The lesser known history of Yogi Bhajan part 2 – his Janus-face between Sikhism and Yoga

This is part 2 of the article
From Maharaj to Mahan Tantric:
The Construction of Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini Yoga Philip Deslippe
which you can read in full here: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/6r63q6qn
(the first part can be read here)

The Construction of Kundalini Yoga

When placed alongside the teachings of Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari and Maharaj Virsa Singh, it becomes strikingly apparent that at least in its earliest years, Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini Yoga was not a distinct practice, but essentially a combination of yogic mechanics learned from the former and the Sikh-derived mantras and chanting from the latter. Sometimes these two practices would be juxtaposed, and Kundalini Yoga students would chant Naam immediately following a yoga set. They were also frequently intertwined, and rhythmic yogic exercises were coordinated with mantras such as “Sat Nam” and “Wahe Guru,” and the chanting of “Ek Ong Kar Sat Nam Siri Wha Guru” was done with deep breathing and the application of internal body locks known as bandhas. Yogi Bhajan himself acknowledged this coalescence in an early lecture, saying

There are two ways to find the Divine. One way is that you open the solar plexus and charge your solar centers. You get direct with the Divine. The other method is [374] that you concentrate and meditate and get this sound (Ek Ong Kar Sat Nam Siri Wha Guru) in you, and it directly charges your solar centers and in this method you get the Divine light to you.

(Yogi Bhajan 1972, 7)

While this mélange was presented as a seamless form to students of his Kundalini Yoga, Yogi Bhajan was radically combining two disparate practices and making significant modifications to each. Maharaj Virsa Singh did not believe in yoga as a spiritual path, and his followers at Gobind Sadan did not practice any form of physical yoga. Yogi Bhajan’s references to Maharaj Virsa Singh as the inspiration under which he learned “Nam Yoga, Laya Yoga, and Mantra Yoga,” were rhetorical, trying to include Maharaj Virsa Singh within his system by way of a very broad definition of the word “yoga” which itself was never used at Gobind Sadan (Khalsa 1970b, 2).(17) Similarly, Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari’s teaching of yoga and Sūkṣma Vyāyāma was done firmly within the context of the Yamas and Niyamas, or the codes of conduct found within the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, particularly complete sexual continence and a strict interpretation ofMitahara or diet that would have forbid the “trinity roots” or garlic, onions, and ginger that Yogi Bhajan promoted to his students. In the process of combining the teachings of Maharaj Virsa Singh and Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari, Yogi Bhajan also made his Kundalini Yoga more palatable and appealing to his young audience in the United States.

While Kundalini Yoga comingled elements from both Maharaj Virsa Singh and Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari, each these two figures were represented in distinctive ways that point towards a conscious and deliberate construction by Yogi Bhajan of himself as a leader and Kundalini Yoga as a distinct practice. For Yogi Bhajan’s initial students, Maharaj Virsa Singh was openly acknowledged as the teacher of Yogi Bhajan and a powerful, mythologized touchstone for their practice. Many early students, unaware of one another, echo the claim that the early years of 3HO were “all about Virsa Singh.”(18) In stark contrast, these same students knew little about Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari, hearing about him as an associate of Yogi Bhajan or the head of a yoga center Yogi Bhajan taught at, if at all. To an outside audience, it was just the opposite. Yogi Bhajan’s connection to Maharaj Virsa Singh was never mentioned to the press or public, while he constantly used the professional credential of being of Swami Dhirendra’s “House of Yoga of Vishwayatan Ashram” and pointed out its two most famous pupils, Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

The reasons for claiming Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari publically and Maharaj Virsa Singh privately make sense in the context of the time. The respectable and professional credential of the former would make Yogi Bhajan look more serious and noteworthy for newspaper readers and the general public. For his young students, most of whom were primed on the lore of Carlos Castaneda, Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, and tales of Zen masters, a teacher who was a student of a great teacher had a stronger claim to spiritual knowledge and power than an “orphaned” or “self-realized” teacher without a pedigree that pointed to an established lineage or antiquity. Yogi Bhajan would paradoxically be more significant as the student of a great master than as the head of his own singular and contemporarily constructed practice.

