A Path Divided
The life of Balbir Singh Sodhi began in the Punjab Province of India in 1949. But the story of his death began on September 11, 2001, four days before he would draw his last breath. That morning, Balbir watched with horror and fear as the World Trade Center came crashing down. Fear was a common emotion in America that day, of course, but for Balbir and others like him, it took on an added dimension. As footage of swarthy foreigners with beards and turbans flashed between scenes of fireballs and billowing smoke, newscasters speculated on who was responsible. And the people Americans were blaming for what was already being called an "act of war" looked a lot like Balbir.
Balbir Sodhi was a Sikh. Beards and turbans are about all Sikhs have in common with Islamic extremists, but he wouldn't get the chance to explain that to the man who shot him in the back.
The voice of Balbir's younger brother Lakhwinder is weighted with grief as he recalls the events in the last week of his brother's life, a week when the violence on television crescendoed to intolerance that struck his own family. But his first reaction on September 11 was like that of most Americans.
"That day, that terrible day in New York, I didn't think about my family," Lakhwinder says. "I only felt full of sympathy for those families that lost someone."
Later that day, he recalls, the phone rang. It was a distressed Balbir who had called with a warning. "All Sikhs will be in trouble soon," he told his younger brother. "The man they suspect, the one they show on television, has a similar face to us, and people don't understand the difference."
Lakhwinder says Balbir was protective, ordering him to stay home and lie low, and advising him not to go to work, to the store, or anywhere else out among the angry public.
"How about you?" Lakhwinder asked with a younger sibling's petulance. "You shouldn't be working either."
"Don't worry about me," Balbir told him. "I'm in a nice neighborhood. I'll be okay."
On Thursday, Balbir took Lakhwinder to the Sikh temple where they met with its secretary and leader, Guru Roop Kaur Khalsa. They told her they were worried about the safety of Sikhs in the Valley and wanted to do something about it as soon as possible. Their concerns were justified. The day before, September 12, an elderly Sikh man had been brutally beaten with a baseball bat in New York; a Sikh temple was fire-bombed in Cleveland; and a Sikh-owned gas station in New Jersey had been covered with threatening graffiti. They decided to hold a press conference that Sunday, to tell people not only who Sikhs were, but more important, who they weren't.
Balbir wouldn't live to see it.
On Saturday, September 15, Balbir rose for the last time around 4 a.m. He bathed, and then spent more than an hour praying and meditating as he did every day. Later he stopped by Costco to pick up supplies for his gas station at the intersection of 80th Street and University Drive, as well as to donate $75 to a fund for the victims in New York. He was well-known at the Mesa branch, where he frequently shopped. He had just been named businessman of the month; his picture was placed in a frame near the store's entrance, showing Balbir in a blue turban, a small pink smile blooming out of his black beard, his eyes full of light and pride.
Later, from the Chevron station he'd owned and run for a year, Balbir phoned his brother. Nerves and frustration strained his voice. "Lakhwinder, can you bring me four or five flags this afternoon?" he asked. Balbir wanted to put flags up outside his store, lots of flags, he said, but he hadn't been able to find any in Mesa. A display of patriotism couldn't hurt, he figured, as more reports of attacks on Sikhs circulated, including that of a 31-year-old Sikh cab driver who was choked and beaten and had a portion of his beard ripped out by two men in Seattle. Balbir himself had driven a cab for seven years in San Francisco, before moving to Arizona after a friend and fellow cab driver was murdered. At the time, owning a gas station seemed like a safer way to make a living.
While Balbir was deciding where to hang flags that would come too late, another Sikh was deciding between action and drama at a Phoenix video store. Sevak Singh Khalsa, a white Arizonan who had converted to Sikhism in the '70s, stopped in at Blockbuster Video with his wife to rent a movie, looking for a distraction from nonstop news coverage of the events in New York and Washington, D.C.
As they perused the store's aisles, "I could feel some guy giving me the hairy eyeball," Sevak recalls. The unfriendly scrutiny was coming from a young Hispanic man staring at him from near the check-out counter. "I watched him and I could feel him, I could feel something was not right," Sevak says. "I mean, the guy was really glaring at me. I walked by him and he brushed my shoulder; he looked back at me and I could feel his impotence, the need he had to blame someone.
"He went outside and sat in his truck watching me the same way. . . . I put my wife on the other side of me and told her to go straight to the car. He came up to me." Sevak imitates the man's swagger and gruff voice. "'Where are you from, man?'
"I bucked up on my heels and gave it right back to him. 'I'm from Phoenix, man, where are you from? I went to Brophy; where'd you go to school, man?'"
The guy looked befuddled, Sevak says, and fired back, "'Well, why you got that thing on your head?'
"I told him, 'I'm a Sikh, it's part of my religion, it's what I do.' He chilled."
Around the same time Sevak was explaining the nature of his faith in the parking lot of Blockbuster, Balbir Sodhi stepped outside of his gas station to tend to a small flowerbed he'd planted.
That's when police suspect that Francisco Silva Roque, a 42-year-old airplane machinist, pulled up behind Sodhi and fired several shots. At least one bullet hit Sodhi in the back and knocked him to the ground, killing him. Next, Roque allegedly drove to and shot up a home he had recently sold to an Afghani family. Witnesses say he showed up at a Mesa bar, Papillons Too, around 5 p.m., too drunk to be served. His wife picked him up from the bar, and he was arrested later that night at his home. On the way to the police station, he told officers that he was "standing up for his brothers and sisters." Roque has been charged with murder and has pleaded not guilty.
Balbir's murder made international headlines, and the community of Valley Sikhs that for decades had been inward-focused and self-contained suddenly found itself the subject of a flurry of attention. Since his death, Balbir Singh Sodhi has come to be something of a poster child in the mainstream media -- not only as a reminder of the hatred and violence that September 11 brought home, but as a representative of the Sikh faith to an audience that knows little if anything about the religion. But despite news to the contrary, there is no single Sikh community in the Valley.
Balbir and Sevak were both part of a religion that is at odds with itself. Split into two gurdwaras, or temples -- one led by white American-born Sikhs, the other consisting of Indian-born immigrants -- Valley Sikhs have found themselves divided not by issues of faith but by differences in custom, language and the practicalities of organized religion. In one camp are Americans who converted to Sikhism some 30 years ago, many of them members of '60s counterculture drawn to the faith's teachings of compassion and spiritualism. Alongside them are immigrants from half a world away, where being a Sikh has for decades meant being oppressed by the Hindu-dominated Indian government, and where adherence to the creed comes hand-in-hand with ostracism and persecution. Together, the faith these two groups share is, at 20 million followers, the fifth largest in the world, and although it borrows traditions from both Hinduism and Islam, its teachings are its own. Chief among its tenets is tolerance for all religions, a notion that "all paths lead to God." And yet, for the past five years, there is no single path that leads to a united Sikh temple in Phoenix.
It wasn't until September that it began to look like that might change. To the men Balbir and Sevak encountered on September 15, after all, it mattered little which temple they prayed at or where they were born. That day, despite quiet struggle within the faith, the Indian and the American were both just Sikhs. And from that realization came a new -- but tenuous -- connection between these two cultures: For the first time since a rift over money and control splintered the community in 1996, a joint Sikh Task Force has been created, formed to identify the Sikh faith to a nation of terrorism-addled onlookers who have trouble seeing beyond turbans and beards. But the challenge that still faces Valley Sikhs in undertaking this task force will be one of self-discovery: In order to identify themselves to the secular world, they must first agree on who they are.
It will be a difficult charge for a community in which even the significance of Balbir's death remains a source of debate. For some, he has become a martyr. "My mother says he died in the way of the guru," Lakhwinder says. But for others, he's a fallen friend, not a saint. "He's not a martyr," says Ranjit Bisla, one of the patriarchs of the Indian Sikh community. "He doesn't come close to being a martyr. How can you be a martyr when you get shot in the back?"
For the past five years, the two forefathers of the Sikh community in the Valley have been praying at separate temples. Darshan Teji and Ranjit Bisla, who worshiped together for more than two decades, remain friends today, but both acknowledge that more secular matters have put distance between them.
Darshan Teji has the kind of features that fascinate small children. His skin is creased and supple like the leather of well-worn boots. The crevices frequent smiles have carved into his face beckon the exploration of tiny toddler fingers. Teji, 76, is retired now, a grandfather. His beard has faded to gray, and he bundles it into a hair net strapped beneath his chin that spider-webs up his cheekbones and disappears under a faded burgundy turban. Framed color photos of his children and grandchildren smile broadly, despite the stiffness of their studio poses, from the hallway of his subdued Chandler home. Above the dining table, a black-and-white photo shows a young Teji with a darker beard and soft eyes gazing at a striking young woman with long, flowing black hair.
Teji sits at the table, sipping a glass of mango juice, talking about the black-and-white days back in India. He was an engineer for a Canadian company there. One day in October 1965, he remembers casually asking his supervisor, "How does one go to Canada?" The following day the supervisor took him to the embassy for a visa, and a month later, somewhat bewildered, he found himself in Toronto. "I never questioned the decision. It was God's will," he says.
Teji's wife and two children followed a month later, and he recalls that adjusting to life outside of India wasn't quite as easy for her. "She came to me crying one day. Things were very different, you see. We had servants in India, and here she had to do the housework herself. She cried, 'Why did you bring me here?' I told her this is a different land. You have got to get adjusted, and really all places are the same as far as God is concerned."
Teji gets up and returns with a large scrapbook given to him when he retired from his position as Director of Energy Conservation for the City of Phoenix in 1992. He opens it with a shy smile and pages through newspaper clippings calling him the "energy guru" and attributing the $35 million he saved the city during his tenure to "turban power."
There are photos of him with city politicians and co-workers, and one from another newspaper showing Teji in a dark suit and bright red turban staring proudly at the camera. "I think I was the first Sikh in Phoenix," he says slowly. "Nobody had ever seen a turban before."
The doorbell rings, not a ding-dong chime, but a few bars of Indian music.
"The cleaning lady," Teji says, smiling again as he rises and opens the door.
Miles away near downtown Phoenix, Teji's friend, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Ranjit Bisla, pulls into the parking lot of the Arizona Sikh Gurdwara in a sleek late-model Mercedes. His voice and skin are deep and rich as caramel. He wears dress shoes and neatly pressed slacks, looking every inch the chairman of the board, which he is at this temple.
Bisla, too, says he was the first Sikh in Phoenix, and he may be right. He arrived in Phoenix two years before Teji in 1970, but you wouldn't have known he was a Sikh back then, or now, unless you asked him. Bisla is clean-shaven and leaves his thick, close-cropped black hair uncovered. He says he had to abandon the traditional dress and appearance of his faith for practical reasons.
"When I came here 30 years ago, just imagine, nobody had ever seen a Sikh before, and turbans were not accepted in America," Bisla says. "I wanted to practice medicine, I needed to have patients and mingle with society."
Appearances aside, both men are unwavering in the strength of their faith. For more than 20 years, this devotion brought them together every week to worship. In the beginning, they and a handful of other Indian Sikh immigrants would gather for Sunday prayers at Teji's home. Who wore a turban and who didn't meant little then, and where they worshiped didn't seem to matter much, either, when the group was small and its members were simply happy to find each other. As their numbers grew too large to fit comfortably in someone's home, they began looking for a larger venue.
For a while, they rented the basement conference room of a bank in Mesa. But praising God in the bowels of a financial institution after hours was far from the soothing sanctuary of a temple they longed for.
It was 1981 when they first heard of Sikh Dharma, a small group of white Americans who were first turned on to kundalini yoga, and then converted to Sikhism in the late '60s and early '70s by a charismatic Indian they called Yogi Bhajan. Together they had turned an old church in the historic Coronado district at Ninth Street and Oak into a Sikh temple. When Teji and Bisla's small group of Indian Sikhs approached the members of Sikh Dharma to ask if they could rent out the temple for prayer, the Americans invited them for Sunday services instead. The Indians accepted, and soon found their American counterparts to be hungry for guidance.
"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."
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.
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.
"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."
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."
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.
It was mid-April, and although neither group realized it, five blocks from each other Sikhs were readying themselves for respective celebrations of the traditional Indian Vaisakhi festival. Kirpan, the symbolic swords Sikhs carry, were polished until they sparkled in the sunlight. At almost the same moment, two processions of Sikhs clad in tunics of saffron and azure set out from their respective temples, fronted by five adults and five children holding their swords high above their heads. The air was filled with chanting, music, and the glint of steel. As they marched down the street, they were headed straight for each other; it must have seemed like walking into a mirror.
