SCOTT SIMON, host:
In the high desert about half an hour outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, you can find a community of American converts to the Sikh religion. Wearing their turbans, they live lives of quiet meditation, yoga, and vegetarianism. They also run a very big business. The Sikh Dharma of New Mexico controls one of the largest federal security contractors in the country.
NPR's John Burnett paid a visit.
JOHN BURNETT: The occasion is a wedding taking place inside the gold-toned Sikh temple here in Espanola, New Mexico. Men and women sit cross-legged on floor cushions, dressed in flowing robes, gemstones, decorated turbans, and for men, the kirpan, or sacred sword, hanging at their sides.
(Soundbite of chanting)
BURNETT: Next to the elaborate temple, with its gold lion head and pictures of the 10 gurus of Sikhism, is a cluster of drab modular buildings that comprise the headquarters of Akal Security. The reach of this Sikh-founded and Sikh-managed company is huge. In most American cities when you enter a federal courthouse, the guards at the door who run the metal detectors work for Akal Security.
Mr. DAYA SINGH KHALSA (President, Akal Security): Akal means undying or deathless. It was a battle cry for Sikhs.
BURNETT: That's Daya Singh Khalsa, president of Akal Security, with his wispy white beard, tightly wound turban and cautious eyes.
Akal found itself in the right business after 9/11. In just the last three years, Akal and its subsidiary, Coastal International Security, earned more than a billion dollars in federal contracts. Not just to screen people who enter federal courthouses - they guard immigration detention centers, NASA facilities, federal buildings in Washington, and embassies under construction from Ecuador to Iraq.
Do you keep a kirpan, a sacred sword?
Mr. KHALSA: Not at work.
BURNETT: These ceremonial swords and daggers are a symbol of the Sikh warrior saint tradition of defending the defenseless, which to this day is at the philosophical heart of Akal.
Yet as president of a major security company that employs 10,000 guards, Singh Khalsa takes pains to keep religion and business separate.
Mr. KHALSA. I mean that's not why we're here. We're here to run a business. But it's certainly consistent with my faith and with Sikh tradition. And we feel very good about the role we played to keep thousands or hundreds of thousands of people safe when they visit federal facilities.
BURNETT: While Sikhs run Akal Security, their turbans prevent them from serving as guards on federal contracts. Mike Francis is a retired state police chief who's in charge of Judicial Security for Akal.
Mr. MIKE FRANCIS (Akal Security): There are dress standards for the court security officers. The CSOs do not wear any head gear.
BURNETT: Akal is a private for-profit company. When asked where all the profits go, Singh Khalsa says they're reinvested in the company. Individual Sikhs who work for Akal make generous donations to Sikh Dharma, the nonprofit religious organization.
(Soundbite of music)
BURNETT: So how did 300 families of American Sikhs end up in New Mexico? They followed this man.
Yogi BHAJAN (Late Yoga Master): Either you can stand under your own ego or you can stand under guru. Simple too. You know, life should not be made complicated being a Sikh. It's a very simple way of life.
BURNETT: Yogi Bhajan, a Sikh yoga master, came to this country from India in 1968 to teach kundalini yoga. By the time he died in 2004, having made his home in Espanola, he was recognized as the founder and spiritual leader of what are now loosely called Western Sikhs, as distinguished from Indian Punjabi Sikhs. They're believed to number in the tens of thousands, scattered in some 300 communities across the United States and the world.
Akal president Daya Singh Khalsa was born Daniel Cohn, the son of a New York department store executive. He grew up in the Connecticut suburbs, graduated with an English degree from Amherst College, and drifted to the then-new Sikh colony in New Mexico to pursue his interest in yoga and meditation.
Mr. KHALSA: I over time changed my name and my appearance to reflect my commitment to this way of life and to this religion. And that's been a real gift.
BURNETT: The life of a devout Sikh is rigorous: up at 4:00 a.m. for a cold shower, then two and half hours of prayers and meditation. They don't drink alcohol or eat meat. And no one cuts their hair, ever. They coil it under their turbans, as demonstrated by Guru Mastic Singh Khalsa, the 34-year-old Webmaster of sikhnet.com. All Western Sikhs have the last name Khalsa, which means purity.
Guru MASTIC SINGH KHALSA (Sikhnet.com): We brush it up and we twist it around and then wrap it into kind of a bun on the top of the head, on that solar center on the top.
BURNETT: You did that really fast.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. G. KHALSA: Well, when you do it from birth it gets pretty easy.
BURNETT: Five years after the death of their spiritual leader, the Sikh community in New Mexico appears to be healthy. Some families have moved away. Others have come. Akal has lost some business, but there is always next year. And in an alcove inside the gold-domed temple, there's someone day and night reading the Acondpot(ph), the sacred songs of the Sikhs.
John Burnett, NPR News.
SIMON: And there's more about New Mexico's Sikh community on our Web site, NPR.org.