The Evolution of Yogi Bhajan’s Sikh Dharma/3HO by Dr. Connie Elsberg
From “Graceful Women; Gender and Identity in an American Sikh Community” by Dr. Contance Elsberg, page 73:
As the story has been recounted to me by members who joined 3Ho in the late 1960s and early 1970s, some of Bhajan’s students began to attend a Sikh study circle in 1969-70 with their teacher (Yogi Bhajan). Conversion to the religion began within this small group in Los Angeles. The first follower to become a Sikh - a woman - did so in 1970.
When Bhajan led a group of his students on a trip to India in December of 1970, they visited the Golden Temple at Amritsar, and some took amrit there. Bhajan met with leaders of such major Sikh organizations as the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC). He returned to the United States using the title “Siri Singh Sahib”, a term of respect which was extended to him by the president of the SGPC. Later further honorifics were added, and 3HO/Sikh Dharma members now render his title as “Chief Religious and Administrative Authority of Sikh Dharma of the Western Hemisphere.”
Ethnic Sikhs, it should be noted, generally recognize this title as relevant only to Bhajan’s organization, not to all Sikhs in the Western Hemisphere.
A short history written as the commemorative volume suggests that Bhajan was initially caution about introducing formal religion to his following:
“Returning to the States, the Siri Singh Shaib remained simply Yogiji to his students, and few of them ever thought of him as a “religious” leader in the traditional sense. He knew that to build a Dharma strong enough to last a thousand years he would have to start with a broad and deep foundation. So he continued to teach about Sikh Dharma in an indirect way, molding the character of his students through yoga and meditation, developing in them the traits that would eventually be necessary for the formation of the Khalsa.”(S Khalsa and G.Khalsa 1979, 119-120)
But if he had doubts, he didn’t hesitate for long. While the adoption of the religion appears to be a spontaneous decision by several individuals, it rapidly became the organizational norm, and Bhajan was quick to encourage, legitimate, and intergrate Sikh traditions into 3HO life.
The first American Sikh gurdwara was inaugarated on November 26, 1972, at Guru Ram Das Ashram in Los Angeles. “Beads of Truth” (an organizational newsletter) reported that members had been learning the language of the scriptures (S. Khalsa, 1973) and now “students who have learned to read fluently in Gurmukhi” were reading from the Sikh scripture and were generally “responsible and knowledgeable on all aspects of serving and taking instruction from the Guru” (ibid, 10).
By 1972-73 Sikh prayers were added to morning devotions and Sikhism was spreading throughout the membership. Bhajan ordained the first Western-born male ministers in January 1972 and the first Sikh women ministers in June of that year.
As previously mention, Punjabi Sikh services are not led by ministers. There is the role of granthi, or lay caretaker of the Guru Granth Sahib, and this position is sometimes expanded in North American sangats (Richardson 1985, 136).
Bhajan incorporated the Sikh Dharma Brotherhood as a religious organization in April 1973. By then translations of the Guru Granth Sahib had been distributed to all (3HO) ashrams, and Western Sikhs were learning to sing the Sikh kirtan.
Conversion to Sikhism offered new identities, for both Bhajan and his students. For Bhajan, it provided a position in the world of international Sikhism and in interfaith organizations in the US: for members it meant affiliation with the Khalsa, immersion in a new culture, the possibility of becoming a minister, and connection with a worldwide community. Soon 3HO members were engaging in Sikh rituals, decoration their houses with pictures of the Sikh gurus and the Golden Temple, taking vows, donning turbans and the five K’s, changing their surnames to Khalsa, and receiving new Sikh first names from Yogi Bhajan.
Each individual was free to accept or reject Sikhism, but people took vows in numbers and were clearly encouraged to embrace the religion. The following quotations from a 1972 issue of “Beads of Truth” captures the thinking at that time:
“You can not take half or part of any of this, using only as much as you choose to and still expect to arrive safely at the destination. The ocean of life is too wide to cross, there is too much maya to delude you, unless you heed all the words of your Guru and follow the true Sikh way of life” (Pond, 2).
