Sikh Dharma

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Sikh Dharma, also called "Sikh Dharma International," is a religious organization established by Harbhajan Singh Yogiji, popularly known as Yogi Bhajan in the United States in the early 1970s. Dharma is a term used especially in India for spiritual traditions originating in that culture. "Sikh Dharma" is also the original term for Sikhism used by non Sikhs in the Punjabi language, which is also known as "Sikhi."

Establishment in the West[edit]

Sikh Dharma international, originally known as "Sikh Dharma of the Western Hemisphere," traces its origins to a tour of the historic Sikh heartland conducted by Yogi Bhajan with eighty-four of his students in the winter of 1970-71. According to a history published by the Sikh Darma in 1979,[1] the Sikhs in Punjab had never seen Westerners in turbans before, and at first, they were suspicious. The Sikh administration in the holy city of Amritsar was in a turmoil. Once they understood that the devotion of the Westerners was genuine, they approved of the visit. Of the eight-four Americans, twenty-six took vows to join the Order of Khalsa as full-fledged Sikhs.

On March 3, 1971, outside the Akal Takhat (the traditional seat of Sikh temporal authority in Amritsar), Sant Fateh Singh and Sant Chanan Singh bestowed on Harbhajan Singh a ceremonial sword and a robe of honor and a unique designation. They had reasoned that Singh had indeed created "Singh Sahibs" (noble lions), and to continue in his work he would need a higher designation. For this reason, they gave Singh the unprecedented title of "great, noble lion": Siri Singh Sahib and a letter requesting that he organize Sikh Dharma in the Western countries.[2] That letter, signed by Sant Chanan Singh, President of the chief religious organization of the Sikhs in Punjab, the S.G.P.C., also authorized him to perform marriages and final rites, and to administer baptism into the Order of Khalsa according to Sikh traditions. It is to be noted that at the time there was no overarching Sikh religious organization to govern the affairs of Sikhs outside of India and the S.G.P.C. had no effective influence in the West.[3]

First Years[edit]

The designated "Siri Singh Sahib" started his mission with several initiatives. In 1971, he commissioned a translation of the main Sikh prayers into American English called "Peace Lagoon" and a life story of Guru Nanak entitled "Guru for the Aquarian Age." In August of that year, the Siri Singh Sahib also commenced the importation and distribution of dozens of copies of an English translation of the entire Sikh scripture published by the S.G.P.C. In December the Siri Singh Sahib purchased a property at 1620 Preuss Road in Los Angeles which he named Guru Ram Das Ashram and designated as a base for his mission. In January 1972, the Siri Singh Sahib ordained the first Western-born Sikh religious ministers. By June, he was also ordaining women ministers, in keeping with the principal - both American and ostensibly Sikh - of equality before God; though in Punjab, Sikh women would not hold religious office for some years.

In the interfaith tradition of the Sikh Gurus, the Siri Singh Sahib also continued his earlier work of networking with representatives of other religions. He participated in religious panels at Harvard University, Cornell University, Boston University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That same year, he visited Pope Paul VI and advised him to convene a gathering of friendship and understanding for representatives of all religions. He reminded Paul VI that catholic meant "universal" and suggested that, as head of the world's largest religious organization, he would be the most suitable leader to host such a meeting.[4]

Sikh Yoga[edit]

All the while, as Yogi Bhajan, the Siri Singh Sahib continued his touring and teaching Westerners Kundalini Yoga and meditation, with frequent references to spiritual discipline and meditation as integral aspects of Sikh practice. Most of this outreach and teaching was done through the auspices of the Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization 3HO.[5]


Today, Sikh Dharma ministers serve in hundreds of communities in hospitals, healing centers, universities, shelters, Gurdwaras, the United Nations, and the World Parliament of Religions. Ministers are located in dozens of countries around the world, but historically they have been concentrated in the United States.[6]


Yogi Bhajan formed Sikh Dharma International as a California nonprofit religious corporation “organized to advance the religion of Sikh Dharma and as an association of religious organizations teaching principles of Sikh Dharma, including by ordination of ministers of divinity and operation of places of worship.” Sikh Dharma International, along with related legal entities Siri Singh Sahib Corporation and Unto Infinity LLC, were held and controlled by Siri Singh Sahib of Sikh Dharma, a California "corporation sole" of which Yogi Bhajan was the only shareholder. Following the Yogi's death in 2004, a dispute ensued over the governance of those entities and assets. An ongoing lawsuit alleges that Yogi Bhajan's wife, Bibiji Inderjit Kaur Puri, was appointed to the board of Unto Infinity, and that she and their three children were appointed to the Siri Singh Sahib of Sikh Dharma board of directors (and thus in a position to exert significant control over all of the Sikh Dharma legal entities); but that following Yogi Bhajan's death the other board members of those entities improperly prevented them from taking part in governance. In January 2017, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the lawsuit is not an ecclesiastical dispute and can thus be heard in civil court.[7][8][9]

