Ashram shares reputation as cult, sanctuary

Former members tell tales of control

Florida Today/March 23, 2002

By Billy Cox

In itemizing humanity's efforts to comprehend divinity, World Christian Encyclopedia editor David Barrett reported recently that 9,900 "separate and distinct religions" have been identified in 238 countries.

Faced with the emergence of as many as two to three new movements each day, sociologists anticipate an explosive proliferation in the 21st century, primarily from sects mutating away from the major religions.

If history foreshadows the future, some of those new religious movements will inevitably clash with mainstream institutions, secular and theological. And just as inevitably, many of these movements will be branded as cults, capable of brainwashing adherents into destructive behavior.

Already, a group that monitors new religious movements called the American Family Foundation estimates 5-10 million Americans have been "transiently involved with cults," and that 1,000 sects in the United States alone meet some ominous criteria for cultic behaviors, which usually include:

  • Excessively zealous members with an uncritical commitment to an idea, leadership or group identity.
  • Manipulation of members through deceit to create dependencies.
  • Posing a danger to harm members, their families and/or society.

But followers of new movements resent such labeling, and often claim mainstream religions are guilty of the same practices they ascribe to cults.

Kashi Ashram, a religious group based in north Indian River County, offers a glimpse into the complexities of this debate.

Founded 25 years ago near Sebastian by a Jewish woman whose visions of Christ preceded her immersion into Hinduism, Kashi Ashram is the handiwork of 61-year-old Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati. Supporting an on-site school, shrines to major religious deities, and facilities for communal living, Kashi draws members interested in promoting interfaith unity.

But some accuse Kashi of sinister tendencies.

Jean and Michele Rousseau, for instance, once believed in Bhagavati's teachings so thoroughly, they gave her their teen-age son Paul to raise. But when they grew disillusioned and left the ashram, they resorted to a court order to extract their son, who refused to come with them.

Custody Fight

Shortly thereafter, in 1982, the Rousseaus appealed to Dr. Hardat Sukhdeo of the New Jersey Medical School for an evaluation to help them regain legal custody. Sukhdeo, a psychiatrist who worked with survivors of the 1978 mass-suicide in Guyana, told the court Bhagavati "and her manipulative behavior very closely resembles Jim Jones and his behavior toward the people in his church."

The judge reunited Rousseau with his parents, but did not deal with the issue of whether Kashi was a cult. In fact, there is no legal definition for what constitutes a cult, or brainwashing, in America. That question was at the center of some pre-trial preparation for divorce proceedings, also involving Kashi, which was settled out of court Thursday.

In that case, Richard Rosenkranz, 60, former public relations spokesman for Kashi, claimed Bhagavati manipulated him into a sham marriage. Rosenkranz had split up with his wife, Gina, who is a monk at the ashram, in 1999.

Although a court showdown was averted when Rosenkranz agreed on an alimony settlement, he also had lined up witnesses to testify about misuse of nonprofit funds, and intimidation through beatings ordered by Bhagavati.

As a countermove, Gina Rosenkranz' attorney, Russell Petersen of Vero Beach, planned to use a landmark ruling known as U.S. vs. Fishman.

Stephen Fishman was a former member of the Church of Scientology facing federal indictment on mail fraud charges. In 1990, Fishman told the U.S District Court of Northern California his crimes were the result of cult brainwashing, but the court stated "theories regarding the coercive persuasion practiced by religious cults are not sufficiently established to be admitted as evidence."


That opinion generated repercussions that continue to reverberate.

The Cult Awareness Network -- which offered deprogramming services to the victims of religious groups -- was convicted of violating the civil rights of a member of the United Pentecostal Church. That verdict bankrupted CAN, which then was purchased by a number of institutions it had criticized, including the Church of Scientology.

Filling CAN's vacuum today is the American Family Foundation, a small, 21-year-old nonprofit network that lacks the former's media visibility. Its cult recovery specialist is Rosanne Henry, who resorted to a court order and law enforcement agents to remove her daughter from Kashi Ashram in 1989.

Unlike CAN, AFF executive director Dr. Michael Langone, says his group doesn't keep cult watch lists. Langone, who also is editor of the Cultic Studies Journal, warns that brainwashing is real and dangerous.

"Fishman was the first case in which defenders prevented testimony from being heard," says Langone from his office in Bonita Springs. "Proponents wave it around like it's a Supreme Court ruling, which it's not. Expert opinions and testimony have been accepted and prevailed in other cases since Fishman."

Petersen planned to call religious scholar Dr. Gordon Melton as an expert witness for Gina Rosenkranz. Melton runs the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif., and is the author of books such as The Cult Experience, Why Cults Succeed Where the Church Fails and The Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults.

