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Women and 3H.O.
A review of Graceful Women: Gender and Identity in an American Sikh Community by Constance Waeber Elsberg (University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, May 2003; pp. xxi+380; $35.00).

Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh is Crawford Family Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Colby Collge in Maine, U.S.A. Nikky has published extensively in the field of Sikhism, including The Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), The Name of My Beloved: Verses of the Sikh Gurus (HarperCollins and Penguin), Metaphysics and Physics of the Guru Granth Sahib (Sterling).

Journal of Punjab Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara, Apr. 1, 2004 (Spring 2004; Volume 11, Number 1)

Photo: Graceful Women

Elsberg's book is an ethnographic study of women's experiences in the 3H.O. - the Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization.

Harbhajan Singh Puri, a Sikh immigrant, had been teaching Kundalini Yoga in Los Angeles, when he founded the 3H.O. in 1969. The Organization soon developed into a formal religion with ashrams across the U.S.A. and abroad. Under Yogiji's guidance, the 3H.O. adapted the philosophical and spiritual tenets of the Sikh religion to the needs of counterculture and New Age sensibilities, and reproduced a unique American Sikh community. Elsberg gives us an interesting perspective on how Vietnam era mistrust towards social and political institutions were here rechannelled towards trust in the inner self, and in the leader of the 3H.O. She analyzes the movement as a dramatic synthesis of Tantric Yoga, Sikhism, New Age spirituality, and counterculture thought. She provides an especially useful discussion of its Sikh background.

Of course Elsberg's focus is on the women who enter the community and adopt Sikhism. They receive Sikh names, wear the 5 Sikh symbols, and recite Sikh hymns. But they go beyond Sikhism by giving up meat and caffeine, wearing white outfits, donning the turban, adopting yogic practices as an essential part of their spirituality, and devoting themselves to Yogiji - even entering marriages arranged by him. Her work draws upon interviews with members and ex-members, individual narratives of admirers and critics, her own experience at workshops, women's camp, and Tantric Yoga classes sponsored by 3H.O., and textual sources from a range of disciplines.

She follows 3H.O. women members from the early period in the 1970s through the 1990s and she follows the reintegration process of former members back into society. In nine accessible chapters, the social scientist offers us a balanced understanding of women's identity and role both in and out of this American Sikh community. It is fascinating to see how utterly simple events can construct long-lasting traditions. The pivotal custom of 3H.O. women donning the turban, for instance, started out most casually. It was Premka, Yogiji's secretary, who one day tried on the turban 'for fun.' 'He saw it, liked it, and praised it, and so other women began to imitate her' (p. 172).

The title of the book Graceful Women replays Yogiji's old mantra for female members, 'I am grace of God' (p. 104). We even hear in it his maxim, 'woman is the highest incarnation of planet earth' (p. 105). His expression imparted dignity and respect to women in strong contrast to the misogynistic hip terms 'chick' and 'old lady.' According to Elsberg, 'It implied a rejection of both the sexual freedoms of the counterculture and androgynous models of gender relations' (p. 177). In order to bring out their innate strength and spirituality, women associates are mandated to attend to their clothing and demeanor. Intense yoga and strict dietary regime, Sikh bana (the five external symbols) and bani (sacred verse) are all means for women to become 'graceful.'

Societal pathogenic programming must be flushed out so that they get to feel their intrinsic female spirituality. The social convention of marriage is transformed into a religious discipline, for Yogiji, who judges the spiritual compatibility of a couple by their auras, may arrange marriages. Overall then, many women affiliates experienced empowerment. They were enriched by the beauty of Sikh sacred poetry, and in the ashrams they had the opportunity to replace any dependence on drugs with yoga and meditation; isolation and individualism with collective living that was financially and psychologically supportive; insecure relationships with marriage and family. Even those who left the organization, continued to find Sikh sacred music inspiring, and Golden Temple (Sikh sacred shrine), the perfect spiritual home.

But Elsberg's narrative also discloses the double standards, and the constant subordination, oppression, and exploitation that women experienced in 3H.O.'s tightly run hierarchical organization. Unlike their male counterparts, women never became leaders of ashrams. Indeed we get a very complex and contradictory picture. Some female residents reported severe anxiety attacks and depression, which go entirely against its healthy, happy and holy motto (p. 270). Some felt that in the process of giving them a new spiritual identity, the organization tore them away from their biological family. Not only did they give up their former lifestyles, families, and religious traditions, but they were also parted from their young children who were sent far away to Indian boarding schools. The separation between mothers and daughters came out poignantly in chapter 5 - with both sides scarred for the rest of their lives.

The 3H.O. ideals of spiritual liberation were in fact quite constraining for women. Yogiji's instruction to women that 'you should relate to your husband as a god' (p. 187) or his warning that 'a 'bitchy,' tense or angry mother can inhibit her daughter's breast development' (p. 191) sound frightening! They are totally contrary to Sikh scripture, which the 3H.O. claims as its religious framework. Yogiji taught that a good wife should resolve a disagreement with her husband by saying 'you're right; I'm sorry; it's the will of God' ' (p. 188).

He claimed that this lesson came from Guru Ram Das, but in fact it is a grave distortion of the Sikh Guru's person and message. Without making any gender disparities, all the Sikh Gurus from Nanak to Gobind Singh incited both men and women alike to discover the infinite One and together accept the Divine Will. There are no separate codes listed for men or women, nor any such lessons for wives, mothers, widows, or daughters anywhere in Sikh scripture! The 3H.O. tries to train women to be so graceful for their husbands, children, and the community members, that women end up losing touch with their essential self.

Elsberg, however, makes no critical assessments in her text. She remains consistently objective, and conveys all of the women's experiences honestly and respectfully. Her study leaves us reflecting about the future of the organization: how will it relate with the larger Sikh world? She concludes with the proposal that American Sikhs and Asian Sikhs find common ground. Here I would even add that an engagement between the women is absolutely essential. Far too long superficial dualisms like 'east' and 'west' have kept them insulated and divided, and deflected them from their real common enemy: patriarchy.

The White and Brown sisters need to share their anxieties and problems so that THEY can directly face andocentric restrictions - either in the 3H.O., or in traditional Punjabi culture - and together discover ways of empowering each other. Thus they will live out the liberating message of Sikhism and acquire their true human identity. All in all, Elsberg's book contributes significantly to Gender Studies, Sikhism, and Multiculturalism. I recommend it most strongly.