Some time ago a group of yogis set out for a yatra (pilgrimage) to India. They visited communities that live their lives deeply rooted in the teachings that Yogi Bhajan brought to us. The hope was to share, to inspire each other and to unite in spirit - beyond culture and religion. Here is an interview with Karta Singh about how to apply the teachings to our times in order to live authentic lives and promote planetary healing.
GD: A yatra is a pilgrimage, a journey driven by a deep longing for truth, a truth you cannot find in books. Let’s call it the truth of the heart. What did you hope to find?
Karta: The initial impulse came from the teacher’s of the ANS trainer academy who approached me with the question of how to best preserve Yogi Bhajan’s teachings. One way, of course, is to create an archive that holds all materials that have been gathered over a very prolific period of more than 30 years of teaching. That is what KRI set out to achieve with the Library of Teachings, which is in the process of being built. At the same time I wondered if there were any living examples in our tradition of Dharma, Sat Sangat and Gurmukh Yogi. My hope was to find real people that we could connect with and learn from, because it is not enough to preserve the teachings, no matter how sophisticated the system of documentation is. The teachings have to be applied to our times. People today look for a genuine perspective for how to live an authentic life. The way Eastern Sikh Dharma currently presents itself is not at all in line with Yogi Bhajan’s legacy. Sikh Dharma, as I experience it, turned into yet another religion, an institutionalized set of beliefs, that has run dry and bears no interest to future generations. That is why we set out to the land of the gurus in search of true dharma.
GD: What do you mean by true dharma?
Karta: Dharma has nothing to do with religion. Dharma starts when we change our perspective from ‘I’ to ‘We’. Through the yoga we enter a process of deep self-transformation. In the dharma we recognize each other. It is our frame of reference where we start living what we understand to be true, a collective initiation. We quit our family and cultural roots to build a new culture that supports our soul and our destiny. We start living for each other: as a true community, a sat sangat, where we center around the guru, which is the inherent intelligence of the creation. Think of dharma as righteous living. It is a way of living according to a greater plan. We let go of our individual schemes to serve humanity as a whole. Yogi Bhajan left a huge body of teachings, that encompasses much more than kriyas and meditations. He taught us how to live life so that we can excel - day by day. That is what he called yogic lifestyle. Simple things help us to consciously create new habits. How to get up, how to go to sleep, what to eat, just to name but a few. The teachings support us in cultivating an attitude of being conscious at all times and understanding the consequences of our actions. We say; where there is dharma there is no karma, meaning life does not just happen to us. Dharma will give you direction and purpose. You will develop a sense of how to guide yourself and understand your own attitude.
GD: So, how did you start your search?
Karta: There were people that Yogi Bhajan had been close to. Baba Virsa Singh was one of them, the founder of Gobind Sadan - ‘God’s House without Walls’. This is a huge international interfaith community south of Delhi, which he started in 1968. Interestingly enough Yogi Bhajan, his wife and his three children were part of the gathering that laid the foundation. We actually saw the well that Yogi Bhajan helped digging shortly before he left for America. The two men have much in common. They both originate from the Punjab, close to Lahore, today the second largest city of Pakistan. While Yogi Bhajan’s family was one of the richest and most learned families in that province, Baba Virsa Singh grew up in simple conditions without any formal education. His spiritual power was first recognized when he was still a child. In his late teens looking for spiritual guidance, Baba Siri Chand, the 16th century mystic and eldest son of Guru Nanak, appeared to him.
Baba Virsa Singh was given the mantra ‘Ek Ong Kar Sat Nam Siri Wahe Guru’. So there is a well-defined line of transmission we are related to and there are more things that we find back in our tradition: reciting the name, reading Jaap Sahib, doing seva and rising early to begin the day by thanking god and looking within ourselves.
Baba Virsa Singh never studied yoga, though. His path turned out to be different. He understood that he would reach his destination through strenuous physical labor and mantra. To this day, the community chants the mantra he was given while cultivating the gardens and the farm land, which form their economical base. They also have a practice of praying day and night. One member of the community was appointed to look after the havan, an eternal sacred healing fire that has been burning non-stop since they first started. This man never missed a day - just one example of how dedicated these people are. We were blessed to experience the amazing impact of their spiritual practice. The previously barren wasteland they started cultivating 40 years ago has been transformed into lush fields and gardens with yields exceeding all expectations. Although the lives and teachings of the Sikh gurus are the model of all practical work, Baba Virsa Singh continually refers to the timeless teachings of all prophets. For me personally, it was very interesting to see different ways in which Sikhism can be experienced that lie outside of the exclusivity of the Khalsa. Gobind Sadan demonstrates how the power of applied consciousness can become an integral part of ordinary life. The community lives the dharma under very simple conditions in an extremely efficient way. By chanting mantra, doing seva and blessing the earth through conscious farming they have created a place of miracles and healing.
What touched me in particular is their respect for the whole of creation. Their lives turn around a natural flow. Being a forester by profession, this felt like going back to my roots. Staying at Gobind Sadan made me realize that there is a need to re-connect to the earth if we want to prosper and create a future.
GD: Would you say that there is a link between living dharma and a simple, natural life which respects the rhythm of nature?