Such exhortation paid off. Gardner (a social scientist who studied several communal groups that arose in the 1960s and 1970s) noted a change in an early southwestern 3HO ashram (Maharaj) over a three year period:
“In 1970 the members of the Maharaj ashram retained their English names and did not wear turbans or other symbols of Sikh identity but by 1973…the movement traced its lineage to Guru Nanak…and had by then adopted the Sikh costume, saints, ceremonies, texts and life-style virtually in their entirety. Most devotees had also taken new Sikh names” (1978, 130)
Bailey (who wrote a doctoral dissertation based upon participant observation in several 3HO ashrams) reported that, as of December 1972, Bhajan had ordained 65 ministers with authority “to initiate persons into Sikh Dharma, or Sikh way of life, to perform marriages, and to perform funerals” (1974, 111). Ministers did not, and still do not, have the right to administer “amrit”.
A major (ministerial) function was to perform the general 3HO/Sikh Dharma initiation in which participants take a certain set of vows designed by Bhajan. Initiates agree to earn their livelihood in an honest fashion, to rise before dawn and “chant and meditate on the Nam,” to share their earnings, to “live in service”, to “stand up in defence of the weak or oppressed,” to embrace the Granth Sahib as sole guru, to avoid narcotics, alcohol, and tobacco, and to eat a vegetarian diet, to refrain from cutting the hair and to cover it in public, and, aside from relations with a mate, to live as brothers and sisters (Dusenbury 1975, Bailey 1974). This initiation is a 3HO innovation, quite separate from amrit, although clearly reflective of Sikh principles. Bailey remarks that, although the initiation was not required, “in my experience with selected ashrams, most residents had been initiated” (1974, 112).
The dietary rules, the uncut hair, and the morning practices had been in place from 3HO’s inception. Now these were combined with more explicitly Sikh practices. Since members had a limited knowledge of Sikhism, vows taken in these early years did not have the clarity or the formality that they now have, and some people took on new roles with little understanding or preparation. A woman who took her vows in 1971 remembers:
“Sikhism then, our knowledge of it, wasn’t what our knowledge of it is now…The teacher who administered my Sikh vows was saying that this was a commitment to be a seeker of truth. It was very vaque. You were making a commitment to explore a spiritual lifestyle.”
Bhajan told his students that embracing Sikhism was a natural extension of their study of kundalini yoga. Sikhism would provide a means of channeling kundalini energy. It would further the development of “group consciousness.” Thus in the March 1973 “Beads of Truth” Bhajan is quoted as saying that a Sikh temple “is a symbol of group consciousness” (1973b, 9). And Gardner found that Bhajan was teaching that “the route to God-consciousness is first through individual consciousness and then through group consciousness” (1978, 131). Kundalini has developed the individual consciousness and some sense of group identity; now Sikhism would further prepare the way for first group, and then universal consciousness.
Bhajan also found ways to tie Sikhism to New Age thinking and to members’ counterculture and political concerns. The Aquarian Age was to be an age of God-consciousness. Drug-induced problems and the confusions of counter-culture life were “the price which man is paying in bringing God on Earth” (Bhajan 1973d, 10). As they gave birth to the new era, 3HO members would enact their dreams of reforming society. In time, as members of the Khalsa, they could gain control of institutions, not by seeking to take them over by force, or by political intrigue but by virtue of hard work and God -consciousness:
We will run the factories and establishments…So relax and feel good, and let us not be aggressive or destructive…Are you going to break the glass windows of our universities which are going to run tomorrow? …So calmly and quietly assure your future, work hard, sweat and build and live up to it. You must. Time has given you a call and you must match it” (Bhajan 1974a, 2).
One appeal that Sikhism can hold for counterculture and New Age sensibilities is that it is, in many respects, an experiential religion, and Bhajan portrayed himself as a middleman whose role was to pass on the Sikh experience of the divine:
“I simply feel that God has blessed me to have some knowledge, and if I can share with my brothers and sisters in faith, and they can experience the same ecstasy of consciousness, we all can enjoy the same joy” (Bhajan 1974a, 2).
