One Street-Smart Guru

Orlando Sentinel/August 9, 1998
By Michael McLeod

Orlando, Florida -- The Goddess has a punk haircut, a Brooklyn accent and a voice like Edith Bunker. It sends a shock wave out ahead of itself, screeching like a subway car down the halls of the Palm Beach County Home. Quiet Zone, says an overhead sign. "MOVE IT OUT!," says the goddess.

She barges past the nurses station, trailed by a half-dozen of her followers, into rooms where patients doze as televisions work through the afternoon soaps. Some people rouse themselves to take the cookies and fruit being passed out by her retinue. Others are beyond all that. They are old, they are sick, they are mentally disabled. They connect to this world through a narrow aperture. The goddess seems determined to get through it.

She comes upon a woman propped up in a rocking chair, covered in quilts from her chin to her toes, and smiles in recognition. She leans close and whispers the first few words of a familiar hymn. The woman's face softens, as if in the midst of a pleasant dream, and with her eyes still shut she begins singing: Amazing grace, how sweet thou art ...

But by the second verse the goddess has turned her attention elsewhere, to two nurses' aides who have walked into the room. She spins like a schoolgirl to show off her new hairdo, a dyed blonde razor cut.

Tattoos flicker from beneath the sleeves of her jersey -- lotus flowers, a trident, a red ribbon symbolizing the fight against AIDS, a circle of skulls. A procession of gold rings dangles from the lobe of one ear. There is a diamond stud in her nostril and a red tilak on her forehead -- painted lines meant to symbolize her nearness to God.

Everyone knows her, calls out to her, patients and caregivers alike. So it goes all afternoon. Then, near the end of the visit, she and her charges come to a staircase door that says "no admittance." She plows on through. There is a locked door at the second floor. She bangs on it impatiently.

A dour young man in a crew cut appears, dressed in white pants and a white, short-sleeved shirt, keys dangling off his belt loop. Grudgingly, he opens the door, then makes the whole party stand in the hall while he gives them a lecture about security.

The goddess glares at him, then turns to the people at the nurses station. "He's new, right?" Yes, they say, but already she has swept by them in a regal blur, headed toward the patients' rooms. She's a 50-ish woman on a mission of mercy, but her outfit and her attitude give her the air of a street tough on the prowl. And the man in the crew cut is still on her mind. She stops, spins and glares back down the corridor toward his office.

"SOMEBODY GO TELL HIM WHO I AM!," she barks. "I'M MA. M-A. MA!"

THAT'S MA JAYA SATI BHAGAVATI. It means, in Sanskrit: "holy woman, victory, purity."

She may be the strangest religious leader the state of Florida has ever seen: a Jewish-Italian Brooklyn housewife who became a Hindu guru and doesn't mind giving the pope a piece of her mind.

Ivanna Trump attends her fund-raisers. Folk singer Arlo Guthrie considers her his guru. She is a high school dropout who has counted Oxford dons and Harvard professors among her admirers. Noted Harvard religious scholar Diana Eck calls her "a spiritual genius." Her followers call her, simply, "Ma."

Some of those followers consider her an earthly incarnation of a Hindu goddess. She lives with more than 150 of them on Kashi Ashram, an 80-acre spiritual community near Sebastian, which runs a school, a day-care center and a small respite home for people with AIDS. Twenty-five years ago, she lived in Brooklyn with three kids and a husband who delivered soft drinks.

Her name was Joyce DiFiore. She ate too much. She chain-smoked. She favored heavy mascara and Estee Lauder perfume. She was an unlikely prospect for divine visitations. But in 1972, at the age of 32, she embarked on an exotic mystical pilgrimage.

It began at Jack LaLanne's. Her husband had complained about her weight. A friend suggested a yoga class at LaLanne's health spa, where she learned a technique called pranayama breathing, often used in meditation. She liked it so much she would lock herself in the bathroom and practice for hours on end.

One day, she says, in the midst of a long breathing session, she heard the sound of someone dragging something. It was Jesus Christ, carrying his cross. Soon, he began appearing to her regularly. When she shared all this with her husband, he assumed his wife had lost her mind. "That yoga stuff is voodoo," he told her. "If you want to see Jesus, come to church with me."

She wouldn't listen. Something kept drawing her back to the visions. Eventually, she says, Christ gave her this message: "Teach all ways, for all ways are mine." And she was visited by the spirits of two gurus.

