Kashi Ashram: Claims of Rape, Child Abuse, and Kidnapping

Kashi Ashram: Claims of Rape, Child Abuse, and Kidnapping

The night the dark-haired guru declared herself greater than God, the chanting started at dusk.

Scores of sweaty followers squeezed around a platform and closed their eyes. Their features slackened, and they rocked to a rhythmic mantra echoing inside the cramped hall. Before them, sinking into an ocean of pillows, was Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati: the guru. In the candlelight, her gold-wrapped wrists and white teeth glowed like fire. She was the one who could swallow their pain and make it vanish.

A hush settled over the room. "When the Christ first came to me," she called out in a Brooklyn accent as thick as her long, equine hair, "when I anxiously waited for him to appear, afraid that he would and more afraid he wouldn't, I turned on every light in my house. When he appeared then, my house looked dark — to his brightness, the house looked dark."

Ma Jaya celebrates her birthday in the late '80s. Her clothing reflected her interfaith teaching.
Courtesy of the DiFiore Family
Ma Jaya celebrates her birthday in the late '80s. Her clothing reflected her interfaith teaching.
Ma Jaya and her daughter walk in procession toward a night prayer at Kashi Ashram.
Courtesy of the DiFiore Family
Ma Jaya and her daughter walk in procession toward a night prayer at Kashi Ashram.

The guru paused, and a chubby blond girl wearing white-rimmed glasses began plucking a one-stringed instrument. The guru smiled, and her grins infected the audience like a contagion. Her black eyes were big. Her smile widened. The moment was near.

"But," the guru began, quelling the mantra with one word, "the guru is greater than God. Flesh man knows. The guru you can see and touch and feel. God, unless you're perfect, you cannot."

She closed her eyes. "The guru," she intoned as the supplicants melted into a trance, "is greater than God."

The phrase would reverberate across the decades. From this 1977 retreat in California until her death last year, Ma Jaya's infallibility was nearly unquestioned by her followers. At an isolated Florida ranch near Sebastian, 20 miles north of Vero Beach, she cocooned herself with hundreds who'd abandoned home and family to worship her like a deity. Together, they formed what would become the Kashi Ashram. "I am the breath," she told them. "I am inside you."

For many, to exist near Ma Jaya — a beguiling New Yorker with a tenth-grade education — was rapture. To them, her dogma was beyond the mortal ken. There was incredible benevolence and service to the sick and dying, which eventually afforded her audiences with Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama and lured high-profile fans like actress Julia Roberts and folksinger Arlo Guthrie.

But there were also stories of profound cruelty and despotism. Eight former followers interviewed by New Times say Kashi members were beaten for disobedience or spiritual cleansing. A man said he dunked his head into a vat of red paint because Ma Jaya had asked him to. Masked teenagers reportedly battered a 13-year-old boy with rocks inside socks because he'd angered their leader.

In the church's 35 years of existence, adherents claim abuses including beatings, pedophilia, forgery of official documents, and extortion occurred by order of Ma Jaya, according to a New Times analysis of never-before-disclosed court filings, psychological studies, police records, and dozens of interviews with former members. "Kashi Ashram fits every criteria of a destructive cult," says Rick Ross, a nationally recognized authority based in New Jersey. "And the most defining element of a cult is a charismatic leader."

Now, months after Ma Jaya's death, her adult daughter has sued the Kashi Church Foundation in Miami court. She claims much more happened on the ranch than anyone knew and has pushed the church, which still has hundreds of members in New York, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, into quite possibly its most contested episode to date. In 1981, when she was 14 years old, Ma Jaya's daughter says she was raped repeatedly by a 25-year-old church member.

And her mother had ordered it.


Once — before the name changes and the jewelry and the acolytes — the guru didn't exist. Five decades ago, there was only an impoverished and garrulous Jewish teenager named Joyce Green tending a quiver of umbrellas along the boardwalk on Coney Island. Every night, as the sun set, the 16-year-old returned to her family's basement apartment of peeling paint and mold in Brooklyn.

One day at the beach, a confident olive-skinned kid named Sal DiFiore sauntered up to the girl. To him, Joyce Green was beautiful, her black hair tangled and teeth gleaming. She loved to gab and was drop-dead funny, recalls DiFiore, today age 75 and still in Brooklyn. "None of her family was like that," he says. "They were very poor. You could tell by the clothes she wore. Her father was a loser."

After they married a year later, the young couple fashioned a traditional Brooklyn life of three children, lasagna dinners at 6 p.m. sharp, and Sundays with relatives. But even then, the young wife showed sweeping vanity and a combustible temperament, says DiFiore, who later divorced her. She gained weight easily, spurring several bouts of depression, says the ex-husband, who drove a Coca-Cola route. One day, while Green was devouring a meal, he looked upon her with disgust and said sarcastically, "You should eat a little."

The future guru never forgot that comment. She swore to drop the pounds and subscribed to a new counterculture lifestyle. Jostling yoga mats, incense, and books on meditation, she ditched the neighborhood gals and locked herself inside the downstairs bathroom. Then, in the middle of the night, strange smoke and sounds began escaping the doorway cracks. Within weeks, Joyce Green DiFiore vanished. And Sal DiFiore had lost his wife to — of all things — yoga.

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9 comments
gr8life05
gr8life05

Terrence McCoy hit the nail on the head.  I lived in Vero Beach next to Sebastian for 25 years.  I have friends who left the ashram and friends who still reside there.  This is a tragic tale of a woman who ultimately let spiritual pride overcome the goodness she achieved.  I will never forget the abuse she doled out to a shaven head follower in my presence at my one and only visit to her Sunday "open" service.  After a lengthy waiting period, Ma was escorted into the service hall by her robed and shaven followers.  She was seated, then exclaimed, "Oh, I see there are visitors, I must be on my best behavior!"  Hardly.  After her less than inspiring monologue (nothing new or profound was shared), she asked for a two year old to be seated on her lap, and the child proceeded to perform as toddlers do, disregarding hierarchy, seeking entertainment, completely dissatisfied with the selection of toys presented by Ma.  Ma took her wrath out on the closest follower to her by hurling the toys directly at the shaven follower and stating her displeasure at the followers lack of ability to produce adequate goods for the child!  The female.shaven follower cringed and cowered in response, it was horrific.  Ma then, unapologetic, continued with her monologue, in which she referenced the death of her son, and in that moment I felt compassion for her, as a mother to a mother.  I learned soon after that her son's death was by suicide.  Then, following her death, to have her daughter come forth with rape accusations, more horror, more tragedy... There are many lovely people who have left the Kashi Ranch (for good reason), and also some who have stayed.  Hopefully the legacy of Ma/Joyce's good works will live on, and the trauma she created and perpetuated will be forgiven and laid to final rest.  God bless her surviving children.   

