Yogiji finally allowed me to return to the UK at the end of November, 1971. It had been a truly wonderful experience being in California, enjoying the warm weather and the adventurous, joyous, pioneering spirit that was pervading 3HO people in those days. They were indeed days of wonder for me.
Returning to London I found cold weather and cold people, at least as far as having any interest in yoga. I had imagined that British people would be excited by Yogi Bhajan’s Kundalini Yoga but it turned out to be too way out, too esoteric, for cynical British youth. Thus I drew even closer to the Punjabi Sikh community.
I don’t know how it is now, but London was a place where I and several other very fine 3HO teachers burned out during the 70s and into the 80s. We were on a mission from Yogiji to spread his teachings but the Brits didn’t seem terribly interested.
Not long after I arrived back, I had the privilege to receive the amrit of Guru Gobind Singh ji from the Panj Pyare at Siri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara, Southall. Giani Joginder Singh filmed the ceremony. When I saw the movie I could not believe the ecstatic expression on my face as I stood listening to the recitation of the Banis. I truly felt totally transformed.
Even so I was wracked with inner conflict. I was supposed to be in London to teach yoga. I was still carrying on with classes out of duty but, with so few people coming, it was hard to maintain enthusiasm, because I much preferred to be involved in Sikhi.
Yogiji knew this and he wasn’t happy. He had not yet begun to teach Sikhi to his many American students and told me I had come too far, too fast – meaning with my ever growing passion for Sikhi.
I was also very naïve when confronted with the pitfalls of Punjabi politics, not realizing there were some pretty slippery characters amongst the London Sikhs. In those days, if I was invited to a Sikh function and I was free, I would go. This meant I often wound up at some unusual and often inappropriate functions.
I got the feeling that the Punjabis still didn’t really understand who I was or what my mission was. They were projecting their own ideals on me and assumed that my view and practice of Sikhi was the same as theirs.
This, of course, is exactly how Punjabis have viewed gore Sikhs for over forty years. It’s only since Yogi Bhajan’s death in 2004 and some pretty startling revelations that Punjabis are starting to realize just how different the gore Sikhs are from them.
During that winter of 1971/72 I received a great lesson in Punjabi politics by manipulation that I have never forgotten.
I received a phone call from someone, who I did not know, telling me that, on the following Sunday morning, an historic, hand-written, Guru Granth Sahib would be arriving at Heathrow Airport, that it would be a truly historic occasion and that they would be honored if I could be there.
Being naïve, I agreed without asking any further questions. I showed up at the airport and was met by a Sikh who told me that the Pakistan Airways flight had been delayed, but would be coming soon.
That set off the first alarm bell in my head. Pakistan Airways? Shouldn’t this thing be coming from India?
I noticed a lot of Sikhs standing around, some of them looking rather disreputable, and began to have my doubts. While I was waiting, I wandered around the airport and saw a couple of the turbaned Sikhs, who had been waiting around, downing pints of beer in the bar. I was starting to wonder what was going on.
Not long after that, a tall, traditionally dressed Sikh with a long, white beard emerged from the quarantined customs area. I noticed that he only had one hand; the other was missing. He immediately walked over to me and embraced me, then started to greet the others who were waiting around.
After making sure the Guru Granth Sahib had come through customs, the group headed towards the parking lot. They asked me to ride in the car with the one-handed man, but I demurred, saying that I had my own car. So they asked me to meet up with them at Havelock Road (Siri Guru Singh Sabha) Gurdwara in Southall, just ten minutes’ drive from the airport. As the group walked out of the terminal, they started chanting “We want: Sikh state, we want: Sikh state.” Something was up here but I still didn’t understand.
By way of explanation, Southall was the first intensely Sikh populated area in Britain. For reasons that never became clear to me Havelock Road Gurdwara was generally agreed to be the central focus for Sikh politics in the UK.
Arriving at the gurdwara, I rejoined the group. The Sunday diwan (service) was nearing its climax and the entry door was jammed with men removing their shoes and trying to get in, while others were trying to exit the main hall. The one-handed Sikh grabbed my hand and pulled me into the crowd trying to get in. We were separated by the crowd and I entered the main hall a short time after him. I was soon to discover that Guru Sahib had blessed me mightily by this separation.
As I entered I could feel very intense emotional energy from the sangat (congregation). This was much different from anything I had experienced in a gurdwara before and my sixth sense told me that there was something happening that was not good. The hall was jam-packed and the ragi was singing Raaj Karega Khalsa in a way that seemed calculated to inflame emotions. The granthi performed sukhasan (ceremonial closure) for the normal bir of SGGS, then did prakash (ceremonial opening) for the recently-arrived hand-written bir. I could feel emotional intensity of the sangat increasing but didn’t know what was happening. Moreover, I didn’t see anyone I knew from whom I could find out what was going on..
Finally, an announcement was made that the one handed Sikh, whose name was Dr. Jagjit Singh Chauhan was going to speak. The place erupted. Many people began to shout ghaddar, meaning traitor. Others were trying to shout them down. Men stood up and began yelling into each other’s’ faces. Others were calling out “Bole so nihal”, trying to get a unifying jaikara (call of victory) in response, but only handful of voices would answer. Everyone else was too much involved in the arguing. The only saving grace was that there seemed to be no actual physical fighting going on.
The yelling and arguing continued for a long time, with no one being able to calm things down. The diwan was abandoned and sukhasan was done for the recently arrived historic bir.
I left, but not before I finally found out what had transpired. Dr. Chauhan was known for his views as a separatist. He was an advocate of Khalistan, a separate political entity or homeland for the Sikhs and was being sponsored by the government of Pakistan as an agitator, having been declared persona non grata by the Indian government. The Pakistan government was trying to stir up trouble in India by supporting a Sikh separatist movement.
In those days, sixteen years before Operation Blue Star, there was still considerable loyalty towards India amongst the Sikhs even outside the country, especially since there had been war with Pakistan only a few months previously.
Since that time Sikhs have come to realize that the Indian government does not have the best interest of the Sikhs at heart and most Sikhs in the diaspora seem to feel little loyalty to that country.
In due course, I realized, with the help of some politically astute Punjabi friends, that Dr. Chauhan’s strategy was to invite me, in my innocence, to enter the gurdwara hand in hand with him, thus making it look symbolically like he had the support of the American Sikhs. Remember that, even though I was only one person in the whole UK, I was the first. Also, with my white skin, turban, sweater and jeans, I was very recognizable and a great visual asset for him. Fortunately Guru Sahib intervened.
It was a great lesson for me. After that, I became much more careful about accepting invitations from Sikhs.
By April of 1972 I was quite burned out. I had to face the fact that I was not a Londoner anymore. My brief three year stay in Los Angeles had awoken the American blood in my veins and the UK – and London in particular – now seemed foreign to me. I longed for the warmth, sunshine and easy going attitudes of Southern California. I wrote to Yogiji and asked him if I could return to the US. He replied in the affirmative.
“Come home!” was his simple reply.
I left for LA on Saturday April 22nd, taking with me the woman who, unbeknownst to me, would soon become my wife and to whom I am still married almost forty two years later.
In July of that year we settled in San Rafael, California at Yogiji’s behest.
Hargobind Sadan Ashram was on a very elegant and gorgeous road in San Rafael that dead-ended up to a mountain. It was a beautifully appointed old mansion with a swimming pool, very large high-ceilinged rooms, upstairs servants' quarters and special second staircase, 6 bathrooms, an enormous elegant entryway. Up to 20 people lived there easily on three floors with multitudes of bedrooms. The spacious living room could hold a party of 100 people, and was in use as the yoga class and sadhana room.
We were brimming with idealism. This would be a way of life that would bring consciousness to change and help the world. My new bride and I were appalled at how the world was becoming more and more materialistic with ever more suburbs and more concrete. This would be a way of helping people live more spiritually, and naturally and sustainably.
We learned about group consciousness and really believed we could change everything by getting up at 3am to gather in the ‘sadhana room’, designated the most important room of the house, for sadhana, spiritual practice, which meant to do yoga, meditate, chant, recite mantras and prayers, and sing Kirtan, divine music in praise of God, devotional sacred singing. We would then become happy and enlightened and attain god-like powers to help everybody and make the world a better place for our children and their future.
