Khalsa vs. Khalsa

A simmering lawsuit could decide the fate of a $1 billion Sikh empire

Sante Fe Reporter/July 7, 2010

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." SFR

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