The young woman locked the door to her office. In the hall, a man was shouting. He began pounding on her door.
She knew who it was, and she knew what he wanted. He wanted the keys.
The siege on the second floor was the most dramatic moment of a coup, years in the making, that went down seven months ago in dusty Española.
The modesty of the setting belies the stakes: control of a large private army that has won more than $3.5 billion in government contracts, ownership of a trans-Atlantic natural foods empire and, not least, the fate of an influential decades-old religious sect called Sikh Dharma.
The sect’s founder, the late Yogi Bhajan, inspired thousands of mostly white, middle-class men and women to stop cutting their hair, put on turbans and adopt a common surname: Khalsa.
Bhajan died in 2004. Soon after, his inner circle began to splinter. The disputes were quiet at first. By Dec. 3, 2009, the divided loyalties could no longer be ignored.
It was on that day that Guru Kirin Kaur learned that she and her colleagues had been given an ultimatum. Over 14 years—most of her adult life—Kirin had worked her way up to become chief financial officer of Sikh Dharma International, the sect’s religious nonprofit organization; now she, her coworkers, her boss and the SDI board could either sign a new loyalty oath, or find new jobs.
The demand came from Guruchander Singh, the sect’s chief numerologist and manager of the administrative nonprofit, Sikh Dharma Stewardship.
Kirin parked her car outside a long, white building at Sikh Dharma’s picturesque Española campus. There in the gravel parking lot, she claims, she met Guruchander.
“He started to verbally assault me, accusing me of stealing and yelling that I would be going to jail,” she writes in an email posted to an online Sikh forum. “He was extremely hostile, escalating into a violent rage, and frankly, very scary.”
When another employee tried to call the police, Guruchander allegedly said, “Hang up if you want to keep your job.”
Kirin claims Guruchander followed her upstairs, where she locked herself in her office. “The next thing I knew he was kicking at my door so hard the building shook,” she writes.
Hearing her colleagues enter the hall, Kirin opened her door. Guruchander then barged inside, she claims, making off with computers full of confidential information. Later, she claims, he used her Social Security number to convince a Santa Fe Wells Fargo employee to put SDI’s bank accounts under his control. Then, he allegedly tried to have the locks changed.
A legal complaint filed later says Guruchander, who also co-directs the Yoga Santa Fe studio on Llano Street and serves on the state Board of Chiropractic Examiners, “behaved in a manner that was more akin to a violent criminal than a supposedly peaceful Sikh.”
Kirin, Guruchander and others in the office that day either ignored SFR’s messages or declined comment for this story. “I have no response as the legal case is still pending,” Guruchander writes in an email to SFR.
Indeed, the action has moved to a courtroom 1,300 miles away, in Portland, Ore. A judge there will decide who should control the late Bhajan’s business empire, including the omnipresent Yogi tea brand and what may be New Mexico’s largest private company, Akal Security.
Will control remain with the coup leaders—the Sikh Dharma Stewardship and its parent company, Unto Infinity of Oregon—whom Bhajan left in charge of the sect’s business side?
Or will it go to the former SDI board, which includes Bhajan’s widow and others entrusted with religious matters?
Neither side can claim total purity. Some leaders of the former group have renounced key tenets of Sikh Dharma, cut their hair and allegedly raised their own salaries. A few in the latter group are connected to long-standing charges of impropriety and mismanagement.
Yet the stereotype of the bully in a business suit creates some sympathy for the religious leaders, even among those reluctant to take sides.
“I almost feel sorry for the religious heads in Española,” Kamalla Rose Kaur, who runs an online forum for other ex-followers of what she calls the “Yogi Bhajan cult,” tells SFR. “They’re really the underdogs, at the moment.”
Lucky for them, long odds are nothing new to the followers of Sikh Dharma.
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.
SFR reached Gurujot twice on his cell phone; both times, he said he was driving and to call back later. SFR called at the suggested time, but Gurujot did not return the message.
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.
The new millenium brought another wave of discrimination against people wearing long beards and turbans.
America’s bigots may have frequently confused Sikh cab drivers for Al Qaeda sympathizers, but the US government was more discerning. Indeed, the worst terrorist attacks in US history turned out to be great for Sikh Dharma’s flagship business.
Two weeks after the 9.11 attacks, Akal co-founder and President Daya Singh Khalsa met George W Bush at the White House to discuss new airport security measures, as well as anti-Sikh discrimination.
Today, Akal’s best customers are the departments of Defense and Homeland Security. According to a federal contracts website, Akal and its subsidiary Coastal International Security have received at least $3.5 billion in federal awards since 2000.
Akal’s charges include federal courthouses, military bases and US embassies abroad. On top of that, Akal profits from untallied millions in contracts with state and local governments across the country.
Akal co-founder and President Daya Singh refuses to disclose numbers. “We take advantage of our privately held status,” he tells SFR.
Estimates vary, but Avtar Hari says Akal has $500 million in annual revenues and approximately 15,000 employees.
The company boasts reams of client testimonials and awards. But, as might be expected for so large an enterprise, Akal’s record also has some blotches.
