New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, a former congressman and Energy Secretary, ordered the tribute in a gesture aimed as much at Yogi Bhajan’s economic contribution to the state as his spiritual success.
At a time when many Americans are gnashing their teeth at news of Indians taking away their jobs, Yogi Bhajan’s remarkable success in reconciling religion and commerce while creating employment is worth relating.
Born Harbhajan Singh Puri in what is now Pakistan, Yogi came west during his mid-life after a fairly privileged childhood. His father was a doctor and Singh studied in private schools in the hills.
A life-long yoga practitioner, he came to Canada in 1968 after holding government jobs in revenue and customs. He drifted down to Los Angeles at the height of the flower power, and eventually settled down in New Mexico, where he founded the Sikh Dharma, a slight variant of the Sikh religion.
He professed to teach Kundalini Yoga, and his followers – converts to Sikh Dharma – were almost all white. As can be expected, he had his share of spooked critics – “Bogi Yogi,” some folks called him – and there were the usual charges of cronyism, moral turpitude etc.
But it was his business enterprise, as much as his religious teaching, that was striking. And we are not talking of the mandatory workshops, books, tapes etc. An economics graduate from the Punjab University, Yogi Bhajan (he changed his name when he settled down in New Mexico) encouraged his followers to start their own businesses.
He saw no conflict between spirituality and prosperity. One of his first enterprises was Yogi Tea, now a leading brand in the health products section. That was just a dip in the kettle compared to what followed.
The Sikh Dharma’s main business arm today is Akal Security, a firm that specialises in protecting government sites, military installations, missile ranges, civil amenities and even airports across the US. It is an enterprise of staggering proportions.
With more than $1 billion in federal contracts and a 12,000-member work force, it was listed among the fastest growing companies in the country for two successive years.
It guards some 400 buildings across the country, including the Baltimore-Washington International Airport and the Ronald Reagan Building next to the White House in Washington.
Recently, Akal Security beat 20 other companies to bag a $250 million contract to protect five Army bases and three weapons depots, according to a glowing New York Times report last week. The Pentagon had turned to the private sector to replace soldiers sent to Iraq.
Akal’s biggest security contract to provide protection for federal courthouses and judges is worth a whopping $854 million.
And its food products division that makes herbal teas, natural cereals, dietary supplements, beauty products has crossed $60 million in annual revenues.
Probably because the dividing line between religion and politics is fairly thin in Sikhism, Yogi Bhajan and his followers made no secret of their political activism, though they were looked at with suspicion by the orthodoxy.
They give tens of thousands of dollars to both Democrats and Republicans. When the yogi celebrated his 75th birthday, four state governors turned up. The US has seen many spiritual gurus from India, but Yogi Bhajan was one of a kind.