The story of the late spiritual leader Harbhajan Singh Khalsa has an aura of myth.
Known as Yogi Bhajan or Siri Singh Sahib among his devotees, he was credited with introducing kundalini yoga and the Sikh religion to the Western world when he arrived in the U.S. from his native India in the late 1960s.
He initially established headquarters in Los Angeles, where he launched what would become a vast network of for-profit and nonprofit enterprises and was elevated to celebrity status by hippies hungry for enlightenment in the Age of Aquarius.
Once a customs inspector at an airport outside Delhi, the yogi would go on to be a public figure of such stature he was granted audiences with Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama, and he reportedly was a yoga mentor to the late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
He also became a larger-than-life presence in Northern New Mexico, where he established an ashram and home — the Hacienda de Guru Ram Das — outside Española in 1971. He hosted summer solstice celebrations in the Jemez Mountains that drew thousands of people, and the guest lists at his birthday parties were a who’s who of state Democratic Party power brokers, including former Govs. Bruce King and Bill Richardson, according to reports at the time.
Bhajan lived full time in New Mexico for more than a decade before he died at his home of heart failure in 2004 at the age of 75. After his death, state government flags were flown at half-staff for two days and a stretch of N.M. 106 that ran in front of his hacienda was renamed Yogi Bhajan Memorial Highway.
In the past year, however, fissures of dissent among the yogi’s followers that began to appear decades ago have been cracked open by the publication of a memoir authored by a woman who was one of his closest aides and the release in August of a report detailing dozens of onetime devotees’ allegations of sexual abuse.
Current and former followers say these accounts have created deep divides, as some remain devoted to the late guru and others want his pictures taken out of Sikh temples and his name removed from kundalini textbooks.
“People are having bonfires and burning all their yoga manuals,” said Suzanne Jordan, 60, a former follower who says Yogi Bhajan assaulted her in 1984, when she was 24.
“People are cutting their hair, taking their turbans off, changing their names back to their birth names, radical things,” said Jordan, who now lives in Reno, Nev., and manages a Facebook support group for people who say they were abused by Yogi Bhajan. The group has more than 5,000 members.
“There are people in their mid- to late 70s who are devastated they spent their lives following a man who was capable of these things,” she said. “Within families, there are mothers who won’t believe their daughters about the abuse.”
The local ashram did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story.
Satwant Singh Khalsa, executive director of the Siri Singh Sahib Corp. — the umbrella organization that runs businesses founded by the yogi, including the popular Yogi Tea and the massive global security firm Akal Security — said the group is in the process of implementing a restorative justice program to heal the community.
SSSC, as it is known, is registered in Oregon but holds in-person meetings in New Mexico.
“Obviously, this is a difficult time, a challenging time for people, and people are processing it according to their own experience,” Khalsa said in a recent interview with The New Mexican. “Along those lines, we are trying to address those needs in a number of different ways.”
A wave of allegations
The controversy began with a book — Premka: White Bird in a Golden Cage — published in December 2019 and written by Yogi Bhajan’s longtime personal assistant, Pamela Saharah Dyson, who later went on to be named secretary general for the Sikh Dharma Brotherhood and 3HO (Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization) founded by the yogi.
Dyson — known as S. Premka Kaur Khalsa during her time as a devotee — details the 16 years between 1968 and 1984 when she served the yogi.
She wrote of her initial fascination, love and respect for the yogi. She became disillusioned, she wrote, after he forced her into a sexual relationship that resulted in a pregnancy she said he ordered her to abort.
He also refused to allow her to have any relationships with men, women or children that didn’t include him, she said.
Dyson, now 77 and living in Hawaii, sued Yogi Bhajan in 1984. He resisted being deposed, she said, and the lawsuit was settled quietly out of court and created barely a ripple in the community.
“It didn’t penetrate,” she said. “He controlled the narrative.”
Her book had a far greater impact.
Within months of its publication, dozens of other women, including some who were part of the yogi’s first wave of followers and others who were raised in ashrams he started, came forward with their own stories of having been abused by the spiritual leader.
“I was totally, totally shocked,” Dyson said in a recent interview. “It’s been really overwhelming.”
The flood of allegations unleashed by Dyson’s book prompted the corporation that oversees the Bhajan empire to hire The Olive Branch LLC, a Wyoming-based therapy group, to investigate the claims against its founder.
An independent investigation
“In March of this year, an independent investigation was initiated into allegations of sexual misconduct by Yogi Bhajan,” 3HO wrote on its website in August.
