I have been away from Sikhe.com for the past month and missed much of the lively exchange on Yogi Bhajan and the movement inspired by him. Not that it will soon be settled, I too would like to add my two cents worth to the brew in the cauldron.
I agree with many who find Yogi Bhajan singularly unimpressive in his pronouncements on Sikhism. In fact, when he mixes Sikh belief with his advocacy of numerology, astrology, gemology and all other kind of personal -ologies, he and his practices appear rightly and embarrassingly abhorrent to most thinking Sikhs. I also realize that many of his followers drop out of his movement after a brief stay; many go away embittered with the man and his ways.
But Yogi Bhajan is charismatic and he has influenced many, often for their betterment. Just think how difficult it is to influence even one person during a lifetime. Sikhs have been in North America for over a hundred years but never, until Yogi Bhajan, have we been able to make any meaningful connection with the non-Sikh culture around us. There are those who came to Yogi Bhajan's fold after experimenting with many alternative lifestyles and a whole smorgasbord of religions and other ways of finding alternative states of awareness. Many, even after leaving him, have retained some positive feeling for Sikhism, if not for the man. Many have discovered a healthier, cleaner life. These I can celebrate.
But I will not deny that when I listen to his drivel, which I have done many times, or see him in personal interaction with people, which I have also done, I am often repelled and appalled. He then reminds me of what little I know of the mad monk Rasputin who acquired great influence in the reign of Catherine the Great. But I have also met many of those who came to Sikhism through Yogi Bhajan and I am impressed. Many are dedicated serious Sikhs. Sikhism, to them is the significant commitment of their lives, not just a cultural connection - as it is for many Punjabi Sikhs. Yogi Bhajan has given his many followers a happier, healthier, holier life. Why shouldn't they look up to him? Many have made an earnest attempt to understand their new faith. Many have progressed far beyond their leader. How can I not admire them and approve their ways? Are they perfect? Of course not, but who is?
I hasten to add that my admiration is not total. I also see many who think they are better - God's gift to humanity and Sikhism. It is the same demeanor that I see in Yogi Bhajan. Such hubris has no place in Sikhism. I also see practices that are outside the pale of Sikh tradition and teaching, as we understand it, that adulterate the pristine purity of Sikhism. Some examples are numerology, astrology, yoga, and when he talks of meridians and chakras - and there are many more. There is no way that I can find acceptance for these in my heart.
Let me come to these issues via a detour through some other religions. Modern Christianity presents over 250 denominations. The single focus of each remains the life and teachings of Jesus Christ but their methods vary so much that they often appear at odds with each other. Many do not recognize the others as Christians, and many have serious doctrinal differences with each other, yet to the world they are all Christians. They may not talk to each other or even enter each other's place of worship; they will not marry each other, yet they are all undeniably Christian. Many have fought each other but time has taught them to allow each other space. Even if internecine warfare has diminished and they appear at peace with each other, it does not mean that their differences are not as sharp as ever.
Sectarian or fissiparous movements are a natural product of time and geography. They may stem from real differences with the original movement, emerge from local realities or, as happens more often, may reflect the personal limited vision and constraints of a new charismatic leader. If the leader keeps the connection with the mainstream, the movement rapidly evolves into a sectarian new denomination. All religions show such phenomena with time, as does Sikhism. Namdharis, Radhaswamis and Nirankaris attest to this. The variety of Sants and Babas who proliferate like mushrooms in the countryside of Punjab are examples and so is Yogi Bhajan. Many of their practices are significant departures from the traditional Sikh practices and the Sikh Code of Conduct.
Many of these Sants are also personally devoid of integrity, honesty or any values that make one into a spiritual mentor and guide. From the variety of information available in the public domain it seems that Yogi Bhajan may also belong to the same ilk. I can deplore it but ultimately it is a burden that his followers have to carry. It is their onus and it is they who need to cultivate a discerning eye and their conscience.
If the practices and personal actions of these so-called religious leaders, such as Yogi Bhajan, run afoul of the laws of society, the law should take its course. If their practices contradict or undermine the traditions of a religion that they profess to espouse, the recourse lies in the ecclesiastical mechanisms of dealing with those who flout the rules.
Many religions have formal mechanisms of dealing with conduct that is unbecoming but the ultimate goal remains to reclaim a person and "shunning" him or her becomes the method. The extreme form of shunning is excommunication for which the Roman Catholics have become famous, but other types of Christians as well as Muslims and Jews have practised it in history.
The Sikhs, too, had a workable model that was inclusive of the variety of opinion that would exist in any large community and, at the same time, was able to effectively deal with infringement of religious mores. This was the tradition of "Sarbat Khalsa." History has demolished it but we need to rediscover it, reclaim it and redesign it to accommodate the new realities of our global presence.
Inder Jit Singh is Professor & Co-ordinator of Anatomy at New York University. Among other publications, he is the author of two books of essays: 'Sikhs and Sikhism: A View With a Bias' and 'The Sikhs Way: A Pilgrims Progress'.
I.J. Singh is on the editorial advisory board of 'The Sikh Review', Calcutta and 'The Encyclopedia of Sikhism', Punjabi University, Patiala. The author welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org on this or any other of his articles.
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