But lineage was a double-edged sword. Most spiritual teachers who came to the United States from the East in the late-1960s had received their position after the passing of their own teacher, and mundanely speaking, risked none of what they built in the [375] West by praising their forbearers. As attested to by the students of Baba Ram Das who went to India to find his teacher Neem Karoli Baba, or the readers of Carlos Castaneda’s works who ventured into the Mexican desert to find his alleged and elusive Yaqui guide Don Juan, a living teacher of a teacher who was even remotely accessible could prove to be a legitimate rival. Yogi Bhajan was in the awkward position of having not one, but two of his teachers alive, well, and available to his own students. Additionally, there were serious disconnects between what he taught his students and what his claimed teachers taught. This tension would grow within the rapid expansion of Yogi Bhajan’s first two years as a teacher in the West, and would foster a radical shift in how he portrayed himself and his students understood him in the wake of a catastrophic and dynamic three-month trip Yogi Bhajan took with his students to India in late- 1970 and early-1971.

The longterm-anger of the traumatised student in this ^ video  (who isn’t the writer of this article) shows how domination or misdirection of  innocent seekers can damage people’s lifes. Gurusant could never totally shed Yogi Bhajan’s conditioning, so he kept the traditional Sikh-religion, but threw Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini Yoga over board.

The Raising of Kundalini Yoga and the India Trip of 1970-71

The late-Sixties were an incredible boom time for Eastern spiritual teachers in the West. For someone like Yogi Bhajan, charismatic, physically imposing, and offering the secrets of the mythical and dangerous kundalini energy, Los Angeles in 1969 was the right place at the right time. While Yogi Bhajan’s initial plans in America were to sell items to Hippies as part of an import/export business (fitting for a customs officer), he quickly made yoga his business.(19) There seemed to be no limits to his growth among Hippies as a teacher in his own right, and with an almost franchise-like pattern, Yogi Bhajan offered an accelerated teacher training program consisting of only a few weeks, and then quickly dispatched his newly minted teachers across the country to open satellite 3HO ashrams. Soon, there were Kundalini Yoga teachers in a rapidly expanding list of college towns and major cities.

In this atmosphere of seemingly limitless possibilities for a yoga teacher, Yogi Bhajan’s view of himself and role as a teacher began to quickly shift. As the year 1970 unfolded, Yogi Bhajan began to modify his previous claims and distanced himself from Maharaj Virsa Singh in three main ways: the reverence of Maharaj Virsa Singh was diluted as he became the most important teacher within an ever-expanding list of teachers Yogi Bhajan claimed, the figure of Guru Ram Das, the fourth Sikh Guru, was introduced as Yogi Bhajan’s “personal Guru,” and Yogi Bhajan himself was increasingly placed in the role once reserved for Maharaj Virsa Singh, often in the same terms.

In July of 1970, Beads of Truth published a one-page article titled “Who Is Yogi Bhajan?” which reads as part biography and part resume, with a lengthy list of the teachers that Yogi Bhajan studied with. This article, nearly a year and a half after Yogi Bhajan began to teach Kundalini Yoga in the United States, appears to be the first mention in print of the figure of Sant Hazara Singh, who in two brief lines is mentioned as the teacher of “Kundalini Yoga and other various yogas.” The list continued with Yogi Bhajan’s grandfather Bhai Fatha Singh, Sant Ranjit Singh who taught “universal spirituality” and comparative religions, Swami Devmurti under who Yogi Bhajan obtained “mastery of Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga,” Acharya Narinder Dev of Yoga Smitri in New Delhi who taught Yogi Bhajan hatha yoga and “the impact and balance of the nervous system,” the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh where Yogi Bhajan “was able to drink deep and fill his mind and heart with the Sanatana Dharma,” and Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari [376] who taught “Yoga Therapy” and at whose ashram Yogi Bhajan claimed to be “Senior Professor of Yoga.”(20)

The early account Yogi Bhajan offered of washing the bathrooms for Maharaj Virsa Singh was changed to him “finishing his duties at the airport” and going “directly to the famous Golden Temple at Amritsar where his wife would bring food and with the children, join him for dinner, before he started his daily routine of scrubbing the floor of the temple” (Khalsa 1970b).(21) While Maharaj Virsa Singh was still revered as “Master,” he was viewed more as a capstone to Yogi Bhajan’s lifetime of spiritual searching, which was curiously a process of searching that now had mastery of Kundalini Yoga at its mid-point.

