Mar 17, 2014

Estate fight continues between Yogi Bhajan's widow, female assistants

New Mexican
Tom Sharpe
Less than a year before his death in 2004, Yogi Bhajan, founder of a religious community near Española, signed a codicil to his 1987 will that called for a portion of his estate to go to a living trust to support 15 of his assistants.
His widow, Inderjit Kaur Puri, also known as Bibiji, did not immediately move to open a probate on his estate or to challenge the codicil assigning at least $4 million to the trust.

But in October 2007, the three trustees of the living trust sued Puri, claiming she was delaying distribution of funds to the trust by claiming she knew nothing about it.

In a counterclaim, Puri asked that the trustees be removed because, as three of the 15 assistants benefiting from the trust, they are in breach of their fiduciary duties.



Noting that Yogi Bhajan was suffering from physical and mental ailments at the time the codicil was signed, the counterclaim says the "assistants to Yogi Bhajan signed his name to the documents." 
In April 2009, state District Judge James Hall dismissed the trustees' complaint but left the counterclaim intact. Hall retired at the end of 2009, and the case was transferred to District Judge Sarah Singleton, who waited until Nov. 7 to hold her first meeting on the case. She set a trial date for March 19.
Neither the trustees' lawyer, J. Katherine Girard, nor the trustees themselves, Sopurkh Kaur Khalsa, Shakti Parwha Kaur Khalsa and Ek Ong Kar Kaur Khalsa, have been available for comment.
Puri's attorney, Surjit Soni of Pasadena, Calif., agreed that the former assistants are due income from the trust. But he said that because Yogi Bhajan had handled his family's financial affairs, "like most guys tend to do," Puri was unaware of his donations to the living trust.
Soni, who is also Puri's nephew, said he is asking the judge to apply community-property rules to the case, so that the "marital estate" is divided in half and payments to the 15 assistants come out of Yogi Bhajan's portion, not Puri's.
Not until 2009, five years after Yogi Bhajan's death, did Puri move to open Yogi Bhajan's will to probate proceedings in state District Court in Santa Fe. Judge Barbara Vigil assigned Christopher Cullen, a Santa Fe lawyer, as the personal representative of the estate, but "gave him very specific but very limited instructions about what he could investigate and how he could investigate," Soni said.
As a result, Cullen was unable to identify all of the assets of the estate, and Vigil ordered the probate closed, "saying no other assets have been discovered," Soni said. "We disagree with that because we don't think the investigation was complete." He said he is appealing that closure.
This year, the estate became significantly more valuable because of a federal trademark case over Yogi Tea — a blend of black tea, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, ginger and peppercorns that Yogi Bhajan used to serve at his kundalini yoga classes and went on to sell at his restaurants and health-food stores.
In 2004, a Eugene, Ore., company called Golden Temple of Oregon began marketing Yogi Tea, using Yogi Bhajan's name and likeness, under an agreement with him. This continued for four years after his death, with royalties split between Puri, the assistants' trust and a religious trust. In 2008, Golden Temple quit paying royalties and using Yogi Bhajan's name and likeness, but continued to use the name Yogi Tea to begin selling another tea called just Yogi.
Puri sued, and this fall an arbiter ordered Golden Temple to cease using the trademark by Jan. 1 and pay $822,302 to Yogi Bhajan's estate, based on sales in recent years. With Yogi Tea sales of $27 million in 2009 in the United States and Europe, the Eugene Register-Guard estimated the heirs might be owed another $485,905 by the end of 2012 — plus what they might gain from selling the trademark to others.
A separate but related case was brought in Oregon state court by the ministers of the religious trust, Unto Infinity, against Golden Temple. This month, a Portland, Ore., judge ruled that Golden Temple's CEO, Kartar Singh Khalsa, unjustly enriched himself and other company executives at the expense of Unto Infinity. Monetary damages have yet to be determined, but Unto Infinity is seeking $50 million. Several other trademarks used by Golden Temple, in addition to Yogi Tea, remain in contention.
Soni, Puri's attorney, said these rulings prove that not all the assets of the estate were identified — partly because the trustees for the assistants did not thoroughly investigate. "We demonstrated there are trademarks that the trustees did not appreciate, recognize, pursue, claim — that we, at great personal expense, have been able to secure," he said.