Initially, Bhajan gave voice to a powerful vision, both of what his hip young followers could become and of the Sikh movement that he might forge. He expressed some of his hopes for the young in an early talk, quoted in an 1973 “Beads”:
“When I came to this country…I saw that the coziness of family was lost and the ego and shallowness rules, then a hope came to me, that if these people, out of this pain, can look to the Infinite and realize it, there shall be a new generation born with new faith” (1973b,11).
As early as 1972 he spoke of a Western Khalsa-to-be:
We will have our own industries, our own busineses, and we will provide our own jobs and our own culture. We will grow to be a nation of 960,000,000 Sikhs in fulfillment of the prophesy of Guru Gobind Singh” (Khalsa 1972, 343).
People who participated in New Age and countercultural activities often had a sense that it was their calling to bring about the new order, or that drastic change was inevitable. Bhajan attached this sense of destiny or calling to the Khalsa.
Throughout the 1970s Bhajan employed New Age and countercultural rhetoric, but he increasingly balanced these with the language of piety and organizational loyalty. The new watchwords were ‘discipline’, ‘grace’, ‘courage’, righteousness’, and ‘commitment.’
Bhajan’s style was changing as he cast himself in his formal role as religious leader. He now had new audiences to consider as he sought to establish his organization within the contexts of North America and Indian Sikhism. If his students were to be recognized as practicing Sikhs, and if he was to be the respected leader of Western Sikhism, then he would have to shape his motley following into a disciplined religious body.
Predictably, older Sikh organizations questioned Bhajan’s interpretations of the religion. The editor of the magazine of the Sikh Foundation (centered in Stockton, CA), Narinder Singh Kapany, and others, criticized is approach (Melton 1986, 185; Singh 1977). Others approved. The director of the Department of History and Punjab Studies Punjabi University wrote approvingly of Bhajan’s innovations, suggesting that Bhajan had breathed life into old yogic systems and had, in fact, “so modified the yogic system as to make it answer to the spiritual, humanistic and theological demands of Sikhism.” (F. Singh 1979, 409)
In 1972 Bhajan announced that he was going to become a more demanding leader. For three years, he said, he had “hugged” his students. Now he would “bug” them (Bailey 1974, 104-105). They would be tested and pushed along the spiritual path. If the discipline was too much, people were welcome to leave. Sounding rather like a Marine recruiter, he announced that his mission was to find a few, pure souls who could become “ten times greater than I am.”
But he also declared that the role of demanding leader was only one aspect of his personality. “There are three in me” he said. There was the Siri Singh Sahib: “He’ll find everything wrong with you, analyze you like anything, shatter you like you are nobody.”
But there was also Yogi Bhajan the yoga teacher, who was compassionate and non-directive, inclined to say, “It is up to you, son or daughter, do whatever you want.”
And then there was Harbhajan, the private individual, inclined to avoid discipline, enjoy God’s creation and say, “There is no problem in the world, everything is all right” (Bhajan 1979b, 15)
All three of those personas could appeal to his students. Each could meet different needs, speak to a particular value set, or be incorporated into a follower’s personality. By claiming each, Bhajan could play a variety of roles in his devotees’ lives and offer a model for linking aspects of personal and social identities.
The Siri Singh Sahib could function as a leading figure in a major faith and as a spiritual guide. As a critic he could mesh with the superego and could spur the individual to ever greater effort.
The yogi could serve as a representation of the realized human being, as a connection to cosmic energy sources and to esoteric traditions, and as an appreciative guide who encouraged the individual devotee to design a personally appropriate path.
The private, less responsible figure could offer acceptance of individuals and circumstances as they were.
All three personas shaped the organization, but with the advent of Sikhism it was the disciplined, and disciplining, face that was more frequently presented.
What there had been of exuberance and hip style appears to have waned as the organization was formalized. Bailey produced a comment analysis of the issues of “Beads of Truth” published between 1970 and 1972. He notes a decline in humor. There had been a “cosmic comic” starring the Kundalini Kid as well as several humorous articles, but by 1972 these seemed to be “almost eliminated” (1972, 94)
One notes a similar trend in 3HO music, an area of considerable creativity. Songs like “Long Tall Yogi” were composed in the early years but later were replaced by Sikh kirtan and lyrics expressive of a more conventional piety. Today there is still a tongue-in-cheek quality to many of Bhajan’s lectures and to much of 3HO life, but this stream of humor runs along side of, rather than being integral to, the formal organizational culture.
It appears that in the 1970s self-expression was also muted in favor of “positive communication.” In a content analysis Bailey looks at regional newsletters and finds that “the news is almost always positive, and there is no mention of such news as a marriage dissolving, a teacher leaving 3HO, or an ashram closing” (1974, 94). In 1974 Bhajan even published a general letter informing all students in 3HO that “in case a teacher expresses any doubt about the teachings or about his own personality to any student, immediately a call may be made to me” (reprinted in p. and S. Khalsa 1979, 80).
At the same time , the students were settling down to married life. Bhajan explained to his followers that Sikhism was a religion for householders, and he arranged marriages for many of his young devotees. Baily estimates that forty marriages were conducted at “3HO Festivals” in 1972, and that half of those were arranged.
As the years progressed the organizational structure of Sikh Dharma was further elaborated. In October of 1974 Bhajan established the Khalsa Council as the central administrative body for Sikh Dharma. In January of 1976 he submitted the Articles of Organization for the Sikh Dharma Brotherhood, and these evidently were approved in Amritsar, as well as in 3HO (see. P. and S. Khalsa 1979, 132-135).
In 1974 LaBrack described Yogi Bhajan’s development:
“His teachings evolved into a hard-line, Khalsa-oriented Sikhism with residual, but strong , emphasis on yoga” (1974, 7). But he found that Bhajan’s teachings were distinctive, for “grafted on to the historically traditional Sikh practices are some which are associated more with the Hindu Renaissance, such as vegetarianism and a tendency to puritanism; or with the Hindu social system, such as submitting to ‘arranged marriages’ with other 3HO members and a definite division of secular statuses and roles along sex lines” (1974, 3-8).
Once he introduced Sikhism Bhajan had new audiences to satisfy in addition to his youthful following. Dusenbury (1990b) found that the original reaction to Sikh Dharma from India was quite positive, but that ethnic Sikhs in North America were from the beginning more restrained in their response. He believes that “the conservative leadership of the S.G.P.C.” were probably more “comfortable” with Bhajan’s group than they were with many of the Indian American groups who were either very activist or quite ready to adapt and assimilate (1975,53).
Thus Bhajan faced considerable criticism within North America. Many of 3HO’s more idiosyncratic practices were questioned. Chief among these, as we have seen, was the practice of yoga. Bhajan also instituted a variety of titles not employed in the Punjab and gave his organization a hierarchical form, unlike typical Punjabi arrangements. This again has met with disapproval, because as “the Guru is the only channel between God and devotee, Sikh worship has generally remained free of an elaborate hierarchy of religious functionaries” (Dusenbery 1989c, 80).
Bhajan was also criticized from within the Sikh community by those who felt that he encouraged student adulation. There were also complaints about the sometimes unkept appearance of the 3HO members and about the assertive behavior of some 3HO women.
One leadership response was to concentrate on appearance. Women were encouraged to be “graceful” in demeanor and appearance, and newsletter articles and workshops featured instructions for attractive dressing and appropriate self-presentation. An ex-member who played a leading role in creating the image of the graceful 3HO woman, offering advice on dress, hairstyles, and manners, says that this effort was inspired by the need to present a favorable image to outside audiences.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s ethnic Sikhs and Sikhs associated with 3HO/Sikh Dharma regularly interacted, but they tended to go their separate ways.
“Sikhs who come in contact with Sikh Dharma are frequently perplexed by it,” McLeod noted, “not knowing whether to embrace its followers as unusually devout or to avoid them as perversely unorthodox…The answer appears to be to let them live their life of obedience, and Punjabis will live another, seldom the twain shall meet in any meaningful way. They (3Hoers) are accepted as Sikhs as long as they maintain a separate existence” (1989c, 118-19).