In the spring of 1970 photographs began to be sold of Yogi Bhajan, clad in all white, seated in full-lotus with his palms together at his chest, staring deeply into the camera lens (3HO 1970).(22) Around the same time, an enthusiastic Kundalini Yoga student encouraged readers of Beads of Truth to “meditate on your Guru’s picture, see through his eyes,” and another student who taught Kundalini Yoga in Memphis remembers being told to bow before the picture of Yogi Bhajan and seek guidance from him before teaching each class (Anonymous 1970a).(23) By the summer of 1970 Yogi Bhajan was regularly flanked in print by the titles “spiritual guiding force of 3HO” and “Master of Kundalini Yoga.” The sandals of Maharaj Virsa Singh no longer had their place on Yogi Bhajan’s bed; in both a literal and symbolic sense, that space was now his.(24)

In the last few days of 1970 Yogi Bhajan took a group of approximately eighty students for a three-month spiritual pilgrimage to India. Yogi Bhajan told a reporter shortly before the trip that the group was on a fact-finding mission in India to research how to best get the youth of America off drugs via yoga (Claiborne 1970). For those within 3HO, the point of the trip was to visit and stay at Gobind Sadan, “home of Yogi Bhajan’s beloved master, Maharaj Virsa Singh Ji”( Khalsa 1970c, 11). Yogi Bhajan told Jim Baker, one of his senior students in Los Angeles, to come on the trip for the purpose of getting the blessing of his teacher (Aquarian 2007, 46).

The trip would end up radically shifting its focus and on the group’s return three-months later Maharaj Virsa Singh would be persona non grata, the figures of Sant Hazara Singh and Guru Ram Das would become central, and Yogi Bhajan would audaciously claim titles of Sikh administrative authority over half of the globe and Tantric mastership. In light of his growing following and shifting view of his role as a leader, even if Yogi Bhajan did in fact leave India in the fall of 1968 as a devout student of Maharaj Virsa Singh, then it is doubtful that he returned to India two years later as one, given the shift in the portrayal of himself and Maharaj Virsa Singh.(25) It is also doubtful that he would not have foreseen a conflict with the major differences in what he was teaching his students and what Maharaj Virsa Singh was teaching at Gobind Sadan. If Yogi Bhajan was not intentionally looking for a break from his master, then it was a development he would have welcomed.

Almost immediately upon arrival, the jetlagged group was welcomed by Indira Gandhi at the gardens of the prime minister’s palace, where one of Yogi Bhajan’s students, Andrew Ungerleider, demonstrated hatha yoga postures for her and Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari. Indira Gandhi, moved by the interest the young Americans had in India, spoke to the group, and then they all held hands and chanted “Om” together.(26)(27) The group then went outside the city to Gobind Sadan, but in less than [377] a week, Yogi Bhajan dramatically broke from Maharaj Virsa Singh and the group quickly left Gobind Sadan and relocated to a mango farm. One American student remembers the group being suddenly told that Virsa Singh was not Yogi Bhajan’s teacher and that the departure was political, with Maharaj Virsa Singh wanting Yogi Bhajan to support someone politically, although it is hard to imagine Yogi Bhajan, a mid-level customs officer over two years removed from India, having any amount of political influence worth fighting over in the elections that were taking place at the time.(28)

