After my encounter with Yogi Bhajan (whom I shall henceforth call Yogiji, in
the Indian tradition), I threw myself into studying and practicing Kundalini
Yoga. I would get up at 3:00am, take a cold shower and then do yoga for
about thirty minutes. After that I would chant and meditate. Almost
every day I would attend one yoga class, often two. On the weekends, I
would join a group of fellow practitioners to do yoga on the beach, before
sunbathing or swimming.
The health and vitality I had come close to
squandering during my years of carousing, drinking and drug use returned to my
body. I dropped thirty pounds and looked slim, trim and vital.
Although I was struggling emotionally, physically I felt great. Better
than I had been in my whole young life.
Yogiji was not using the name Naad
Yoga (the yoga of sound), but much of what I was learning was just
that. Almost all of the kriyas (complete yogic action) that he
taught us, included mantras. We were given different techniques for
chanting them. Yogiji was a firm believer that silent meditation was almost
useless. He taught us to use our voices to empower ourselves while
meditating. I enjoyed the experience of chanting and began to practice the
different meditations and kriyas.
But for me, one thing that
was missing was group chanting to music. There was some chanting of the
main 3HO mantra at that time, Ek Ongkar, Sat Naam, Siri Wha Guru (Waheguru was
a later addition) but nothing that I found inspiring. I was aware of Hindu
style bhajan chanting, where someone would call out names of a deity or deities
and the rest of the sangat would respond, but there was nothing like that in
Truth be told, we were not really aware of who we were. Nor were there
any specified cultural traditions. I believe Yogiji deliberately left
things vague in order to make room for Sikhi when it came time to bring it in
to the 3HO lifestyle. That was still a year or two down the line.
Being more tuned in to Indian culture than most, I was vaguely disturbed by
this, but not overly so. As far as I could tell, nobody else cared at
One day, Richard told me that there was a man staying at the Sikh Studies
Circle in Hollywood,
who had said that he would teach us some Sikh chants. The Sikh Studies Circle,
on Vermont Avenue
was the only gurdwara in Southern California
at the time. We drove over there one afternoon and found our rather
disheveled man who had just woken up from an afternoon nap.
Being quite clueless about Sikhs and Sikh culture at the time, I didn’t know
what to make of this guy. He went by the wonderful name of Jagat Singh
Jagga. Later, I discovered that he was a well known folk singer from the Punjab. As he sang, he played the ektara,
about as unsophisticated a musical instrument as one could wish to find.
The ektara consisted of a round wooden body with what seemed to be goatskin
stretched over it and a short piece of wooden dowel for a neck. It
had one wire string. To play it, you held it with your left hand and
tucked under your neck like a violin. You then used the index finger of
the right hand to pluck the string in a rhythmic pattern and sang along to that
rhythm. The ektara created no melody; that had to come from the
Singh was the first Jaat Sikh with whom I came in contact. (Jaats
are a caste of farmers from Punjab. They have
a tendency to be down to earth in their approach to life and are often accused,
perhaps unfairly, of not being overly intelligent)
Sikhs I had met were those who frequented the gurdwara. They were
professional types; well-to-do and relatively sophisticated. I sensed
that Jagat Singh was different. He had a certain earthiness to his
manner, bordering on coarse.
Remembering the promise he made to Richard, Jagat Singh picked up his
instrument and began to chant Ek Ongkar, Sat Naam, Siri Wha Guru. He
chanted in a very expressive way as a singer might and not in a way that would
be useful to teach to a group, which was what I was hoping for. I felt
The following Sunday, we went to the regular diwan at the Sikh Studies
Circle. Dr. Hakam Singh, the gurdwara vice president, was singing his
usual one shabad (hymn). When I had heard him sing previously, I had not
been particularly moved. That day Jagat Singh Jagga sat down next to him and
began to sing along. Being a professional singer, his energy lifted the
performance and, for the first time, I heard what I what I later came to know
as Gurbani Kirtan(Sikh
Sacred Music), in a way that moved me. That memory
stayed with me.
Only a few short weeks after beginning this intense yoga practice, I began to
be aware of the movement of Kundalini Shakti in my spine. I would feel
the energy moving up my spine, often taking me out of my body and into deep
yogic trance-like states. I also began to experience the inner sounds
that are heard by developed yogis in deep meditation. Realizing that they
were linked to the manifestation of Kundalini Shakti, I began to spend time
meditating on those sounds as my body/mind/spirit began to open to a deeper
awareness. Those were heady times.
While my main focus was Kundalini Yoga, I continued to study sarod and Indian
Classical music as best I could. I was able to take some lessons from
Ashish Khan, the eldest son of Ali Akbar Khan and a well known concert artist
in his own right. I even signed up to go study at the AliAkbarCollege in Northern California.
Financially and logistically, it would have been very difficult, if not
impossible, for me to move up there, but my desire was so strong I felt
compelled to send in my registration. I eventually cancelled.
In May of 1970, I took a two week Kundalini Yoga teacher training course.
Richard, my friend, was the teacher. Soon after that, I went to New Mexico for the first
3HO Summer Solstice gathering. There, I met many young men like myself
whom Yogiji had sent out to various cities in the US to be Kundalini Yoga
teachers. Many of them seemed to be quite successful with their
classes. After returning to Los Angeles,
it came into my head that I should go to London
and start a Kundalini Yoga ashram. I suggested it to Yogiji and he jumped
at the idea.
In order to make the plan possible, I had to do some serious work on my house
to make it fit to rent out. I had been in the middle of remodeling when I
was fired from Capitol Records; work had totally stopped while I underwent my
spiritual transformation. There was much to do and I had no money hire anyone.
I wondered if I could do most of the work myself, I had no construction
experience other than from watching the previous remodeling being done, but
thought I could try. I also wondered where I would get the money to
pay for materials.
I realized that the only course of action open to me was to do the work myself,
so I threw myself into the work. It was tough. Not so much
physically – by now, after all the yoga, I was in really good shape, as well as
being young and strong – but emotionally. I had no income and I was
stressed about getting the work done. I was stressed about finding money
for materials. I still had to make my mortgage payments. It was a
very, very intense period for me; probably the first time in my life where I had
to take full responsibility for my environment and create my future with my own
My sadhana (spiritual practice) and mystical experiences became
non-existent. All I did was work. I still attended yoga classes
occasionally, but would often spend the class lying on the floor, too exhausted
I can’t say that I felt it, God gave me a great deal of support and money came
from unexpected sources. By the end of November, 1970, my house was
rented out and I was ready to leave for London.
As I stood at LAX, waiting
for my flight to London,
Richard arrived to see me off. He said that Yogiji had given him a
message for me.
“Tell him to study
harmonium, learn the music of the Sikhs and go to SikhTemple
The terms Gurbani Kirtan
(Sikh Sacred Music) and Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) were not part
of the 3HO lexicon in those days.
settling in London
and staring Kundalini Yoga classes, I duly did as ordered and found a giani
(lit: “man of knowledge”), who agreed to teach me Gurbani Kirtan.
Gurbani (message of the Guru) is a term
that is used to describe what is written in the “Holy Book” of the Sikhs, the
Siri Guru Granth Sahib.“Holy Book” is a
very inadequate term for this beautiful creation which the Sikhs regard as a
living Guru.Created by the fifth living
master, Guru Arjun, it consists of the devotional writings of the first five
Sikh gurus, plus works of contemporary HIndu, Moslem and Sufi saints of the
time such as Kabir, Ravidas, Namdev and Shiekh Farid.Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth master, added
the writings of his father, the ninth guru.
