Ma Jaya Bhagavati, spiritual leader of Kashi, dead at 71

TC, Florida/April 14, 2012

Indian River County -- Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati [aka Joyce Green Difiore Cho], whose ecumenical blend of Eastern and Western spiritual beliefs built Kashi communities throughout the U.S. and cared for the sick and elderly, died Friday night at the ashram she built on the banks of the St. Sebastian River in Roseland. She was 71.

Saturday, hundreds of followers sang devotional chants in Hindi as they watched her body being wheeled down a brick path strewed with red and white rose petals and into a white van. They followed the hearse to the gates, then raised their voices in one last invocation, for the love of all people.

Ma, as she was respectfully called by followers, was diagnosed Jan. 13 with pancreatic cancer and had been in declining health. Anjani Cirillo, Kashi Ashram's director of community relations, said she died in her rooms about 10:15 p.m., surrounded by family.

Moments later, an unseasonable thunderstorm arrived over the area.

"She took her last breath and then the thunderstorm happened," Cirillo said. "I always figure that Mother Nature has a few things to say."

There will be no public viewing of the body before cremation, Cirillo said. A memorial service is being planned for May 26, Ma's birthday.

"She was a guru to some, a mother and teacher to many," Cirillo said.

To the outside world, Ma, a former Brooklyn, N.Y. yoga instructor, and her unorthodox religion, was the subject of skepticism. Detractors, who sometimes were former Kashi adherents, claimed she exerted cult like control over people at the ashram.

Such accusations included parents who claimed, in separate 1989 and 2001 court filings, that Ma had manipulated them into giving her custody of their children. The most notable example was when former Kaski spokesman Richard Rosenkranz quit the group in 2000, then deposed Ma the following year in a divorce proceeding against his then-wife.

None of this was evident Saturday, as a flood of adherents from the U.S. and Canada came to Roseland to pay their respects.

Radhe Schiff, who grew up on Kashi Ranch, stood by the path as Ma's body, dressed in red and under a red and yellow blanket covered with more rose petals, went past.

"It's very sad," Schiff said. "But it's also a celebration of a woman who touched, and will continue to touch, many people's lives."

Ma founded The River School in 1979. The private preparatory school expanded to pre-kindergarten through grade 12 before graduating its last class in 2003.

Kashi and Ma also became involved with caring for people afflicted with AIDS. The River Fund was established in 1990 to coordinate and fund humanitarian activities that included quarterly trips by Ma to visit AIDS wards in hospitals across America.

Kashi has recently branched out to provide affordable senior housing at a facility called By the River.

Sal Neglia, a former Sebastian city councilman, paid his respects to a fellow New York native.

"She was a down-to-earth person," Neglia said. "She still had that Brooklyn accent, especially when she talked fast."

Kashi resident Mark Evans said he first met Ma 30 years ago in California, them moved to the Roseland ashram with his father, attorney John Evans.

"Ma was like the sun about which our planets revolved," Mark Evans said. "She insisted on knowing everyone, not just being off in a gilded high place. She approached you."

According to an official history, Kashi began with Ma's spiritual awakening in 1973, after which she began teaching yoga and meditation to small groups in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Some of her students began living in communal houses and these ashrams took root in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco and Boulder, Colo.

Property was bought in Roseland 1976 and the new ashram was named for an ancient Hindu city where people came to seek liberation at the time of death.

Cirillo said Ma helped people believe in their own relationship with God.

"She had always said, 'There are no throwaway people,'" Cirillo added.

Arrangements are under the direction of Strunk Funeral Home & Crematory.

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