Yogi Bhajan would later claim that he left because Maharaj Virsa Singh wanted to be recognized as Yogi Bhajan’s teacher, which seems strange since Yogi Bhajan claimed as much time and time again. Yogi Bhajan insisted in later retellings that the fourth Sikh Guru, Guru Ram Das, was his true teacher. According to Yogi Bhajan, Maharaj Virsa Singh asked if in keeping with having a guru, if Guru Ram Das gave Yogi Bhajan a mantra, and the next morning during his personal meditation, Guru Ram Das tangibly appeared in front of Yogi Bhajan and gave him the mantra “Guru Guru Wahe Guru Guru Ram Das Guru.”(29) The story was frequently repeated by Yogi Bhajan over the years and seemed to serve several ongoing purposes simultaneously: solidify the claim of Guru Ram Das as Yogi Bhajan’s personal Guru, position Guru Ram Das as the patron saint of 3HO, further link Yogi Bhajan and Kundalini Yoga to the Sikh tradition, and put distance between Yogi Bhajan and his previously claimed devotion to Maharaj Virsa Singh (Yogi Bhajan 1987, 1990b, 1995).

Those who were closest to Yogi Bhajan and Maharaj Virsa Singh recount much more material and directly embarrassing reasons for the former breaking from the latter. Early devotees of Maharaj Virsa Singh recall him telling the group of students in front of Yogi Bhajan that he never taught anyone yoga and that yoga had nothing to do with Sikhism. Rather, for Maharaj Virsa Singh, Gobind Sadan and its inspiration from Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh was the model for the spiritual path: hard work, remembrance of God, taking money from no one, and sharing with others in need. Yogi Bhajan’s secretary during the trip, Premka Kaur, said “he had to be in a lineage… he couldn’t let someone else have it anyway because he would lose that control.”(30) Another person present recalled Yogi Bhajan wanting a type of territorial agreement in which Yogi Bhajan would “keep” his students and Gobind Sadan would become a type of “3HO East.”(31) Yogi Bhajan’s proposal was laughed at by Maharaj Virsa Singh and with self-induced pressure, Yogi Bhajan left soon after in a huff.(32)

Keeping the mango farm as a base, the trip dramatically shifted and despite no previous mentioned intention of Sikhism being a focus on the trip, day after day the group went to one Gudwara after another. Students were dressed in white Punjabi clothes, performed basic kirtan, and were told to not mention yoga. One participant remembers being told, “If Indian Sikhs ask you anything about what you’re doing, just say ‘Naam Japo.’”(33) The idea of American “Gora Sikhs” was unimaginable in the Punjab, and Yogi Bhajan’s students drew large crowds where they went. The buzz around the group grew and in early March they were hosted at the Golden Temple in Amritsar where Yogi Bhajan presented himself as a Sikh missionary and was feted. Some members of the group were married and others took Amrit, although it is doubtful that they knew the details or larger implications of what they were doing. One recalls that they were told what to do and how to carry themselves. “Basically none of us knew what we were even doing… we were just silent pawns in however we wanted to be portrayed… just following the instructions of (Yogi Bhajan).”(34) In a bizarre crescendo, the India trip [378] ended with Yogi Bhajan being arrested on charges of defrauding a man named Amarjit Singh for 10,000 rupees, quickly being bailed out, and then fleeing the country with his students after being nearly stopped at the airport (Sharma 1971; Anonymous 1971).(35)(36)(37)

<Kundalini Yoga is not what he taught           how he twisted {hi(s}tory) towards Sikhism >