KIrtan means singing the praise of the
Supreme Lord.Thus Gurbani Kirtan means
singing the praise of the Divine using the writings from the Siri Guru Granth
Giani Joginder Singh
Sarl lived in Southall, a suburb of West London close to HeathrowAirport.
In the 60s, Southall had become a focal point for immigrants to the UK, mainly
because of a nearby factory that offered jobs without regard for race.
Most of those immigrants were East Indian by race, although not necessarily
and most of those Indians were Sikh. By 1971, when I began to study
there, you could walk down the main street and imagine yourself in the Punjab.
I knew the area
well. I had spent the first twenty years of my life in a town called
Feltham, just a few miles away. In my years as a semi-pro musician I had
played many Sunday nights at the SouthallCommunity Center, a
large, echoey venue, close to the town center.
When I first went to
Giani Joginder Singh, I was not wearing a turban. He was polite and did
agree to teach me. When I went for my first lesson, I put on a
turban. His attitude totally changed towards me. Finding out that
my name was Vic, he suggested that I should take the name Vikram Singh, a Sikh
name meaning “courageous in action”. And that is how I came to be known
amongst the Sikhs.
Sikh scripture and
sacred writings, as well as Punjabi language, are written in a script called Gurmukhi
(lit: from the mouth of the guru). The script clearly is based on the
Devnagri script in which Sanskrit and Hindi are written, but is simpler
and easier to read.The script was
created by the second master, Guru Angad and is considered to be a divine
When it became obvious
that I could not get very far in singing from the Sikh scriptures if I could
not read the script in which it was written, I made a commitment to learn the
Giani Joginder Singh
began to teach me one of the most popular shaloks (two line couplet from
Sikh Scriptures) sung in Raag Todi. With my previous Indian music
experience, it did not take long for me to grasp what was required of me.
I worked hard on the Gurrnukhi script and was able to read, albeit slowly in
about a month. At the same time, I began to learn about Sikh history,
tradition and culture.
I soon discovered the importance of commitment and
sacrifice to the Sikhs. On Giani Joginder Singh’s living room wall, were
prints of many of the famous pictures from the SikhMuseum in Amritsar. They depicted the martyrdoms
of Bhai Taru Singh, Bhai Mati Das, Bhai Mani Singh and other Sikh heroes, all
shown with great, gory detail with the blood in full Technicolor. I was
horrified and thought to myself “What am I getting into here?”
But the more I learned
about the music, the more I began to understand the great tradition behind
it. Only a few short weeks later, I was able to look at the same pictures
and feel great love and inspiration.
Giani Joginder Singh was a professional ragi
(singer of Sikh Sacred Music). Although I was very grateful to him for
what he taught me and for the ongoing kindness and hospitality that he and his
family showed towards me, I was secretly uncomfortable about his musical
abilities. He was a quite competent singer and two of his sons were
excellent tabla players. But it was not long before I knew that I would
never be satisfied with any music that he could teach me. I was in a
After my first lesson, Giani
Joginder Singh invited me to accompany him to sing at the Central
Gurdwara. In London,
at that time, there were very few gurdwaras. These were spread out around
the metropolitan area. At all these places, the main diwan
(service) was held on a Sunday morning. The Central
Gurdwara, however, was relatively close to the center of the city
and held a diwan Sunday evening. Thus Sikhs from all over the Greater
London area could gather.
That Sunday evening, I
dutifully and apprehensively showed up in my usual outfit of white wool
sweater, white jeans and white turban. Nowadays, all Sikhs know about the
white clad American Sikhs; in 1971, nobody had ever seen anybody like me.
I felt more than a little conspicuous and it was obvious that everyone else was
aware of my presence.
When Giani Joginder
Singh and family took to the stage for their program, he called me up to sit
with them. At that point, I really felt like I was in a goldfish
bowl. The fact that I had no idea what was being sung and was not able to
read enough Gurmukhi script to sing with them, also made me feel highly
conspicuous. After singing for a while, Giani Joginder Singh began
talking to the sangat (congregation) in Punjabi. Even though I did
not know the language, I could feel that he was talking about me. I felt
most uncomfortable and I was very unimpressed by the music. I was having
serious doubts about this whole undertaking.
Finally, Giani Joginder
Singh’s program finished. I was mercifully allowed to return to the relative
anonymity of the sangat where I tried to look as inconspicuous as
possible. This was hard as I was a) the only white-skinned, blond-haired
human being in the whole place and b) the only person dressed from top to toe
in white. A few of the ladies were wearing brightly colored salwar-kameez
outfits, but most of the people there were dressed in London winter clothes: browns, dark blues,
grays and blacks.
I was starting to
wonder how I could gracefully slink out of there without offending Giani Joginder
Singh, when I noticed something: there on the stage, getting ready to play, was
another jatha (Kirtan group).
Suddenly my interest was
piqued. There were five in the jatha, all men. Three sat in front,
with two harmoniums and tablas; two more sat behind. The man in the
middle of the front row, clearly the jathedar (leader of the group) was
older, perhaps late forties or early fifties, while all the others were
younger, late twenties to early thirties. The jathedar was clearly a
formidable kind of guy. He had that kind of aura. He wore
thick, horned-rimmed glasses and a beard that, while not trimmed, was
relatively short for a Sikh his age. His beard was flecked with grey,
giving it a “salt and pepper” effect. All five men wore black turbans, creating
an ambiance of great intent and forcefulness. They looked really heavy,
in the colloquial sense of the word.
The jathedar had a certain
look in his eyes that captivated me. In my musical career, I noticed that
many great musicians and singers would come on stage and survey the audience
with a look in their eyes that said “I am here to kick some serious musical
butt tonight”. Ali Akbar Khansahib was one. The jathedar, whoever he was, had
that same look about him. He was there to play.
I could see him sitting
there in that gurdwara, getting ready to do something that was going to be
powerful. In musical parlance, I knew instinctively that something really
baaad was about to happen.
How can I describe in
words the effect that music had upon me? For all the power and
inspiration I had experienced in Indian Classical music, particularly Ali
Akbar Khansahib’s, what I heard that night took me a step further into my
spirituality. That night’s Kirtan, while clearly based in Indian
Classical music, married devotion and spiritual power. The whole jatha
sang with a fervor that I had never before experienced.
I felt that, whatever
emotions that man had inside him, which was clearly a lot, he was uninhibitedly
pouring it into the music. He was transforming his emotions into overwhelming
devotion without reservation. He was also clearly a pretty damn good
musician and knew his raags. I sat transfixed for the 45 minutes of his
Later, I made some
inquiries and found the jathedar was known as Giani Amolak Singh. He too
lived in Southall, very close to Giani Joginder Singh. He had also come
to the UK from Kenya.
But, unlike, Giani Joginder Singh, he was not a professional ragi; he held down
a day job. I also found out that Giani Amolak Singh was very involved
with Sikh politics.
This created a dilemma for
me. On one hand I was totally under the sway of Giani Joginder
Singh. In my naïve state, I was powerless to do anything in the Sikh
community without him. He was wonderfully kind to me and did so much for
me. Although later I was to discover that he had his own agenda.
On the other hand
was Giani Amolak Singh. He looked like such a formidable character
that I was scared to even approach him. Yet I was so inspired by his
So, for months, I said
nothing. This was no hardship. I continued to learn from Giani
Joginder Singh, while looking forward to Sunday nights at the Central Gurdwara
when, after sitting on stage with Giani Joginder Singh’s family, I was able to
listen to my real inspiration, Giani Amolak Singh. Every Monday
morning, around 4am, I would wake up with Giani Amolak Singh’s melodies from
the previous evening resonating in my head and my heart.
As`a professional ragi, Giani
Joginder Singh would, on weekends, be invited to people’s houses to sing.