A mystic named Hilda Charlton, with a substantial New York City following of her own, heard about the Brooklyn housewife who hosted ethereal visitors in her bathroom. At meetings in churches and homes throughout New York, Charlton began introducing her newfound protégé to groups of yoga students with the urgent whisper: "A saint is coming! A saint is coming!"

The saint would relate the story of her mystical encounters. Sometimes she would meditate, or single out audience members and speak to them about intimate matters of the heart.

Her career as a spiritual leader was thriving, but her marriage foundered. Her husband divorced her. By then counterculture followers from all over the country were coming to meditate with the saint from Brooklyn, establishing a series of communal homes. Gail Malloy, now an advertising executive in New York, lived in one of them.

"In those days, she would go into such deep trances that we were convinced she was in danger of dying," she says. "Sometimes we had to stay up all night with her to keep the energy from getting sucked out of her body. It was all very seductive, all very exciting, all very dramatic. How could you even think of the outside world? It was such great theater, everything else seemed boring by comparison."

Soon, a higher consciousness heavyweight got caught up in the drama. His name was Richard Alpert. He was a Berkley psychology professor who had collaborated with Timothy Leary in an infamous series of LSD experiments.

Leary, who was convinced the drug could elevate consciousness, went on to deliver the famous hippie-era sound bite: "turn on, tune in, drop out." But Alpert became disillusioned with drugs. He traveled to India in search of enlightenment, was given the name "Ram Dass" by his guru, and in 1971 became a counterculture godfather when he wrote Be Here Now, a hippie how-to.

Then he heard about the saint from Brooklyn. He moved to New York to study with her and give classes by her side. They were the mom and pop of consciousness raising.

Then, in a move that mystified devotees, Ram Dass broke off with her, declaring himself a dupe and dismissing her as a charlatan. Ram Dass returned to the West Coast, having established himself as the first, but by no means the last, to become disillusioned with the saint from Brooklyn.

Soon after the split, she and about 80 followers moved to Sebastian. She has been there ever since.

The Kashi Ashram is a '70s flashback of incense and idealism, tucked into a wooded swatch of land between the Sebastian and Indian rivers. In the center of the complex is a lake, dug by Ma and her followers when the property was still mostly scrub brush and trees, surrounded now with an array of statues and shrines.

This may well be the only place on Earth where Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary rub shoulders with Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction and creation, and her consort Hanuman, the monkey-faced god who comes to Earth to serve humanity. There is a Buddhist temple and a Jewish enclave with a wooden replica of the Ten Commandments.

It's a spiritual Epcot - an open-air religious sampler featuring belief systems from all over the world. Its matriarch lives in an apartment decorated with a wall-to-wall faux leopard skin rug, travels in a bus with a bumper sticker that says, "I am a goddess! Back off!" and has a habit of peppering her conversation with four- letter words.

Nobody blends the sacred and the profane like Ma Bhagavati. Her combination of chutzpah and compassion has enabled her to quietly thrive for more than two decades.

In spite of the rift with Ram Dass.

In spite of a melee at a supermarket, soon after she moved to Florida, which resulted in her being charged with three counts of battery.

In spite of a successful lawsuit by a mother who claims that Ma, and other members of the ashram, brainwashed her into giving up her child, even falsifying the birth certificate.

In spite of charges by a former high-ranking member of her staff that she spends money lavishly - even gambling away thousands in a visit to a New Orleans riverboat casino.

In spite of all this, dozens of followers have remained devoted to Ma.

One of them is Muksha Ram, who teaches in the ashram school. Muksha Ram first met Ma during her New York years. Like many other ashram members, he is a thoughtful, well educated person, disillusioned with traditional Western religions. "I was always interested in saints who didn't appear to be saints," he says.

He believes he found one in Ma.

She interrupts speakers at sedate religious conferences, shaking her finger at them for not paying more attention to AIDS. She even cornered the pope, flying to Rome to convince him that the Catholic Church should do more about AIDS. Miffed when she didn't get a private audience, she worked her way to the front of a public reception line and held up a scrapbook filled with pictures of infants with the disease. The startled pope blessed the book. Ma's followers think of Ram Dass as the misguided one. Most of them simply believe he had a crush on Ma and was rebuffed. They also dismiss the other criticisms and incidents. Some, they say, are lies. Some bespeak prejudice against a strong-willed, flamboyant woman. And some, they say, are bitter lashings out from people who couldn't measure up to the self-sacrifice she demands.

