Gursant Singh is an unlikely critic. A resident of Española's 3HO ("Healthy, Happy, Holy") Sikh community for 18 years, Singh studied under the charismatic Yogi Bhajan and, in 1982, Singh even sued the federal government for permission to wear a turban and keep his hair long while serving in the US Army.
Now, though, he likens 3HO Sikhism to a cult.
During a recent trip to India, Singh learned that Sikhism forbids idolatry. When he returned to Española, the gilded statues surrounding the ashram there looked like blasphemy to Singh.
Singh says he appealed to the powers that be—Sikh Dharma International, part of the late Bhajan's multimillion-dollar empire.
Dissatisfied with the response (or lack thereof), Singh took his battle to Facebook, calling for the removal of all idols from the Española campus.
But Hari Jiwan, the chief of protocol for the 3HO community, says nothing's amiss. Most of Singh's 3,279 (and counting) Facebook "cause" members are Indian Sikhs, who Jiwan says are often more sensitive about the idol issue. (At one time, Hindus imposed their own idol worship on the Indian Sikhs, Jiwan explains, which left a bad taste.) American Sikhs have a different history, Jiwan says—but they're also not worshipping the idols.
"[We worship] a representation of what the idol stands for, not the idol itself," Jiwan says. "If the idol stands for a virtue like compassion, like the Buddhist statue of Kuan Yin—I have no problem putting that anywhere."
While Bhajan's empire remains under siege—on Oct. 7, the Oregon attorney general sued SDI's parent company—Jiwan says the recession has attracted even more disciples.
"Let's face it: Yoga and all these new-age practices are very popular," Singh admits. "It was very appealing to me, too."