Ek Ong Kaar Kaur describes the Espanola community in the midst of Yogiji’s twilight days.
Originally written: October 7, 2004. The day after the passing of Siri Singh Sahib Bhai Sahib Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogiji
It was only a week ago yesterday that the Siri Singh Sahib, Yogi Bhajan, strolled through the grounds of the Hacienda de Guru Ram Das ashram in his wheelchair, looking dashing in his sunglasses and small white cap, smiling and speaking with people.
He hadn’t been in public since the Japji course in June and it was a pleasant surprise for all the devoted sevadars preparing for the autumn Khalsa Council meetings to see him.
Khalsa Council meetings bring together Sikh Dharma ministers from all over the world – so there was a lot of love and laughter in the air. People who had traveled hundreds of miles had a chance to greet him.
I saw the crowd forming and wondered what was going on, but was too preoccupied with a meeting that I had to attend. It was only later that I heard he’d come by, doing a “surprise inspection” at the offices of the Secretariat. That night, he went home, fell asleep, and except for a few brief minutes on Sunday when he spoke through the telephone to those of us assembled at Gurdwara, the Siri Singh Sahib did not wake up again.
Khalsa Council meetings take a lot of dedication and energy to put together. With over 120 ministers from nearly a dozen different countries, there is a tremendous amount of work and love put into the Council meetings. I was exhausted afterwards, so I took Tuesday off from work.
Wednesday morning, I woke up dreading going into the office – which hardly ever happens. There was some reason that I just couldn’t face going to work. I spent the morning catching up on my errands. Grocery shopping, dropping off my dry cleaning, buying a birthday gift for a friend. By 1:00 in the afternoon, I knew I had to go in, but I didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t that I was tired. There was just something I didn’t want to face.
In close-knit communities, when something significant is happening, everybody knows – whether they’ve heard anything official or not. A few minutes after arriving on the ashram grounds, a friend pulled me into a quiet corner. “It could be hours. It could be days,” she told me. “But it’s really serious.” The community in Germany had sent emails and phone messages, asking for something they could translate into German for the press. They wanted it ready in the next 24-48 hours. Then one of the secretaries called me. “The doctors are saying – tonight,” she said. “Come by and be with the family. They need a lot of love and support right now.”
We’d already done a tremendous amount of preparation for this moment. Press releases written, leaving blank the time and day. Photos, the special section on SikhNet – all done months ago. But somehow you never really think that moment is going to come. You think, “Oh, he’ll be around forever. He’s a yoga master. He can leave whenever he wants. He’s just playing games with us.” After all, how many other times has the Siri Singh Sahib come so close to death’s door – only to recover and laugh about it?
But this time…this time was different. “He hasn’t eaten for a week. His body functions are shutting down.” There are times for miracles. And there are times to accept that death is a miracle, too. That we are born and we only have this body for a brief time. For an infinitesimal second in the time-line of Infinity, the soul has a chance to experience something, learn a lesson, leave a legacy. Nothing…nothing lasts forever. Except the love.
I drove over to the Ranch after work. The Ragis from our sister community in Phoenix had come a few days before and there was an Akhand Path taking place in the Ranch Gurdwara. Friends and community were there, supporting the family and those closest to the Siri Singh Sahib. There was lots of food.
Guru Nanak says there are some things that we can experience, but we just can’t describe. Much of last night is something like that. There’s nothing to report, really. We ate. We talked to each other about everyday things. There were tears here and there. Some people waiting, wondering when it would happen. Other people saying, “He’ll be around for years – just you watch.” The Ranch Gurdwara was cozy and quiet, warmly lit with candles and low light. Dhan Dhan Ram Das Guru played almost imperceptibly in the background while the Ragis called out, chanting and chanting the Shabad. We meditated. We cried. We teased and joked. And somewhere right before 9 pm, I decided it was time for me to leave.
There are things we experience in physical time and space. And there are things we experience in sacred time and space. The beauty of life is when you can live in both worlds- enjoying the physical play without losing touch with that sacred dimension. As I walked out of the Ranch, the courtyard was dark and quiet. There were a few men on security duty and we exchanged a kind greeting. I turned and started to walk up the long driveway towards the street, but before I got very far – maybe just a few feet – I felt a subtle tap on my right shoulder.
In sacred time and space – we can connect with each other and communicate with each other in ways that do not require the physical body. We can perceive directly what is true and real. It wasn’t a physical touch, I knew. It was subtle. I turned around the faced the Dome – the place where the Siri Singh Sahib was living.
The soul has its own language and there, in the darkness, with no one to watch and the breeze rustling through the trees, my spirit had a chance to says its goodbye. Thanking him for all the gifts he had brought with him, thanking him for all he endured to grow this Dharma, to give those of us in the West who had no hope, a sense of hope. It was a worldless prayer filled with love, gratitude, and affection. And at the very end of it, my soul remembered how temporary life is, how illusory death. What was the point of saying good-bye? I’ll be dead soon enough. (Even if I live another 50 years, it’s still not that long a time.) We’ll meet again on the other side, in the Will of God, by the Grace of the Guru, in purity and in love. So I whispered, “See you soon” and turned to walk and go.
Once again, I felt a subtle tap on my right shoulder. Now what, I thought? And hesitantly, I turned around and faced the Dome again. And then I felt him – in that subtle way – pull me into a fatherly embrace. A cosmic hug and a quiet kiss on the forehead. It was just love and nothing else. And as I once again turned to walk away, there was no more tap on my shoulder. Just the sensation that he teasingly touched my spine, the tingling of the Kundalini playing around all the chakras.
He left his body a few minutes later. But I didn’t know that then.
Back in my home, I received the first phone call about an hour afterwards. From one of my best friends who had heard it from someone who heard it from someone. Nothing official, but you know how it goes. I was grateful, I told her, that I heard it from you. We chanted Akal together and I knew it was time to get to work.
But not just yet, because the “official” call hadn’t come.
Less than 30 minutes later, a dear friend from Austin, Texas phoned. She’d heard that the Siri Singh Sahib had left his body. Was it true? Yes, I said. Nothing official, but it’s true. Has the phone tree already started? I asked her. Oh no, we heard it from someone in Houston who heard it from her daughter who heard it from….
Thirty minutes after that, the ashram secretary called. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I’d already heard the news twice. I thanked her for the message and thought…OK..now it’s official…time to get to work.
It’s 11:15 at night and I’m sitting in front of my computer, getting the press releases ready to send to the media. I call Guruka Singh, SikhNet’s Executive Director, who is working with me on this. “Yes,” he said as soon as he heard my voice. “You’re someone I’m supposed to call but it isn’t time yet.”
“Guruka Singh, “ I reply, “I’ve already heard about his passing from three different people.”
“Yes, well, the Siri Singh Sahib requested that no one be notified until two and a half hours after he left his body. We still have 15 minutes to go.”
“The people in Austin have already called to ask if it happened and what’s being planned.”
There was a pause on the other end of the phone. “I know,” Guruka Singh sighed at last. “Los Angeles already called here, too.”
Our community has its own way of communicating. We waited another 15 minutes and sent out the press releases.
11:30 pm New Mexico time is around noon in India. The press releases were just the beginning – there was other work to do. Responding to requests from India for more information, posting the information on the SikhNet homepage. Around midnight, Guruka Singh called and said, “Whatever you’re doing, just stop. It’s time to come over to the Dome.”
Imagine, if you will, a semi-arid land, filled with rocks, scrub brush and cacti. Fatherly mountains shoulder the sky, giving a sense of security and protection. It’s almost an empty place, but in one tiny little spot, someone decided to build a courtyard to the Guru. With fresh grass, fruit trees and rose bushes. Beautiful statues, styled Greek, Indian, Tibetan, and Chinese grace the lawns. Traditionally yellow adobe buildings face each other with curves instead of edges, warm and welcoming. And tucked back among the tallest trees, an architectural structure created in wood and glass in the shape of a Dome.
Last night, the courtyard was lit by the stars in the heavens. There were hundreds of us gathered, but it was so quiet, the trees whispered and murmured louder than the people. Everywhere you walked, there was someone to hug. Someone to hug you. An open heart, grieving and offering support all at the same time.
The Siri Singh Sahib’s senior staff and students formed a receiving line. More hugs and kind words. Shared tears and smiles. Their presence created a tremendous sense of comfort as we entered the Dome to pay our last respects.
This is perhaps where the story becomes too private to put into words. There was a sweetness and a silent peace in the air…I half expected him to open his eyes and give me that piercing look he gives when he’s examining you from top to toe… He just looked like he was sleeping.
Around this time, the shock of it all hit me. I felt my body start to go numb as we waited outside together, chanting Guru Guru Wahe Guru Guru Ram Das Guru. Because God is so great and so merciful, it was a total blessing that the ambulance crew charged with taking his body to the funeral home was made up of young, bearded and turbaned, Sikh men. In Espanola, many of the young Sikh men have found good jobs with the Emergency team. They drive ambulances, perform first aid, and last night three of them were there – turbans, beards and uniforms – a Sikh details on duty to escort the General home.
There was so much chanting as the ambulance pulled away from the Dome. Bole So Nihal…Sat Siri Akakl. Akal. Akal. Akal. Sat Nam, Siri Wahe Guru. It was a joyful sound, It was the sound of victory.
There was more work to do for the press after all of this. By the time I crawled into bed, it was 3:00 in the morning. I sobbed into my pillow, but they weren’t tears of pain. They were cries of gratitude. All I could say over and over again, as every memory of my time with him coursed through body – all I could say was, “Thank you. I’m so grateful. Thank you.”
Written on October 7, 2004 and published on Sikhnet on October 3, 2014