The future Yogi Bhajan had what The Times of India calls a “fairly privileged childhood.” He was born Harbhajan Singh Puri in 1929 in a part of British India that is now Pakistan. After college, he spent 15 years working as a customs official.
In 1968, he moved to North America. Long before Walmart began selling $20 yoga mats, Bhajan introduced Americans to the Hindu practice of Kundalini yoga, blended with his own take on Sikhism, a 500-year-old religion with some 26 million followers, most of whom live in the Punjab region. Hippies loved it.
Bhajan called his new community 3HO—the healthy, happy, holy organization—and selected a remote headquarters: Española.
“Yogi Bhajan used to say, ‘God lives everywhere, but his address is in New Mexico,’” Avtar Hari Singh, a former Hollywood executive who joined Sikh Dharma 17 years ago, tells SFR.
From the outset of his American adventures, Bhajan cultivated powerful connections. Among the earliest 3HO devotees were the wife and two daughters of James Angleton, the late Central Intelligence Agency deputy director who inspired the 2006 Matt Damon spy flick, The Good Shepherd. One daughter, Siri Hari Kaur Angleton-Khalsa, showed off her stunning home, garden and pool north of Santa Fe to Architectural Digest last year.
Early on, Bhajan “had his share of spooked critics—‘Bogi Yogi,’ some folks called him—and there were the usual charges of cronyism, moral turpitude, etc,” the Times of India writes in his obituary. “But it was his business enterprise, as much as his religious teaching, that was striking.”
Indeed, financial success—and Bhajan’s alliances with powerful politicians and Hollywood celebrities—helped the community gain the acceptance of its neighbors. Like the prosperity gospel of some Christian megachurches, Sikh Dharma praises the cultivation of wealth.
Bhajan also embraced Sikhism’s martial tradition.
“As opposed to the philosophy of ‘turn the other cheek’—not to denigrate that—it is the philosophy of protecting those who can’t protect themselves,” Avtar Hari says.
And so the private security business, which combines steady income with paramilitary discipline, was a natural choice to sustain the community.
Bhajan’s followers established Akal Security in 1980. One founder, Gurutej Singh, was famously booted by the New Mexico State Police for refusing to doff his turban and shave.
“Yogi Bhajan told him, ‘Why don’t you start a security company, and they’ll work for you,’” Avtar Hari recalls.
In time, that’s pretty much what happened—but success wouldn’t come easy.
The 1980s were not a great time to be Sikh.
In June, 1984, the Indian Army raided the religion’s most sacred site, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, in search of a separatist leader. Weeks after the siege of the temple, Bhajan summoned members of the Sikh diaspora to join him in Española “to formulate a joint program of action,” The New York Times reported; Indian Sikhs who had long disparaged Bhajan and 3HO Sikhism accepted the invitation.
Four months later, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was murdered by her Sikh bodyguards. Bhajan condemned the murder. The ensuing riots left thousands of Sikhs dead. In 1985, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced that it had foiled another alleged “Sikh terrorist” plot to assassinate Gandhi’s son on US soil.
Today, India’s prime minister is himself Sikh, but it took decades for the religion to shed the “terrorist” label, which was once thrown as casually toward Sikhs as it is now toward Muslims. (For what it’s worth, Avtar Hari says Sikhs are more like Jews, resented for their success.)
Yogi Bhajan, who inaugurated an annual “Peace Prayer Day” in 1986, was never publicly linked to any criminality during this period—with one strange exception.
In 1988, the Drug Enforcement Administration indicted a Bhajan deputy based in Virginia, named Gurujot Singh. Agents charged that he had tried to smuggle some 20 tons of marijuana into the US from Thailand via ship. He also had allegedly asked an informant for help obtaining illegal weapons, including pistols with silencers, automatic rifles, grenade launchers and a 50-caliber machine gun.
According to The Los Angeles Times, he entered a plea that “admitted no guilt, but acknowledged the prosecution could likely prove its case.” Federal Bureau of Prisons records confirm Gurujot Singh Khalsa—previously known as Robert A Taylor, and not to be confused with a younger man with a similar name in Española—was incarcerated for an unknown time, and released.
In a lengthy recent interview with an Indian journalist, Gurujot casts the 1988 indictment as police entrapment. Gurujot claims police placed an informant in his temple, and covertly recorded the informant’s idea to smuggle drugs, which he flatly rejected.
In the same interview, Gurujot blames “white supremacists” for having posted the “false” indictment online in an effort to undermine his businesses. The interviewer, Khushwant Singh, writes that “since Gurujot was part of Akal Security” at the time, the company’s enemies hoped to tar it by association.
After Akal won an airport security contract in Hawaii in 1999, someone sent anonymous letters to state officials, evidently alluding to Gurujot’s indictment. An Akal spokesperson told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin “the confusion stems from a 10-year-old drug arrest on the East Coast of someone who bears the same last name”—Khalsa—but has “no relationship to our company or religion.”
Despite that disavowal, other Sikh Dharma organizations that are supported by Akal still embrace Gurujot. Today, he teaches 3HO-approved Kundalini yoga in Virginia, where he makes a living running outsourcing and call center businesses with operations in Pakistan and South Africa. He also served as board president of the 3HO Foundation of Washington, DC, at the time of Yogi Bhajan’s death, the most recently available federal tax records show.
The revelation of the charges against Gurujot and other sensational accusations led to the sect’s first exodus of members in the mid-1990s, according to Kamalla Rose, an ex-3HO follower who now lives in Washington state. Today’s split in Sikh Dharma harks back to that time, she says, in that the newly empowered business-side leaders “are trying to cut out the crooks and the bad wood.”
Within the past few years, Gurujot has publicly signed himself as “secretary in chief” of Sikh Dharma International, but the organization’s lawyer tell SFR he was not on the board as of last year’s coup.
In any case, Gurujot was among the first to sign an online petition supporting its ousted board members in Española, and against the Sikh Dharma business leaders who took control of SDI and Akal Security.