    Who coined the term “Jat” Sikh? Scholars don’t categorize Christians and Muslims by caste and class. Anglicans may in fact be more upper crust than Baptists in the USA, but scholars honor the names Christians apply to themselves.

    “Sikhs”haven’t yet named ourselves well. I think Western scholars need to be kinder and gentler, go slower – because there is some beauty in the way “Sikhs” resist Western Protestant thinking.

    That said, I often use “SRM Sikh” to label the group I belong too; Sikhs who let no other Sant or Baba upstage the SGGS, and who honor the history and intentions of the Sikh Reht Maryada.

    SRM Sikhs reject YB Sikhs because they do not honor the SRM, not because of caste. Likewise, Anglicans may think Baptists are lower class…but more important the two groups disagree on the issue of baptism.

  5. kamallarosekaur

    From Harmander Singh, posted at SikhNewsDiscussion, a UK egroup, in response to my asking about Dusenbery’s take on “izzat” or “honor” among Sikhs:

    Dear Kamalla Rose Kaur,

    In keeping with my usual sarcastic witty way, I would say that most Sikhs would ignore Van Dusenbery’s piece as meaningless simplistic trash which is typical of the West’s unsustainable superiority complex – it further highlights the ‘Stereotypes and White Privilege’ clip you kindly shared with everyone.

    If the West wishes to anayse Eastern theology in its monovision and feels satisfied in doing so, those in the East will look at such pathetic attempts to categorise and boxify the complexities of human reactions as not worth the effort to educate the West to the higher level of understanding which is innate and comes naturally to non-Western thought processes.

    To be charitable, I would say that there are parallel dimensions running concurrently when observing the two (East/West) ideologies – it need not be a clash between the two if recognition followed by acknowledgement leading to respect could be achieved.

    Yes I am anti-caste – this is because Sikhi as I know it is anti-caste, yes also I am for gender equality for Sikhi as I know it is for gender equality, yes I am for transparent justice for Sikhi is for transparent justice – people like Van Dusenbery would want to be ‘pragmatic’ as soon as a tough choice had to be made – this would be interpretted as moral decline by the Eastern ideologists.

    Sikhi and most other Eastern ideologies accept death as inevitable and try to do something postive with life while having balance between love for God (Naan Japna, Kirt Kamai and Bandh Shakna etc), wheras (Western) social scientists expend inordinate amounts of energies trying to explain away the existence of God and tie themselves in knots doing so – the wonders of God are incomprehensible for they are limitless, simpletons like Van Dusenbery will have (to some) wasted a lifetime, others will simply ignore him and his ilk.

    I work on honour based violence issues and the Statutory sector, together with the media takes pride in attaching the label of honour to killings by certain communities while linking it with failed or arranged maariages/relationships within the same communities – these people are somewhat perplexed when the notion of similar crimes within the Western communities are linked to jilted lovers or cheated husband/wife. The Royal Family and other aristocrats openly practice arranged marriages too, I say if it is good enough for the Royal Family it is good enough for the Sikhs. As for the killings in such circumstances (izzat/honour etc) some would point to the death of Princess Diana and ask if there is indeed any similarities here.

    I trust I have made my point.

    Harmander Singh
    UK

  6. kamallarosekaur

    Recently I have been visiting a “Jatt” internet forum to share my thoughts, and also be educated, by fellow Sikhs (of various types) who assert that “Jat” is not a Hindu caste, rather an ethinc group.

    So now I have changed my opinion and I feel that Dusenbery and the rest of us, including those who happily call themselves “Jatt Sikhs” should use the standard modern English usage – “Sikhs of Jatt Descent.”

    I am happy to change my mind again as seems wise in light of new and fascinating knowledge. Here is what I learned. Please read:

    Sikhs of Jatt Descent:

    https://kamallarosekaur.wordpress.com/2008/04/16/sikhs-of-jatt-descent/

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