Peaceful as it seems, the ashram is a demanding place.

Devotees who live there submit themselves to a religious vocation. Many, like Ma, are converts to Hinduism. They worship together near the woodsy temple of Hanuman, in ceremonies called "fire pujas" that begin with chanting and conclude with participants throwing rice into a blaze, symbolizing the release of pettiness and selfish cares. They take a vow of chastity, work long volunteer hours, and assume a new, spiritual name. And they like to pamper the matriarch who oversees their spiritual growth. Ma likes to play roller hockey, so the ashram became perhaps the only religious retreat in the country with a hockey rink, complete with scoreboard and nets. Ma often can be found playing matches with ashram teenagers.

She is equally adept at accumulating respect in high places and millions of dollars in donations.

Her work with AIDS patients has inspired victims and volunteers - including an anonymous donor who recently gave $6 million to the ashram for a new 40-bed care center.

Many AIDS sufferers have died in her arms. She keeps their ashes in her apartment or scatters them across the lake. She has their names engraved on a boardwalk at the ashram. The names go on and on - Little Toby. Sonny Boy Pete. Rocky. Winston. Deena. Brooklyn. It's a memorial of lost souls, stretching from the woods to the Sebastian River.

Kimberly Bergalis, the South Florida student who believed she contracted the disease from dental surgery in 1987, came to the ashram soon after her diagnosis. Before she died in 1991, she often wrote about Ma in her diary: "Ma said, `Look, honey, we'll fight this together' ... Ma made me feel good when she said, `Of course, sweetheart, I'm here for you - any time.'"

Marc Cohen, president of the United Foundation For AIDS in Miami, says that his 10-year relationship with Ma "has taught me how to cope with what I do, how to move through the pain of loss without wallowing in it." Cohen is now a member of the board of directors of the ashram, which operates as a nonprofit foundation.

Of all Ma's admirers, former Orange County Elections Supervisor Betty Carter is surely the most unlikely. The one thing that distinguished Carter through 35 years in Central Florida politics was her flinty directness, hewn from a Southern Baptist upbringing and rural North Carolina roots.

Eight years ago, Carter was skeptical when her son, Scott, began raving about his new spiritual adviser. He wanted his mother to meet her.

That was how Carter found herself face-to-face with a Hindu guru.

"It changed me, talking to her," Carter says. "I don't know how to explain it. I feel calmer now, more kindly disposed. I mean, I've met the president, and honey, I don't impress easy. This woman - she doesn't care what you think of her. She is just totally involved in other people. I don't know how else to say it. She is a holy woman. "

Her son, owner of Carter Wolf Interiors in Winter Park, agrees. When Carter met Ma years ago, he had been searching for spiritual direction for years. It was a search that intensified when he discovered he was HIV-positive - as was his friend and business partner, Dana Wolf. Both men had given up on traditional religions, many of which still consider homosexuality a disease or a sin. "I had been taught - society had taught me - that because I was gay, I was dirty, I was sick," said Scott Carter. "Ma put her arms around me and told me: `You are perfect just the way you are.'"

Rosemary Henry doesn't call Ma a holy woman. She can't even bring herself to call her "Ma" anymore. She insists on referring to her by her given name: Joyce.

Henry and her husband lived at the ashram in the early '80s. She says they were so enthralled with Ma that they were willing to give her anything.

Henry says that when she became pregnant, Ma made an arrangement with her. Ma would raise the child as her own, at the ashram, perhaps to some day become Ma's successor. Henry says, Ma persuaded her to falsify the birth certificate so it looked like Ma was the biological mother.

Why would any mother agree to such an arrangement? "All I can tell you is, it seemed a great honor," says Henry. "You have to understand, Joyce was God as far as I was concerned, and I was nothing. I honestly thought my daughter was better off with her. Think of it this way. Let's say you are a Catholic. And the Blessed Virgin Mary asks you to give her your child. That's what it was like." Eventually, Henry and her husband left the ashram.

They left their child behind. Henry says a barrage of criticism from Ma - that she was irresponsible, childish, that she did not work hard enough - convinced her that she was unworthy of remaining there.

Ma denies all this, saying that Henry simply abandoned the child. After she left the ashram, Henry embarked on a healing process. She studied psychology at the University Of Colorado and became a family therapist and a member of the Cult Awareness Network.

