Kashis: Real or Imagined Threats?

The Miami Herald/March 12, 1989
By Joe Crankshaw

Roseland -- Behind the heavy hedges, behind the large STOP signs that bar the entrance, behind the clean-cut faces of the earnest people who call themselves Kashis . . . is Ma.

Mother, teacher, spiritual leader and guide, the reclusive Kashi leader is described by her followers as a compelling presence who directs through her religious teachings and her efforts to get people to give up a worldly life style.

"She has no interest in anything but religion," says Richard Evans, a 45-year-old lawyer who explains he gave up a lucrative practice in California to join the Kashis and find fulfillment.

"We feel that any path to God is worthy of respect. There is something we can learn from every path."

The 48-year-old woman who calls herself Jaya Sati Bhagavati Ma has followed a remarkable path.

In the 1960s, she was known as Joyce Green DiFury, a Jewish housewife who shed her husband and three children in Brooklyn to adopt a new name and proclaim a new religion -- Kashi, an Indian word for light. Her followers describe her philosophy as an ecumenical mix of Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism.

In infrequent interviews, she's said that she learned her first yoga exercises at a weight loss school. She found she could go into trances and see visions of Christ and her deceased Indian guru mentor, who told her to pursue a religious life.

Her following grew in 1967, when she was befriended by Baba Ram Dass, one of the first American-born gurus of the New Age religion. Dass previously was known as Richard Alpert, a Harvard faculty member who was dismissed earlier in the decade along with Timothy Leary.

Dass took Ma on cross-country tours. He called her "the only enlightened individual in the Western Hemisphere." He told audiences that Ma displayed the stigmata, wounds similar to those of the crucified Christ. He said she vomited "quarts of blood" because she was so holy and enlightened.

But in September 1975, the two parted ways. Dass recanted his statements and lost much of his following. Ma closed several houses established for her devotees in Boulder, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, then moved to Miami. In 1976, her group purchased property in Indian River County.

Since then, the group has grown to about 110 adults and 40 children, living together as a community on their ranch. The children are taught in Kashi schools. Adults find jobs on the outside and pay into a community fund for their room and board. Everyone takes a Hindu name.

Group spokesmen describe a utopian life style, where members join in communal worship, offer their skills in public service and pursue individual employment. Members include teachers, nurses, real estate sales people, bankers and librarians. Other members run small businesses from the ranch, including a carpet cleaning service and masseur.

"Everyone works at something," Evans says. Members boast of academic credentials from several major universities, including Oxford, Harvard, Yale, Columbia and schools in France, Australia and Italy.

While critics of the group are few, some former members have left disillusioned. They will talk about their experience only on condition their names not be published. They say they fear retaliation and harassment.

But private monitoring groups, including the Cult Awareness Network in Chicago and the Berkley-based Spiritual Counterfeits Group, report they lack enough information on the Kashis to label them in any way.

Former members and people with relatives living with the Kashis suggest life in the group is not inexpensive. Monthly rents run $350-$600. Other area rentals run from $350-$450, according to Sebastian Realtor Dick Lambert.

Food costs $200 a month. Then there are additional fees: mandatory, monthly medical exams for $75, and tae kwon do lessons from Ma's second husband, Master Cho, for $65 per lesson.

Members pay a share of the ranch costs, Evans acknowledges, and they help to pay off the more than $300,000 in mortgages coming due in 1990 and 1991. He declines to discuss details, but he denies that members are gouged or admitted only after their personal finances are approved.

Yet former members say that Ma personally handles such approvals. And to celebrate special occasions, members are expected to give her expensive gifts, such as perfume. Her entourage also pays her expenses when she decides to travel -- Sanibel is a favorite destination.

Occasionally, Ma summons members for devotions in the middle of the night. She is carried by six women into a room on a platform.

"She is very humorous and a good speaker," said one woman who lived at Kashi Ranch for nearly five years before she left to marry a man of her own choosing. "But she often gave lessons and entertainment starting at 10 or 11 p.m. and continuing for the next eight hours and you couldn't just leave because you were sleepy."

"She traps people psychologically," the woman says. "If you complain because she wears jewels and furs, she says she is just a reflection of you and you are enjoying those things with her. But she says you must learn to avoid that enjoyment and lose your ego because it keeps you from God. She says you have to lose your karma. She says she has no karma and thus is next to God and she can lie, cheat and steal because she is liberated."

Kashi spokesmen dispute such views.

"This is a hard life style," Evans says. "Being vegetarian and celibate, except to have children, is not something that just anyone can or will do. People who can't do it are naturally going to blame us. They aren't going to say 'I was too weak to follow the discipline.' They are going to take it out on us."

Though no complaints have been filed with authorities by former members, Ma was convicted of assault charges stemming from a bizarre incident at a Stuart supermarket in 1982. According to police reports, Ma and a companion were loading shopping carts with goods when they were asked to either pay for them or leave.

Witnesses said Ma hit a bag boy and an assistant manager. Stuart police arrested Ma, reporting that she struggled with them and used vulgar language. Their reports took particular note of her many tattoos, including "skulls around ankles, pitchforks on hands and shoulders."

In court before County Judge Mark Cianca, Ma argued that she was vulgarly propositioned by the store manager and had defended her honor. She was found guilty.

In seeking a light sentence, Ma's attorneys submitted a medical report stating that she suffered from a severe peptic ulcer, a pituitary tumor, epilepsy, infections and was generally in delicate health.

She was given a 3 1/2-year suspended sentence, required to pay $200 to the Tri-County Rehabilitation Center and ordered never again to shop in a Martin County store.

In their defense of Ma, her followers say she once taught Jesuit priests at "Mount Manressa Seminary" in New York.

"That is not true," said the Rev. Joe Park, assistant to the provincial for the Jesuit order in the United States. "There are no female Jesuits and no women have ever taught at Mount Manressa, which is a retreat house, not a seminary."

Another priest, the Rev. Emmett Norton, said that Ma once rented a lounge at Mount Manressa for evening classes for people other than priests.

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