As they positioned themselves in the international Sikh arena, some 3HO members became quite assertive. They were particularly critical of ethnic Sikhs who had adapted to American ways to the point of cutting their hair or choosing not to follow the practices of the most observant Khalsa Sikhs. As they enthusiastically embraced the Khalsa identity, they sometimes even claimed superior status. Their criticism was not voiced solely within the 3HO/Sikh Dharma fold. Premka Kaur, general secretary of Sikh Dharma, “in a series of letters to influential English-language Sikh journals…castigated the Punjabi Sikhs in North America for perceived deviations from proper Sikh practices” (Dusenbery 1989c, 53). Dusenbery also found that in Vancouver, Gora (white) Sikhs’ “sensitive to ‘the intrusion of politics into religion’ and to ‘caste-consciousness’ and the ’subordination of women’” led to breaches within the local Punjabi Sikh community (1989c, 56). He also found Gora Sikhs pushing “for an expanded role for women in Sikh gurdwaras (e.g., as officiants and participants in Sikh services and as members of the management committees of the temple societies)” (1989c,169).
(Dusenbery borrowed the term “gora” or “white”, which is often used by ethnic Sikhs to refer to people in Sikh Dharma. It does simplify discussion when one wants to distinguish between the two categories of Sikh, but some members of Sikh Dharma view it as a disparaging term. I only employ it here when referring to Dusenbery’s work.)
Fenton, describing 3HO/Punjabi interactions in Atlanta, describes a similar situation, finding that “the American Sikhs came into conflict with Indian Sikhs on practical and theological issues and stopped participating. The Americans complained that Indians allowed people to worship with them who did not observe the five Ks, they allowed non-Sikhs into the fellowship, they served meat and beer at langar…and in the American judgement, Indians emphasized the social character of the event more than the religious” (1988, 148). In their turn “local Indian Sikhs consider American 3Ho people to be more strictly observant, but they also regard them as too fanatic…Questions have also been raised about whether or not they are following a living guru” (ibid.) (as distinct from following the Guru Granth).
At the same time that they were defining an identity vis-’a-vis ethnic Sikhs, 3HO members were adopting a number of distinctive customs and boundary maintenance mechanisms. Bhajan’s adherents were leaving behind their hippie styles in favor of turbans, Indian garb, and all white clothing. Naming practices were institutionalized. Punjabi Sikhs living in North America have adopted the practice of using their clan names as surnames, but members of Sikh Dharma objected to this on grounds that it speaks of “caste consciousness.” Their response was to appropriate “Khalsa” as a last name (Dusenbery 1989c).
Bhajan also gave instruction on how and when to sleep and awaken, on how to greet others or answer a telephone. All parts of the body took on new significance. One member, for example, told Maple that “each internal organ of the body had an affinity for, and a vulnerability to, the influence of a specific emotion” (1991, 103). Food and drink became a preoccupation as women learned to prepare vegetarian meals and Bhajan equated specific foods with particular bodily needs and functions. He introduced a variety of “mono-diets” which required an individual eat only one food for a prolonged period of time in order to improve bodily function or to heal an illness.
Suggestions for managing day-to-day interactions multiplied, as did prescriptions for the enactment of gender. Everyday life became the canvas on which a new identity was drawn.
Snow et al. find that typical frame transformation activities include the alteration of “domain-specific interpretive frames” such as group members’ ways of thinking about food, the body, and everyday routines (1986, 474) or rendering problematic that which is usually taken for granted (475). Such processes were constant in the early years.
Some customs were adopted because the leadership suggested them, or because members of an ashram discussed a practice and decided to follow it. Some, like clothing customs, began spontaneously and were later institutionalized. This process followed a pattern that has been frequently reenacted in the organization. At first there is an element of play and experimentation with styles. Then respected members of the community adopted them. Bhajn saw and approved some innovations and provided a variety of justifications for those he favored. Thus the turban was said to protect the pituitary and pineal glands. It kept the individual “centered.”
Once a custom was approved ashram directors and their wives enthusiastically took it on, and they were imitated by many devotees. Others hung back or resisted and were given time to find their own way to conformity, although those who resisted too long or too hard often found that pressure was applied.
Underlying these visible changes were larger concerns. Members of 3Ho were interpreting Sikh ideals in ways that were congruent with their cultural presuppositions (Dusenbery 1989b, 1989c, 1990b). They were also encountering and making sense of distinctive Sikh and Indian assumptions about groupings, identity, and personhood, and about the connection between thought, senses, and emotion, and the nature of the mind-body connection.