Suspect Tactics

Melton, who favorably profiled Kashi Ashram in a 1990 study, says brainwashing is a suspect legal tactic. "I know Richard, and I like him personally," Melton says. "He's made some serious accusations that the leadership may have to confront.

"But thinking of Richard Rosenkranz as brainwashed is ridiculous. There are some mousy people out there who don't mind having their lives run by someone else, but that's not Richard."

Rosenkranz says analysts such as Dr. Paul Martin can prove it.

Martin, a psychologist, runs a halfway house for recovering cult members called Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center in Albany, Ohio. After interviewing some 25 disaffected Kashi followers, Martin says many voiced fears of retribution. Violence, illegal drug use, and brainwashing at the ashram are among the allegations he's been hearing.

"One of the great myths about cults and thought reform is that they're always heavy-handed and repressive," Martin says. "The reality is, you don't need compounds, you don't need guards. People don't necessarily stick with it because they've been forcibly coerced; the group is fulfilling some deep psychological need. And I'm convinced this is a group that exercises an excessive degree of influence over people through social control and social boundaries."

Cult Calling

The ascension of cults in America can be traced to the early 1970s, Melton says. That's when evangelical Christians employed the term to slam the westward migration of counter-cultural new religions steeped in Eastern philosophies.

Whether propelled by charismatic leaders such as the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and Guru Maharaj Ji, or dispersed through legions of avid recruiters such as the Hare Krishnas, the phenomenon competed for headlines during the 1976 brainwashing trial of Patty Hearst. The worst fears of mindless obedience to a charismatic leader manifested in 1978, with Jonestown's 900 murder-suicides.

"The fact is, we don't really have the analytical tools to label a cult until, tragically, after something terrible happens, like Jonestown," insists Dr. Nathan Katz, chairman of the Religious Studies at Florida International University in Fort Lauderdale.

"But when you're dealing with something as psychologically potent as overcoming the limits of ego -- which most religions try to do -- then you're potentially open to abuse. And that certainly doesn't exempt the major religions."

Does Kashi Qualify as a Cult?

Rick Ross of Jersey City, N.J., is an intervention specialist qualified as an expert cult witness in six states. It was his deprogramming of United Pentecostal Church member Jason Scott that led to Scientology's acquisition of CAN, although Ross is quick to point out "they've never been able to stop me from doing my work."

Ross has followed Kashi's controversies, and says Bhagavati's status as an omniscient guru "has problems."

"When you're dealing with an all-powerful leader, the real issue is accountability. Who does she answer to?" Ross asks. "When you claim to have had a divine revelation, who's to question what you say? When you're able to dictate the sex lives of your members, even married couples, that's absolute authority."

Kashi members practice meditation, vegetarianism and celibacy, even in marriage, unless the goal is strictly procreation. Gordon Melton says he doesn't pretend to understand all of Kashi's customs. But he says joining or leaving a religious community mirrors marriage.

"When you say 'I do,' you make a whole host of choices, many of which you weren't aware of at the time. Ten years later, you may say, 'I really didn't choose to do that.' Where it really gets complicated is when you throw children into the mix. The group is part of the child's extended family, and when the parents begin having problems, you're looking at a new set of complex issues."

Still, FIU's Katz, who's been visiting the ashram since 1999, says he's impressed by Kashi's "open doors." Labeling Bhagavati's ashram a cult amounts to "theological name-calling."

'Ma is a guru'

"Ma is a guru, and there's a very special, intimate relationship between a teacher and disciples, which is very difficult for outsiders to appreciate. Taking vows of obedience is something we accept in Orthodox Judaism and Christian monasteries, and it doesn't draw the same scrutiny."

Scrutiny rarely occurs unless things go wrong. But cults that turn deadly are hardly unique to America. Witness Japan's Aum Shinrikyo, whose followers attacked Tokyo's subway system with lethal nerve gas in 1995, or the Order of the Solar Temple, where suicide murders left 74 bodies strewn across France, Canada and Switzerland from 1991-97.

Brevard Community College professor of world religions Dr. Lin Osborne says America remains a boilerplate for alternative religions "because this is such a godless society. We're brainwashed by our own culture. We don't allow God in our institutions, so we're all in danger of being duped by our own ignorance."

Osborne says the term cult is often facile and expedient.

"A cult is simply an exclusive group. Most religions are cultic," he says. "Catholics don't worship with Protestants, Baptists don't even worship with other Baptists. Any community is better than playing solitaire, particularly if it's a community that thinks like we do. But let's not call it a religious group, because it is by nature exclusive."

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