Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, or more simply Ma [formerly known as Joyce Green Difiore Cho of Brooklyn], sits lotus style on a wide, ornate bench.
She is elevated above her students and guests, who number more than 100 and crowd the large great room, sitting cross-legged on carpets and pillows.
Her frail-looking frame appears diminutive before the tall windows that reach for the cathedral ceiling and reflect the descending sun and the woods beyond.
Candles flicker on wooden mantels decorated with bowls of flowers in the towering center of Laxsman House, a former private home converted to a communal living and dining space.
Dressed in black and shimmering silver, Ma is holding a Saturday night darshan - a type of spiritual service where the public can stop in to chant, to pray or just to reflect on Ma's words of peace and love and understanding. When she first arrives she greets the children.
They come to her bearing fresh flowers and after a hug and a kiss they return to their parents, a lollipop richer. Then, a young couple appears before her. They are on their way to a high-school prom and the young man, who grew up on the ashram, wants Ma to meet his date.
She chats with them briefly and sends them on their way.
Then she turns to the gathering and tells them not to judge another human being. "Diversity is what the world needs now, at this time of chaos and war," she says before leading the assembly through 20 minutes of meditation and a final blessing.
She tells her students that love and service to humanity are the backbone of her teaching. And she tells them the ashram they are on is her life.
And indeed, nestled between the St. Sebastian River and Roseland Road lies Ma's ashram, a semi-secluded community where for nearly three decades people have come to live or visit with at least one goal in mind - to find or strengthen their inner life.
Many succeed, but some don't, says folk singer Arlo Guthrie, who has been a friend of the Kashi Ashram for about 16 years. He visits often but does not live there, opting instead to have his primary home in Massachusetts and a second home on the Indian River a short distance from the ashram.
"This is a very disciplined way of life that ain't for everybody," he says. "This is not day camp or play school. It takes a lot of work to do this," says the 56-year-old alumni of the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival.
Gesturing to the buildings, temples, woods and waters that comprise the now 80-acre Kashi compound, Guthrie says he would not suggest to anyone that they live at Kashi. That decision "has to come from deep inside."
Today, about 100 adults and 11 children under age 18 live on or near the ashram, according to Krishnapriya Hutner, 42-year-old chief executive officer of the Kashi Church Foundation.
Today, about 100 adults and 15 children under age 18 live on or near the ashram, according to Krishnapriya Hutner, 41-year-old chief executive officer of the Kashi Church Foundation.
These followers of the ashram's 63-year-old guru form the core of the Kashi family, running the foundation, spearheading its numerous community and world-outreach programs, staffing its on-site school and having faith in their ability to grow spiritually by helping to feed the poor, comfort the dying and ease the pain of those growing old.
There they find a communal lifestyle that at various times has the rustic charm of an old country inn, the solemnity of a holy place, the chaos of a summer camp and the professional demeanor of a serious business.
Nearly 50 percent of them came to Florida in the mid- to late-'70s to be with Bhagavati, who was then forming a Hindu-based teaching that promoted meditation and service to others.
Her story is one of a journey from street-smart Brooklyn urchin to charismatic religious leader with a commanding presence and a devout following.
Ma says she was born into an impoverished Jewish family and at age 5 was spending part of her life underneath a boardwalk with homeless people, drug addicts, prostitutes and alcoholics. There she learned that sharing is the true meaning of God, she says in a 2001 article written for the Journal of the Communal Studies Association.
Later, as an overweight housewife with an Italian Catholic husband and two children, she took up yoga to shed pounds. Instead, she had a vision one night at home while practicing breathing in the lotus position - a vision of Jesus Christ, who told her: "Teach all ways, for all ways are mine."
And that is what she has done, say members of her community.
While the teaching reflects Hindu philosophies and members receive Hindu names, Kashi's temples represent most of the major religions of the world. Exceptions are Islam and Native American traditions, but erecting temples to them are on Kashi's "wish list," says Sita Gange, Kashi public relations director and seven-year ashram resident.
Ma defines Kashi not as a religion, but as a place, "where people come from all over the world to feel, to be, to love and to serve."
"Anyone affiliated with Kashi believes in serving humankind," says 15-year resident Durga Das Hutner, the ashram's 38-year-old chief financial officer.
Like other nonprofit organizations, Kashi is having to "consolidate and conserve until (it) sees the economy change," Hutner says, but "a lot of the work Kashi does is more energy than money...service is not a budget-driven item."
Kindness, acceptance beyond tolerance and service are Kashi's core values, according to Narayana Hathaway, 56, who met Ma in 1974 and moved onto the ashram in 1977.
Looking back at Kashi's history, Hathaway, who serves on the foundation's board of directors, recalls how members would ride the ashram's horses, now gone, far afield. "We're the old timers here," he says. "You couldn't do that today" with all the residential and commercial development.
Hathaway concedes that life on the ashram "has sometimes been difficult, but never dull.
"With Ma, things are always happening. You can't expect to just kick back. There is constant change, but that is the only way an organization can endure," he says.
Ma "does what most people know is the right thing to do but just don't get around to," adds Guthrie.
Ma says she is blessed to know the people who have grown up with her. "Many of my students came in their teens and their 20s and those who I call my children have children who are having children.
"Yes indeed, I feel Kashi is blessed. Yes, indeed we are growing," she says. And her prayer for Kashi remains as always, "that the value of serving others spreads as we continue to grow beneath the great blue sky of Sebastian."
Ashram: A secluded place for a community of Hindus leading a life of simplicity and religious meditation. (Webster's New World Dictionary, Third College Edition)
Brainwash: To indoctrinate so intensively and thoroughly as to effect a radical transformation of beliefs and mental attitudes. (Webster's)
- A system of religious worship or ritual. A quasi- religious group, often living in a colony, with a charismatic leader who indoctrinates members with unorthodox or extremist views, practices, or beliefs.
- Devoted attachment to, or extravagant admiration for, a person, principle, or lifestyle, especially when regarded as a fad.
- A group of followers; sect. (Webster's)
Darshan: The virtue, uplifting, blessing, etc. which, many Hindus believe, one gets in the presence of a great man. (Webster's)
Kashi: Sanskrit name for the holy city of Benares in Northeast India on the Ganges River. Today the city, now called Varanasi, is home to 794,000 people. (Webster's and Kashi officials).
Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati: Sanskrit words for holy mother, victory, purity and embracer of humanity. (Webster's, Kashi officials)
Puja: A Hindu prayer ritual (Webster's).