The litigation over Yogi Tea has been covered closely by the Sikh News Network (sikhnn.com). A November article there pointed out that the assistants are "Caucasians" who converted to Sikhism and assumed their Sikh surnames, posting photographs of the former assistants who were not wearing the turbans or dress worn by traditional Sikhs.
"Peraim Kaur, one of his personal staff members, in her testimony for another lawsuit in Oregon, described how she worked long hours for little pay," says the article. "She told the court she had no vacations and was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It also is common knowledge that his personal staff was discouraged from having outside relationships."
The Sikh News Network's correspondent on those stories, Kamalia Kaur, described herself as a "survivor of the YB [Yogi Bhajan] cult." Kaur, now 58 and living in Bellingham, Wash., said she joined Yogi Bhajan's Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization, or 3HO, 40 years ago after taking a kundalini yoga class with her husband at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Years later, while living in the Bay Area of California, she began questioning the "organization's dysfunctional side," she wrote in an email. "Soon I was shunned — and former students started calling me and telling me their horrible stories. Then I got a threatening phone call."
Kaur eventually divorced her husband, who remained with Yogi Bhajan's organization. She gave up custody of her three children, turned over her money to her ex-husband, "and hit the streets. But I couldn't stop studying the story of my life," she wrote. "When you lose the years 18-37, your prime, to ... serving a sociopath, you might as well dedicate a few years to warning and educating others about authoritarian groups."
She now moderates an online forum called "The Wacko World of Yogi Bhajan" on which both Kaur and others have referred repeatedly to Yogi Bhajan's assistants as his harem. But that may be the least of the charges on the website, where Yogi Bhajan is accused of a variety of illegal activities, including fraudulent marketing schemes, drug dealing and corruption.
Recently, Kaur has pointed out that one of Yogi Bhajan's former assistants was an aide to former Gov. Bill Richardson. "Siri Trang Kaur is one of the younger women listed among the fifteen 'personal assistants' in Bhajan's trust," she wrote. "She's cut in for six percent of the distribution in the trust that's part of Bibiji's continuing legal dispute with the harem."
Siri Trang Kaur, who sometimes uses the last name Khalsa, is listed as an associate of Albuquerque political and public relations specialist Doug Turner in a firm called Policy and Positions. The company's website says she was the director of marketing for the firm that first brought Yogi Tea and other Golden Temple products to the market, worked as a foreign policy adviser in Richardson's 2008 presidential campaign, and that she is now "on assignment with the U.S. State Department in Afghanistan." She did not return an email seeking comment on this story.
Soni dismissed Kamalia Kaur's allegations: "We have resisted getting involved in that kind of silly debate. If she's got an ax to grind, she's got an ax to grind. If her experience is less than optimal, that's fine. ...
"What exactly is a cult? Every born-again community, whether it's Baptist, Anglican, Buddhist, every one of them is a cult. Cult, unfortunately, has a negative suggestion and implication."
Kaur is hardly the only former Yogi Bhajan disciple to break with 3HO. Guru Sant Singh Khalsa, who in 1982 unsuccessfully challenged the U.S. Department of Defense's rule banning servicemembers from wearing traditional Sikh garb, said he became disillusioned after visiting India and realizing that real Sikh culture was different than Yogi Bhajan had led him to believe.
Now living in Yuba City, Calif., Gura Sant said Yogi Bhajan's devotion to tantric yoga, astrology and other "new age" practices would be forbidden by traditional Sikhs, who also would abhor the "cult of personality" that sprung up around him. He recalled that Yogi Bhajan collected art that traditional Sikhs would consider pornographic and regularly slept in his room with one of his "secretaries" while his wife slept in another room.
As early as 1977, Time magazine took notice of rumors about Yogi Bhajan's assistants. "Bhajan has repeatedly been accused of being a womanizer," it said in a story about 3HO. "Colleen Hoskins, who worked seven months at his New Mexico residence, reports that men are scarcely seen there. He is served, she says, by a coterie of as many as 14 women, some of whom attend his baths, give him group massages, and take turns spending the night in his room while his wife sleeps elsewhere." 
December 29, 2011
More than seven years after his death, Yogi Bhajan's widow and his younger female assistants disagree over how to divide his multimillion-dollar estate — which now includes the trademark rights to Yogi Tea.