Profiles of some Kashi ashram members

Ma's ashram: A Press Journal special report 4, 2004
By Jayne Hustead

Roseland's Kashi Ashram has grown from a small band of God-seekers in Brooklyn, N.Y., to a multi-faceted religious, educational and service organization on the banks of the St. Sebastian River that claims to touch the lives of more than 300,000 people every year.

The Kashi people, many of whom have been at the ashram since its early beginnings, speak here about their lives, their work, their faith and their thankfulness for the lives Kashi's guru has given them the opportunity to lead.

Their stories of how they arrived at the river's shores often have similar undertones: A need for spiritual guidance and a fondness for communal living.

But their stories have another common thread, too: a desire to serve humanity while striving for greater purity of heart.

(In parentheses is the meaning of each person's spiritual name.)

Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, 63
(holy woman, victory, purity, embracer of humanity)*
Guru/Teacher/Spiritual Leader

When Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati [formerly Joyce Green Difiore Cho of Brooklyn] led her group of followers to Roseland in 1976 and began building the Kashi Ashram, a whole new world opened up for her and her students, she says.

On 7 1/2 acres, they began a new journey that has led them over the past 28 years to help AIDS victims and the hungry in Indian River County and other parts of the Treasure Coast through volunteerism, she says. "It was and is a magical journey into the wonderment of serving others."

As for the future, Kashi's matriarch sees it filled with ever-expanding service to others, not only here but across the country and around the world.

Many children who grew up on the ashram are at college or have recently graduated and are going out into the world, Ma Jaya says. "Some are entering into the corporate world, some in other professions. And every single child serves (others in some way)."

An adult living center also is on the drawing board for Kashi's now 80-acre property. There, "we can take care of people with many challenges ... (and) older people can be appreciated, as we all grow old," says Ma Jaya, whose birthday is cause for major celebration at Kashi every May 26.

About half of Kashi's 100 full-time adult members have been with Ma Jaya almost since the founding of the ashram - some from before. "Many of my students came in their teens and their 20s and those who I call my children have children who are having children," she says.

But she also predicts that more and more people will be coming to Kashi to learn how to serve. "Our students serve in the prison system. Our students are in clinics and schools ... Our students are all over the world serving. Not in my name, but in the name of their God - welcoming everybody's God and Goddess not only into this spiritual teaching, but into their hearts," she says.

Ma Jaya says she is grateful "this community of Indian River County has embraced us and entrusted us to grow and expand. They trust us enough to watch us make choices that would never inhibit the word service."

And her prayer, she says, "is that this value of serving others spreads as we continue to grow beneath the great blue sky of Sebastian."

Krishnapriya Hutner, 43
(Beloved of God)
Executive Director, Kashi Church Foundation Inc.

Philadelphia was home to a very young Krishnapriya, whose parents were searching for a life with more meaning. As the family evolved spiritually, they became vegetarian, then took up meditation, before eventually connecting with Ma Jaya, she says.

One day, the family packed up and moved to New York, a world filled with wonder for the young girl. "I loved moving to New York. It opened up a whole world of different types of people and diversity," says the perky, dedicated chief executive of the Kashi organization.

About 15 years ago, she, her mother and her brother joined Ma Jaya in Roseland, while dad went on to Santa Fe, N.M., where he is associated with an alternative consciousness radio station, she says. They get together at the Annual Peace Prayer Day in Santa Fe, where Ma Jaya usually gives a darshan (or spiritual lecture). "He's on his own but considers Ma his teacher," Krishnapriya says.

Her ascendance in the Kashi organization has its roots in her early training in New York restaurant management, she says. After her move to the ashram, she worked in purchasing and special events until one day she won the top spot.

"I love what I do and the people I meet. Kashi is unlike any other organization," she says, noting that her work involves liaison with religious leaders and programs around the world.

Dhumavati, 43
(The smoky one -- between form and formless)
Founder, Kashi Rainbow; Director, Kashi Foundation

Ma Jaya's work with AIDS patients in Los Angeles first attracted Dhumavati to the Kashi community.