Dusenbery maintains that Gora Sikhs often view Sikhism in ways that are unfamiliar to many Punjabi Sikhs. Thus the 3HO Sikhs distinguish between religious and ethnic traits, believing that they have adopted the pure Sikh religion minus the Punjabi practices based on regional, familial, zat, and gender distinctions;
“They hold that religious identity is essentially spiritual and personal, achieved through a full and conscious doctrinal choice (e.g. through spiritual rebirth, confirmation, conversion) rather than ascribed as a fact of birth. And they regard religious norms as universal, absolute, and inviolable, entailing faithful adherence to some moral code of conduct equally enjoined on all believers and…they hold it incumbent on all would-be Sikhs in all places and at all times consistently to manifest the Sikh identity maintaining identical Sikh religious practices” (1990b, 350-51).
This approach is based on the American understanding of religion as an autonomous institution and a culture-transcending experience. It also legitimates 3HO members’ claims to be Sikhs, even if some Sikhs view affiliation as a matter of birth and custom. “
Dusenbery convincingly argues that ethnic and Gora Sikhs also have different ideas about “the nature of persons and groups” (190b, 335). Dusenbery suggest that “Punjabi Sikhs do not find it problematic to assert their similarities as Sikhs while simultaneously maintaining other diversities among themselves as Punjabi persons” (1990b, 337). This contrasts, he believes, with the North Americans who adopt a stance of “radical egalitarianism” and regard distinctions based on caste and class as inequitable.
My own reading suggests that, in the Punjab, equality takes on a different meaning than it does in North America. Pettigrew, for example, found that, among Jat Sikh males, equality was equated with independence and with maintaining honor (izzat) rather than with formal statuses (1975, 18-19).
Although 3HO women appear to have mostly retained American views of equality, in at least one crucial arena they have modified their thinking. They assume, in the case of gender, that individuals can be different and equal. Men and woman can hold different statuses and can have distinctive talents based upon gender, but none of this implies superiority or inferiority.
This approach only stretches so far, however, before it breaks. Women in 3HO have not abandoned the American concern with rights and opportunities, and they expect their rights as women to be respected
It is my understanding that many Punjabi Sikhs do not necessarily think of their religious affiliation as an all-or-nothing matter. Rather there are degrees of Sikhism, and these, Dusenbery suggests (leaning on the work of McKim Marriot, see Marriot 1976), are tied to an association of Sikhism with the incorporation of “biomoral” substances. Thus “a variety of divine substances constitute the gifts or ‘leavings’ (prasad) of God. These include the words of God (shabad), the sounds of God (bani), the name of God (Naam), the nectar of God (amrit), the sight of God (darshan). Such divine gifts are the most refined and tranformative of all substances” (1989c,66). Those Sikhs who have incorporated all of these represent one sort of Sikh person, the initiated amritdhari. Others have not taken amrit but have taken in sacred sounds, shared in the sangat, and received the edible offerings of God (Dusenbery 1990b, 338).
People in Sikh Dharam tend not to make these distinctions. They do, however, appreciate this approach to the divine - via words, sounds, tastes and sight. Recent work suggests that “in much of India there is no real distinction between mind and body, cognitions and emotions, and asceticism and eroticism.” The senses evoke emotions, including religious emotions, and a variety of “modalities for understanding and expressing emotion create a synaesthetic sense of emotion whose experiences, nuances, and elaborations make those of the West seem impoverished” (lynch 1990,23).
As we have seen, Bhajan and his followers do make distinctions between cognition and emotion, but they also adopt many of the Indian modalities of experience and much of the Indian approach to divinity. Thus, 3HO members have accepted a new approach to language. They speak of the “sound current” generated when chanting or reading Gurmukhi as a material reality and as an aspect of the guru. They readily merge spiritual and physical practices, assuming that there are spiritual effects and identity alterations following from their choice of clothing and food or their decision to don a turban. They assume that they can alter themselves - their personalities, cognitive styles, capacities - via bodily disciplines. They gain an enriched world where senses, actions, thoughts, and feelings entwine in new ways.