The Second Coming of Guru Jagat
It was golden hour at the Hollywood Forever cemetery, final resting place of Burt Reynolds, Cecil B. DeMille, and Estelle Getty, just around the corner from Paramount Studios. Five hundred mourners had taken their seats among carefully ordered rows as the sun dipped below the picture-postcard palms. They were dressed almost entirely in white; as followers of the esoteric yoga practice known as kundalini, they believed the color could stretch one’s aura to a very specific nine feet. Behind the stage was projected a black-and-white image of a fair-haired young woman, smiling wistfully. Her name, at least to those gathered, was Guru Jagat, the controversial founder of Ra Ma Institute, a yoga studio dedicated to spreading kundalini to a new generation. But she had other names too. To start with, the one she was given at birth: Katie Griggs, a befittingly average name for a middle-class white girl born in the summer of 1979 on a Colorado farm. Depending on whom you ask, Jagat was a bona fide spiritual leader—or a fraud; a controversial thought leader; a bigot; a feminist; a rape apologist. Now, at the age of 41, she was dead. Maybe.
The official story, as per Ra Ma Institute, was that Jagat had died of a pulmonary embolism following ankle surgery, a chronology of unluck they painstakingly detailed to all who’d listen. But those outside Jagat’s circle of followers weren’t necessarily convinced. Wild theories abounded. Drugs, suicide, complications from COVID-19—a disease she had publicly questioned the existence of and refused to be vaccinated for—were all rumored culprits. Others believed she had merely faked her own death to avoid a cancel campaign that had been brewing against her.
That, and the growing unrest in her community, had prompted me to interview Jagat in April. I could not have imagined at the time that it would be our last interview.
“I’M NOT, LIKE, LOVE-AND-LIGHT SUZIE”
As a practice, kundalini is characterized by intense breath work, repetitive poses, and alternative lifestyle choices, such as wearing white and eating mostly vegetarian. Followers—the likes of which have included celebrities Christy Turlington, Russell Brand, and Alicia Keys—call it an “ancient technology.” In fact it was almost entirely made up by one guy sometime in the late 1960s. Harbhajan Singh Khalsa, a former customs agent, immigrated from India to the United States, where he would die a rich and beloved guru known as Yogi Bhajan. He’d taken elements of Sikhism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, dressed them up with a New Age aesthetic, and sprinkled in techno-futurist jargon. And, in true American fashion, he’d parlayed this fiction into a multimillion-dollar empire that included a private security firm (one still contracted to do work by the not-so-yogic ICE) as well as the enormously popular, duly lucrative Yogi Tea brand.
Bhajan had been accused of rape, sexual misconduct, and financial malfeasance, both before and after he died in 2004, but in a pre-#MeToo era, few seemed to pay attention. That all changed when, in early 2020, his former employee, lover, and victim, Pamela Dyson, self-published her explosive memoir, Premka: White Bird in a Golden Cage: My Life With Yogi Bhajan, sparking an onslaught of other accusations, including but not limited to sexual battery, rape, fraud, and child molestation. A report conducted by an independent third party, including interviews with hundreds of witnesses and victims, found that the abuse “more likely than not occurred.”
Jagat saw things differently. After promoting a video that sought to discredit Dyson and defend Bhajan, she wrote in an Instagram post, “This tale is no truer than any other tale—the Truth as always lies in the eye of the Beholder.” “Truth” was something she had spoken about often; only for her it meant something subjective, mutable, and relative (not the truth at all). Her stance triggered a backlash that opened the floodgates. An account, @ramawrong, run by Becky Lovell and Nicole Norton, who had been Jagat’s personal assistant, began anonymously posting reports of Jagat’s bad behavior. Sources painted a picture of a toxic workplace, deeply at odds with the company’s professed values. Jagat could be abusive, irrational, and was prone to lying; she spent money like water and often came up short when it was time to pay her employees—many of whom, despite being full-time staffers with “director” in their titles, made far below minimum wage and were asked to file as independent contractors, depriving them of benefits like health care. In a company-wide group chat, Jagat wrote, “Fuck you all” for not drafting a promotional email as she’d wished and threatened another group: “I will ring [sic] your figurative necks if not every photo youve ever taken up until now isnt in the dropbox.”
