Unfortunately, this academic book review of Pamela Dyson and Peter Blachly’s books from Nova Religio is behind a paywall.
Here is the text:
Premka: White Bird in a Golden Cage. My Life with Yogi Bhajan. By Pamela Saharah Dyson. Eyes Wide Publishing, 2020. 206 pages. $14.99 softcover.
The Inner Circle—Book One: My Seventeen Years in the Cult of the American Sikhs. By Peter Macdonald Blachly. Sheep Island Press, 2021. 325 pages. $17.99 softcover.
Controversy surrounded Yogi Bhajan (b. Harbhajan Singh Puri, 1929–2004) throughout his prosperous and successful career. The white-robed turban-wearing Sikh was a teacher of yoga and the founder/leader of 3HO (Happy, Healthy, Holy) and the later, overlapping Sikh Dharma International, both outwardly orthodox communities of western Sikh converts. After his death, however, his legacy grew increasingly problematic as details of his long-rumoured personal ethical failings, inflated claims, self-bestowed religious titles, power seeking, and abuse of his disciples came to light. The criminal prosecution of enterprises created by some of his disciples, with Yogi’s apparent blessing, raised additional concerns. But Bhajan had also created a religious community that functioned as an extended family, where he was revered as the all-knowing, all-powerful, and highly controlling father. When he began his mission in 1969, many young spiritual seekers in Canada and the United States were apparently looking for an alternative family. Bhajan offered them one.
The search for family and omniscient guidance are themes uniting both Premka and The Inner Circle, two revealing memoirs covering the many years both authors spent as disciples of Yogi Bhajan. Though both books depict the lives of their authors, Yogi Bhajan is never far from the scene and plays an outsized role in their stories. It is worth noting that both authors waited several decades after leaving Bhajan’s movement and a decade and a half after his death to publish their accounts. Though Premka (Pamela Dyson) and Blachly played very different roles in the community, they both joined 3HO near its inception, and their portraits of Bhajan and 3HO are complementary and mutually reinforcing. Both authors provide insights into the formation of early ashrams, the hasty marriages arranged by Bhajan, and the creation of innovative businesses to support the thriving communities of new converts.
Premka begins with Dyson in a London hospital recovering from the botched abortion of Bhajan’s child that he had forced her to undergo in India. In a series of flashbacks, readers learn about the spiritual search that led her to kundalini yoga and her quick rise to the position of Bhajan’s personal secretary. She served in this role for nearly two decades, writing and editing many 3HO publications, managing an increasingly complex spiritual enterprise, and catering to Bhajan’s many personal demands, which included having clandestine sex with the married Yogi. While Bhajan insisted on the essential role of traditional marriage in the Sikh lifestyle he prescribed for his disciples, he denied Premka a partner, insisting that as his spiritual heir she would need to appear celibate to lead his organizations after his death. Bhajan claimed it was her karma to serve him and never marry in this lifetime. Whether Bhajan actually intended to leave his empire to her is unclear. Years later, when Bhajan realized that Premka had fallen (chastely) in love with one of his followers, he pushed the unwitting man out of 3HO.
Blachly was perhaps a more typical follower, though his zeal, energetic business dealings, numerous practical skills, and musical talents as a founder of the Khalsa String Band soon gave him prized access to Bhajan’s elite inner circle. His memoir follows a standard chronological structure, providing a good sense of his evolving interest in spirituality, his conversion to the Sikh faith, and the social dynamics within the group as he rose to a position of respect and power.
Bhajan promoted many authentic exoteric Sikh practices and doc- trines, but his de facto assumption of the role of guru directly contradicted a foundational Sikh teaching. Moreover, his yogic and tantric teachings were anathema to mainstream Sikhism. It appears that a preponderance of his esoteric teachings were improvised, incorporating bits and pieces of Hindu and New Age lore. Some he simply made up, like his blithe assurance to deceitful 3HO telemarketers that “there’s no karma on the telephone” (Blachly, 251). Federal prosecutors disagreed.
In his teaching role, Bhajan could be charming and compelling. After all, he transformed hundreds of unsuspecting, naive countercultural yoga students into disciplined, turbaned, white-robed, sword- carrying, baptized Sikhs in just a few years! He eventually established a comprehensive body of rules, covering everything from meditative practices to childcare and personal hygiene. Bhajan was also above all questioning, and he led with a heavy, authoritarian hand. Premka describes the day when she and several others were formally baptized into the Khalsa, becoming the first official “American Sikhs,” noting that the ceremony was performed without forewarning, preparation, or informed consent!
Yogi Bhajan claimed to see auras and read the Akashic Records—he knew what was best for his disciples and what their karma required them to experience in this lifetime. Thus, actions that might seem arbitrary, capricious, dangerous, abusive, or cruel if done by an ordinary mortal were interpreted as the profound spiritual teachings of an enlightened master. All the seemingly unnecessary suffering Bhajan imposed on his disciples was believed to accelerate their spiritual growth. For example, Bhajan often united obviously incompatible disciples in arranged marriages that seemed ludicrous at the time and even malicious in retrospect. He also seemed to delight in publicly singling out, humiliating, and mocking his followers. No one was exempt from his abuse, which grew worse over the years. By the point in the two memoirs when Premka and Blachly admit to themselves that their all-knowing father figure is, in fact, a malignant narcissist, readers will have long since reached that conclusion.
The publication of Premka in 2020 created an uproar in the kundalini yoga world. Both 3HO and later offshoots that revered Bhajan as a legitimating authority were forced to confront claims that they had long dismissed as unfounded rumors. Newer adherents might not know Premka, but the first generation of Bhajan’s disciples remembered her once considerable authority and elevated position. They were hard pressed to ignore her assertions. Blachly was also a significant figure in 3HO, so his account provided credible further evidence of Bhajan’s pretences and failings. Perhaps remarkably, the Yogi’s hagiography was so strong that even fifteen years after his death many followers still viewed the deeply flawed man as a near divinity.
Scholars interested in the fate of new religious movements after the death of their founders must look elsewhere to discover the impacts of these revelations on the current struggles of 3HO and the Sikh Dharma.
Premka and The Inner Circle don’t address academic questions. However, they do provide fascinating insights into the early stages of an evolving new religious movement as well as a bittersweet, nostalgic view of the late ’60s countercultural upheaval that drew both saints and spiritual scoundrels to the Americas, where they often found receptive audiences for their teachings. Some met with success, others’ impact was ephemeral. As these memoirs show, for better or worse, Bhajan left a lasting mark.