We would be freed by the power of the sangat (spiritual family) and group consciousness. We had read, and it had resonated as true, in Yogananda’s book and in other books, that you have to learn to obey, hang your ego up on a hook. So we believed in the books, and Yogiji and everything he said. All we had to do was do what he said to do, so we did it with utmost zeal and conviction, - and joy.
It was a joy to have a purpose in life, a worthwhile direction. I didn’t know then that Ashram life would be mostly about hard work and sacrifice. I didn’t realize that we would be experiencing the criticism, doubts and fears of the ego in everybody around us including ourselves!
It was a little like being married to so many people, and the enormous benefit we acquired that has stood us in good stead to this day is that our understanding of and discernment about people was greatly enhanced. We were on a roll, and we wanted to be a part of this wave. We truly believed there was nothing we couldn’t accomplish in group consciousness.
Our three years in San Rafael were busy not only with responsibilities of pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding, but also with our duties traveling as a Kirtan group to sing at numerous places in the Bay Area.
I suppose you could say that I was serving three sangats, three different groups of spiritual aspirants.
There was the Sangat at Hargobind Sadan ashram. These were mostly hippy types who had come to live there as a place to do yoga and follow Yogi Bhajan’s teachings, by living a conscious, vegetarian, drug-free lifestyle, although I’m not sure if “drug-free” applied to some of these characters once they left the ashram premises. Few of them had any interest in Sikhi.
There was the Bay Area Punjabi Sangat. In those days there were very few Punjabi Sikhs in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is geographically quite large. There was only one Sikh association which included members from as far apart as Fairfield to San Jose, a distance of eighty-one miles. Now there are almost fifty gurdwaras in California with many of these being in the Northern part of the state.
Since there were no other kirtaniyas, I became the de facto ragi for their monthly meetings, which happened at peoples’ homes or rented halls all over the Bay Area.
In my last year there I stood for a place on the committee at the request of many of the members and was elected. It was during that time, at the end of 1974, that we bought the land for what is now the El Sobrante Gurdwara.
My third Sangat was in Yuba City in the newly built Tierra Buena Gurdwara. Yuba City was a two and a half hours drive from San Rafael, close to Sacramento. This was farm country and Sutter County was home to a large settlement of Punjabi farmers. They had built what was probably the largest gurdwara in the US for the time, opening it in time for Guru Nanak’s quincentenary in 1969. Yogiji gave me strict instructions that I was to go there every weekend to recite kirtan.
And so, almost every Saturday for three years, I would climb into my funky VW Bug and make the two and a half hour drive. First it was just me and my ever more pregnant wife; then it was the two of us with our new daughter. Later I was joined by the stalwart Graham – who had been my yoga student in London and had followed me to California – along with his new American wife Barbara and his rambunctious stepson Daniel.
We would drive along the straight, flat California roads, lined with rice paddies or almond and peach orchards. The terrain around Sacramento was remarkably similar to Punjab. In the winter it would be cold and foggy; in the summer it would be intensely hot. We kept on going week after week, not only because we felt it was our duty but also out of a longing to be with the Guru. There was no Guru Granth Sahib in Hargobind Sadan Ashram at the time.
The ashram people were very suspicious of me. I had gained in intense love for Sikhi that they did not understand. They felt that they had “signed up” for yoga and vegetarianism as taught by Yogi Bhajan and were sometimes outright hostile to me when I tried to explain that Sikhi was the future for 3HO. Yogiji, of course, would never admit that, except perhaps in private to some close confidantes.
Yuba City Gurdwara – now known as Tierra Buena Gurdwara – was the first modern, free standing gurdwara constructed in California and has been extensively remodeled since those days. Its diwan hall, even back then, could hold upwards of a thousand worshippers and its langar hall was almost as big. It stood in a bucolic setting amidst groves of Almond and Peach trees and was a beautiful sight to behold when driving into the grounds.
Inside things were not so beautiful. I was shocked to observe the behavior of some of the members of the sangat, especially having come from London where I had been exposed to a very orthodox code of Sikhi.
