Sebastian -- A quarter century removed from New York City and the urban street accent has never left. The human lightning rod known as Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati seeks eye contact, then levels an unblinking gaze at her guest. She makes it known she grants few interviews.
"I'm here now," she explains, "because I have a broken heart."
Dressed in black, accompanied by three devotees, and wearing what she calls a "10-year-old suit from Burlingtons," Bhagavati has taken a seat in a small ashram office on a rainy afternoon. The faces are solemn; the accusations of corruption are serious.
Bhagavati is described as outlandish and profane, even among her disciples, but the tenor of today's hour-long interview is funereal. There will be no outbursts of the famous screech that registers surprise or delight, no racy asides in confidence.
Still, the woman whose self-styled mission is to assault human ego by serving God and humanity makes no effort to conceal the contradictions. Among her ornate rings and jewelry, a portrait of her spiritual guide, Neem Karoli Baba, is mounted into a medallion and rests next to a gold pendant that reads "Brooklyn."
There is method to the probing eyes.
In 1977, she acquired the power of Kali, the Hindu goddess whose campaign to ingest the malevolence of the world turned the mythic avatar's skin black and manifested a necklace of human skulls.
"I was taught to consume," she told Yoga Journal in 1996. "When I look into people's eyes, I'm literally eating what they do not need . . . as Mother Kali does."
Her appetites have sketched a compelling persona for more than 20 years. She is an apostle of non-violence convicted of battery during a 1982 grocery-store altercation in Stuart, and a Taekwondo blackbelt who presses her hugs into the arms of the dying. The News India-Times calls Bhagavati "a forerunner in the global struggle for human rights." To Harvard religious scholar Diana Eck, Kashi's leader is "a spiritual genius."
But Kashi Ashram began getting hit with the "cult" label in the late 1980s by the likes of People magazine, The Miami Herald and The Palm Beach Post. And always, rising to Bhagavati's defense, came Richard Rosenkranz, her unflinching public-relations spokesman. His letters to critics now resonate with irony, like the 1992 rebuttal to The Post: "(The reporter) relied on dubious sources: the 'cult' expert who had never met Ma, eight ex-church members who hadn't seen Ma in 10 years, who lashed out with wild charges often used after divorces."
And now, Rosenkranz is attacking her on account of his own divorce from a Kashi monk, Bhagavati said. This is transparent opportunism, she declares, which she will address in a moment.
But first, she reaches for a photo album and leafs through the chronicles of life and death, the "miraculous" recovery of a young woman "pronounced dead" by medical science, and the final hours of a baby dying from AIDS. She talks of three Kashi missionaries running a Uganda orphanage with 267 youngsters; of bringing water to a South African township "where children were drinking from puddles."
She turns through another album, a gallery of hugs and faces, many of them young, some smiling, others cadaverous from consumption. "If only I could be one-eighth as strong as my students," she laments.
There are famous faces as well, from fundraisers and public events, Tommy Lee Jones, Ivana Trump, Arlo Guthrie, the Dali Lama. The pages form a bridge of celebrity and anonymity, glitter and consumption, the anthology of opposites compressed into a mosaic of celluloid.
She closes the album.
"This is life every day here! This is our life!" She folds her hands and leans back into her chair. The red AIDS ribbon on her chest complements the flower blossoms inked onto her hands and wrists. "Anything that stops this work is not good."
Her body language is calm. Her eyes appear sad and wounded.
"This man (Rosenkranz) was my greatest advocate for more than 25 years," she said. "It borders on the ridiculous, the lengths people go to when they get a big inheritance."
Roskenkranz's mother, Zelda, left behind an estate worth approximately $1.5 million when she passed away in 1997, her son said. Richard Rosenkranz said his mother's legacy has no impact on the divorce. He concedes she was a friend of the ashram, but contends she didn't trust Bhagavati around money.
Bhagavati counters Zelda Rosenkranz spent her final months seeking comfort from the ashram. "Her greatest wish was to die in Ma's arms," she said. "Zelda did nothing but love us."
Bhagavati has little patience for addressing allegations against Kashi. She dispatches each with weariness and indignation.
· On violence at the ashram: "I've had the school here for 22 years, and never has there been one word of anyone ever being hit." · On lust for money: "I don't take money. I do not and never will."
· On her alleged divinity: "I'm divine. You're divine. She's divine. Divinity comes from the heart and the soul. I say in darshan (religious teaching) every night that I am the same as you. I am in deep bliss. And I am deeply blessed."
She refuses to comment on detractors from the past. She said her only concern is the future.
She scans a Kashi Church Foundation flow chart, nudged over to her by public relations director Sita Ganga. Its International Interfaith Network has branches stretching from Africa to England, from dialogues at the United Nations to the distribution of medicine in Cuba and Antigua.
"I'm in awe of the thousands of people we've touched," Bhagavati said. "I'm very proud of this little paradise. I love my students. I'm here 25 years and I'm not going anywhere. And I've never once looked back."
Kashi Church Foundation executive director Krishnapriya Hutner checks her watch. There are others lingering outside the doorway, appointments to keep.
Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati rises and makes for the exit. There is only one part of the ritual left to complete. She turns to her guest one final time, extends her arms, and issues a command:
"Give Ma a hug."