A yogi's journey

Hindustan Times/October 23, 2004
By Paramjit S. Kochar

Of the many godmen I have met, the one I found most incomprehensible was Harbhajan Singh, popularly known as Yogi Bhajan. He died in Espanola, New Mexico, on October 7 of heart failure at the age of 75.

Harbhajan was born on August 26, 1929, in a small town now in Pakistan. After Partition, the family migrated to India where he was schooled in Dalhousie. After graduating in economics, he was posted as a customs official at Palam airport. Physical fitness and sports were his abiding passions. He also practised yoga and became a master of Kundalini, which he taught others.

When a departmental inquiry was instituted against him, he migrated to Canada in 1968 and became a yoga instructor in Toronto. From Toronto he moved to California. Wherever he went he taught an odd mixture of Sikhism and Kundalini yoga. He called it 3H - health, happiness, holiness. For some reason he chose the fourth Guru Ramdas, the builder of Amritsar, as his role model.

His 3H Khalsas were pledged to vegetarianism. Soon a sect of Yogi Bhajan American Sikhs evolved. They were distinctly white: men in white turbans, long, flowing blonde beards, kurta-pyjama; women put their hair up in a bun and wrapped it round in white cloth. They took Sikh names with the suffix Khalsa attached to them. Within a few years, their numbers swelled to thousands. They set up gurdwaras of their own, recited the Gurbani and sang kirtan. At times, Yogi brought his white disciples on chartered planes on pilgrimage to Punjab. Indian Sikhs were greatly flattered to see the message of their gurus taking roots in foreign lands. Yogi, later given the honorific Singh Sahib, was the first to plant the Khalsa flag on the foreign soil.

Yogi Bhajan also had a keen eye for business. He opened a chain of vegetarian restaurants where only 'organic' food was served. His Yogi Herbal Tea, based on Punjabi recipes, is about the tastiest I have ever tasted. However, some of his products have amusing names. A chewing gum bears the name 'Wahguru Choo'. His latest venture was to provide guards to the US government's high security installations.

I met Yogiji at a dinner party at the home of multi-millionaire Nanak Kohli in Washington. He arrived with his entourage of Amazonian white lady disciples. I was surprised to see that a man who assiduously practised yoga was pot-bellied. Also, one who practised the joys of simple living wore gold rings studded with precious stones on his fingers. He also had a voracious appetite: one of his Indian lady disciples cooked his favourite bhindi for him. I had taken two American journalists from The Washington Post with me. They were not impressed.

Yogiji was an enigma. When fleeing from India, he borrowed Rs 10,000 to pay for his air ticket to Canada. Twenty years later, when he was on one of his visits to India, the daughter of the man from whom he had borrowed the money reminded him of the debt. She expected to be repaid with interest because Yogiji was by now a very rich man. Instead of getting her father's money back, she was snubbed: "You are in your 40s but are still caught in maya's jaal (the web of illusion)," he said, and blessed her.

No one can deny that Yogi Bhajan was the Sikh religion's pioneer in the West. His death at 75, not a great age to go for a health-food faddist and a yoga preacher, will be mourned by the Khalsa Panth by flying its flag at half-mast for a long time to come.

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