In an article in the Santa Fe Reporter, “Khalsa vs Khalsa,” journalist Corey Pein reported on the dramatic schism erupting between the students and family of the late Yogi Bhajan, who are feuding in Oregon courts over control of Bhajan’s religious and financial empire. The group’s largest company, Akal Security, has reportedly earned billions in contracts relating to U.S. security. There has recently been a debate in the news about the wisdom of outsourcing security contracts to private entities. Looking closely at Bhajan’s organization, one can’t help but wonder why our government officials have not more thoroughly investigated a group with such questionable history.
Akal Security, the largest judicial security contractor in the United States, has been awarded at least $3.5 billion in Federal contracts since the year 2000, and its clients include the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Defense. Akal Security started out in 1980 as a small company that hired only Yogi Bhajan group members. Today, Akal Security earns an estimated $500 million annually and employs over 15,000 persons, most of whom are not members of the group. According to the company’s website, Akal guards provide security for 26 Army and Air Force bases and installations. They are guarding our country’s major airports, our busiest public transportation systems, and major corporate and commercial interests.
The head of the empire, Yogi Bhajan, died in New Mexico in 2004 at the age of seventy-five. Born Harbhajan Singh Puri, he arrived in the U.S. in 1969. He soon renamed himself Yogi Bhajan. He said he was a well-known holy man back home in India. In reality, in India, Bhajan had been merely a civil servant, a customs inspector.
Members of Yogi Bhajan’s group claim to be Sikhs. However, according to mainstream members of the religion, by adhering to the doctrine of Yogi Bhajan, they are violating more traditional Sikh teachings. Yogi Bhajan’s teachings are closer to a synthesis of Kundalini yoga, tantric and New Age practices than anything originating from Sikh teachings.
The audacity of Yogi Bhajan’s claims makes this story particularly alarming. Bhajan taught, among other things, that he could see auras and see into the future. But perhaps his most outrageous claim was that he was the official religious and administrative leader of all Sikhs in the Western world. I am told that most legitimate Sikhs avoid any association with Bhajan’s group, and that Yogi Bhajanism is by no means representative of the five-century-old Sikh tradition whose homeland is in the Indian Punjab.
Former members with whom I have worked populate and tell their stories on a Delphi forum, “The Wacko World of Yogi Bhajan”. Over the past thirty years I have helped former members who alleged sexual and psychological abuse by and under Yogi Bhajan. There have been allegations of various criminal activities, and also Security Exchange Commission convictions of members of Yogi Bhajan’s inner circle. Several former students of Yogi Bhajan claim that when attempting to leave the group, they were threatened with violence. There is an unsolved murder of a member that is still under investigation, and also haunting suicides.
“In my opinion, Akal Security arose from Yogi Bhajan’s need for bodyguards,” says Kamalla Rose Kaur, who moderates at The Wacko World of Yogi Bhajan support forum. “Unfortunately, back when I joined Yogi Bhajan’s group at age 18, in 1973, Steven Hassan hadn’t yet written his books ‘Combatting Cult Mind Control’ and ‘Releasing the Bonds.’ My family didn’t know what to do when I disappeared in to an authoritarian group, changed my name and stop phoning them. I was getting up at 3:30 am, taking a cold shower each day. I did way too much extreme breathing and yoga exercises, too much chanting and fasting, combined with too little sleep. We worked all day and taught yoga classes at night. We did everything as taught by Yogi Bhajan.”
I am disturbed that this group has grown to be so mainstream, politically connected, and wealthy. For a time in the 1990s Yogi Bhajan’s top lawyer, Guru Terath Singh Khalsa, served as New Mexico’s Deputy Attorney General. Since 1995, Sikh Dharma has hosted an annual New Mexico Legislative Luncheon, and every year a representative of Sikh Dharma offers a prayer at the New Mexico legislature’s inaugural session. In 2005, the New Mexico State Transportation Commission unanimously voted to rename Highway 106 “The Yogi Bhajan Memorial Highway,” and in a press release publicizing the resolution Governor Bill Richardson called Yogi Bhajan “a man of peace, compassion, and intelligence.”
The unfolding lawsuits will determine the future of the group’s many nonprofits and profit making enterprises. The group’s two most successful businesses have been Akal Security and the Oregon-based food products company Golden Temple, sold earlier this year to Hearthside Foods for an undisclosed sum. The group still produces Yogi Tea. Together, these businesses earn an estimated $800 million annually, so the stakes are high for the litigants, all vying for control of Yogi Bhajan’s business empire. In the meanwhile, one has to question the political machinations that were necessary to help a group with such a concerning background to be entrusted with our security.