Sikh community pays tribute to influential guru

Yogi Bhajan, an Indian-born guru whose arrival in the United States gave birth to Eugene’s now-thriving Sikh community, has died.

Local faithful gathered at the Sikh Dharma gurdwara in south Eugene on Thursday to remember and celebrate the 75-year-old leader, who died Wednesday evening in New Mexico of complications from heart failure.

Most of the gurdwara’s adherents are American-born Sikhs who converted to the faith after Bhajan arrived in Los Angeles in 1969 with a brand of Sikhism emphasizing kundalini yoga. By the mid-1970s, converts in white turbans became a familiar sight at the Eugene gurdwara and surrounding neighborhood – several blocks of Sikh-owned homes that residents refer to as The Village.

Bhajan was also a successful entrepreneur whose business ventures included Golden Temple Natural Foods, producer of cereals, teas, body care lotions and nut bars. The company’s 150,000-square-foot manufacturing plant, on Prairie Road in west Eugene, employs more than 150 people.

Bhajan served as Golden Temple’s CEO for years and visited Eugene regularly to meet with company executives and local followers. He last visited Eugene in 1997, declaring in a newspaper interview then that death is nothing to fear.

He also distributed business cards with his personal motto: “If you cannot see God in all, you cannot see God at all.”

No one will be named to succeed Bhajan as sect leader, members said. Instead, a Khalsa Council consisting of about 200 longtime members will oversee operations. Kartar Singh Khalsa, chief executive officer at Golden Temple, is among several Eugene members on the council.

Bhajan established the Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization, or 3HO, to teach yoga and meditation, ultimately attracting more than 10,000 followers. He helped found the Sikh Dharma branch of Sikhism and became a U.S. citizen in 1971. Survivors include his wife and three children.

He attracted critics who believed he exerted undue power over followers – arranging their marriages and relocations to new cities. Others questioned his emphasis on yoga, natural healing and “tantric numerology.”

Followers, however, celebrated his qualities of wisdom, humility and connectedness. “He truly was a deeply holy man,” said Siri Kaur Khalsa, a Eugene adherent and retiree.

Thursday evening, she and others at the gurdwara began a 72-hour recitation of their religion’s holy book, the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, with members reading aloud in turns. The unbroken reading is a way “to vibrate our scripture and bring the community together,” said Viriam Singh Khalsa, detention manager at the Serbu Juvenile Justice Center.

The gurdwara has about 160 members, he said. While most members used to be American-born converts, an increasing number today are Punjabi Sikhs – lifelong adherents whose families came from India and other parts of the Far East, he said.

The Sikh neighborhood has attracted a dozen or more University of Oregon students – including football player Nuvraj Bassi – who came here in part because of the growing Sikh community, said Ravitej Singh Khalsa, owner of a home-based production and advertising company.

Viriam Singh Khalsa said he’s been impressed by members’ “grit and radiance” upon learning of Bhajan’s death. Their spiritual leader prepared them by saying they should rejoice in his return to God, and prepare to carry on his teachings.

“While I have a lot of sadness and grief that he’s no longer with us, I’m extremely grateful for his teachings,” he said. “Now it’s time for us to live up to his expectations.”

Siri Kaur Khalsa said she will offer a tribute to Bhajan at an interfaith reflection service Monday at First Christian Church in Eugene. She has been lead coordinator for the services, held on the 11th of every month since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

A Native American, she said she was first drawn to Bhajan and Sikhism after her son’s death in 1984. The challenge today, she said, is to follow his instructions “to show our love to all people. We will do that; we will exemplify what he taught us to be.”

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The Register-Guard, USA
Oct. 8, 2004
Jeff Wright

Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday October 9, 2004.
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