"AIDS is our modern-day leprosy and it was amazing to watch (Ma Jaya)," who touches people who have grown used to never being touched, she says.

After coming to the ashram in 1990, the same year the River Fund was established to assist people with HIV/AIDS, Dhumavati says she worked with the Fund about five years, helping with bulk mailings and phone campaigns and traveling every three months to Los Angeles to work with the AIDS patients there.

Part of her work with the Fund also was the creation in 1994 of a memorial boardwalk, which spans 300 feet of ashram marshland to reach the St. Sebastian River. The names of loved ones who have died can be carved in the floor boards for between $300 and $500, according to a boardwalk brochure. "It's a tangible way to remember people," Dhumavati says.

More recently, Dhumavati formed Kashi Rainbow, a gay and lesbian support group that currently has about 15 members, she says.

"There have always been gay people around Ma," she says. "(Ma Jaya) just doesn't see the differences other people do."

Durga Das Hutner, 38
(Servant of the Divine Mother)
Chief Financial Officer, Kashi Church Foundation Inc.

The younger brother of Krishnapriya Hutner, Kashi's chief executive officer, has come a long way at Kashi, too.

A 1991 graduate of Florida Institute of Technology, Durga Das Hutner holds dual degrees in business management and accounting.

He also is a martial artist with a fifth-degree black belt and teaches martial arts at Kashi.

From 1985 to 1987, he says he was No. 1 in Florida and in 1988 tried out for the Olympics. "I got in the top eight, but needed to get in the top four," he recalls.

Earlier this year, Hutner helped usher an environmentally friendly rezoning and expansion plan through the Indian River County Commission after spending the past two years studying what Kashi wants to accomplish and what it will take to do it.

"Everybody here loves nature and the environment and we wanted to preserve it," he says.

How Kashi will pay for the expansion still is under study. "There's not a lot of extra money right now to do building," he says, noting Kashi's devotion to serving mankind "is not a budget-driven item."

To the contrary, Kashi's plans are need-driven, he says. "As the baby boomers age, we think elders may need our energy." And indeed, the first building phase likely will include a $5 million adult living facility and extra housing "for people who want to spend more time here," he says. No budget has been set for residential component, he says.

Ananda Devi, 60
(Bliss of the Goddess)
Feed Everyone Program Director; A River Fund Project

Ananda Devi's earliest recollection is of block parties held in Brooklyn after World War II. She says she holds on to the memory and has found her longing for such community spirit met at Kashi.

"To live together as a community, you don't have to like everybody, but you have to love everybody," she says.

Ananda Devi met Ma Jaya through a friend in Brooklyn 26 years ago and, the more she got to know her, the stronger Ananda Devi says her personality became.

Meeting Ma Jaya "felt like coming home," says the 25-year Kashi resident.

"I always had a certain simplicity and open heart. Now I am more comfortable with myself," says the energetic woman, who marshals a force of Kashi volunteers every week to bring food and companionship to the elderly and the ailing in Sebastian and surrounding areas.

Known as "auntie" to a host of Kashi kids, she also says she at one time cooked breakfast for as many as 15 and now misses them crowding around the kitchen table at Kashi House, where she lives.

Ananda Devi's 66-year-old sister, who moved with her husband from New Jersey to Roseland to be nearer Ananda Devi, died March 14, 2003, and her ashes scattered over Kashi's pond, called Ganga. "It gives me great comfort," her younger sister says.

Soma Melnick, 61
(The nectar, juice or bliss of God)
Vice President, Human Resources and Administration, Macho Products

When Soma Melnick hires someone at Sebastian-based Macho Products, she is filling a role, just as she did, and at times still does, as a casting director and talent agent in Los Angeles.

But what led the self-described "ambitious Jewish woman from New York" to the banks of the St. Sebastian River was food - or at least a natural foods diet she first discovered when she noticed a bad-tempered producer becoming more mellow by eating bowls of vegetables.

He was following a New York doctor's diet plan, so "I flew to New York, saw the doctor and went on the plan myself," she says.

