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?

That's when disaffection with Sikh Dharma was finally given a voice, and it was a voice that echoed the thoughts of many Indians. The Indian Sikhs were expected to eat, sing and pray alongside the Americans, as well as tithe the customary 10 percent of their income. They were not, however, expected to ask where that money went. Many Indians claim they were given no opportunities to decide how money was spent or how services were conducted.

"[Sikh Dharma says] there is no such thing as an Indian Sikh or an American Sikh," laments Sraow. "If that's the case, then why couldn't Indian Sikhs be a part of the administrative structure?"

Compounding matters was the fact that Yogi Bhajan controls Sikh Dharma, which owns the Ninth and Oak temple, as well as at least 14 properties surrounding it. In India, Bisla explains, temples are owned by the entire congregation, and decisions are made democratically. The idea that one man in another state retained financial control of their own temple was nothing less than offensive.

Sikhs from both temples attended Balbir Singh Sodhi's memorial service September 23 as his nephews paid tribute to their fallen uncle.
Sikhs from both temples attended Balbir Singh Sodhi's memorial service September 23 as his nephews paid tribute to their fallen uncle.
The feuding temples nearly collided with one another while celebrating the Indian Vaisakhi festival.
The feuding temples nearly collided with one another while celebrating the Indian Vaisakhi festival.

"The [temple] is not owned by the people; it is owned by Yogi Bhajan," Bisla says. "He controls all of that. No one there can say anything."

And Bisla is not alone in his continued criticisms of Sikh Dharma. Bhajan's policies and leadership have even become the target of some scrutiny outside the Sikh faith. "Yogi Bhajan is an absolute authoritarian figure with no accountability for decisions he makes regarding handling of the group's money," says Rick Ross, a cult watcher who devotes a good portion of his Web site to complaints and criticisms of Yogi Bhajan. "He is an authoritarian leader who dictates. The Punjabi Sikhs see him as an embarrassment. Yogi Bhajan has shamed them, disgraced their religion."

It was with grievances like those in mind that, on November 18, 1995, a group of around 30 Indian-born Sikhs, including Bisla and Sraow, gathered at a local restaurant to discuss their frustrations with Sikh Dharma. They were unanimous in agreeing that several traditional practices of their faith were not being upheld by the Americans. After five more weeks of meetings, and an attempt at compromise that had been summarily vetoed by Bhajan, the group announced in an open letter to the congregation that they were parting ways with the Americans to build their own temple, "another place of worship where everybody would be welcome," they said.

The plans to build a temple of their own proved to be more than their collection plate could handle. The group floated from one rented space to another until settling in a vacated church they purchased in 1999. Today at the corner of 11th Street and Sheridan, the Arizona Sikh Gurdwara stands just five blocks from the American temple where they all had once worshiped together.

The path between the two temples is a short one. Yet the diplomatic distance between the two groups remains substantial.

"They're just mad because we're so close," says Bisla with a reluctant smile.

Likewise, Guru Kirn Kaur Khalsa, president of Sikh Dharma of Phoenix, doesn't seem regretful about the split. "Sikhism is not about politics or control," she says. "The kind of people who feel they need to have control over something were not the people we want around."

On this point it seems the temple leaders were in agreement. Although a number of Indian Sikhs, including Darshan Teji, would choose to remain at the Ninth and Oak temple, and some -- like Balbir Sodhi's family -- would maintain ties with both temples, Bisla and his congregation have remained resolute.

"I will never go back there," Bisla says quietly.

The chiropractic office of Hari Simran Singh Khalsa, just a few blocks away from his home and his church in the Coronado neighborhood near downtown Phoenix, is full of natural light and the languorous sounds of a gurgling fountain, the waiting room strewn with New Age magazines. The walls are decorated with the likenesses of bearded men, stylized paintings of Sikh gurus, an autographed photo of his friend Yogi Bhajan, and a shrine-like memorial to Jerry Garcia, his framed picture adorned with kukui nut necklaces.

Two decades ago, Hari was a roofer, a recovering Lutheran and an East Coast transplant. Through his interest in yoga he met an American Sikh who worked with handicapped children. "The guy in the turban had the hardest job working with these kids, yet he was happy all the time," Hari recalls. "He used to ride his bike for an hour to get to these kids -- in Phoenix, in the summer -- and he was still happy. I wanted to find out why."

Today Hari is a Sikh, as well as a card-carrying National Rifle Association member, frustrated politician (he ran for the District 8 city council seat in 2001), Deadhead, chiropractor, holistic healer and kundalini yoga instructor. He laughs often through his graying beard, and is fond of drawing diagrams to illustrate his conversation, whether the topic is anatomy, Ayurvedic medicine, or the structure of the religion that has become his life for the past 20 years.

What he discovered, he says, was "a Boy Scout religion that believes in community service, protecting the innocent, praying to one God. I hate religion and I'm a minister. What I love is the reality of being a Sikh."

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