In 2003, Akal won the “access control” contract for Fort Hood, Texas, after the Pentagon began deploying the National Guard to Afghanistan and Iraq. Akal lost the contract four years later, having paid $18 million to settle a federal lawsuit that claimed the company had failed to hire enough properly trained guards.
(In a sense, Akal lucked out by losing the Fort Hood contract before the shooting massacre on base last year.)
In 2007, the City of Phoenix fined Akal for repeated contract violations, including airport guards sleeping on the job. And in 2009, guards at the federal courthouse in San Francisco sued Akal for retaliation after they complained about coworkers being drunk and high on duty and, in one case, waving a gun around.
Obviously, the Sikh Dharma company isn’t responsible for the more controversial policies of its biggest client, the federal government, but it has proved happy to carry them out. For instance, Akal guards illegal immigrants on government-chartered flights from Tucson, Ariz., to Mexico City, working under the deportation contractor, CSI Aviation Services of Albuquerque.
CSI was founded by former New Mexico Republican Party Chairman Allen Weh. This year, Akal gave Weh $2,000 for his failed gubernatorial campaign.
Such generosity toward politicians surely aided the company’s rise from a small, local outfit whose contracts once specified “Sikh guards only,” to one of the biggest players in private security, in league with Wackenhut and Blackwater.
In New Mexico, the company’s best allies are Democrats. It has given thousands to the gubernatorial bid of Lt. Gov. Diane Denish. Attorney General Gary King, who runs the state’s key investigative office, also has benefited.
Akal has been one of Gov. Bill Richardson’s biggest donors, kicking $46,000 to his political committees over the years. A handful of other Sikh entrepreneurs and businesses, including Golden Temple of Oregon, have contributed another $23,000.
Richardson appointed Akal co-founder Gurutej Singh to the Private Investigations Advisory Board, which regulates security companies.
When Bhajan died, Richardson ordered state flags flown at half-staff. Later, the governor visited Española to dedicate Yogi Bhajan Memorial Highway. It intersects Interstate 285 at the Trans-Lux Dreamcatcher Cinema and winds eastward, past the golden dome of the Sikh Dharma temple.
When SFR visited in late June
, the placid green campus of Sikh Dharma was deserted. Most of the 200-some Sikh families who live in the area were miles away in the hills, celebrating the summer solstice.
SFR came at the invitation of Avtar Hari, a genial, scholarly type who abandoned an entertainment and real estate career to follow another path.
“No one is more surprised than I am when I look in the mirror,” he says. “I have a lot of three-piece suits in the closet.”
As it is, his attire consists of a white robe and turban, only shades brighter than his long white beard.
Years ago, as Arthur Warshaw, he was president of Time-Life Television. As Avtar Hari, he put his Harvard Business School degree to use as board chairman of Sikh Dharma International—until Dec. 3, 2009, when he was stripped of the title.
He provides a tour of the temple, which features a striking mural of the Virgen de Guadalupe sandwiched between two meditating gurus.
Outside, as monsoon clouds gather, Avtar Hari points across the grassy lawn to the headquarters of Akal Security. It seems odd that the squat, prefab-looking structure a stone’s throw from the temple houses a half-billion-dollar company that employs a number of people with high-level security clearances.
But then, Akal rarely seeks to draw attention to itself or its religious origins. Golden Temple, the food company in Oregon, takes a different tack, printing yoga poses and religious sayings on boxes of Yogi tea. (In 2008, the Sikh Dharma business leaders in Oregon removed Yogi Bhajan’s picture from
With no outside equity investment, Avtar Hari says, these two companies grew to have a combined annual revenue of $800 million. And the profits have allowed Sikh Dharma to sustain its membership and spread the word.
Yogi Bhajan always intended that “these companies would provide jobs for our children and anyone else who wanted to work in a conscious business,” Avtar Hari says.
Most Akal employees are not Sikh, but some children of Sikh Dharma will find work in the Khalsa family business. In a video posted online, Akal co-founder Gurutej Singh leads dozens of youths in a tug-of-war type challenge at Camp Miri Piri, Sikh Dharma’s youth academy in India.
Some fear the leaders of the coup will sell off the training camp, as they did the cereal division of Golden Temple earlier this year.
The lawsuit in Portland—whose key plaintiffs include Akal’s Gurutej and Avtar Hari of SDI—seeks to prevent further “deterioration” of the Sikh Dharma organization. Until the case is resolved, Multnomah County Circuit Judge Leslie Roberts has barred the business leaders in Oregon from selling off Akal.
In a nutshell, the religious leaders want to recover damages and remove the business-side leaders from their positions of power.
The plaintiffs claim the business leaders have abandoned Sikhism and taken to living in high style, while depriving SDI—and by extension its beneficiaries in the community—of some $50 million in property, stock and monetary donations. Worse still, the plaintiffs say, the business leaders fired 25 Sikh Dharma nonprofit employees and, beginning last summer, tried to push Bhajan’s widow, Bibiji Inderjit Kaur Puri, out of her lifetime appointment to the SDI board.
