A Path Divided

Years ago, a dispute over money and power split the Valley's Sikh community. Then one of their own was gunned down after September 11. Will the bloodshed be enough to put them back on the same path?

"They would ask me how to do things," says Teji of the Americans in the early days of their faith. He taught them not to bow their heads to pictures of the gurus or Yogi Bhajan, as some of them were doing, he says, and the proper way to pray. "They asked me to demonstrate one week, so I did, and then the next week they did it perfectly themselves. I was amazed at how quickly they learned. What they had actually done was videotape me and watch it several times over until they got it down."

But as they learned more about Yogi Bhajan's interpretation of Sikhism, Teji says, many Indians came to view him and his followers with a more skeptical eye. Some were bothered by the Americans' inclusion of kundalini yoga as part of their daily ritual, which Indians say is a Hindu practice, not a Sikh one. The Indians read six stanzas of their scriptures at worship; the Americans read five. The Americans not only held yoga classes inside the temple, but at times students' feet pointed toward the scriptures, a sign of disrespect. And above all, as Bisla recalls, the Indians suspected that Bhajan's brand of Sikhism was focused more on economics than enlightenment.

"Bhajan incorporates other things into the Sikh religion that are not a part of Sikhism," he says. "When you take religion and market it for money, you go against the teachings of Sikhism."

The congregation of the Ninth and Oak temple grew larger and more diverse between the mid-'80s (top) and 1995, because of an influx of Indian immigrants.
The congregation of the Ninth and Oak temple grew larger and more diverse between the mid-'80s (top) and 1995, because of an influx of Indian immigrants.
A group of Indian Sikhs founded the Arizona Sikh Gurdwara in 1999.
Kevin Scanlon
A group of Indian Sikhs founded the Arizona Sikh Gurdwara in 1999.

Dr. Jagwinder Sraow, who came to Phoenix from India via New York in 1980, selects his words as carefully as chess pieces when he expresses his opinion of Yogi Bhajan. "It goes both ways with him," Sraow says. "He did a wonderful job of converting people to the Sikh religion, but some people think he's in business for himself."

And he is, although whether financial success precludes spiritual depth is a matter of opinion. Since establishing his church in the early '70s, Bhajan has his hand in a wide variety of businesses that operate out of his temple/headquarters in New Mexico, including security companies, yoga centers, real estate dealings, and a retailing outfit that sells detox teas, breakfast cereals, dietary supplements, magazines, CDs, videotapes and books in the health food sections of supermarkets, in the pages of New Age magazines, and in catalogues displayed inside his temples.

"There was a concern that money was not staying in the community," Sraow notes diplomatically of Bhajan's business.

But despite Bhajan's dubious reputation among the Indians in the earliest days of their worship together, the two groups struck and maintained an unsteady alliance. It was clear from the beginning that the experiences of the converted Sikhs by choice and the newly immigrated Sikhs by birth were radically different. But even the most skeptical of the Indian observers found some respect for the Americans they'd found in the middle of the American desert.

"In many ways they are better Sikhs than we are," says Bisla, "because of the sacrifices they have made. They weren't born into this like we were; they chose it."

The Valley's new and expanding congregation of Sikhs continued to meet weekly to pray and share meals for 15 years. But looking back, both Teji and Bisla agree that it was just a matter of time until what first appeared to be simple differences unfolded into open conflict. It would be in the mid-'90s when, bolstered by a new influx of immigrants, politics in the temple would lead to a breakdown in the Sikh community that put the two men on opposite sides of the altar.

Nine days after Balbir Sodhi's death, the late afternoon sun trickles through the window, settling in soft pools in Lakhwinder's living room. The eerie silence in a home full of children and visiting relatives is a sign of a household in mourning. Lakhwinder's wife enters the room as silent as a shadow, bearing a tray of Indian tea and butter cookies she places on the coffee table. The sun dips behind a nearby building, the air filling with spice and sweetness as Lakhwinder prepares his tea in the darkening room.

It was Lakhwinder who talked Balbir into leaving India for the safety of the United States. In 1984, the Indian government attacked Sikhism's holiest shrine in the province of Punjab, the Golden Temple, killing a dozen Sikh separatists who had taken refuge inside. The following year, Indira Gandhi was killed by her Sikh bodyguards.

"After 1984, we were all looking for a place, a safer place away from the shooting and death and curfews," Lakhwinder says, wearing a black turban in memory of his brother. "I came to the U.S. in 1985 and immediately found the people nice and helpful. After three years I went back to India and told Balbir I had found the safest place in the world."

Hundreds of Indian Sikhs would follow, making the journey to settle in Arizona. By 1995, the number of Indian Sikhs at the temple at Ninth Street and Oak had more than tripled. With so many new worshipers, the temple was becoming overcrowded. In the summer of 1995, discussion had begun on what to do to accommodate the growing congregation, whether to expand the existing structure, or build a new one. Something had to be done, and whatever was decided would require the assent, and full financial support, of the entire congregation.

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