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Zabel Article, Part 3: Secret Sikhs

What is the connection between this yoga practice and its Sikh mantras? That’s a question that has baffled people ever since the early 1970s, when Bhajan brought the two together. Sikhs thought it was either unorthodox or blasphemous, and Americans found it exotic or confusing.[1]

My guess is that Bhajan was under tremendous pressure in the late 1960s to invent yoga sets to realize his ambitions of an American empire. So he taught what he could think of to teach in terms of yoga poses, breath signatures, and mudras, and incorporated the mantras that he learned as a Sikh into his impromptu classes.

The mantras are beautiful and poetic, and they were embraced by American hippies as special and exotic. Their curiosity about the mantras led to some early conversions to Sikhism – it was truly an experimental generation – and BINGO, the Bhajan empire, 3HO, takes root.

That’s my hypothesis, and it doesn’t shine a great light on Bhajan’s organization. It sounds haphazard, as though Bhajan was selling religion cynically. And when the Bhajan legacy starts getting revisited at the beginning of 2020, with charges of sexual impropriety, the lingering charges of blasphemy again rise to the surface.

The advantage of my hypothesis is that it’s simple, and it’s consistent with what we now know about Bhajan. He could be shameless, greedy, and shrewd. But Rob Zabel gives us a far more complex explanation about secret ancient linkages between Sikhism and yoga.

According to Zabel, people like Dr. Trilochan Singh, a world-renowned authority on Sikh mysticism, were incorrect when they said that Bhajan had outright invented a connection between the Sikh religion and postural yoga. In a short book, Dr. Singh recounts his travels across the US in 1977, talking with various people involved with Bhajan's world (including Bhajan, who was anxious to leave a favorable impression), and concluded that Bhajan's synthesis was "a sacrilegious hodgepodge." Dr. Singh takes the reader to the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, to show that Bhajan’s interpretations and even translations were badly skewed: Guru Nanak spent a lot of his time convincing the kind of yogis Bhajan was creating to stop doing yoga, and it’s all in writing, as part of the Sikh scripture.[2]

However, Zabel locates and describes new information about a secret sect of Sikh yogis that happened to have as an initiate the young Bhajan. So what if it’s nothing he mentioned while alive – now it’s safe apparently for a 23-year-old British Sikh to spill the beans.[3] This young man, Guvinder Singh, traveled to India 7 years ago and encountered a man called Baba Teja Singh, who was 119 years old but still looked like he did from a picture (apparently not shared with Zabel) taken in the 1920s. Crazy!

Anyway, a lot of correspondence happened between the KRI-funded Zabel and the budding yoga historian Guvinder Singh, who apparently has a forthcoming study. We know this because all the new information being revealed in Zabel’s breath-taking sections about Sikhism’s secret connection with Bhajanist yoga is footnoted as either “The views and historical details of the Sher Lineage have been related by living member Guvinder Singh Akali over many hours of correspondence,” “Singh Akali, Guvinder. Personal communication,” or “See Guvinder Singh, forthcoming.”[4]

This tale that Zabel tells about a lineage for KYATBYB that we’ve never before known about has many holes. Most obviously, there’s no reliable evidence provided for us to believe this improbable story. But there are more problems. For one, Guvinder describes the secret yoga practice to some excited Bhajanists on a YouTube video and it doesn’t sound even similar to KYATBYB. In this “sher lineage” there are five stages of sets, depending on the level of chakra development or yogic expertise, and there’s nothing like that in KYATBYB.[5]

Also, and more important in my view, Guvinder Singh and Zabel admit that most of what Bhajan did with his secret yogic lineage was discard it in favor of something that would allow him to succeed in the west. So we’re back to my hypothesis, that Bhajan added Sikhism to yoga as an expedience.

Except Zabel builds an entire Bhajan lineage upon the thin thread of a secret minor sect of Sikhs that we are learning about only now, after all these years, a sect that might have had some early influence on the young Bhajan.

Or might not have.


[1] Time Magazine (September 5, 1977). Religion: Yogi Bhajan's Synthetic Sikhism

[2] Singh, Trilochan (1977). Sikhism and Tantric Yoga

[3] Gurmukh Yogis Q & A with Guvinder Singh (December 24, 2020).

[4] Zabel, Rob (2021). Bhajan’s Yoga: The Roots and Context of Kundalini Yoga As Taught By Yogi Bhajan

[5] Gurmukh Yogis Q & A with Guvinder Singh (December 24, 2020).

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