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?

To Hari and the rest of Bhajan's followers, becoming Sikh required them to shed their given names for Punjabi first names and adopt the communal last name of Khalsa. They traded shaving, haircuts, meat, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, promiscuous sex and sleeping late for white turbans and robes, as well as the powerful predawn kundalini yoga sessions.

Indeed, the physical and mental transformations said to come about during kundalini yoga are what has made it a staple of the faith among American Sikhs. Sikh Dharma member Sevak Khalsa, 49, says kundalini yoga is "better than acid."

"With LSD you can only get to one place, the same place over and over. You think, 'Great, here we are again,' and that's it," Sevak explains. "With meditation, there's no limit. You connect with infinity and it doesn't tear your body up."

People from throughout the area contributed to a Mesa memorial honoring Balbir Singh Sodhi.
Dan Huff
People from throughout the area contributed to a Mesa memorial honoring Balbir Singh Sodhi.
One of the duties of the new Sikh Task Force is to develop educational materials, like this poster, to prevent further violence against Sikhs.
Click for larger view
One of the duties of the new Sikh Task Force is to develop educational materials, like this poster, to prevent further violence against Sikhs.

Click for larger view

Sevak, a successful sculptor, is a tightly coiled spring of energy. He's especially wound up today, as he finishes a light fixture for a department store, and arranges the last-minute details of his trip to India where he'll teach art for a semester at the school Sikh Dharma runs there. Sevak was raised in Phoenix, and has been a Sikh since 1973.

"I grew up with rodeo, Little League, Boy Scouts, the regular American dream," he says. "I was raised Catholic. My oldest brother was in the seminary, my sister's a nun." He says his decision to become a Sikh was not easy for his parents to understand, and it's still difficult on occasion. "Mainly because I look different. In Western society, looks are promoted as the avenue to happiness. When you see your children looking different from everyone else, you worry they're never going to be happy."

But for Sevak, and many American Sikhs, it is their faith that defines who they are, and who they are today is all that matters, not how they were raised or where they were born. As Sevak puts it, "We are spiritual beings on this planet for a physical experience. I am a part of everything to do with expressing the infinity of God through the finite form of man."

And in an ironic way, divine sentiments like these seem to have fueled differences between Indian Sikhs and American observers of the same faith. While many members of Sikh Dharma embraced their faith as a kind of refuge from the divisiveness of secular life, for their Indian counterparts, being Sikh brought with it a history of oppression and ostracism in their native land, and the everyday customs and habits of the faith were nearly as important as the tenets themselves.

"They have their way of doing things, we have ours," Hari Simran says as he recalls some of the early flare-ups between Indian and American Sikhs. A few missteps centered on the traditional post-worship Sunday meal. "The Indians take food very personally," Hari says. "At first we would serve things like lasagna on Sundays; that didn't go over too well. One time we served watermelon and they all got up and walked out."

Hari suspects language, too, was a point of contention. "They didn't want to sing the American songs at the end [of the service]," he says. "They didn't want to have certain American things that we've -- I don't want to say invented -- but we've developed for us to be able to read our scriptures better."

And it seems fair to say that the followers of Yogi Bhajan have plotted a successful course for themselves in the Valley, in practical terms as well as spiritual. Today, the temple at Ninth and Oak bustles with activity. The American Sikhs and the few hundred Indians who remain with them have tithed sufficiently to fund a couple million dollars' worth of what looks now like a giant parking garage next to the original temple. With another million or so they'll be able to finish up the 20,000-square-foot, three-story temple which will boast golden domes and a marble fountain for foot-washing.

Aware of the criticism his community has received from the Indians who broke away from his temple, Hari is quick to explain that entrepreneurship is encouraged within Sikh Dharma. And the profits, he says, though controlled by Bhajan, go to support the group's central structure based in Espanola, New Mexico.

"Yogi Bhajan tells us there's nothing spiritual about being poor," Hari says.

And most of them are not poor. Members of Sikh Dharma own most of the homes surrounding the temple in the Coronado Historic District, and they take pride in reporting how they have improved their neighborhood since American Sikhs first moved in 30 years ago. Homeownership has risen modestly in the area, and the single-family brick homes that line its streets have flowers in the yards and are well-kept.

But despite the outward improvements in the neighborhood that many Sikhs call home, Coronado has for years witnessed the subtle tension that has kept Phoenix's Sikh community split in two. Although some of the Indian Sikhs who left in '96 drifted back to the American temple, the first real contact the two temples have had since then came in the spring of 2000, when the two congregations almost literally bumped into each other on the streets of Coronado.

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