"Article was compelling but didn't go far enough"

Florida Today/March 23, 2002
Guest Column by Richard Rosenkranz

On February 3rd, Florida Today published stories on the Ma Jaya Neem Karoli Baba Kashi Ashram in Sebastian, Florida and on its founder and leader, Ma Jaya Bhagavati. It was a valiant effort, but flawed.

I applaud the reporter, Billy Cox, and his editors for tackling such a difficult and controversial subject - the Kashi cult - and devoting so much time and space to it. But I feel there were too many areas in which the article didn't go far enough, and more important for me wasn't courageous enough.

In being interviewed for the story, I offered lots of compelling evidence that Kashi definitely is a cult and that Ma Jaya is a cult leader.

It really hasn't been a question for quite some time whether Kashi Ashram is a cult, even for many of us living there. The community certainly fits a basic cult definition: a group led by a charismatic leader who controls most important decisions in the community, and who manipulates behavior of the cult residents to a major degree.

According to that definition, it's easy to define Kashi as a cult; for the more than 20 years I lived there, Ma had to be consulted on every major and minor decision - from whether married couples could have a child, to whether people there, especially children, had her permission even to get a haircut.

The only real question was whether Kashi is a benign cult, which doesn't really injure its members, or a destructive cult, meaning the members are hurt by the way the leader takes control over their lives.

The cult questions were partly what I hoped the stories would explore. Cox told me he wanted to do a balanced piece. On one side he would present views of ex-Kashi members like me who felt passionately there are dark abuses there to expose. On the other side, Ma Jaya and spokespeople for Kashi would have their say.

Unfortunately, I felt the facts didn't argue for such an even-handed approach. I'll certainly agree I have a bias on the subject of Ma Jaya and Kashi. For more than a year, I've been engaged in a battle with Ma and the cult involving the courts, the police and the media.

As the article touched on, I started out just seeking a divorce from my wife, Ma's highest ranking female monk, while also wanting to finally cut any lingering connection to Kashi.

As time passed however, ex-Kashi members started telling me things I never knew about while living at Kashi. They said there were child abuses, secret rites of black magic, beatings of adults and other abuses. After I investigated and found these reports were true, I felt I had to expose the abuses, especially since one of the most abused children was my son who had been raised by Ma.

But as I started speaking out publicly, suddenly there was a rash of incidents of harassment and intimidation and threats of physical violence. I became concerned about my physical safety, and gave police reports to Billy Cox, thinking this was definitely relevant to his story.

But these incidents weren't mentioned.

So having lived at Kashi for over twenty years, even acting as their media spokesman, but still not knowing most of the dark stuff going on at the center until after I left. I was presented with the moral imperative - as a person and as a former journalist - of exposing terrible abuses in this community where my trust had been betrayed. And I looked to Florida Today, expecting their article would dig up some of the dirt, take a stand.

But it was a mixed result. Throughout the coverage, Ma's claims of experiencing stigmata, as well as her supposed conversations with Christ, with her long dead Guru Neem Karoli Baba, and with the black Hindu goddess Kali, complete with fangs and dripping blood - are presented as if they are factual accounts.

Moreover, I gave the paper sworn statements by two Antioch professors, Cheryl and Jim Keen with whom my son had lived for several months, when he was trying to escape from the cult, until he was blackmailed and intimidated into returning.

The Keen's confirmed what an ex-Kashi member Sal Conti had stated in a police report, that my son, Chun, had been severely beaten at Ma's orders when he was 13, tied with duct tape and beaten twice with stones in socks that left permanent scars on his face that he showed to the two professors and to students at Antioch.

In another example, false statements were published the cult's reputation, including claims that "three Kashi missionaries are running an orphanage in Uganda." Actually Kashi sent some money to some Christian missionaries in Uganda, but it wasn't Kashi's missionaries.

But what concerned me most were statements about my mother, Zelda Rosenkranz. My mother who died in 1997, at the age of 84, lived in Palm Beach and used to visit me periodically at the ashram. Cox quotes Ma saying my mother, Zelda, "spent her final months seeking comfort from the ashram."

Actually my mother did spend the last two months of her life near Kashi. But she was in a coma, and the only reason she was near Kashi at all was that I brought her up from a hospital in Palm Beach, after doctors there said there was nothing more to do.

Ma was quoted as saying, "Her greatest wish was to die in Ma's arms, " and on her cult Web site, she said my mother chose Ma as her guru. Both claims were ludicrous.

My mother was a devout Jew, who went to synagogue devotedly every year, while doing charity work for the Jewish home for the aged. Formerly a lawyer, teacher and writer, she was a cultured, sensitive woman and was very suspicious of Ma. She definitely loved aspects of Kashi Ashram and enjoyed reading to the children. But she really had nothing in common with and definitely didn't want a guru.

Coming full circle, I feel this subject cries out for a more forthright approach. I applaud the paper for raising questions about Ma Jaya and the Kashi cult, but I feel Florida Today should be using its journalistic lens to bring more of the darkness at Kashi into the light.

And if they feel as I do, that we have a viper in our local community, cleverly disguised as a common garden variety snake, then in future articles perhaps they will accept another mantle journalists often assume: the duty of responsible journalists to expose the viper rather being satisfied by saying to the reader, "isn't this interesting."

Richard Rosenkranz is the founder of the Interfaith Call for Religious Freedom and Human Rights, and president of the World Tibet Day Foundation. He is a former resident of the Kashi Ashram.

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