Each year, Akal and Golden Temple donate millions, perhaps tens of millions, of dollars to the bevy of nonprofits inspired by Yogi Bhajan. The nonprofits include the 3HO Foundation, which stages festivals and other events; the Kundalini Research Institute; and SDI, the authority on matters of doctrine.
In 2003, aware that Bhajan’s long illness might soon claim his life, he and his advisers began planning for the future of Sikh Dharma. In so doing, they established a new set of organizations with interlocking relationships.
A chart included with the Portland lawsuit lays out this corporate structure. Near the top is Unto Infinity LLC, a for-profit Oregon company. Unto Infinity ultimately owns both Akal Security of New Mexico and a portion of Golden Temple in Oregon.
Unto Infinity also controls the nonprofit Sikh Dharma Stewardship, run by the numerologist Guruchander Singh, and by extension SDI, which he allegedly “stormed” last December. (The SDS website says it replaced SDI’s board due to poor financial reporting and unspecified conflict-of-interest concerns; the Portland lawsuit was first filed nine weeks before the December incident, and followed many months of escalating tensions.)
Advised by his longtime secretary, Sopurkh Kaur, Bhajan signed off on this structure, which left the business and administrative leaders of Sikh Dharma in a position superior to that of the religious leaders.
Sopurkh is a defendant in the lawsuit. The lead defendants, however, are Kartar Singh and Preaim Kaur, both directors of Unto Infinity. Kartar and Preaim now live in Oregon and are a romantic couple, according to multiple sources.
The plaintiffs allege that these defendants “formulated a plan to renounce the faith and their orthodox practices before they obtained these positions of power.”
Whatever their motivation, top Unto Infinity leaders today bear little relation to their old, turbaned selves; photos from recent fundraisers in Portland show a beardless Kartar and a dancing Preaim. Kartar, a Golden Temple executive, has allegedly increased his pay from $127,000 to $800,000 a year.
No one claims Yogi Bhajan was less than lucid when he approved the new corporate structure. But did he expect all this discord?
“I believe he wanted to see all the organizations flourish and continue in the way they did when he was alive,” Avtar Hari says.
The defendants’ attorney, Gary Roberts, did not return SFR’s call. In an interview with the Eugene, Ore., Register-Guard, which has covered the case closely, Roberts suggests Avtar Hari, Gurutej and the other plaintiffs are merely jealous that Bhajan didn’t leave them in charge.
The defendants say they have followed Bhajan’s wishes, and are within their rights to lay off anyone they please. In a court filing, the business side’s lawyers liken the plaintiffs to Girl Scouts and their complaint to the following:
“The Girl Scouts have reduced funding at the same time that they increased their officers’ salaries. So I want to sue the directors of the National Girl Scouts for damages, overturn all of their decisions, remove all of their directors and have new directors chosen by people I like.”
Bhajan’s widow, Bibiji, did not respond to SFR’s email. A lawsuit she filed against Golden Temple in federal court to recover royalties lost following the removal of Yogi Bhajan’s image from Yogi tea boxes was dismissed on June 9 when a judge said the parties should enter arbitration.
The late yogi’s son-in-law, Bhai Sahib Satpal Singh, tells SFR in an email that he isn’t taking sides.
“I am praying that good sense may prevail on both sides and the situation is settled amicably,” he writes. “I have suggested to all sides that if they are unable to come to a resolution, rather than go [through] the courts, they must first try to involve the Supreme Sikh leadership from India as mediators.”
Stating the obvious, he writes that “lawsuits and disputes will certainly have a negative effect on the organizations started by Yogi Bhajan.”
Gurutej Singh did not return SFR’s call. The other Akal Security co-founder, Daya Singh, downplays the effects of a possible change in his company’s ownership.
“Whether it ends up changing the people on some board seats, none of that would really have any substantial impact on the company, as far as we can tell,” he says.
If nothing else, the lawsuits show how much Yogi Bhajan personally held his community together. Kamalla Rose, the ex-3HO member and gadfly, believes the sect is unraveling. “Everybody’s growing up and they may be deprogramming—particularly the Unto Infinity group,” she says. Reflecting on her time as a “flower child” 3HO follower, she is, in a way, grateful:
“I wanted to move into a commune. A lot of us did. We were looking for cults,” she says. “I’m just glad I didn’t join Scientology.”
While the court case drags on, the Sikh Dharma rank and file is torn.
“It feels like our Dharma has a huge wound that is bleeding profusely,” Jeevan Joti Kaur, a local yoga instructor, writes in a recent letter to Guruchander Singh, the numerologist and Sikh Dharma Stewardship leader. “People worked for our businesses for years… Don’t they deserve to know that it wasn’t all in vain?”
In his written response, Guruchander and the SDS board urge community members to “be patient and try to remain neutral.” In the meantime, people should “focus their divine energy on something positive.”
“Our prayer is that, when the litigation is finished, there will be a chance to come together,” the letter says. “Ultimately, whether or not that happens is in the hands of the Guru.”
Listen to author Corey Pein discuss this story on KUNM: