A slow, painful awakening led Premka Kaur Khalsa, a top secretary in Yogi Bhajan's Sikh organization for almost 20 years, to leave the religious group in 1984, she said.
Premka Khalsa, 66, said she could no longer participate because of the inconsistencies she said she had witnessed between the yogi's behavior and his teachings - the deception and abuse of power.
In 1986, she sued Yogi Bhajan and his Sikh organizations, settling out of court. In court papers, she alleged that the married yogi had sexually and physically assaulted her, that he was sexually involved with other secretaries and that, as the head of his administration, she worked long hours for little or no pay.
The organization's religious leaders vehemently deny those allegations. Its business leaders did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Kamalla Rose Kaur, 55, another former member of Yogi Bhajan's 3HO (Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization) who wrote for a grass-roots newsletter in the community, said a light switched on for her when she was researching and writing about religious groups and thought, "Hey, we're acting a lot like a cult."
Former member Guru Bir Singh Khalsa, 60, who had been appointed a "lifetime minister" by Yogi Bhajan, said he received a wake-up call in the early 1990s, when Sue Stryker, then an investigator with the Monterey County District Attorney's office, laid out evidence linking members of his spiritual community to criminal activity. Stryker, now retired, said a member of Yogi Bhajan's Sikh community pleaded guilty and served time in prison for a telemarketing scam that bilked seniors out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
These and other ex-members of Yogi Bhajan's organization say they aren't surprised by events unfolding now, six years after his death. Legal disputes threaten to splinter the community. Allegations of the yogi's past wrongdoing are resurfacing. And the future of the Sikh organization's businesses are in question.
The outcome will ripple far beyond the religious group, whose companies have become intertwined with the local economy and business community.
In Multnomah County Circuit Court, the group's religious leaders are suing the group's business leaders over control of the community's multimillion dollar businesses, including Golden Temple natural foods in Eugene and Akal Security in New Mexico.
"Organizations/cults that have charismatic leaders and their followings, once their charismatic leader dies, this is generally the kind of thing that occurs," Premka Khalsa said.
"It's the meltdown of a cult," said Kamalla Kaur, who spent nearly 20 years in 3HO, and now runs an Internet forum for ex-members. "They actually kept it together longer than we expected."
Steven Hassan, a Massachusetts-based author, counselor and former leader of the Moon cult in the 1970s, said he has counseled about two dozen former 3HO members, including leaders, over the years.
"The group, from my point of view, was always about power and money," he said. "(Yogi) Bhajan is the consummate ... cult leader. By not specifying someone to take over, there often are these kinds of political battles and meltdowns - people basically being greedy like Yogi Bhajan was and wanting more of a slice for themselves."
Attorney John McGrory, who represents the religious leaders in the Multnomah case, said his clients strongly disagree with the description of their organization as a cult. They "believe very strongly that it's a religion," he said. "They practice and follow it, and they are ministers." The proof, he said, is in the thousands of adherents who still practice it.
McGrory said the real source of the discord in the community appears to be that the assets Yogi Bhajan built up over the years are being taken for private use, with the blessing of the managers the yogi appointed to safeguard them.
Gary Roberts, attorney for the business leaders, has said they've done nothing wrong and have acted in the interests of the Sikh community.
When a founder of an organization, or the head of a family, passes away, disputes among successors are common, said Krishna Singh Khalsa, a Eugene Sikh for 40 years.
"There's nothing spiritual or charismatic or cultlike about that," he said. "It's simply where interests clash."
Religious leaders voice concerns
A year before he died, Yogi Bhajan established the "Unto Infinity" board to oversee the network of businesses, property and educational and spiritual nonprofits. Members include Golden Temple CEO Kartar Singh Khalsa and three of the yogi's former secretaries: Sopurkh Kaur Khalsa, Siri Karm Kaur Khalsa, and Peraim Kaur Khalsa. Kartar Khalsa and Peraim Khalsa are domestic partners.
In the years leading up to the Multnomah lawsuit, the group's religious leaders expressed concern that the business leaders, the Unto Infinity members, had abandoned the group's orthodox beliefs, which include not cutting one's hair, eating a vegetarian diet and abstaining from alcohol.
In court documents, the religious leaders allege that the Unto Infinity members acknowledged in 2008 that they no longer practiced those core beliefs.
Unto Infinity members did not respond to Register-Guard interview requests. But in March 2009, when the Khalsa Council, an international group of Sikh ministers, asked them whether they had cut their hair, were no longer vegetarians, and drank alcohol, the business leaders responded by letter, according to the Khalsa Council.
The letter said, among other things: "The questions raised are irrelevant to our roles and responsibilities in the organization. We are not the religious leaders of the organization; we were given administrative and financial authority and responsibility."
The Unto Infinity members wrote that they had made many sacrifices while the yogi was alive and that now they're applying "more kindness into our personal lives."
"We have learned the importance of factoring back into our lives more joy and balance as we continue to serve this mission for the rest of our way home," they wrote.
The Unto Infinity members wrote that if the religious authorities decided to narrowly define what a Sikh Dharma minister is, "we may not continue to qualify."
However, they noted, "many current ministers in Sikh Dharma have broken their Sikh or minister vows, marital vows, and the laws of our country and have remained ministers," adding that that had been true even while Yogi Bhajan was alive.
Watching the business leaders back away from the group's religious practices, some former members said, reminds them of what they experienced when they decided to leave the group.
"You go through stages of discovery of how you gave away your power and were deceived," Premka Khalsa said.
"Once the person who is defining your reality - the charismatic leader - once he's not there continuing to enforce the beliefs, then your eyes start to open," she said. "You see things in a different way, and it can be disillusioning."
Premka Khalsa said that's especially true for the yogi's secretaries, such as herself, who sacrificed much of their lives to serve him.
"I met him at 25," she said. "I was 41 by the time I left, so my life of family, child bearing and (being) productive in the world, that whole piece was gone. Nothing was put into Social Security, and I walked out with the clothes on my back."
The women in his inner circle "were denied having a personal relationship with any other men," she added. "Some of us wanted to get married and have children, but we got sidetracked into agreeing to forego that with the intention of serving something bigger than us. Sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice."
Flaws noted by former members
The group's publications and Web sites praise Yogi Bhajan as an advocate for world peace and as a spiritual teacher who has helped improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide.
A resolution passed by Congress in 2005 after his death recognized the yogi as "a wise teacher and mentor, an outstanding pioneer, a champion of peace and a compassionate human being."
But Yogi Bhajan also had flaws, former members said.
"He was a phenomenal yoga teacher, a phenomenal spiritual man," said Guru Bir Khalsa, the former "lifetime minister" who left the group after 18 years. But the yogi "sabotaged his own dream," he said.
Imposing at 6 foot 3 inches and 250 pounds, Yogi Bhajan claimed humility, but had a weakness for expensive jewelry, luxury cars and custom-designed robes, former members said.
"He was a big dichotomy," Premka Khalsa said. "He was tremendously charismatic. It just drew you in. You felt held and you felt loved and you felt embraced and felt part of something that was magnificent and bigger than you, and always yummy."
"On the other side, he could be devastatingly harsh and make decisions that seemed so contrary to what he would preach and teach," she said.
"He was all about power and he became a victim of that experience," she said.
Lawsuits on assaults, inheritance
With his long white beard, white turban and white robes, Yogi Bhajan advocated for world peace, founding an annual Peace Prayer Day in 1985. But his saintly public image contrasted starkly with his private behavior, Premka Khalsa and other former secretaries said.
In her 1986 lawsuit, Premka Khalsa alleged that Yogi Bhajan repeatedly physically and sexually assaulted her from November 1968 to November 1984.
McGrory, the religious leaders' attorney, said his clients deny all the allegations in Premka Khalsa's lawsuit, which "were never verified or substantiated."
In court papers, she alleged that the yogi was sexually involved with various female followers, and that he ordered her to coordinate his sexual liaisons, including orgies, with other secretaries, which she refused to do.
The head of Yogi Bhajan's administration, and an editor and writer for his publications, Premka Khalsa said she worked on average 10 hours a day, five days a week. She alleged that she was paid $375 a month - only in her last three years with the group.
"It was another part of how he kept us bound," she said. "We didn't have independent resources. He had a fleet of cars - one of which was mine to drive. And he had properties to live on, but they weren't mine. You had few independent resources, so it made it hard to live out on (your) own. He did that with lots of people."
Premka Khalsa alleged in her lawsuit that Yogi Bhajan called her "his spiritual wife, destined to serve mankind by serving him in a conjugal capacity." He said if she did so, he "would care for her for all of her natural life," she alleged.
When Yogi Bhajan died in 2004, his wife Bibiji Inderjit was to inherit half of their community property, and he designated that his half go to Staff Endowment, a trust to support 15 female administrative assistants. To receive her share, each assistant had to live in accordance with the yogi's teachings and the Sikh Dharma Order, according to court documents. If she didn't, her interest would be cut to 2 percent, the court papers said.
Among the trust beneficiaries are Guru Amrit Kaur Khalsa, a plaintiff, and Sopurkh Khalsa, a defendant, in the Multnomah clash between the religious and business leaders, according to court papers.
McGrory said his clients deny that the Staff Endowment was in return for anything relating to Premka Khalsa's allegations.
Yogi Bhajan's estate still isn't settled. In legal proceedings in New Mexico, the yogi's widow argues that she was not aware of large gifts and expenditures her husband made while he was alive, and she wants an accounting of them, which could result in a determination that she is entitled to more of the remaining estate, said Surjit Soni, the widow's attorney.
He said the yogi's widow "does not begrudge or resist in any shape or form the bequest of Yogi Bhajan to his assistants ... We just have to figure out what's hers and what's his and move on down the road."
Soni declined to comment on the sexual abuse allegations.
Responding to the unpaid labor allegations, he said that many people volunteered their time to build the organization.
"It started with little or no sources of income and took the effort of a lot in the community lovingly coming together to provide their services," he said. "They were doing it voluntarily. Nobody held a gun to their head."
Another sexual abuse case against Yogi Bhajan, also settled out of court, was filed by the younger sister of Guru Amrit Khalsa, one of the yogi's long-time secretaries.
Today, Guru Amrit Khalsa is one of the group's two chief religious authorities, as well as one of the religious leaders suing Golden Temple CEO Kartar Khalsa and other business leaders.
Through McGrory, her attorney, she denied all allegations in her sister's complaint.
The Register-Guard's policy is not to name sexual abuse victims without their permission. Guru Amrit Khalsa's sister's whereabouts are not known, and she could not be reached for this story.
In court documents, she alleged that Guru Amrit Khalsa began trying to "entice" her into Yogi Bhajan's organization when she was 11, and succeeded when she was 14.
She said she was with the group from 1975 to 1985. In her 1986 lawsuit, she alleged that starting in 1978, Yogi Bhajan repeatedly physically and sexually assaulted her.
The lawsuit alleged that the yogi was sexually involved with Guru Amrit Khalsa, as well as various other members of his administrative staff.
Guru Amrit Khalsa's sister also alleged that Yogi Bhajan did not compensate her for skin and hair care products and snack foods she had developed and turned over to him in 1983 and 1984, after he had promised her an ownership stake or other payment.
"Truth is your identity"
The allegations in these lawsuits contrast with the public image of 3HO Sikhs in Eugene, who are widely regarded as devout, hard workers who have built a successful company that is a cornerstone of the natural foods industry here.
Firsthand knowledge of the abuse was confined to the yogi's inner circle, Premka Khalsa and other former members said.
"The Eugene community, in general, is innocent and quite well intentioned," she said.
Premka Khalsa said she sued Yogi Bhajan to try to expose what she called his lies and force him to change his behavior.
"The greeting we all have is Sat Nam, 'Truth is your identity,' and I wanted him to stop lying," she said.
Premka Khalsa said she also wanted the rest of the community to know about the abuse, and she wanted to lend credibility to the complaint filed by Guru Amrit Khalsa's sister because she said she was appalled by how badly she had been treated.
The suits were settled for undisclosed amounts, and they didn't surface again until Guru Bir Khalsa, who had become disillusioned after learning of the group's ties to telemarketing fraud, retrieved them from the archives of a New Mexico courthouse and put copies on the Internet in 2002.
"Sikh means seeker of truth and therefore I was just a seeker of truth," he said. "The reason I wanted to put those documents on the Internet was to just turn the light on in the closet."
"Yogi Bhajan had a dark side, and I think a lot of people don't want to see it because of what that means about him," Guru Bir Khalsa said. "I know, for myself, I wasn't ready and didn't want to see it. It's kind of tough when you think you've invested as much as you have into something."
Most of the former members quoted in this article asked to be referred to by the names they were using at the time they were part of the Sikh community.