By Ong Kar Kaur Khalsa
How I Became a Sikh
Beginning in about 1965, my parents investigated all kinds of new ideas. From the time I was two, they were vegetarians. They went to seminars and read all kinds of books about UFO’s, theories of Jesus traveling and living in India for many years past his apparent resurrection, and many other “new” esoteric ideas. During this time, my father got himself to quit smoking by doing various breathing exercises.
In 1969, after moving to Florida, my dad started taking yoga classes from John Twombly. I was 5 years old, and my brother was 3. One day, John told my father that his teacher, “Yogi Ji”, was coming to town. At that time, John was living with his parents, and he knew they would not host his teacher, so he asked my father if “the Yogi” could stay at our house. My father agreed. From there, as they say, “The rest is History”! We began a life of “living the unexpected” with Yogi Bhajan.
During that visit, 27 hippies came with him. We had a 3-bedroom, 1 bathroom house with a swimming pool out back (Oakmont Lane for anyone who remembers). People would take baths in our swimming pool, dig holes in the back yard in which to “do their business”, leave various drug paraphernalia lying around the house. Now my parents were hip, but they were also very mannerly and were not into the whole drug scene. So, although this two-week period was very interesting, parts of it were difficult.
By the way, the reason people were digging holes in the back yard was because my parents announced that they would not tolerate drugs being used in their home, so someone flushed a bag of pot down the toilet, which therefore stopped it up and made it unusable for a period of time.
What I remember most about Yogi Ji was his penetrating eyes boring into me, and the fact that almost every time he saw my brother and I, he said he was going to eat us up! My mother tried to allay our fears by telling us that he was just expressing his affection for us, and that he was a vegetarian and there was no need to worry. But somehow, as a 5-year-old, I never completely believed her. After a while, I figured out that she was right. 😊
Over the years, the Siri Singh Sahib reminisced with us about those times, which we all remembered very fondly. I think our family (one of the few families in those days since most of his students were teenagers or in their early twenties without spouses or kids) helped fill the gap he felt in being away from his home and missing his own family.
In 1972, the head of the ashram in Denver left and Yogi Bhajan asked my father to go to Colorado to “check things out”. At that time, my father was working for the health department in Florida, teaching yoga in the prison system. While he was in Colorado, the health department burned down. He saw this as a sign and decided to move to Colorado. By this time, my father was practicing yoga every day and doing his own personal sadhana. I think his soul was ready for the next step on its dharmic path.
For my mother, it was a different story. She felt her cozy family life was being threatened, not to mention the fact that she was not too enamored of moving into an ashram with all these “unmannerly” hippies. However, to not go with my father meant a divorce and breaking up our cozy family, so she took a deep breath and dove in.
Soon after moving to Colorado in 1974, Yogi Bhajan told my parents that my brother and I should go to India to go to school. So, not really knowing what exactly that would mean to us all, we went off to India for one school year. I was 9 and my brother was 7. I still remember my mother buying me some pretty new dresses for the airplane and smiling and waving to my parents as I boarded the plane, having no idea whatsoever what I was in for. I was in India for 9 months.
My time at Guru Nanak Fifth Centenary School in Mussoorie, India is like a big fog in my mind. There were 6 other American kids, besides my brother and I. They were all older and I really didn’t relate to them much as my peers. (Two of the kids there were the Siri Singh Sahib’s son, Kulbir and his daughter, Kamaljit).
While I was there, I got a bad case of lice. I had most everything I owned stolen, down to all my underwear except for the pair I had on. I don’t know how long I had only that one pair, but I do remember taking them off and washing them in the shower and putting them back on wet. I have a picture of me running in my first track race and I would have won, except I ducked under the string at the finish line, because I didn’t know I was supposed to run through it. As I look back on it, the whole experience was very valuable in building my grit and character.
After returning to America, my brother and I wanted Sikh names. We asked for them at solstice and I remember following the Siri Singh Sahib and his staff around for days asking, “Do you have our names yet?” It was very exciting, and we were very impatient to find out our new identities.
When we returned from India, we enrolled in a public school ½ a block from our house in Denver. After a couple of days, I came home and told my mom I didn’t want to go there anymore because the kids were beating each other up and cussing at the teachers. She told me there was a Catholic school ½ a mile away, St. Philomena’s, and she said that kids would not be acting out like that there. I agreed to attend and loved it. I ended up going there for 3 years leading up to high school.
It was the late 1970s and most of the nuns at St. Philomena’s did not wear habits. They commented on how my mother, with her turban and bana, looked more like a nun than they did.
The nuns told my parents that since we were not Catholics, my brother and I did not need to attend Catechism classes or the monthly Mass, which was compulsory for all of the students. My parents said, “No, we want our children to understand other religions and they should attend Catechism classes and Mass along with the other students.” I was grateful for that experience, which allowed me to learn about the Catholic religion, and it also helped me appreciate the Sikh lifestyle I was growing up in.
During the time I was at St. Philomena’s, I wore my hair in two braids, as I had done in India. (I had only had my hair cut once, when I was four years old, before we met the Siri Singh Sahib and learned about the Sikh way of life.). When it was time to move on to high school, I decided that would be a good time to start wearing a turban. During that time, the Siri Singh Sahib came to Colorado and told me I should wear a turban. He said that he wanted to “protect the daisy from the wolves”, and during high school, I truly felt that protection.
After attending Catholic school for 5 years, when my brother was ready to start high school, he decided to attend New Mexico Military Institute (NMMI) and I decided to attend as well. At that time, because of the army’s policy on not allowing Sikhs to wear turbans, NMMI had the same policy. The Chancellor and Assistant Chancellor of Sikh Dharma worked with my parents to get an exception. My parents and the Assistant Chancellor and then my brother and I had to go before the Board of Regents at NMMI to plead our case. The school finally agreed to allow our turbans as an exception to their dress code and we were admitted to the Institute. We enjoyed our time there and excelled.
One “take away” that stayed with my while I was at NMMI was how the Siri Singh Sahib had told me a couple of years earlier that he wanted me to wear my turban, in order to “protect the daisy from the wolves”. (I had grown up in the Dharma, but had not started wearing a turban yet. I had already decided for myself that I would start wearing a turban when I started high school.)
At the time I attended NMMI, girls has only recently been allowed to attend several years earlier. The ratio of boys to girls was 10/1. I remember consciously feeling that my turban protected me, and kept the boys at an arms length. I had many good friendships with many of the boys at the school and they treated me with respect, but I always remembered the Siri Singh Sahib’s words and was grateful for my turban, and grateful for him looking out for my best interests.
How I Got Married
(By the way, I wrote to NMMI that summer and told them I had gotten married and would not be returning. I said I would be happy to return the silver belt buckle. They wrote back and said I had earned it and to keep it. So, I ended up with both my silver belt buckle and my “gold belt buckle”.)
Some of my fondest memories growing up were living in the ashram in Denver and going to solstices and/or other community events around the country. There were many unusual people who came through the ashram in those early days. My brother and I were generally the only kids around and we had lots of “older brothers and sisters”. I also vividly remember the impact the music of the day had on me. When I would come home to the ashram after school and everyone was still at work and I was home by myself, I would blast Singh Kaur’s “Beloved God” and “Ad Guray Nameh”, while looking out the big picture window of the sadhana room. Bliss!
I definitely didn’t have your average upbringing, but it sure was a lot of fun. I have had a happy life. I have been blessed.
Wahe Guru Ji Ka Khalsa
Wahe Guru Ji Ke Fateh