Inside The Dubious World Of A Cult That Turned 550-year-old Religion Into A Commodity

India Times/June 30, 2022

He liked gems, and amassed a maharaja-worthy collection of jewellery, a fleet of luxury cars (he was partial to Rolls-Royce and Mercedes), a 20-plus-acre ranch in New Mexico, and an additional 120 acres nearby in the high desert. When he was at his Los Angeles headquarters, he liked to shop in Beverly Hills and dine at La Scala! Such was the life of India-born Harbhajan Singh Puri alias Yogi Bhajan.

Bhajan was a deemed as a spiritual leader and an entrepreneur who promoted his birth religion -- Sikhism -- as a commodity that centered whiteness and founded 3HO, the Happy Healthy Holy Organization, in 1969. He is probably best known as a guru who brought Kundalini Yoga to the West and formed a worldwide community of 3HO ashrams.

Yogi Bhajan grew to be so famous that he met the likes of Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama, and the Prime Minister of India at the time, Indira Gandhi. Yogi Bhajan established himself in California and New Mexico and ran an ashram in India that schooled the young children of his followers from the US.  

A charismatic leader, Bhajan was responsible for an array of rules that had to be followed by his disciples. Full members wore turbans and all white clothing (although members call themselves Sikhs, the group bears little resemblance to Sikhism).

They had to practice several hours of yoga and meditation a day. They also took a vow of celibacy until they married, and were eventually given a spiritual name. Most also entered into marriages arranged by Bhajan himself.

How that lifestyle and what controversy

But, how did he design a lifestyle for him so lavish and what was so controversial about him?

Harjit Kaur (name changed for protection), daughter of a Sikh immigrant was pregnant and decided to take a Kundalini Yoga prenatal class and "ended up paying $3,500 to attend a workshop", reports The Juggernaut.

Bhajan claimed to be married yet celibate and had three children with his wife, Bibi Inderjit Kaur Khalsa. But rumors of his sexual misconduct circulated for years, especially liaisons with his female staff, a kind of harem who dressed in all white and in turbans. The women travelled with him, attended to his personal and professional needs, and lived like nuns with no families of their own, as per Los Angeles magazine.

Physical, sexual abuse

Soon these were no longer just rumours and multiple women and children started to speak out against him, accusing him of sexual abuse and rape. In a series of Zoom calls in April and May of 2020 with the Khalsa Council, a body of ministers within 3HO, more than 200 first-generation members listened as their children and their friends’ children recalled physical and sexual abuse, some from Yogi Bhajan himself.

Set up profit centers for business empire in the name of devotion

A parent who listened in on the Zoom calls wept when he heard the accounts. “I felt like I was run over by a truck,” says Tej Steiner, who left 3HO in 1988. Steiner and his former wife from a Bhajan-arranged marriage sent their children to school in India. “Yogi Bhajan set up schools for our children and staffed them with sadistic, masochistic teachers,” he posted to a Facebook group. “They were profit centers for his business empire. He also knew that separating children from their parents would increase his control over both.”

Child swapping

As per Guardian, the second generation expressed the emotional toll of the social experiments they endured—child swapping, an emphasis on parental detachment that encouraged mothers to suppress their nurture instincts, and being sent to boarding schools in New Mexico and India where a cruel survivalist mentality prevailed, which they compared to Lord of the Flies.

Child sexual abuse

Bhajan had arranged many marriages, and now some of their grown children, meant to pass his teachings on to a new generation, started to claim that they endured relentless sexual, emotional, and physical abuse at 3HO-sponsored schools in India and New Mexico.

At the end of June, one of them filed a civil lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court alleging Bhajan engaged in child sexual abuse and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and that members of 3HO not only knew of Bhajan’s predilections, but enabled and witnessed them on multiple occasions.

Groped grabbed, sexually harassed

In another lawsuit filed in June 2020, Khalsa (name changed/ given up), now 46, names as plaintiffs 3HO and 100 unnamed defendents, and charges that she was groomed from the age of eight to become one of Bhajan’s secretaries, and that he repeatedly groped, grabbed, and sexually harassed her.

Lured people into taking all their money

Bhajan and his associates, the suit alleges, used 3HO’s businesses as a cover for a “thinly veiled, covert second purpose” to “operate a cult to lure people in to take all of their money as well as place Bhajan in a place where he had unfettered access to women that he could abuse verbally, emotionally, spiritually, and sexually.”

Bhajan, the suit alleges, “cultivated other people in his organization who assisted him in breaking down people to turn them into devotees. . . .”

Rape, psychological abuse, assault, malnutrition due to forced fasting, and sleep deprivation

Another former Bhajan follower, Katherine Felt, alleged in a separate suit that he repeatedly raped her. In 1986, Dyson, a long-time Bhajan devotee, filed a civil lawsuit against 3HO and Bhajan. Dyson’s complaint described sexual and psychological abuse, assault and battery, malnutrition due to forced fasting, and sleep deprivation.

The suit stated that “Bhajan has no good faith belief that he is serving God or guru, but rather is devoted to serving himself by obtaining his followers’ money, talents, and sexual services.” The suit sought $25 million in damages but was settled out of court for much less.

When his downfall began

Meanwhile Bhajan’s popularity remained largely undiminished. “Over the years friends have come to me, excited to share that they’ve found Kundalini yoga,” says Khalsa. “They tell me he’s a saint. That’s like sticking a dagger in my heart. He was a lecherous, manipulative, creepy man, and he’s responsible for so much trauma and abuse. No one should be doing his yoga.”

While Bhajan was allegedly indulging in unfettered sexual abuse, some of his far-flung enterprises were attracting attention from authorities. In 1988, the DEA raided the home of a member of Bhajan’s inner circle in Great Falls, Virginia. Gurujot Singh Khalsa was apprehended as part of an undercover sting operation and convicted for participating in an international drug smuggling conspiracy that transported thousands of pounds of marijuana into the United States.

In light of the memoir that came out in early 2020, and after many of the victims filed a civil lawsuit in Los Angeles against 3HO, claiming that not only did Bhajan abuse them but also that members of 3HO were well aware of the abuse.

Following the allegations, an investigation was opened by An Olive Branch, a consultancy that is strangely established to deal with misconduct in the spiritual community. Their final report revealed that the allegations are indeed (most likely) true.

Bhajan died in 2004 at the age of 75—by then he was stricken with heart disease, was diabetic, and confined to a wheelchair. He left behind a sprawling empire under the banner of the 3HO Foundation.  

He died in New Mexico, where he resided with his million-dollar lifestyle, which isn’t even the least yogic thing about him. Shortly after his death, the New York Times published an obituary that praised Yogi Bhajan for being a Capitalist genius (again, very un-yogic) and somewhat knowledgeable of the ancient yogic practices that he taught.

What about 3H0 and Kundalini Yoga?

For the most part, many Kundalini practitioners have distanced themselves from the 3HO Foundation and the Kundalini Research Institute and the Yoga school as well.

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