I soon learned that programs of devotional music in private homes, or Kirtan
programs, are an essential and integral part of Sikh culture. Only a few weeks
after I began to learn from him, Gianiji began to invite me to accompany him,
and soon I was tagging along almost all of his programs.
my life became one of choices:
Would I rather teach
yoga to a handful of somewhat disinterested white people for almost no
Or would I rather go to
a house full of people, with high energy devotional music, plus great food
afterwards, where I would probably get a chance to sing and pick up a little
money. Then, leave and go to another house where I would get to repeat
the process, becoming more and more energized (and full of excellent
Indian food!) in the process. The only downside is that these people are
brown and are from a different culture. You will almost certainly be the
only white guy there, so you may get a little culture shock.
surprisingly, as a performer, most of the time I chose the Kirtan programs.
I can still remember
the total embarrassment with which I sang my first shabad (lit: “word”, but
meaning musical composition from Sikh Scripture) in public. Giani
Joginder Singh and his family were wonderful. Sensing my nervousness,
they sang along, loudly and with great energy which helped me enormously.
That first hurdle being overcome, it was not long before I was quite confident
about singing kirtan in public.
My first real test came
in April, barely three months after I started to learn kirtan. April is
the time of the Baisakhi festival, one of the most important, if not THE most
important, Sikh Gurpurabs (religious
celebration days). It is a very emotional time and all Sikhs use the
occasion to remember Guru Gobind Singhji, the tenth master.
Giani Joginder Singh
had taught me a shabad of Guru Gobind Singh, “Mitr Pyare Noon”, which excites
very deep emotions amongst the Sikhs. Written after the sacrifice of all
four of his sons, in this shabad, Guru Gobind Singh reflects on the bitterness
of life without God’s presence. The melody I had learned was equally
evocative of the emotion known in India as karuna, spiritual
longing for God.
Gianiji had been invited to Slough to sing for their Basakhi celebration. In
those days, there was no gurdwara in Slough
and the celebration was being held in a school hall on a Sunday. I have
no idea how many people were there but the place was packed, wall to wall.
Normally, at these kind
of events, there is always a level of background conversation which often gets
quite loud. It is the Indian way and everyone takes it for granted.
But, when Giani Joginder Singh pushed his harmonium over to me and indicated
that I should sing, you could have heard a pin drop.
The silence continued
as I sang. At one of the instrumental interludes, where the only sound
was my harmonium and the accompanying tabla, I almost jumped out of my skin
when a man’s voice rang out, yelling at the top of his lungs: “Boley so neehaal”.
And the rest of the sangat called in response “Sat sri akaal!” I think my
heart must have skipped at least three or four beats. Was I doing
something wrong? Only after quite a few seconds did I realize that they
were paying me a great complement. Applause is not permitted in Gurdwara.
The accepted way of showing great appreciation is by doing a jaikara, the Sikh cry of victory.
Often this is done in a perfunctory manner, In this case, the way that
the sangat called out, passionately and at length, meant that they were paying
me the highest complement possible.
As much as I tried to
ignore it, I could not help but notice that the top of my harmonium was covered
in one and five pound notes. The sangat was also showing its appreciation
in a more tangible form.
Throughout the spring
and summer of that year (1971), my Kirtan singing went from strength to
strength, while my yoga teaching made only slow progress. I received more
invitations to go and sing at peoples’ homes and even at some gurdwaras.
If Giani Amolak Singh
was my main source of musical inspiration, but I was fortunate enough to meet
one of the great Ragis of all time, who also helped to shape my singing.
One summer day, I was
walking down the railway bridge in Southall with a Sikh friend of mine, when I
saw a sight that riveted me. Walking towards me, were three radiant
men. They were all dressed alike in white kurta/pajama and their kirpans
(Sikh ceremonial swords) were exposed and hanging beneath their left arms as
called for by tradition.