She says her research convinced her that Ma is a narcissistic sociopath - adept at reading people, at telling them intimate things about themselves, but only so she can manipulate them for her benefit. After five years of not seeing her daughter, Henry sued, seeking custody of the child. She engaged an expert witness, retired psychiatrist Hardat Sukhdeo, who wrote in court papers of Ma: "Her manipulative behavior very closely resembles Jim Jones."

The ashram first mounted a defense, then backed down, and in 1987 the child was returned to her biological mother.

The early '80s were clearly a tempestuous time at the ashram. Several former residents, who asked not to be identified because they still have friends and family there, refer to that era as "the rampage years" because of Ma's behavior. They say she made everyone fashion fur-lined boxes and make patterns with tapestry nails on the wall - for what purpose no one is sure - and sometimes told them to strike each other "to work out karma."

It was in September of 1982 that Ma was arrested and charged with battery. She and several ashram members were shopping at an Albertson's on U.S. Highway 1 in Stuart when a manager says he saw them opening boxes of appliances around midnight. When he asked them to stop, Ma punched him, knocked him into a store display and scratched employees who came to his assistance.

Ma's defense was that the store manager had made sexual advances. Three months later, a jury found Ma guilty of battery. She received probation.

Over the years, several outside experts have come to the ashram to check out its health as a spiritual community. J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif., was hired by the ashram in the early '90s to conduct two studies. He and his team concluded that Kashi had strong leadership other than Ma and that it wasn't a cult. Melton says his biggest criticism of the ashram was that Ma "loved the kids on the ashram almost to excess - so much so that she, at times, appeared to usurp parental prerogatives."

Ma's most recent critic is Sal Conti, a jeweler and sculptor who was a young, idealistic artist when he saw Ma speak 22 years ago in San Francisco. He soon moved to the ashram and felt he was part of a community that was making a difference. Then, 41/2 years ago, Conti got a chance that many people on the ashram only dreamed about: the opportunity to work closely with Ma.

Knowing of his experience in the art world, she asked him to help her in a sideline career. She wanted him to help market the religiously inspired canvases and plates she would create and sell. Soon his new vantage point as part of her inner circle gave him a perspective he hadn't had before.

Conti says she traveled a great deal, particularly during the summer. And she didn't always wind up where she said she was going. Two years running, he says, when she said she was working with the poor in Utah, she was staying at an expensive villa in Aspen, recovering from face lifts.

Other times, says Conti, when she was supposed to be meditating on a retreat, she was visiting casinos. He says she frequently called the ashram, asking followers to send money.

Three years ago, Conti said he, Ma and several followers were in New Orleans to make a connecting flight when Ma decided to stay over for a night to visit a riverboat casino, the River Queen.

That night, he says he watched her lose $25,000 to $30,000 in the slot machines. Some of the money, he says, had been collected from Ma's students for ashram expenses. He says that even though the ashram is always financially strapped, she demanded, and is paid, $100,000 a year in salary.

Three former ashram members, including a high-ranking member of Ma's entourage, support many of the things Conti says. All refused to be quoted because they have family members and friends still at the ashram.

Conti now lives in Long Island and is trying to re-establish himself as a jeweler. He looks back with bitterness on two decades of convincing himself that Ma was just a step below divinity. He says it is an open secret among a handful of top advisers that Ma likes to gamble, perhaps to excess. But they rationalize by saying that, as a guru, she lives by a set of rules they don't understand. He says one adviser told him that perhaps the money flowing through her hands was good karma, and would bring prosperity to the ashram. Other followers, like Scott Carter, say they have heard about the gambling and simply don't care, that Ma's good works are much more important.

Ma rarely gives interviews, and when she does, it is often in a formal setting: surrounded by a group of followers sitting in the lotus position.

She agreed to answer questions while traveling in her van, between visits to the Palm Beach home and several other health-care facilities.

But as soon as controversial subjects were introduced, one of her followers tried to intervene.

"Ask her about her work with the dying," said Yashoda, a follower who has been with Ma since her New York days. "Ask us about those other things."

Ma waved her away. She insisted that she did not gamble away ashram money, as Conti charges. "If I had $30,000, I'd give it to the poor,"she said.

She also denied having surgery. "Just a face peel," she said, adding that she paid for it herself. Asked what her salary is, she replied: "None of your business."

She refused, as she has throughout the years, to comment on Ram Dass's old accusations, reiterating something she has often said: "I love Ram Dass, no matter what he says about me."