Some misguided people had decided that their new gurdwara should be “modern”. That meant different things to different people. Even though the entire floor of the main hall was covered with high quality carpet, many people chose not to remove their shoes nor cover their heads when they entered. There were chairs dotted all over the gurdwara where people would sit – often with their shoes on and their heads uncovered during the program. Children were allowed to run around as they pleased with shoes on and heads uncovered. Men with turbans were almost nonexistent. For my enthusiastic eyes, it was a distressing and painful sight. The worst part was that no one seemed to care.
We would arrive sometime in the late afternoon or early evening on a Saturday. The men’s bathroom generally looked as though it hadn’t been cleaned since 1969 and our ladies informed me that the women’s was about the same. Many times the first thing we did upon arrival was to clean the bathrooms.
The evening diwan would start with Rehiras Sahib around 6:30. Then I would sing some shabads for a sangat of rarely more than ten people – in a room built for over a thousand. It would be cold in the gurdwara in winter and very hot in the summer. There was air conditioning and heating but they didn’t normally heat or cool the diwan hall – because few people ventured in there and it would have been prohibitively expensive.
After the bhog (closing ceremony) someone would take us to stare inside the large refrigerator and then try to put together some food for us. Maybe some roti or parathe, fresh or more often reheated. Sometimes there would be a little daal or sabji but there would always be sour cream. For some reason the gurdwara refrigerator always contained several tubs of sour cream which they seemed to use as an alternative to dahi (yogurt). There were also several bottles of prune juice, but I got the impression that was for the sake of the granthi’s regularity and, although he always offered it to us, we generally refused.
We would then pile back into our car and drive back to San Rafael, arriving home around midnight. Often we would have to be up and out on a Sunday morning to drive to another program for the San Francisco Sangat.
We did this seva for almost three years. We never received nor were even offered one penny in beta (donation). One time I didn’t have enough money for gas to get home, so I asked Didar Singh Bains if I could borrow ten dollars from him. He gladly gave me the money and told me to keep it. That was the only money we ever received from the Yuba City Sangat.
Although there was hardly anyone there on a Saturday night, on a Sunday close to Guru Nanak’s birthday or Baisakhi, the diwan would totally fill. This was the most depressing time for us, even though this was a gurpurb (special religious celebration day). People would come from all over Northern California as the communities in places like Modesto or Sacramento did not have their own gurdwaras at that time. The diwan would be packed with people, few with heads covered and some with shoes on, but all of them would be talking at the top of their lungs, as only Indians can. I would be on the stage playing kirtan but feeling like no one was interested. Most of the sangat would completely ignore what was happening on the stage and would only grudgingly rise for the ardas and the vaak. Even then the conversations would continue, albeit in a slightly subdued manner.
Once the leader of a rare visiting kirtan jatha became enraged at the beadbi (disrespect) shown to the Guru sahib and the Gurbani and berated the sangat in a very loud and angry voice. They simply took no notice and carried on as if nothing had happened.
Naturally we reported all this to Yogiji. He ordered us not to cause any trouble but then suggested some specific actions to help change things. We would make head coverings at home from pieces of fabric before leaving for Yuba City. Then my wife and Barbara – and any other gori ladies who happened to be with us – would quietly walk through the sangat and drop a head covering into the lap of anyone who was sitting without their head covered. Yogiji was guiding us to be devoted missionaries.
In the early part of 1973, Sant Baba Mihan Singh (Nanaksar Wale) and his jatha came and took up residence in the gurdwara for several months. Without causing trouble and without controversy they slowly weaned the sangat from their anti-gurmat habits and by 1973 the chairs had disappeared from the diwan; people would cover their heads and remove their shoes as a matter of course. Baba Mihan Singh and his men, however, were not able to do much about the overbearing talking during gurpurabs. That continued up until the time I moved away from the Bay Area in 1975.
This is not intended to be a condemnation or attack on the Yuba City sangat. There were some wonderful people there and we made a lot of good friends. Most of the anti-gurmat actions came from ignorance and with proper education were ended.
It was a great privilege to have these opportunities to serve the different sangats. But it was a lot of work and often frustrating.
There was, however, another aspect of my stay in San Rafael that brought me great excitement and satisfaction. The SanFrancisco Bay Area was developing into the main center for Shastriya Sangeet – Indian Classical Music – outside of India.