At present, Sikh Dharma International is governed by the Khalsa Council appointed by the Siri Singh Sahib, Yogi Bhajan. The Council is composed of Golden Temple CEO Kartar Singh Khalsa; his domestic partner, Peraim Kaur Khalsa, who was also a member of Yogi Bhajan’s personal staff; Sikh Dharma’s longtime comptroller, Sopurkh Kaur Khalsa; and the organization’s strategic and legal planner, Siri Karm Kaur Khalsa, a New Mexico resident. The Khalsa Council does not recognize Yogi Bhajan's family as members of the organization or its governing group.[10]

The Khalsa Council appoints a Board of Directors for Sikh Dharma International. As of January 2017 the current Board of Directors comprises Siri Sikdar Sahiba, Sardarni Guru Amrit Kaur Khalsa, MA; Bhai Sahiba, Bibiji Inderjit Kaur Khalsa, PhD; MSS Guru Raj Kaur Khalsa; SS Guru Darbar Singh Khalsa; Sada Sat Simran Singh Khalsa; SS SatSundri Kaur Khalsa; SS Siri Karm Singh Khalsa; and Board chairman MSS Kirtan-Singh Khalsa. SS SatSundri Kaur Khalsa also provides oversight of the associated Sikh businesses of Yogi Tea and Akal Security.[11][12]

Business Ventures[edit]

Sikh Dharma International and its associated corporate entities and directors grew to control a number of successful businesses. Golden Temple of Oregon, a natural foods company that built the Peace Cereal and Yogi Tea brands, was owned by a corporate entity controlled by Yogi Bhajan, and was estimated to be worth around $100,000,000 at the time of his death. The company was transferred to Kartar Singh Khalsa for $100, sparking lawsuits over improper disposition of the assets.[13][14] Golden Temple's cereal division was sold to Hearthside Food Solutions in May 2010 for $71 million; the executives were later ordered to return more than half of the sale price to a court-appointed receiver. Golden Temple was renamed East West Tea Company after that sale.[15]

Another SDI-related company, Akal Security, initially hired Sikhs to guard shops and restaurants. It grew into a $500 million-a-year company with federal contracts to protect numerous government buildings in Washington, DC and elsewhere, including courthouses, airports, and embassies. The founders donated the company to the church in 1980.[16] Both companies remain under the same control as Sikh Dharma International, although a lawsuit challenging that control continues.[17]

Relations with Diaspora Sikhs[edit]

As laid out in Doris Jacobsh's article, "3HO/Sikh Dharma of the Western Hemisphere: The 'Forgotten' New Religious Movement," some diaspora Sikhs were less than enthusiastic about the Siri Singh Sahib's energetic and sometimes innovative efforts in the West.[18] Some objected strenuously that yoga was no part of their culture and tradition as is evident in nearly 500 years of Sikhism, supported by the fact that no Sikhs of Punjab practice Yoga as a spiritual discipline. Others may have been jealous of the unprecedented scope of his authority. While some cultural Sikhs who do not practice Sikhi cut their hair, eat meat and consume alcohol found the eager new converts with their turbans (male and female alike), vegetarianism, and teetotaling ways hard to bear. Khalsa Sikhs who also do not consume alcohol, keep their hair and follow the Sikh code of conduct have no such reservations except with their religious being hybridized and repackeged for sale.[19]

Other critics took issue with the administrative titles, structures and symbols created and used by the Siri Singh Sahib to further his mission. In 1979, the Professor of Sikhism designated by the Akal Takhat, Bhai Sahib Sardar Kapur Singh ICS,[20] came from Amritsar and addressed the Khalsa Council, Sikh Dharma's governing body in Los Angeles, and assured its members that their practices were well within the parameters of Sikh tradition.[21] Bhai Sahib Sardar Kapur Singh praised the efforts of the Siri Singh Sahib, saying: "The Guru has chosen one instrument of His, styled as Siri Singh Sahib Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji. That a section of Indian Sikhs in the Western Hemisphere does not accept and approve Harbhajan Singh as a perfect man is nothing new. No man worn of woman was ever let off as beyond reproach and accusation by his fellow humans, be he Gautam the Buddha or Guru Nanak, the world teacher."[22]

