In 1977 Deborah and John (these are pseudonyms) traveled at the suggestion of their marital therapists to a 47-acre ranch in Roseland, Fla., near Palm Beach, run by an obscure religious group. Soon after their arrival, the couple found themselves in the thrall of Ma Jaya Bhagavati Cho (known simply as Ma) and her Kashi Church. Ma, explains Deborah, is "brilliant. She can know your innermost secrets, and people see this gift and think she must be divine."
In reality, Ma is Joyce Green Difiore Cho, a 52-year-old former Jewish housewife from Brooklyn who says that in 1973, while meditating as part of a weight-loss program, she had visitations from Christ, whose word she began spreading, and later, visions of Hindu leader Neem Karoli Baba, who is still her guru today. Daily life on her ashram, says Ma's spokesman, John Evans, emphasizes service to the community, and Ma does, in fact, spend a great deal of time visiting local nursing homes and AIDS patients. Deborah, however, insists that many ashram activities are aimed at "stopping your mind" and consuming all free time. Among them, she says, are early morning meditations, all-night meetings and long hours of work on or off the ranch. Members are not allowed to have sexual relations except for purposes of procreation.
According to Deborah, Ma also allegedly persuaded her and others to give their children to Ma to raise. In 1981, when John and Deborah had a baby, Deborah says Ma induced her to forge Ma's name on the birth certificate -- a charge Ma has denied. Then, says Deborah, she was permitted only limited contact with her daughter. John and Deborah left the ashram in 1982 and returned home to Colorado, leaving their daughter behind. "My daughter was to succeed Joyce," explains Deborah. "I believed it, as ridiculous as it sounds." With the help of a court order and a SWAT team, they retrieved the child in 1989; she is now in sixth grade in Colorado.
Ma has a few hundred followers, some 150 of whom live at the ashram. Folksinger Arlo Guthrie, who keeps a room there, has been a member for seven years. Two of his four children attend the ashram school. Says Guthrie: "I love Ma. She has never asked me for money for herself -- only to help other people. She serves God by serving man." Deborah, of course, disagrees. And she worries about the children who have grown up on the ashram. "They haven't seen much of the outside world," she says. "They think she's God. That horrifies me."