One, tall and wiry in
his build, was clearly older with a white beard. One was a young man with
pleasant features and a black beard. The other looked to be of middle-age
with grey flecks in his beard.
They were striding along the
main street in Southall and radiating spiritual energy. When they saw me,
they embraced me in turn, calling out “Waheguruji ka Khalsa, Waheguruji ki
Fateh!”. This is a greeting used by orthodox Sikhs meaning “The Pure Ones
belong to God, the Victory belongs to God!”
They were a ragi jatha
that was visiting from India
and staying at one of the gurdwaras in Southall. But this was not just
any ragi jatha. Bhai (brother)
Gurcharan Singh (the elder of the three) and his brother, Bhai Avtar Singh (the
middle aged one), were from a family of ragis that could trace their lineage as
musicians back three hundred years to the time of Guru Gobind Singh. The
youngest was Bhai Swaran Singh, the tabla accompanist.
I was so impressed with
their radiance and their warmth and obvious affection towards me.It was not until later that I found out just
how deep their knowledge of Gurbani Kirtan was and how much respect they
engendered in the Sikh community, all over the world.
I was able to attend
many of their kirtan programs that summer.Their melodies and musical style had a great influence on me.However, I had to become much more musically competent
to make use of what I learned from them.
After our first meeting
in Southall, we became firm friends. I felt especially close to Bhai
Avtar Singh, the most musically adept of the group. I would later run
into them in the San Francisco area, in India, in New York
and finally in Southern California in 1985 when
they came to my home and stayed with us.
In August, I decided to
I needed a recharge. Yogiji’s birthday was coming up (August 26th)
and I knew that there would be a large celebration in Los Angeles. My original flight was
cancelled. After a few adventures, I was rescheduled on a flight that
landed at LAX early on the morning of the 26th.
When I saw Yogiji for
the first time on my return, he treated me like a long, lost son. His
energy was always overwhelming. When he took out his anger on you it was
devastating; when he poured love and praise upon you everything was right in
the Universe. From the time I arrived on August 26th until I
left LA at the end of the following November, he poured positive energy into
me. I felt so happy and loved, I had never felt like this in my life.
With Yogiji, it was never
easy (most of the time impossible) to identify his motives. He would tell
us that, if he treated you well and praised you, you were likely to be in a
weak state while, if he reviled you and yelled at you, that was his way of
showing you that you were strong enough to take it.
Certainly he seemed delighted
that one of his students even had an idea of what Gurbani was, let alone that I
could read it and sing it. He had taken to quoting in Indian language during
his lectures. Much of it was Gurbani. When I returned from London, whenever he would
quote Gurbani during a lecture, he would look directly at me and smile
broadly. Quite likely he was delighted that, even if not understanding,
someone had an idea of the source of much of his wisdom.
after my arrival, the morning of August 29th, we all went to the
Sikh Studies Circle. By now, I was an experienced ragi, so I had no
hesitation in asking whoever was in charge of the program if I could
sing. He looked at me a little incredulously. “What will you sing?” he asked,
looking very doubtful.
brought my own little portable harmonium with me from the UK, so I showed
it to him and explained that I was going to sing Gurbani Kirtan. It
seemed that they still had a shortage of ragis, so he grudgingly agreed to let
must have been in hog heaven that day. Here was one of his own, showing
the Indians that white boys could sing the blues. OK, sorry, wrong
metaphor but I think you get the point. He never lost an opportunity to
have a dig at Dr. Marwah, whom he jokingly referred to as his elder
brother. And my presence did cause quite a stir. Even today, I can
picture the shock on the face of Dr. Hakam Singh, the vice president of the
gurdwara, when he came in, saw me and realized that I was singing Gurbani.
three months that I stayed in the US, I would travel with Yogiji and
attend the courses that he taught. He continued to treat my like I was
part of his own family and pour love and praise into me. I was quite
intoxicated with all this love and spiritual energy and I was ready to sing
with my portable harmonium whenever I was asked.