Footnotes:
(17) If the practice of Naam was common among both students of Yogi Bhajan and Maharaj Virsa Singh, the mechanical and technical practice by the former clearly set it apart from the devotional and emotional practice by the latter.
(18) Interview with Antion Vic Briggs, telephone, 5 July 2011. Interview with Ron Brent, telephone, 6 January 2011.
(19) Interview with Warren Stagg, telephone, 8 June 2011
(20) There is also evidence from a student who spoke at length with Yogi Bhajan for the very logical possibility that Yogi Bhajan’s knowledge of yoga, meditation, and related subjects were not entirely based on these teachers but also heavily supplemented by books and other minor figures. See Harrysingh1 (pseud.), comment on “The Sikh Connection,” The Wacko World of Yogi Bhajan, comment posted on February 8, 2005, http://forums.delphiforums.com/KamallaRose/messages?msg=579.39.
(21) Considering the 300 miles that separates the airport in New Delhi from the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the possibility of such a commute is extremely unlikely.
(22) This photograph was also sold in a cropped version with only Yogi Bhajan’s face in what seems to be a prototype of the “Tratakam” portrait of him.
(23) Interview with Jim Migdoll, telephone, 7 September 2011. Migdoll was involved in 3HO from early to late-1970, and was sent to Memphis, Tennessee during that time to teach the flagship Kundalini Yoga classes there.
(24) An account of Yogi Bhajan’s sleeping habits was given by early students of his in Florida in their account of an early 1970 visit. See “Early History of the 3HO Foundation According to Hari Singh and Hari Kaur Bird Khalsa,” last modified July 19, 2012, http://www.harisingh.com/3HOHistory.htm.
(25) In the commemorative book The Man Called The Siri Singh Sahib, the Punjabi-born and London-based journalist Gurucharan Singh Khalsa, described meeting with Yogi Bhajan at Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari’s Vishwayatan Ashram in early 1968, well before supposedly being told to go to the West by Maharaj Virsa Singh, in which he heard from him that inspired by “some mysterious call from within” he “was planning to leave his job and go to foreign countries as a yoga teacher.”
(26) Interview with Andrew Ungerleider, telephone, 23 June 23 2011.
(27) A photo of Yogi Bhajan, Indira Ghandi, and Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari at this gathering was reprinted in the December 1972 issue of Beads Of Truth, page 28.
(28) Interview with Rahmaneh Meyers, telephone, 18 August 2011. Meyers was involved with 3HO during its earliest years and was a participant on the 1970-71 trip to India.
(29) The most striking element of Yogi Bhajan’s claimed encounter with Guru Ram Das is how closely it paralleled the story that Maharaj Virsa Singh told of receiving Naam from Baba Sri Chand and Guru Nanak, a story that Yogi Bhajan was doubtlessly aware of and his students almost certainly were not.
(30) Interview with Pamela Dyson, telephone, 23 September 2011. Also known as Premka Kaur Khalsa, Dyson was involved in 3HO from 1969 until 1985 and was the tour secretary for the 1970-71 trip to India. Highly significant in the growth and history of 3HO, Dyson compiled English translations of Sikh sacred writings, wrote numerous articles both for and on behalf of 3HO, and was the editor of Beads of Truth for a dozen years, Secretary General of the Sikh Dharma Brotherhood, Vice President and Director of the 3HO Foundation, and a high-ranking minister, with the title of Mukhia Sardarni Sahib.
(31) Intriguingly, this idea is echoed in the January 1970 issue of Beads of Truth, in which Shakti Parwha Kaur hopes to publish an account of the trip in the next issue and refers to Gobind Sadan as “3HO India.”
(32) Interview with Ron Brent, telephone, 6 January 2011.
(33) Interview with Rahmaneh Meyers, telephone, 18 August 2011.
(34) Interview with Pamela Dyson, telephone, 23 September 2011.
(35) Interview with Antion Vic Briggs, telephone, 5 July 2011.
(36) Later, the blame for the arrest was implicitly laid at the feet of Maharaj Virsa Singh and the debacle was cast as the negative work of “the jealous egos of so-called ‘holy’ men in India (who) created almost insurmountable barriers to Yogi Bhajan’s safe return to America.” See Shakti Parwha Kaur, “Guru Ram Das Ji’s Birthday Celebration,” letter dated September 23, 1971, printed on page 48 in the Autumn 1971 issue of Beads of Truth.
(37) An intriguing possible connection to this event, or perhaps Yogi Bhajan’s initial trip West, can be found in Khushwant Singh’s 2005 collection of obituaries titled Death at My Doorstep, in which he described Yogi Bhajan being confronted at a gathering by the daughter of a man who twenty years earlier loaned Yogi Bhajan Rs. 10,000 “to pay for his air-ticket to Canada… when fleeing from India” (114).

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