Religion: Yogi Bhajan's Synthetic Sikhism

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The leader of 3HO inspires devotion—and hostility

Nine years ago, he was an anonymous yoga teacher who owned little but a suitcase full of beads. Today he earns over $100,000 a year in lecture fees as Yogi Bhajan, the "Supreme Religious and Administrative Authority of the Sikh Religion in the Western Hemisphere." Thousands of American disciples in his Healthy-Happy-Holy Organization ("3HO") revere the robust, bearded Bhajan as the holiest man of this era. With equal fervor, opponents denounce him as a charlatan and a heretic.

The kind of Sikhism preached by Bhajan, 48, an Indian born in what is now Pakistan, is far different from that practiced by 10 million Indians. Sikhism, a blend of reformed Hinduism and Islam, is practical-minded, allows democratic election of its priests, and abhors personality cults. Bhajan's powerful personality is central to his sect, and ambition has driven him far since his days as an unknown customs officer at the Delhi airport.

In 1968 Bhajan emigrated to Toronto, later that year moved to Los Angeles and eventually started his own ashram—spiritual commune—in a garage. Although India's Sikhs are renowned as meat eaters, Bhajan has insisted that his followers be strict vegetarians. While yoga is not part of Sikhism, Bhajan teaches the practice, and not the mild form widespread in the U.S. but Tantrism, a strenuous, mystical variety practiced by men and women in pairs. Claiming to be the only living master of Tantrism, Bhajan stresses Kundalini yoga, which supposedly releases secret energy that travels up the spine. He reveals breathing and massage techniques said to improve sexual performance. And he preaches: "The man who ties a turban on his head must live up to the purity of the whiteness and radiance of his soul."

Undeniably, Bhajan has struck some kind of chord. There are now 110 ashrams of various sizes in the U.S., Canada, and overseas. The yogi claims to have won some 250,000 followers, but a more realistic estimate would place the number of zealots at several thousand, although many more flock to his meetings. Bhajan's base is a well-groomed 40-acre ranch near Espanola, N. Mex., where his quarters are said to feature a domed bedroom and a sunken bath. Neighbors are nervous about 3HO's expensive land purchases in the area.

Less visible than the cymbal-clanging Hare Krishnas, the 3HO disciples rival them in devotion. Men and women alike follow the Sikh traditions of not cutting their hair and bearing symbolic daggers, combs and bracelets. Ashram members rise at 3:30 a.m. to practice yoga and meditate, sometimes while staring at a picture of Bhajan. They often work twelve hours a day on low salaries and skimpy diets at 3HO small businesses, such as landscaping companies, shoe stores, and quality vegetarian restaurants. Full-fledged initiates follow Bhajan's every dictum on diet, medical nostrums, child rearing, even orders to marry total strangers. Guru Terath Singh Khalsa, who is his lawyer and spokesman, says that Bhajan is "the equivalent of the Pope."

For most of the converts, the discipline of Bhajanism seems to have rilled a deep spiritual vacuum. Many are in their mid-20s and come from upper-middle-class homes. A number had been dependent upon LSD and marijuana; the movement claims that all have broken the habit.

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