In 1986, as the Khalistan movement (Sikh separatist movement within India) exerted an increasingly divisive role in the Sikh community by splitting Sikhs between those who demanded an independent homeland using violent means if necessary to achieve that goal and Sikhs who wished to work toward a peaceful resolution, the Siri Singh Sahib acknowledged Bhai Sahib Bhai Jiwan Singh of the Akhand Kirtani Jatha as Jathedar (Secretary) of Sikh Unity.[23]

From the 1970s on, the Siri Singh Sahib encouraged his students to learn Punjabi and acclimatize themselves to Punjabi culture. For this reason, he encouraged them to send their children to boarding schools in India. In 1997, he established a boarding school for Sikh Dharma on the outskirts of Amritsar, named Miri Piri Academy. Students of Miri Piri come from six continents and include diaspora Sikhs from North America, Malaysia and Australia.[24] One of the greatest honours bestowed on Sikh Dharma is that a musical group of Miri Piri graduates is invited to play devotional music on special occasions at the holiest Sikh temple, the Harimandir Sahib or "Golden Temple" in Amritsar.

According to scholar Verne A. Dusenbery, relations among all groupings of Sikhs have been eased with the general acceptance of pluralism in the Sikh community with increasing openness to Nirmala, Sevapanthi, Udasi, and Nihang emphases within the Panth. Another ground for increasing acceptance, intermingling, and cooperation has been the recognition among diaspora Sikhs and Sikhs of Punjab of distinctions between the religious and cultural aspects of their heritage. Thus, there is an increasing understanding that while non-Punjabis might not adhere to Punjabi cultural mores, they can still participate in the spiritual and religious aspects of the Sikh lifestyle.[25]

Since the 1970s, there has been growing cooperation between diaspora Sikhs and Sikhs inspired to Sikh Dharma through the activities of Yogi Bhajan and 3HO. In hard times especially, Sikhs have banded together to win human rights cases and in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center to assert the distinctive Sikh identity. Sikh Dharma-inspired Sikhs in New Mexico have also put together and continue to manage the largest Sikh on-line resource, which serves Sikhs and curious non-Sikhs everywhere.[26]

Practices among Diaspora Sikhs, Sikh Dharma Sikhs and Sikhs in Punjab are reportedly similar. Their beliefs, derived from Guru Granth Sahib and tradition are also similar. According to Jacobsh, the sexual egalitarianism practiced by Sikhs from the West has generally been appreciated, at least by Sikh women in Punjab and the diaspora. She argues that the emphasis on music and the influence of Western Sikh musicians such as Snatam Kaur has also positively affected the culture of traditional Sikhs. Jacobsh concludes that: "Moreover the 'Orientalist religious revival'[27] as represented by the erstwhile Eastern seekers, has without doubt had positive effects on the Punjabi Sikh diasporic experience that clearly outweigh the concerns other Sikhs might have about them. In many ways, 3HO/Sikh Dharma has fought, and won, a number of significant legal, societal, religious and political battles that have been highly affirmative to Sikhs at large in North America." He received the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award for bringing Sikh Dharma to the Western Hemisphere.[28]