Karta: This definitely is something we have to consider. All the communities we visited practice some form of conscious farming and deeply care about their environment. The Nirmalas for example are known for their global promotion of clean water. It actually started out as a local initiative. Some years ago they decided to clean the bed of the river Kali Bein that was in a devastating state at the time. As the story goes, Guru Nanak would bathe in that river. It is also the very place where he disappeared only to re-emerge three days later, purified with the Mool Mantra on his lips. The whole community participated in the project which was entirely based on seva. They cleaned a huge stretch of land, meditating and chanting, inspired by a deep care for nature. Seven years they took to redo the river bed so that the water could flow freely again. Today you can drink the water - which is amazing considering that the river had been more of a vast sewage tank than a natural resource. Once finished with the work, the Nirmalas approached the authorities with a plan to purify the used water so that the river would permanently be fed with clean water. Currently Sant Balbir Singh, their spiritual leader, travels the whole world to help initiate clean water projects. He is also a well respected speaker with the United Nations and other global organizations, continually advocating the preservation of one of our most precious resources. What the Nirmalas did - and still do - is an impressive example of how the dharma can be instrumental in cleaning our planet - very practical, and effective.
GD: It seems, that with a dedicated spiritual practice you can literally move mountains.
Karta: Well, these people all work very hard. Most of them do strenuous manual labor from early dawn to dusk. There is a difference in attitude however. Everything is done as a devotional practice, as meditation in action. If you watch these people, you will hardly ever see them tired, stressed or exhausted. Quite to the contrary: They feel invigorated and empowered. In their presence one becomes fully aware of our potential as humans - and how often we settle for less. In fact, Baba Virsa Singh keeps stressing that all he wants is to be a better human being.
In that respect, the Namdharis, whom we also went to see, live by an unprecedented vision of excellence. They cultivate a level of service, mastery and purity which is very inspiring and humbling at the same time. Never for example have I seen such pure and vital water. Incredible, in particular in India, where you have a hard time to see the bottom of any river, lake or pool. When we first entered the terrain where they house their sarovar, a huge water tank directly fed by spring water, I was truly amazed. What a serene setting it was and what a sublime experience to dip into that water first thing in the morning. There is so much love in their service, it is beyond any concept we can understand.
I had met their spiritual leader before and always remembered him as someone I would one day meet again. He was a friend of Yogi Bhajan, who many years ago came to Blois in France, where Yogi Bhajan would teach a Master’s Touch course. At the time Yogi Bhajan held me personally responsible to supply Jagjit Singh, which is his name, with fresh spring water, as that was the only water he would use. I did not talk to him then but felt a deep connection through the assignment I had been given. In that location, spring water wasn’t flowing in abundance. To find what I had been asked for, I embarked on a quest, which was eventually successful. The purity of that water also changed my relation to water and its quality. I eventually settled at Le Martinet because the land provides water that flows directly from a spring. Years later through Professor Surinder Singh, with whom I studied the Naad, I met some Indian musicians that had been students of Jagjit Singh, who, as I came to learn then, is a highly accomplished master of the Shabd Guru. The Namdharis are known all over the world for their musical proficiency.
GD: What is so special about them?
Karta: The Namdharis have been expelled from all Sikh institutions because they give reverence to a living guru, which is Sat Guru Jagjit Singh, the very man I had encountered in Blois. I was curious to learn more about their practices and their history as a community that has established itself at the fringes of mainstream Sikhism. Even though the officials regard them as outcasts, they are strong in numbers with an impressive presence all over the globe. They are mostly very qualified and learned people, with a lot of world class musicians amongst them. I was wondering what spawned so many high-caliber men and women, that in the course of history have excelled in many areas of life. The Namdharis are the only Sikhs that stood up against the British. They are known for their attitude of passive resistance - long before Gandhi framed the term and made non-violence one of his most powerful assets. Many of them lost their lives during British attacks.They have always been freedom fighters, feverishly defending the same rights for men and women, promoting a relationship with animals that respects them as soul beings, relentlessly working for world peace based on honest living and true compassion. Today the Namdharis are undisputed pioneers in the field of nature preservation. They literally collect seeds from every imaginable plant and are counted among the largest producers of organic seeds worldwide. Deeply rooted in the dharma they have an impressive political and economic impact. It was really a mind blowing experience to spend time with these people. An example of human integrity that touched me very deeply. We were welcomed in a way that none of the most exclusive hotels would welcome you. A team of disciples from all over the world took care of us, made us feel at home from the very first minute, fed us the most exquisite food and nourished us with their divine music. We all received the blessing of Satguru Jagjit Singh.
GD: What exactly is the role of the Satguru?
Karta: A Satguru will teach you the methodology to connect to your inner truth, not the content. Through the living presence and personal relationship with a satguru you will find the guru in your heart. Satguru Jagjit Singh mostly works with the Naad which in essence is a science of reality. It helps you to find that sound of truth and to resound in that sound. Being all very accomplished musicians the Namdharis do their prayers and shabads according to true raag. We would just sit and listen for hours. There is a parallel to what Yogi Bhajan did. He gave us the chance to be a teacher so that one day we could be a real teacher.
GD: It seems like you did find what you set out for. How can their example be meaningful for our lives here in the West?
Karta: They offer a vision of personal and planetary healing which is a basic requirement for creating a sustainable, peaceful and just world. For years there has been a lot of talk about taking bold steps to save our planet. There have been conferences, treaties, petitions, agreements - and still we seem to carry on pretty much the way we always did. Any solution will be devoid of meaning, substance and vision as long as the feeling of unity is missing. What the life of these people demonstrates so powerfully is that the boldest step that can be taken is spiritual in nature! Applied consciousness will shift our behavior towards each other. It will offer a more inclusive perspective on all pillars of social life: money, employment and business. It is now the time to create an economy where we truly share the benefits, an economy that goes beyond the dialectics of capitalism and socialism. It is time to stop exploiting the earth and start blessing it with honest work and heartfelt prayer
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