Not long after, she went into spontaneous meditation one day while relaxing at home. "I've never been like that," she says. After a month on the diet, she says she had a dream at night telling her, "You had better find yourself a spiritual teacher."

A couple weeks later, the diet plan doctor was in Los Angeles and his assistant, a student of Ma's, invited Melnick to one of Ma's phone darshans (or spiritual lectures) in the Los Angeles hills. "It struck a deep chord," she says, so she set out to meet Kashi's guru.

Melnick's says her first visit to Kashi in 1978 was amazing, filled with a sense of being home and right where she was supposed to be.

Melnick subsequently visited Kashi often and moved to Sebastian in 1994. Although she owns and lives in a home off the ashram, Melnick says she participates fully as a resident.

Melnick, who may spend the summer in Los Angeles working on a novel and film project, says she has a profound commitment to her Florida life. "I've grown to really love it here," she says.

Narayana Hathaway, 56
(The sustainer aspect of God)
Board member, Kashi Church Foundation Inc. and Executive, Macho Products Inc.

This Haverford College graduate and '60s activist says he spent his early 20s traveling the world, looking to find a more fulfilling existence. When he returned he had two goals: To live in a spiritual community and to meditate an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening.

The second is still a goal, says the humorous 25-year Kashi resident, who currently serves as secretary of the nine-member board of directors of Kashi Church Foundation Inc., the nonprofit umbrella organization that oversees Kashi's many religious, educational and service projects. The board also helps steer the maturing community in its efforts to grow physically and spiritually, Hathaway says.

Before meeting Ma in 1974, Hathaway spent time living at a different spiritual community. But Kashi, he says "is truly a unique place. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. It's what I've always wanted."

"The last 25 years or so have sometimes been difficult, but never dull ... and we were all so much younger then," he muses. Hathaway says the board ideally would like to have a smoothly tuned corporation, "but at this point we have to put in a lot of time." Finances are a constant issue, and Kashi is "much better at giving" that raising money, he notes.

In 1980, the IRS ruled that Kashi is a church and, as such, is not required to file annual tax returns.

Kali Ma, 80
(Compassionate mother who consumes evil and protects her children)
Care-giver/Prayer Coordinator

Her grandmotherly blue eyes still twinkle when she talks of meeting Ma near San Francisco in 1976.

"She filled the room with such an essence," says Kali Ma, who went to a one-room grade school in Oklahoma before attending San Francisco State and receiving a master's degree in social work.

That meeting led to a five-day visit to the ashram in 1977, a visit she says ended with her discovery that Kashi "is the essence of love. This is real. Compared to this, the world is a circus," says the octogenarian. "When Ma said move here, I said OK."

Kali Ma says she picked up and left her life as Nell McNichol, social worker at the now-defunct San Francisco Center, and brought with her to Kashi only "what fit in the car."

Since her arrival, she has been taking care of the people, the place and the prayer vigils of Kashi, say those around her who affectionately call her "grandmother of the ashram."

Kali Ma is the ashram's liaison with United Religious Initiatives, an organization, she says, of religious leaders who talk about the commonality, not the differences, of their beliefs. She also organizes mini-prayer circles at the ashram and helps coordinate larger prayer days nationally and internationally.

And she can be found mopping up the dining room and helping with other ashram chores, whenever needed.

Jaya Belinda Canterbury-Counts, 52
Executive Director The River Fund

Caring for HIV/AIDS sufferers is the cornerstone of The River Fund, but it's the AIDS orphans in Uganda who have stolen Jaya Canterbury-Counts' heart away.

The 10-year Kashi member goes there every summer to visit Ma's Orphans Center, run by the Rev. Centurio Olaboro, which is now home to about 700 homeless children, many infected with the HIV virus. The priest named the orphanage after Kashi's guru to honor her, says Canterbury-Counts, who went to Uganda twice in 2003 and visits the orphanage annually.

During the rest of the year, she oversees The River Fund's programs, which include various Feed Everyone programs as well as educational and prevention outreach classes to students, teachers, parents, families, churches, migrant workers and prisons in partnership with Friends-Together, according to Kashi representatives.

And when catastrophe threatens, Canterbury-Counts heeds the call. Last fall, when heavy rains threatened Uganda with a cholera outbreak, Canterbury-Counts phoned everyone she knew to raise money, including a host of family and friends in Philadelphia, her hometown.

Her efforts and those of others at Kashi netted about $6,000 they could send over, she says.

Canterbury-Counts and her husband, Douglas Canterbury-Counts, a psychologist, first met Ma after they had moved to south Florida. A rabbi who was visiting asked them to drive him to Kashi, so they did, she says.

"We were interested in spirituality and liked the sense of community," she says. "As time went by we thought it was time to make change, so we moved up here."

The family first lived onto the ashram but moved to a house across Roseland Road when Jaya Canterbury-Counts' widowed father moved in with them, she says.

Anjani Cirillo, 58
(The mother of devotion and service to humanity)
Community Relations Director and former River School Principal

Anjani Cirillo, a repair person for the New York Telephone Co. in 1974, entered an apartment to check a phone and bumped instead into a dead body.

A murdered woman was hanging there, "and I immediately started to pray for this woman," said Cirillo, 58, who was born and raised by strict Catholic parents.

The experience began her metamorphosis into a person searching for spiritual meaning and after not too long she began looking for a guru. She'd tell everyone, "I want a guru," said the former Peace Corps volunteer, until one day in 1975 a Peace Corps friend told her about a Brooklyn Jewish housewife with an interfaith teaching.

From there, her relationship with Ma evolved, with frequent weekends spent at the ashram until her final move from New York to Florida in 1979.

Cirillo immediately began developing The River School, Kashi's on-site private nonprofit school. In the beginning, it was like a home school, she said.

Now, the school has 30 students in first through sixth grades. There are three multi-age groups for grades 1-2, 3-4 and 5-6 with approximately 10 children in each.

Tuition is $225 a month for resident children and $300 a month for non-ashram residents. Fees for the preschool vary depending on how often a child attends.

The graduation in 2003, of four high-school seniors marked River School's last high-school graduating class.

In 1979, there was no high school in north Indian River County, explained Cirillo, but now there is Sebastian River High School and other schools, such as the Charter High School throughout the county. "The kids want their more diversified programs, so we decided not to continue the high-school program here," she said.

Last year, Cirillo retired as principal.

"They are even retiring my title," she said.

But she is not retiring her energy.

Cirillo has a new post at Kashi as community relations director. "I hope to develop workshops and serve on nonprofit boards of directors," she said.

Kashi Church Foundation also is involved in local community service projects.

Kashi's list of community activities is extensive. Some of the group's more visible work includes:

  • The Feed Everyone Rounds Program: Twice a week, six to 10 volunteers from Kashi, including two River School students, visit senior centers and other nonprofit organizations in Indian River, St. Lucie and Brevard counties to provide entertainment and companionship.

  • The Feed Everyone Dinners: Once a month, Kashi volunteers host a dinner for about 150 residents of the Abbiejean Russell Care Center and Integrated Health Services, both in Fort Pierce, and their families and friends.
  • Holiday Meals: For more than 20 years, Kashi has hosted Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for Sebastian's senior citizens.
  • Mary's House: Since 1990, Kashi has maintained and staffed a residence for abused and terminally ill babies and children suffering from HIV/AIDS, drug withdrawal, mental and physical abuse, cerebral palsy and other life-threatening illnesses.

Kashi volunteers also can be found at Relay for Life cancer walks, Fellsmere Frog Leg Festival and the Sebastian City Clam Bake, and are involved with the Homeless Assistance Center, the Royal Palm Convalescent Center in Vero Beach, the Interfaith Forum of Indian River County and many other faith-based and service organizations.

* Information provided by Kashi Church Foundation officials.

(*In parentheses is the meaning of each person's spiritual name.)

Note: All of the names listed are essentially group names given to members of the Ashram. This group has been called a "cult."

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