In December 2011, Oregon Circuit Court Judge Leslie M. Roberts ruled in favor of plaintiffs—former employees and members of the spiritual organization Sikh Dharma Worldwide founded by Yogi Bhajan. They alleged misconduct and misappropriation of funds by the management team at Golden Temple, the parent company of iconic organic food brands Yogi Tea and Peace Cereal, also founded by Bhajan. The plaintiffs claim that upon Yogi Bhajan's death in 2003, the management team began to siphon monies back into Golden Temple that were intended for Bhajan's spiritual non-profit, avoided compensating his lifelong personal assistants and his family, and eventually sold ownership of the multi-million dollar business to themselves for a mere $100 before selling the cereal division for more than $70 million. The defendants now must repay some $30 million taken in "breach of trust."
In the late 1960s, Yogi Bhajan introduced the mysterious and well-guarded practice of kundalini yoga to Westerners, many of whom were already disconnecting from conventional wisdom, protesting the war in Vietnam, eschewing racial and sexual inequalities, and exploring their own consciousness through music, drugs, free love, turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. Many of Bhajan's students experienced revelatory "awakenings" and became devout disciples, moving into collective dwellings called ashrams, taking spiritual names given by Bhajan, tucking their long hair into turbans, and adhering to spiritual practices including a vegetarian diet, daily yoga, and meditation.
As the community grew, so did the opportunity to become self-sustaining. From Bhajan's teachings of ancient yogic healing formulas, homemade teas and cereals became favorite staples in ashrams and soon spread into local natural food stores. Those products would formally become housed under the Golden Temple label in the 1970s—a pioneer brand in the burgeoning organic foods industry considered a beacon of ethics, commitment, and integrity.
The indictment of Bhajan's hand-selected management team shook the Sikh community—many of whom rely on the for-profit arm for employment. Golden Temple was designed not just to provide jobs and quality products for its community, but to support Sikh Dharma Worldwide—the non-profit focused on sharing Bhajan's teachings and services—made possible in part by considerable donations from the highly profitable tea and cereal businesses.
But, according to Judge Roberts' findings, the indicted "acted consistently and knowingly" with the intention to "mislead and misinform persons and organizations who were intended beneficiaries of the charitable and religious purpose of the trust." Not only did the management team circumvent monies owed to the trust and its employees, but, each member "received multi-million dollar distributions" as they became 90 percent owners of Golden Temple, LLC "for a $100 contribution." Judge Roberts found that the team's actions were based on a combination of greed and "reckless indifference to the interests of the charitable trust."
From a distance, this story has shades of a cult-like tragedy: Devotees of a spiritual leader eventually spiraling out of control upon his death. But to anyone in the organic foods industry, it was evident that yogic principles of balance, pragmatism, discipline, and compassion were guiding forces at Golden Temple. For decades, the team members directing the company appeared to be reliable and trustworthy. They were reminders of another possibility in a fast-growing industry that many hoped would be a long-lasting panacea to the corporate agendas otherwise dominating our particularly vulnerable food system.
Despite the innate goodness of organic food (such as fewer human health risks, better for the land, air, water, animals and farmers), the organic food industry is now owned in large part by mega multinational corporate conglomerates including Nestlé, Kraft, Procter & Gamble, General Mills, Clorox, Coca-Cola, Heinz, and Hershey's, just to name a few. Some of the brands owned by the larger conglomerates still maintain their founding principles, but it's not always the case. Not long after Dean Foods purchased White Wave, makers of Silk soymilk, the company quietly replaced its main ingredient—organic soybeans—with non-organic, cheaper beans. Naked Juice (Pepsi) was sued in 2011 for having genetically modified ingredients in its "natural" products. Public interest group, The Cornucopia Institute, recently released two revealing reports, "Cereal Crimes" and "Organic Watergate," citing corruption in the organic and natural foods industry: Genetically modified ingredients found in long-standing natural cereal products—including Golden Temple's Peace Cereals; the approval of non-organic food additives with known human health risks that the USDA allows in certified organic foods; and the questionable appointment of mega-corporate representatives—rather than small-scale farmers or producers—to the National Organic Standards Board.
Golden and Temple and Yogi Tea are like most corporations that start out with an earnest story—a small idea that caught on—but eventually, they narrow their focus to decrease expenses and maximize revenue streams in order feed the profit-driven spire that corrupts by its very nature. Because it must in order to survive. And while that may have fewer side effects in other industries, it's proving to be a real problem when it comes to our food system. The Centers for Disease Control reports that one-third of adult Americans and 1 in 5 children are clinically obese largely due to the marketing efforts of major corporations that peddle processed food to stay in business, regardless of the plethora of recommendations for eating more fresh, whole foods and fewer processed items—even if they're organic. That we allow it to continue despite all that we know speaks to the power of corporate influence.
In a recent essay featured in the anthology Occupy Consciousness, author Daniel Pinchbeck writes, "We now need to reach a collective realization of the design flaw in how corporations currently function so we can redirect them from being agents of planetary destruction to cooperative entities that work for the good of the planet and safeguard the future for our descendants." This, of course, is what many natural and organic food brands, including Golden Temple, claim they set out to do some 30 years ago. And shining examples of the type of corporation that Pinchbeck alludes to certainly exist (Dr. Bronner's and Patagonia are two corporate examples), but if hardcore yogis can't resist the lure of sacrificing decades of hard work by a small, dedicated spiritual community for a few million dollars, is any corporation really trustworthy? Is our food?
Yogi Bhajan and his community worked tirelessly to build the business that eventually collapsed in on itself, but his original ideas of pursuing spiritual disciplines, recognizing the value of working together, and the benefits of growing and making our own food, are still his most precious teachings. He used to say, "Prosperity is the opposite of greedy." And the community is hopeful.
While no one would go on record—many are still processing the magnitude of the situation—sources told me the spirit amongst the Sikhs is that the story is far from over. The dozen or so individuals that Judge Roberts found guilty are by no means representative of the larger community. Most are true examples of the practices Yogi Bhajan felt could bring a great change to the Western world: raising families and running honest businesses in service to a greater good at a time when the planet could certainly use it. Yogi Tea is still producing high quality teas and the business may end up under control of Sikh Dharma Worldwide or other capable hands when the judge's remedies are all said and done. In the right hands, Yogi Tea was--and many community members hope it can still be--a model of exemplary corporate kindness, committed to quality and integrity in all facets of the business. And a perfectly balanced cup of tea.
[Disclosure: I'm not a Sikh, but I do practice yoga and I worked for Golden Temple from 1999-2006. One of the indicted was my direct supervisor, and for many years, I considered him a mentor and a friend.]
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger