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A yogi's requiem

Bhajan arrived in L.A. at the dawn of the guru and though his legacy is clouded, his followers remain true.

October 23, 2004|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

Before he was Yogi Bhajan -- kundalini master, Sikh missionary, lifestyle sage and political advisor with 300 yoga centers and 4,000 instructors, more than a dozen corporations and $1 billion in government contracts for security -- he was Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Puri, an ex-civil servant who landed in Los Angeles at the dawn of the city's guru boom and inspired the hippie masses with his movie star charisma and exotic health regimen.

Bhajan, 75, died Oct. 6 of heart failure at his home in Espanola, N.M., and today hundreds of his devotees and state dignitaries will gather there at his Hacienda de Guru Ram Das ashram to pray, chant and sing in his memory. The event will be broadcast live over the Internet to yoga centers and ashrams all over the world.

Bhajan's is a fantastic story, and according to his followers his success came from a diverse mix of reincarnation, Hinduism, telepathy, mysticism, political savvy and a larger-than-life persona. It's a tale passed on by the original cadre of L.A. hippies -- actors, musicians and seekers -- who forsook their American ways in the late 1960s and early '70s to become the first western Sikhs and kundalini colonists.

On the eve of his memorial, they recalled the early days when Bhajan was a good-looking Indian mystic in his 30s, who wore a turban, a long black beard and black velvet shoes turned up at the toes. "He was very spectacular," says Shakti Parwha Kaur Khalsa, one of his original students. Like other hippie gurus of the late 1960s, Bhajan claimed to possess the ancient wisdom to soothe their drug-addled minds. He told them he'd come to "the City of Angels" because it was the natural home of the Aquarian Age and a place of ideas that inspired the world. "I didn't come to gain students," he famously said. "I came to train teachers."

But students flocked to him. Women so adored him, it became an honor just to wash his feet. Men longed for his approval. They trusted him to arrange their marriages and select their careers. Within a few weeks of arriving here, Bhajan had a green-card sponsor in singer Johnny Rivers, who then introduced him to an antiques store owner. That West Hollywood shop became the site of Bhajan's first classes. Soon, he was a regular at local love-ins, telling the hippies there, "I can get you high -- high on your breath."

He brought to America his version of the Hindu practice of kundalini, a rigorous yoga involving meditation, chanting and repetitive movement coupled with breathing exercises believed to harmonize the body's energy centers.

"He won us all over," says famed kundalini instructor and Hollywood pregnancy guru Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, who met Bhajan in 1970, when she was 28. "He gave us a lifestyle. He gave us a way to live in marriage, in relationships, how to raise children, what to eat, how to even use the power of cold water, how to heal yourself."

Over the years, Bhajan achieved remarkable recognition from governors, legislators, heads of state, and other religious leaders -- the pope and Dalai Lama among them. After Bhajan's death, Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) proposed a congressional resolution in his honor. New Mexico's Gov. Bill Richardson ordered flags flown at half-staff. And India's prime minister sent flowers to his cremation ceremony. His bearded image appears in nearly every kundalini studio in the world and on every box of his Yogi Tea, the product of the second largest herbal tea company in the U.S.

And yet, Bhajan's legacy wasn't immune to controversy. While many see him as a tireless missionary whose only goal was to serve humanity, others considered him a brilliant cult leader and masterful con man who lived the life of a rock star by exploiting his followers.

'New yogi in town'

Shakti Parwha Kaur Khalsa had spent years traveling the world and studying Eastern religions when she met Bhajan at a Sanskrit lecture in Los Angeles in December 1968. She says he made an especially memorable impression by reading her mind during dinner. "He said 'Your son's in trouble isn't he? ... Come and see me. I can help you.' "

A daily chant for 40 days before dawn would do the trick, he said. And sure enough, Shakti says, it worked. Soon she was cooking Bhajan's lunch, shuttling him around town, finding people to host his lectures, even coordinating donors to pay the $50 per month for his room. Shakti says her work was a sign of her faith in Bhajan's mission. "It was so real for him," she says. "And it was contagious."

A month later, Guru Singh Khalsa, a singer-songwriter with a record contract, heard from a friend that Bhajan was the "new yogi in town ... and whatever he has, he's got it in large quantities." By then, Bhajan was holding evening classes at the antiques store at Melrose Avenue and Robertson Boulevard because he'd been kicked out of the East-West Cultural Center for attracting such large gatherings of hippies.

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