  1. ^ The Man Called Siri Singh Sahib, M.S.S. Sardarni Premka Kaur Khalsa and Sat Kirpal Kaur Khalsa, editors, Los Angeles, California, Sikh Dharma, 1979.
  2. ^ Shanti Kaur Khalsa, The History of Sikh Dharma of the Western Hemisphere, Espanola, NM, Sikh Dharma, 1995, pp. 13-15
  3. ^ The Man Called Siri Singh Sahib, M.S.S. Sardarni Premka Kaur Khalsa and Sat Kirpal Kaur Khalsa, editors, Los Angeles, California, Sikh Dharma, 1979, p. 132.
  4. ^ Shakti Parwha Kaur Khalsa, "High Times," Beads of Truth, Number 16, December 1972, p. 8
  5. ^ There is nothing to be separated. One is awareness. One is seeking awareness. There is nothing separate about anything. And when Sikhs bug you, they will always ask you, these Indian Sikhs, “Where is yoga in the Sikh Dharma? What are you doing?” Do you understand? They will always give this question to you. Read this line to them: “Raaj jog takhat dee-an Guru Raam Daas. Prithamay Naanak chand jagat bhay-o anand.” It is in Guru Granth Sahib. “Gursikh jogee jagday maya andar karn udaasee. - The Guru’s Sikhs, who are Yogis, they get up in the morning and in the maya, in the hustle-bustle of this world, they are unattached.” These are certain verses from Guru Granth Sahib which can bug these unknowledgeable Sikhs. I call them “unknown Sikhs”. “Jo jo deesai, so so rogee. Rog rahait mayraa Satguru Jogee. - Whomever I have seen, they are all sick. Without disease is my True Guru, who is a Yogi.” It is in Siri Guru Granth Sahib. I am not making it up myself. Then they say, “Where is yoga in Sikh Dharma? Where is Sikh Dharma in Yoga?” Where? Here! Now! You know, we want all the yogis to sit on the nails and our buttocks will not bleed and we are great. Or we will be flying three feet above the ground and then get money from people for showing those tantrums. Or we can stop this, and we can make that happen. Our Yoga is that we have taken the Yoke of God and we live in His Light. (Yogi Bhajan talk at DeLand, Florida, December 1973) Guru Fatha Singh Khalsa, The Essential Gursikh Yogi: The Yoga and Yogis in the Past, Present and Future of Sikh Dharma, Toronto, Monkey Minds Press, 2008, p. 229
  6. ^
  7. ^ Puri v. Khalsa, xx F.3d xx, No. 13-36024, slip op. at 5-9, 33 (9th Cir. 2017).
  8. ^ Pein, Corey (2011-08-24). "Death of a Yogi". Santa Fe Reporter. Santa Fe, New Mexico. Retrieved 2017-01-17. 
  9. ^ Pein, Corey (2010-07-07). "Khalsa vs. Khalsa". Santa Fe Reporter. Santa Fe, New Mexico. Retrieved 2017-01-17. 
  10. ^ Pein, Corey (2011-08-24). "Death of a Yogi". Santa Fe Reporter. Santa Fe, New Mexico. Retrieved 2017-01-17. 
  11. ^
  12. ^ "Board of Directors - Sikh Dharma International". Sikh Dharma International. Retrieved 2017-01-17. 
  13. ^ Culverwell, Wendy (2012-02-24). "Schwabe Williamson sued for $230M in Yogi Bhajan-related suit". Portland Business Journal. Portland, Oregon. Retrieved 2017-01-17. 
  14. ^ Buri McDonald, Sherri (2010-12-14). "Yogi's widow sues managers". The Register-Guard. Eugene, Oregon. Retrieved 2017-01-17. The widow’s lawsuit, which was filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court in Portland, alleges that Unto Infinity authorized raises and perks for its members, including boosting Khalsa’s salary from $125,000 in 2002 to $850,000 in 2008. . . Hers is the third lawsuit to accuse Unto Infinity members of breaking their fiduciary duty to safeguard the Sikh Dharma community’s assets and of personally profiting instead. The other two lawsuits — one filed by Sikh Dharma ministers and the other by Oregon Attorney General John Kroger — were consolidated earlier this month. 
  15. ^ "Golden Temple execs must return $36 million". Oregon Business. Portland, Oregon. 2012-06-19. Retrieved 2017-01-17. 
  16. ^ Pein, Corey (2011-08-24). "Death of a Yogi". Santa Fe Reporter. Santa Fe, New Mexico. Retrieved 2017-01-17. 
  17. ^ Bernstein, Maxine (2017-01-09). "Long court battle over Sikh business empire takes another turn". The Oregonian. Portland, Oregon. Retrieved 2017-01-17. 
  18. ^ Doris Jacobsh, "3HO/Sikh Dharma of the Western Hemisphere: The 'Forgotten' New Religious Movement," Religious Compass 2 (2008), pp. 12-14. 10.111/j.1749-8171.2008.00068.x
  19. ^ Jacobsh, pp. 17-18.
  20. ^ "Famous Sikhs:Sirdar Kapur Singh | Gateway to Sikhism". Retrieved 2011-01-02. 
  21. ^ Kapur Singh, "Khalsa in the West Takes a Stand," Beads of Truth, II:3, September 1979, pp. 36-44
  22. ^ Bhai Sahib Sardar Kapur Singh, "The White Hawk in the Western Skies," The Man Called Siri Singh Sahib," Sardarni Premka Kaur Khalsa and Sat Kirpal Kaur Khalsa, editors, Los Angeles, California: Sikh Dharma, page 397.
  23. ^ Sat Purkh Kaur Khalsa, "Unity of the Panth," Beads of Truth, II:22, Summer 1989, p. 48
  24. ^
  25. ^ Verne A. Dusenbery, "Punjabi Sikhs and Gora Sikhs," The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies, Pashaura Singh and Louis E. Fenech, editors, Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, page 566.
  26. ^ Jacobsh, pp. 15-17.
  27. ^ Harvey Cox, Turning East: The Promise and Peril of the New Orientalism, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977, p. 11
  28. ^ Jacobsh, pp. 18-19.

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