“Perfection was demanded,” Charlotte Medlock, Ra Ma’s former director of marketing, says. “She wanted our total devotion.” Pleasing Jagat, whose name means “teacher of the universe,” was not just a question of job security, but also spiritual salvation. “It’s like a cult within a cult,” Norton said. And then there was Jagat’s new and surprising bent toward far-right conspiracy theories like QAnon. “After January 6, I saw how dangerous she was,” a former employee who wished to remain anonymous said of Jagat’s habit of promoting QAnon rhetoric within her influential wellness bubble. The embrace of such far-right beliefs revealed troubling racial and socioeconomic biases. Staffers were appalled to see Jagat defend an employee who described Black Lives Matter protesters as “cockroaches” in the company-wide WhatsApp. As one employee said, “It shook me to the core.”
Jagat seemed not at all bothered by the criticism. “I’m a controversial figure,” she told me. “This goes with the territory. I’m not, like, love-and-light Suzie. I’m very direct and I talk about shit people don’t want to talk about.” The “shit” she might be referring to could be how a galactic federation of aliens are impacting world events. Or it could be the idea that the COVID-19 pandemic was planned. Then again, it might be the views of conspiracy theorist David Icke, whom Jagat hosted on her podcast, Reality Riffing. When I brought up that Icke is well-known as a Holocaust denier, Jagat laughed it off. “I mean, supposedly, yeah,” she said. (In his book, And the Truth Shall Set You Free, Icke argues, alternatively, that the Holocaust was funded by the Jews, and also maybe it didn’t happen.) “David Icke is bigger than ever, that’s the other part of the thing, you know, David Icke, his popularity has grown massively and part of the reason is because a lot of the things he’s been saying for the past 20 years are coming true,” she said.
She claimed that her guests did not necessarily reflect her own opinions, but still, one has to wonder why she would choose to platform people like Kerry Cassidy, who once said The Matrix was a documentary and falsely claims that COVID-19 is “activated” by 5G, or, more recently, Young Pharaoh, a right-wing rapper whose anti-Semitic tweets got him dropped from the Conservative Political Action Conference speaker lineup.
Jagat dismissed outcry as “people who are mad or jealous or angry that you’ve gotten where you’ve gotten.” There was an answer for everything. The offense she caused as a boss? Millennial oversensitivity. “I am a straightforward, shoot from the hip, you know, kind of East Coast, no bullshit kind of person.” Accusations of cultural appropriation? A misunderstanding. “I’m not a Sikh and kundalini technology is not Sikhism. My teacher [Harijiwan] is a Sikh.” As for the whitewashing of Sikhi—“Now we live in a world where if you have a certain body or you’re from Western culture, you can’t answer the call of your soul if you want to convert or practice a certain religion.” The allegations against Bhajan? Beside the point. “Yogi Bhajan is a historic figure, and he remains a historic figure. I’m not, like, spending my days trying to figure out whether George Washington was doing some things that I wouldn’t agree with in 2021.”
“PIZZAGATE STUFF. CRAZY BULLSHIT.”
Jagat was a guru in the millennial girl-boss mold, pedaling an Instagram-friendly spirituality that encouraged adherents to follow their dreams, get rich quick, and become more desirable. And Jagat knew just how to sell it in the era of the trillion-dollar wellness industry, calling herself “CEO of seven global businesses” in addition to guru. The shtick worked. At the time of her death, Ra Ma had recently fêted its eighth year in business with a weeklong celebration full of packed classes; its site attracted 2 million unique visits each month and 20,000 online subscribers, who paid at least $19 a month to access its content (most paid many multiples of that to access Ra Ma’s special workshops). It has locations in Venice Beach, New York City, and Mallorca, and an online shop that sells crystals, jewelry, and items from Jagat’s clothing lines: Robotic Disaster, a streetwear label with a spiritual bent, and Guru Jagat collection, a line of ethereal white dresses at around $300 a pop. The launch of the clothing line was featured in Women’s Wear Daily; Jagat herself appeared in glossy spreads in women’s magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and on Vogue.com. Jagat was loved for her irreverence: The way she talked—frankly and conspiratorially, like she was letting you in on some inside joke—was more the kind of thing you’d expect in the ladies’ at a bar at 2 a.m. She swore. She told long-winded stories that verged on TMI. She liked to wear her leonine blond hair long and loose, or piled up and pouring out of a headscarf, in defiance of the traditional turban worn by women in the kundalini world.