She said those who criticize her are angry because they wanted more attention than she was willing to give them. "People who want a personal goddess need to look somewhere else," she said. As the van pulled up at the next stop - a home for babies with AIDS - she tried to be magnanimous about her accusers. "I will pray for the people who say these terrible things about me," she said.

But she couldn't let it go at that. "And I'll tell you something," she said, jabbing a finger as if toward some invisible opponent, speaking in the same defiant tone she'd used when she was challenged by the young man in the rest home. "They always come back. The first time something happens - somebody dies, they need help - they'll come back to Ma."

There is a room in one of the lakeside houses of Kashi ashram that blends the architecture of a ski chalet with the decorating scheme of a Hindu temple.

The ceiling is high and sharply angled. The pine-paneled walls are filled with pictures of famous East Indian gurus. In an alcove is a statue of Kali, the Hindu goddess with whom Ma is closely associated, surely one of the most garish and exotic of all religious icons. Her skin is blackened from absorbing the pain of the world. She wears a garland of severed heads - representing her ability to release people from their selfishness.

Across from Kali, in an elevated area piled high with pillows, is the place where Ma sits when she meets with her followers. On a recent Friday evening, the students who began appearing in the room were purposeful, eager for the most fleeting moment of Ma's attention. One of them asked a visitor to move from a spot on the floor so that he and his wife could sit in their accustomed place, explaining:"I want to make sure Ma can look out and see us here."

A few moments later, a small girl appeared to lead a visitor into a small room where Ma receives special guests. The door was closed. The girl knocked. And amid the exotic formality, a distinctive voice called out: "YEAH? WHAT? C'MON IN!"

Inside, dressed in a multicolored sari, surrounded by favored students sitting in the lotus position, Ma was ensconced on an ornately-carved wood chair. She had just a moment before going in to speak to her other students. She said she didn't want to talk about visions of God and gurus. Nor would she answer questions about gambling or face lifts. She would only speak briefly about what, to her, are the real roots of her spiritual inspiration.

"I've been like this since I was 6," she said. "I have never really changed since then. I always knew I wanted to serve people. And that is what I will do as long as I have breath."

Soon afterward, Ma Jaya Sati Bhavagaviti swept out of the room to meet her followers. They were chanting Hindu hymns. Coney Island was the furthest thing from their minds.

Brighton Beach. The boardwalk. The amusement park. Outside a bright, noisy blur, inside a place so sparsely furnished that her family found themselves using orange crates for tables.

Coney Island was across the street from the basement apartment where she grew up. Her family had to get by on the salary of her mother, a legal secretary, because her father could never quite hold a job. He was a street vendor, a sometimes entertainer. But mostly he liked to gamble. With her mother so overworked and her father such a rover, what she remembers most about her childhood, as she has shared in writings and interviews over the years, is this: There never was one moment when she did not feel she was on her own.

She would sneak out of the apartment late at night to walk the boardwalk and visit the homeless people who lived beneath it. They gave her Camel cigarettes - even at the age of 7 she was taking long, deep drags - and they worried about a girl her age being out on her own. They talked to her, fed her when they could. They had street names - Chews, Chicky, Big Henry. They taught her how to size up strangers, how to protect herself. On the street, they said, you've got nobody to count on but yourself. Sometimes, she likes to tell her students, they seemed like they were more her family than her own.

When she was 13, her mother died of cancer. She remembers standing at her deathbed, in an open, crowded ward. Her mother propped herself up as best she could, and commanded: "Don't ever feel sorry for yourself. Don't ever say: `Why me? Look at all these people. Go entertain them. Sing for them. Visit with them. Don't mope around feeling sorry for yourself.'" That hospital room, and her mother's death, were the ending of Joyce Green's childhood. Soon afterward, she met Sal Fiore, marrying him at age 15.

Her childhood and its echoes say more about Ma Bhagavati than any Hindu myth. You can pick out the recurring themes: street smarts, gambling, deathbed scenes, a boardwalk of lost souls, a life of self- reliance and independence, answering to no one.

Or you can abide by what Ma considers the moral of the story: worry more about the cares of other people than your own. Befriend, in particular, those whom society would rather forget. "That is who I am," she says. "That is why I am here on Earth. To serve."

She could have left it at that. But of course, being Ma Bhagavati, the goddess from Brooklyn, she had to add: "And you can take it or leave it."

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