Thursday, February 22, 2007

ESPANOLA, N.M. — For all intents and purposes, Peter the long-haired counterculture firebrand has died to be born again. Faded jeans, rainbow-colored T-shirts, and sandals and beads went into a trash bin along with LSD, hallucinogenic mushrooms, pot and other traditional paraphernalia of hippie life.

Out went his birth name, so conventional and fuzzy that it would make him a welcome guest at most American homes. In came a lengthy appellation so foreign that it must give a jolt to airport screeners when he appears with the turban, long white beard and robes flowing like the waters of the Ganges.

Guruka Singh Khalsa, the Pure Lion of Wisdom, is now an important person in the Sikh religious hierarchy. He is a successful no-nonsense businessman, a doting father, a husband married to the same woman for nearly 36 years and a recognized community leader who begins every day with a prayer.

The lost generation of the 1960s and ‘70s may have found itself here in the New Mexico desert, in its own peculiar way.

The largest compact Sikh colony in the United States comes to life every day even before some big-city revelers go to bed.

Shivering in the darkness of the desert, the faithful begin trudging toward the Sikh Dharma Temple on the outskirts of this northern New Mexico town soon after 3 a.m.

Yoga exercises are followed by meditation, through which Sikhs are communicating with God, seeking inspiration and counsel.

Then, it’s onto more mundane things: sending children off to school, getting ready for work, handling house chores.

More than 400 people live in the 40-acre religious settlement that Mr. Guruka Singh helped found in 1971 with the community’s spiritual leader, Yogi Bhajan, who passed away more than two years ago.

About a quarter of them are former members of the counterculture movement that shook the country more than three decades ago — only older, wiser and more at peace with themselves and the world around them, Mr. Guruka Singh said.

The rest are children, relatives, new followers who, like everybody else in the community, have forsworn drugs, tobacco, alcohol and meat, and preach hard work and devotion to God and family.

Their long hair graying and outlook on life not what it used to be, they have maintained the strong bonds of camaraderie forged on the sidewalks of Berkeley.

“Most of us are American-born,” Mr. Guruka Singh explains. “Only very few are actually from India or Pakistan, the birthplace of Sikhism. We’ve come to this lifestyle individually, through a long spiritual journey.”

It was the Beatles and their much-publicized 1968 trip to India to study transcendental meditation under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi that led many North Americans to yoga and Indian religion. What was first perceived to be a fad has touched a chord and stayed much longer than even the Fab Four were willing to indulge.

“It was in no way an intellectual decision for me,” said Mr. Guruka Singh, 61. “It’s like the feeling of coming home. I must have been a Sikh in my previous lives.”

He used to belong to the cultural elite, living alternately in New York’s posh Upper West Side and Hollywood. His father was an Oscar-winning screenplay writer, whose name he steadfastly refuses to reveal. His mother was a well-known painter.

He had, he points out, “a rich intellectual upbringing” filled by the music of Bach, Mozart and Vivaldi, and novels by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and James Joyce.

He earned a degree in microbiology from New York’s City College and studied subatomic particle physics at Ohio State University.

He is the producer of many popular computer video games put on the market by Sierra Entertainment, a California-based company, including “Conquests of the Longbow: The Legend of Robin Hood,” “Jones in the Fast Lane” and “Quest for Glory III: Wages of War.”

Had he taken a different path, he probably would be cruising in stretch limousines down Santa Monica Boulevard, puffing on smuggled Cuban cigars. But that was not his calling, he says. He has chosen communal meals every Sunday and insists he does not want it any other way.

“There is something special about family, the connection between elders and children,” he said. “In a way, nirvana is now. We live it every day.”

As the sun broke through the clouds and warmed the earth, a young man sat in a lotus position in front of the temple, peacefully immersed in deep thought.

A gaggle of schoolchildren with backpacks trooped alongside a trail, lowering their voices in order not to disturb the prayer.

The community is supported by a network of businesses, some of them lucrative.

Golden Temple, a Sikh-owned natural food and beauty supply company, is one of them.

Akal Security company guards man military installations in New Mexico and neighboring states, federal court buildings, airports, NASA facilities and water supply systems.

A Santa Fe-based computer consulting firm called Sun & Son specializes in Web-based commerce, document management and electronic publishing. Mr. Guruka Singh is one of its founders.

At first surprised, locals are now accustomed to seeing men and women in Eastern attire in stores, restaurants, at gas stations, and on the city school board.

Asked whether people were apprehensive to have so many people with a rebel past in a town of just 15,000, Espanola Mayor Richard Lucero shook his head: “They are peaceful, congenial neighbors, and we are happy to have them as part of our community.”

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