Jagat always had a flair for the dramatic. “She liked to dress up and be the center of attention,” Jagat’s mother told me in an interview after her daughter’s death. Katie had been drawn to spirituality from a young age; her mother recounts that when she was seven or eight, she used to “have us all sit around the table and look at the flame of a candle, concentrate on the flame.” Though Jagat presented herself as a self-sufficient, high-flying businesswoman, her mother and stepfather provided the initial $20,000 that helped get Ra Ma started. “We thought it was just a yoga studio. We were completely in the dark about this other stuff.”
Before she became Guru Jagat, Katie had tried other names. “I remember way before all this, she called me up and said, ‘I need you to call me by another name,’ ” her mother said: “ ‘Athena Day.’ ” Jagat’s boyfriend at the time was to be called Zeus. Later, she dropped Athena but kept Day as her assumed surname: Katie Day. Then, early on in her kundalini career, she started going by the approachable-sounding Kundalini Katie. I asked her mother why she thought her daughter had so many different aliases. “She was always trying to find herself, I guess,” she said. Katie had once dreamed of being an actor, or a singer, maybe a poet—something onstage. Like a lot of young people today, she’d drifted in her early 20s, dropping out of school due to partying, then eventually getting a degree from Antioch College in Ohio. And, like a lot of young people today, disillusioned with traditional religion, Katie seemed to find the answers to the big questions she was seeking within the wellness industry. Kundalini was the perfect practice for someone looking for a new identity. Once someone has been practicing long enough, they are encouraged by their teacher and the community to purchase, for $40, a “spiritual” name—a mash-up of Punjabi names and religious terms—through 3ho.com, Bhajan’s legacy company. Jagat told me she had received her name “directly from Yogi Bhajan right before he died,” and that it had propelled her to seek greater influence within the wellness industry. “In our lineage, your spiritual name is your destiny,” she said. Kundalini seemed good for Katie, and she was good at it. The structure and exercise gave her purpose, a channel for her enormous creative energy. She stopped drinking. She built a community. Then a following. She’d finally found her stage.
But kundalini was also shaky ground to build your spiritual salvation on. It wasn’t just that Bhajan had invented most of it out of thin air, but that he had baked into it many troubling aspects of what detractors call his sociopathic and narcissistic personality. If traditional religion left fate up to God, kundalini, like many New Age belief systems, teaches that a person’s lot in life could be almost solely attributed to their spiritual well-being and discipline.
Invisible auras and murky spiritual lineages are used to explain why one person should have power over another; “subconscious blocks,” which only the wise guru could intuit, became tools to gaslight followers and dismiss criticism. In a 1978 lecture, Bhajan even argued that victims of unwarranted acts of assault, such as rape, should be blamed for them. “Rape is always invited,” he said. “A person who is raped is always providing subconsciously the environments and the arrangements.” That such dangerous thinking could be mixed up with age-old religions, and particularly with Sikhism, a 500-year-old faith little understood in America, is deeply harmful to an already marginalized population. “For someone like me in a brown body, who grew up in the Sikh faith, hearing our mantras and our prayers marketed as a millionaire’s mantra or a snake oil scheme is traumatizing,” said Sundeep Morrison, a nonbinary queer Punjabi Sikh activist, filmmaker, and author. Though Bhajan himself was Punjabi, he purposefully courted mostly white followers, creating the kind of community where, decades later, someone like Jagat, a white girl from the suburbs, could find herself whitesplaining the Sikh faith during an “intersectional feminist” panel that included mostly brown and Black women. Morrison called it a troubling example of “aligning whiteness with expertise” and noted that white kundalini practitioners who cheerfully wear turbans to class seem to have little understanding of how different the experience can be for a brown person, and how much danger and attention it may attract. In the first month following 9/11 alone, the Sikh Coalition documented more than 300 cases of violence and discrimination against Sikh Americans, wrongly identified by their turbans as Muslim. “It is a tenet of white supremacy and colonialism to appropriate and consume culture while fully ignoring the well-being and safety of the people with whom it originated,” Morrison said.
“I’m a controversial figure,” the guru told me. “This goes with the territory. I’m very direct and I talk about shit people don’t want to talk about.”
“Can you separate the teacher from the teachings?” Dyson wonders now. Bhajan touted kundalini as a “powerful technology,” and in a sense he wasn’t wrong: Scientific studies have shown the benefit of chanting mantras, and the highs experienced from the intensive breath work in kundalini are thought to be useful tools for recovering addicts. Many of the former Ra Ma students I spoke to, no matter how bitter, said the practice yielded important spiritual and emotional breakthroughs in their life—at least initially.
As a culture, we are currently obsessed with cults; there is a kind of perverse admiration for their leaders, whose success hinges on the same qualities that make tech entrepreneurs billionaires overnight. Both camps peddle an if-you-can-believe-it-you-can-achieve-it philosophy that we, a generation raised on late capitalism and faux meritocracy, can’t help but glug down like orange-flavored LaCroix. Jagat was no exception. On the phone she described her guru moniker as being like a “rapper name.” And likely she had a little more to do with its invention than she let on. She was still promoting herself as Kundalini Katie as late as 2012, almost a decade after Bhajan had died. She didn’t begin posting as @GuruJagat until 2013, a few months after Ra Ma Institute was founded. It’s easy to see why Katie, full of ambitious plans for Ra Ma, would have made a calculated move toward a personal rebrand. (Though 3ho declined to comment for this story, it’s worth noting how incredibly rare it would be for someone to receive the word guru in their spiritual name. In Sikhism, the word guru refers only to the 10 holy founders of the faith; for a Sikh to call themself guru would be considered blasphemy.)
But if “Guru Jagat” began as a performance of her own invention, somewhere along the line, the once-aspiring actor started believing it. The change came two years ago, when she became hell-bent on being referred to only as Guru Jagat—even by her parents, who had continued to call her Katie long after she had adopted the Jagat name professionally. It was around this time that Jagat wed Teg Nam, a former student almost two decades younger than she was. Teg Nam, whose real name is Austin Dunbar, was raised in Arizona, and many former Ra Ma employees who witnessed their early courtship felt that it was his influence that led Jagat to be “radicalized” by QAnon and other conspiracy theories. Katie’s stepfather recounted how Katie had yelled at them for watching CNN “because they were part of the deep state and George Soros was behind this thing, Pizzagate stuff. Crazy bullshit.” Katie’s mother was worried too. Katie had refused to get the COVID vaccine and held maskless classes in defiance of California’s mask ordinance. All of this was baffling to Katie’s mother, who had raised her daughter in a liberal environment. “I kept saying, Who is that woman? I don’t recognize her.”
“ALL I WANT IS THE TRUTH”
As darkness fell over the Hollywood Forever cemetery that early August evening, speaker after speaker took to the podium to eulogize Jagat as a “tantric soul,” “a privileged soul,” an “incredibly brilliant light,” divine healer, and the “mother of creation culture.” Behind the scenes, insiders at Ra Ma Institute were scrambling to control the narrative. A power vacuum was forming, and it was unclear who would step to the fore. There was Teg Nam, Jagat’s husband, who delivered a monotone speech in which he insisted, “She burns inside me now as she did before and she will continue,” and who has since emerged, despite his relative youth and inexperience, as a popular leader at Ra Ma. And there was Joti Surprem, Harmanjot, and Mandev, whose photogenic young faces began to fill the void on social media. But most of all there was Harijiwan, the 70-something white man whom Jagat had considered her greatest living spiritual teacher.
“He is the puppet master,” Medlock said, recounting how, when she worked at Ra Ma, Jagat would speak to Harijiwan every single morning in total privacy, often emerging with revelations or direct orders. “She’d drop things here and there about ‘how I just got a heavy download from Harijiwan’ or ‘Harijiwan told me to do this or that.’ ” According to multiple sources, Jagat regularly sent money to Harijiwan as a kind of “tribute.” Some said there were regular payments of $3,333, a figure with numerological significance; others recounted lump sums of $20,000. When Jagat and Teg Nam wed in Scotland in 2019, they had a Sikh ceremony: Traditionally, the bride and groom circle the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book. Jagat and Teg Nam instead circled Harijiwan and Mandev, who also happens to be his third, much-younger wife. Like many proto-cults, Ra Ma’s cast of characters was insular and incestuous. Teg Nam is actually the younger brother of one of Jagat’s employees; Shabadpreet, Jagat’s “chief of staff,” is engaged to Julian Schwartz, the head of Ra Ma TV and a longtime friend of Jagat’s. Gurujas is the singer-songwriter behind Harijiwan’s band, White Sun, and Tej Kaur Khalsa, another old-time Bhajan follower, was Harijiwan’s first wife and the mother of his child. During the eulogy, Tej recalled the first story she’d heard about Jagat: That during a “gong lie-out” with Harijiwan, she had “heard the message” that she had to “start Ra Ma for Harijiwan.” “But I don’t even like Harijiwan,” Jagat had said.
Others said the origin story of Ra Ma wasn’t quite so mystical: According to former employees and business associates, Harijiwan had been searching for a young, charismatic woman to front a studio. He had two problems: First, he was an older white guy who, even then, realized the optics wouldn’t quite fly. Second, he was a convicted felon. He had served 24 months in prison for a mail-and-tax-fraud scheme that earned him the nickname the “toner bandit.” As in printer toner. In addition to the sentence, he was ordered to pay restitution. Though she’d hardly intended it, Tej’s eulogy revealed something about Harijiwan and Jagat’s relationship: Katie had received the message to start Ra Ma for Harijiwan, not with him.
In Harijiwan’s own eulogy, he prophesied that Katie would return one day in the future, as a little girl attending Ra Ma University, Jagat’s name for an educational center she had wanted to found.
“The second coming of Katie” is how Norton put it—and Ra Ma was cashing in. “Everything she wanted is happening right now after she passes—the fame, the adoration, the sainthood.” Over at Ra Ma, regular classes had resumed almost immediately following Jagat’s death. On August 8, Ra Ma promoted an event, “Lion’s Roar,” in Jagat’s honor: “We are now in a cosmic window where hyper-speed fulfillment, expansive courage, and unshakeable strength are bio-available.” Whatever that means, it cost $88 to $99. Soon afterward, Ra Ma began promoting tickets to “Camp Grace,” a women’s camp devoted to “deterritorializing the patriarchy” that was inexplicably, or maybe explicably, led by Harijiwan. On August 30, what would have been Jagat’s 42nd birthday, Ra Ma released a remix of a song, “Truth,” and a series of limited-edition prints for $175 apiece. The photo, the same one that had hung behind the stage at the memorial, was similar to the one Ra Ma had long sold of Bhajan and, like Bhajan, it also appeared on altar cards meant to be stared at in devotion while meditating. The lyrics to “Truth,” a take on the John Lennon song, went, tantalizingly: “All I want is the truth. Just gimme some truth.”
But what was the truth? Norton and Lovell, the team behind @ramawrong, told me they had “received messages like, ‘I won’t believe [she’s dead], until I see proof.’ ” It was easy to understand why even her detractors couldn’t believe she was really gone. Part of her genius—as much as it may also have been her madness—was an ability to make herself seem all-powerful. How had this teacher of the universe been felled by something as mundane as a broken ankle? Critics as much as followers wanted to believe in a more spectacular ending for Jagat. A few days after she died, Gurujas told a kundalini class, according to someone who was present, that “it is hard for people like Guru Jagat—who had so much energy—to stay on the earth this long.” The suggestion, which began appearing on social media feeds of Ra Ma followers, was that Jagat’s death was merely another sign of her spiritual superiority; she hadn’t died, she had ascended.
According to the death certificate obtained by Vanity Fair, the facts of her death are as Ra Ma claimed. There’s nothing sensational or mysterious about it: Katie Ann Griggs, a.k.a. Guru Jagat, died on August 1, 2021, of cardiac arrest, caused by a pulmonary embolism following surgery on her left ankle.
During our conversation, Jagat had told me she was “fascinated with the human mind, and I am fascinated with the way that people put meaning together—how to create meaning of their human lives.” In today’s Information Age, where everything can be attributed to metadata—or else, maybe it was Mercury in retrograde—it’s tempting to hold Jagat’s death up as a sign of something, her karmic due. But her death was random, a fluke. In other words: It was human. Her mother said that when Katie first broke her ankle in Germany, she had called, worried. “She said, ‘Mom, I’m scared.’ I told her to rest. Just rest.” But that was Katie. Guru Jagat was a different story. The decision to board a flight back to Los Angeles, back to Ra Ma’s headquarters, might have contributed to the embolism that killed her. But Guru Jagat had places to go, people to be.