"We went on a parade around the block and forgot to tell the other [temple]," recalls Hari with a chuckle. "We almost ran into them."
"We had to take turns. We waited while they marched around, and then we went," says Bisla curtly. "It was kind of silly."
Although both sides look back on the incident with humor, Bisla says it was perceived differently then, as an infringement on Sikh Dharma's territory. "They were mad," he says. "They [thought] we purposely moved into their backyard."
As a result of the nearly colliding parades, Bisla's temple approached Sikh Dharma and suggested that both groups coordinate their activities on religious holidays to prevent another awkward encounter. But Bisla says Sikh Dharma refused to discuss the proposal; Guru Roop of Sikh Dharma declines to discuss the incident.
As Bisla speculates, the chilly relations would have continued, had it not been for Balbir's murder.
The Sunday after Balbir's death, two separate memorial services where held for him at the same time, one at each temple.
But on the following Sunday, September 23, at Phoenix Civic Plaza, members of both temples watched Balbir Sodhi's 4-year-old nephew stand as tall as he could on the stage, his face dwarfed by the giant microphone; not much more than his eyes and blue child's turban were visible over the podium. He clutched a white piece of paper firmly in his hands and spoke strong and clear, telling the 3,000 people in attendance how much he would miss his uncle and the candy he was sure to bring on every visit.
The words he spoke came from his heart, not from the blank piece of paper he clung to. The boy couldn't read yet; the "speech" he held was a prop.
He also couldn't read the large banner behind him that read, "One God, Many Paths: United We Stand." Given the recent history shared by many in the audience that day, the second line of the banner, the coda tacked on to the familiar phrase to express their shared grief, was not without irony.
Days after Balbir Sodhi's death, the two temples agreed to form a common bond -- a Sikh Task Force -- in order to accomplish the goals Balbir had laid out in his meeting with Guru Roop just before he was killed. The task force was designed to address issues of safety, security and education, and a by-product of it has been a cautious rapprochement that has begun to thaw five years of chilly relations.
In early November, the two congregations found themselves marching together onto a rented bus and traveling to Mesa. They attended a Day of the Dead celebration together there, where an altar had been constructed honoring Balbir. "We went together, and it was good," says Bisla with guarded enthusiasm.
But the task force itself is still a symptom of the persistent tensions. Sikhs from the Indian temple are active only in a small subcommittee of the main task force, which Guru Roop calls the "Communications Liaison" branch. As of mid-December, they had met three times.
"The only time we meet is at the Sunday morning meeting," Bisla says of the liaison team, of which he is a member. "Four from their side and four from ours. I know for a fact that no one from the Arizona Sikh Gurdwara [the Indian temple] goes to any other meetings."
According to Guru Roop, however, all Sikhs are welcome to attend all meetings; the Indian Sikhs just haven't been "called" yet. "You go where your spirit moves you, pray and serve when so moved. It is not that defined," Roop says, when asked whether Sikhs from both temples attend any other meetings together. "The Sikh path is very open."
However open the path may seem to Roop, it is only Sikhs from the Ninth and Oak temple who are involved in creating the PowerPoint presentations on airport security, the letters to neighbors explaining the Sikh religion, the planning of a Community Awareness golf tournament, and ultimately, the definition of what a Sikh is which will be used in the task force's informational brochures. "The Americans are handling all of that," says Bisla.
And yet, even he, who first worked to trigger the split with the American Sikhs some five years ago, sees some virtue in the changes that Balbir's death has brought about. "Things are getting better now," he admits, "and that's a good thing." Although Bisla cites the bus trip, for example, as a positive step, he doesn't foresee the two groups having contact with each other again until April's traditional Vaisakhi celebration. Which at least assures that this year they won't be competing with one another for parade space.
Darshan Teji can only sigh and shake his head when he's asked about these temple "politics," a subject he fastidiously avoided in the past. Normally, he says, "I pray, I go home, that's it." But since Balbir's death, Teji has been sitting down with Bisla again, not for the living-room prayer sessions of 30 years ago, but as members of the communications subcommittee of the task force. The distance between the two groups "is unfortunate," he says with a note of frustration. "Some people go to this temple, some people go to the other; what's the difference, really?
"In God's eyes, there are no Indian Sikhs, there are no American Sikhs, there are only Sikhs. We are all Sikhs."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.