Ma's ashram: A Press Journal special report 5, 2004
By Katie Campbell

Some spout praises, but others lower their voices and whisper, "It's a cult."

Indian River County residents have mixed feelings about the local ashram, or spiritual community, called Kashi that spans 80 acres along Roseland Road in Sebastian.

"When I give people directions to my house, and I tell them they will pass Kashi, they say, 'Oh you live next to the cult,' " Kashi neighbor Lani Deauville, 63, said. "I'm frustrated with all the misconceptions of the place."

Deauville admitted, "It is strange. But it's strange in a wonderful way."

She's lived near the ashram for the past three years, but she's not a member. She knows Kashi members as her neighbors. Sometimes she visits or attends weekly public meditation sessions.

"It's a magic place not because of any sort of hocus pocus stuff. It's magic because of the love that's there," Deauville said. Others say they aren't drawn in by the magic, whatever sort it may be.

"I kind of shy away from the place," said Carol Boyer, 63, of Sebastian.

As an interfaith spiritual community, people of many different types of faith including Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity participate as Kashi members, the ashram's public relations director Sita Ganga said.

Not all view this in a positive light.

"You can't mix religions like that," said Susan Lambert, 38, of Sebastian.

Other religious communities aren't as liberal in views of how many different paths can be taken in finding faith.

"Our church takes a strictly biblical view of our relationship with Jesus Christ and God," said Tom Kempf, senior pastor of Riverside Church Assembly of God, which is located next to Kashi.

"Theologically, we believe they are wrong in their approach, but the other side of that is that we're also called to love all people and we do. I'm not going to take a position that Kashi should be ostracized. We're just praying they will see the light," Kempf said.

Because the U.S. Constitution allows for religious freedom, retired Presbyterian Minister Rafael Sanchez said the community should be tolerant of spiritual communities like Kashi even if it doesn't agree with the ashram's belief system.

"We cannot prohibit any religion from being practiced in any community. For anyone to try to prohibit this is anti-American and anti-Christian," Sanchez said.

While some had qualms with the basic religious differences of Kashi, others expressed worries that the ashram may try to convert people.

"They're a cult," Lambert said.

"I always heard people say, 'Don't go in there,' " said 63-year-old Joyce Cuce, of Sebastian. Cuce visited Kashi for the first time in May.

"It's a lovely place, absolutely impressive. They don't push religion on you," Cuce said.

Dr. Harish Sadhwani also said he felt that Kashi members didn't focus on trying to convert. As a Hindu, Sadhwani sent his children to the River School at Kashi in hopes that Hindu-based teachings would be included.

"But they don't do that. They preach good manners and how to be a better person. Religion is in no way being taught," Sadhwani said.

Sadhwani actually removed his children from the River School because there wasn't enough of a Hindu emphasis.

For other parents, however, the school proved to be just the place for their children.

"I saw them take every child and try to develop whatever their talent was," said Nancy Hines, 50, who lives near the ashram.

Kara Boulahanis, 17, of Vero Beach, who attended the River School, called her educational experience enlightening.

"It was a great educational experience. They taught me to be more analytical. There were no forbidden questions. I could even question the teachers," Boulahanis said.

When Boulahanis tells people she attended the River School at Kashi, reactions vary.

"I've gotten the whole broad range from 'You worship monkeys,' to 'That's really cool.' "

While some Indian River County residents have visited Kashi or know many of the Kashi members, most are like 48-year-old Paul Mach of Barefoot Bay.

"I've driven by, but I've never been in," Mach said.

Mach too has heard Kashi referred to as a cult, but he said, "I don't know anything about that, whether they are or they aren't."

Until he learns more about the Kashi spiritual community, Mach said, "I'll reserve judgment."

Note: The Kashi Ashram has frequently been referred to as a "cult."

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