“This investigation was conducted by a neutral, third-party organization … and was not managed or influenced by any of the organizations founded by Yogi Bhajan. The sole purpose of the investigation was to seek the truth. Olive Branch has since gathered accounts from nearly 300 witnesses, maintaining the confidentiality of all, including those supporting allegations as well as those refuting them.”
The report provided graphic details of the abuses Yogi Bhajan allegedly inflicted on his followers, many of whom, it said, “viewed him as endowed with divine attributes that placed him on a higher plane or level or consciousness than his followers.”
The report also said the reverence some had for Bhajan muddied the concepts of consent.
“Based on reports of harm from 36 people, the investigation concludes that it is more likely than not that Yogi Bhajan engaged in several types of sexual misconduct and abused his power as a spiritual leader,” the report stated.
“The specific sexual misconduct included various forms of sexual battery, sexual assault, and sexual harassment as well as conduct judged to be unethical according to the Sikh vows and inconsistent with Yogi Bhajan’s own teachings,” the report continued. “We also conclude that behaving in such a way, he abused the power entrusted to him as a spiritual leader.”
He also is accused of exerting damaging control over the life decisions of his followers regarding education, marriage and procreation.
Ten people said he controlled their reproductive decisions, according to the report — in some cases ordering abortions and in other cases prohibiting them.
The report includes quotes from accusers, including one young woman who described her dismay at being asked to join her spiritual leader in bed.
Siri Singh Sahib Corp. is offering free counseling to people who say they were abused by the yogi.
“This is an incredibly troubling situation,” said Khalsa, the executive director. “We are trying to work with those children. I’ve sat through a number of these stories and it’s hurtful. … Many, many of the people taking us up on the counseling are second generation.”
Santa Fe attorney Kate Ferlic said she’s been approached by one person who is thinking about filing a lawsuit against the corporation.
“The firm is still in the investigative phase,” Ferlic wrote in an email. “From the investigation, I have learned that victims are struggling with coming forward for fear of being shunned or isolated from their primary support system.
“The tragedy has rocked the Sikh community to its core with ripple effects from New Mexico to Los Angeles,” she added. “This has been incredibly painful for the victims who are struggling to rebuild their lives.”
The path forward
The conclusions reached by the report have been rejected by some who criticize the credentials of the Olive Branch investigators and the methodology used in their investigation.
“Many, many people felt the report was very flawed and shouldn’t be used as a determination of what everybody says he did,” said Guru Amrit Singh, formerly one of 15 members of a board that controls Siri Singh Sahib Corp.
Amrit Singh, who lives in Nevada, is one of four board members who resigned amid a disagreement over the response to the allegations. He said he did not think the corporation should have publicly released the report.
“It was conducted unfairly and in such an unprofessional way that it’s not reliable,” he said.
“There was no representation of the Yogi Bhajan in this case,” he added. “In a professional investigation, it would be known what the allegations were and who the accusers were. Those were kept secret. … Even today, I don’t know who said these things and I have no way of refuting them because they are all anonymous.”
Amrit Singh, who said he will always be a student of Yogi Bhajan, said he never heard or saw any indication of abuse.
But he acknowledged the report has “definitely put the community through a lot of turmoil.”
Multiple websites have sprung up, both damning and defending the yogi.
Some yoga studios that offer classes and teacher trainings based on Yogi Bhajan’s teachings have begun deleting references of him from their spaces and websites. Yogi Tea also has removed his likeness from its boxes.
Bahi Sahib Satpal Singh Khalsa — who is married to Yogi Bhajan’s daughter and holds the titles of ambassador of Sikh Dharma USA and chief religious and spiritual authority of Sikh Dharma of the Western Hemisphere — said he doesn’t believe the corporation has responded well to the allegations.
“The board has really messed up this whole situation,” he said in a telephone interview. “They need to bring in the new generation, the second and third generation. Most of them are old and just clinging on to money and power.”
Satpal Singh Khalsa said he thinks elections for the corporation’s board, which are limited to a few hundred people, should be opened to Sikhs worldwide. He’s also concerned Sikhism is being sullied by the controversy.
“I also feel badly for the victims,” he said. “… Those people who feel they were abused should be given help by the SSSC.”
Satpal Singh Khalsa said that in his view, Yogi Bhajan saved a lot of lives and reformed a lot of people, including those struggling with drug addiction.
“If he had a dark side,” Khalsa said, “that should not negate the fact of all the good things.”