nepafollies
nepafollies

I was assigned by a newspaper I worked for in Vero Beach Florida to write a piece on Ma Jaya and Kashi in 2004. Ma was an inviting, loving, funny, bright, petite woman who welcomed me and my photographer with open arms. (My photographer, Cliff Partlow, was a no-nonsense man who was a walking history book of the area, and he had no problems with or reservations about Ma) I was instantly comfortable with her. I am also a native New Yorker (Long Island) and I noticed no overly thick Brooklyn accent, although she did sound like a fellow New Yorker. (It sounds to me as though the writer has some sort of prejudice against those with thick accents) Ma was involved directly with caring for cancer patients, AIDS patients, and loved and nurtured those from all walks of life. The Ashram was not hidden. It was a lovely, serene place where likenesses of deities from many religions (including the Virgin Mary and Jesus) were present around a body of water that was originated with water from the Ganges River in India. The ashes of those who Ma cared for, many AIDS patients, rested in Ma's Ganges, where she now rests. Many of the town officials in Sebastian were friendly with Ma, as she was a community-minded woman. Before her death, she was intent upon building senior housing on the Kashi property, to serve independent seniors to those who needed constant care. She had the city of Sebastian's support. I met Anjani Cirillo, who was kind but business-like, and also a familiar figure in Sebastian among the community and the city council. I met young couples who were very much in love, and one couple who was pregnant. The pregnant young woman's mother (not a kashi follower) was welcome at the Ashram and was present at the birth. The parents named the baby boy Emanuel, and Ma did give the baby a Hindu name, as all of her followers were given Hindu names, not unlike Catholic popes, nuns and brothers who take saint names. I attended Ma's birthday and had a blast. No alcohol or drugs, but lots of fun and friendship and celebration into the night. The Kashi followers were normal people who believed in their religion and philosophy. They were not empty-headed cult followers. They planned projects to enhance the community and participated in the community's (Sebastian city) every day life. They once had a school on the Ashram that was well-known and approved of in the area.  Council people and non-Kashi friends of Ma's were at her birthday celebration and welcome at the Ashram. I attended Darshan and yes, the young people and some of the older ones swayed to the music and the words. I suppose the writer has never been to a Baptist Church during a service or to a charismatic Catholic or Christian service; all involve swaying and verbalizing (humming, singing, chanting) along with the words and the music.I attended yoga classes and was never a member. My children had recently lost their father, and I had a 7-year-old son and teenage daughters, and no one at Kashi ever suggested that my children become members, although the primary friend I made at Kashi did, as any friend would, ask how my children and I were doing when we would meet socially for lunch outside of Kashi. Kashi members were in touch with their non-Kashi family members, and were able to get on a plane and visit relatives or friends or take trips. Ma accepted, loved and nurtured gay people, sick people, and all people. I felt wonderful when I was at Kashi, and after leaving Florida, I always wished to g back and see Ma and my friends there, Anjani and Sita Ganga, once more. Unfortunately, that never occurred. I believe that when a person rises from poverty to become a leader and a caregiver, many people become jealous. Any Mother who leaves her children is ridiculed, but our society accepts fathers leaving their families. No one is perfect, and Ma did have a dry sense of humor that could easily be misunderstood by a person without a similarly dry sense of humor (regarding saying she was God, etc.) Her words can be taken out of context and twisted to accommodate an attack, as can anyone's words.  I have a very good sense of people. I always have, and I do not believe that Ma was cruel or vindictive. I  contacted Kashi (as a news reporter) when her son chose to end his life, and they were open and honest regarding that tragedy. I can only say, in closing, that the world would be a better place if there were more people like Ma, Anjani, Sita and those at Kashi Ashram. Folksinger Arlo Guthrie, who followed Ma Jaya's teachings for decades, mourned her without reservation. A quote about Ma from Arlo Guthrie: "I've met a lot of people that were very important," he told reporters. "But I can honestly say no one I ever met in my entire life was as funny and as sincere and as courageous and as unapologetic as she was."

God and the Mother Bless Ma and us all. Namaste.

nepafollies
nepafollies

I was assigned by a newspaper I worked for in Vero Beach Florida to write a piece on Ma Jaya and Kashi in 2004. Ma was an inviting, loving, funny, bright, petite woman who welcomed me and my photographer with open arms. (My photographer, Cliff Partlow, was a no-nonsense man who was a walking history book of the area, and he had no problems with or reservations about Ma) I was instantly comfortable with her. I am also a native New Yorker (Long Island) and I noticed no overly thick Brooklyn accent, although she did sound like a fellow New Yorker. (It sounds to me as though the writer has some sort of prejudice against those with thick accents) Ma was involved directly with caring for cancer patients, AIDS patients, and loved and nurtured those from all walks of life. The Ashram was not hidden. It was a lovely, serene place where likenesses of deities from many religions (including the Virgin Mary and Jesus) were present around a body of water that was originated with water from the Ganges River in India. The ashes of those who Ma cared for, many AIDS patients, rested in Ma's Ganges, where she now rests. Many of the town officials in Sebastian were friendly with Ma, as she was a community-minded woman. Before her death, she was intent upon building senior housing on the Kashi property, to serve independent seniors to those who needed constant care. She had the city of Sebastian's support. I met Anjani Cirillo, who was kind but business-like, and also a familiar figure in Sebastian among the community and the city council. I met young couples who were very much in love, and one couple who was pregnant. The pregnant young woman's mother (not a kashi follower) was welcome at the Ashram and was present at the birth. The parents named the baby boy Emanuel, and Ma did give the baby a Hindu name, as all of her followers were given Hindu names, not unlike Catholic popes, nuns and brothers who take saint names. I attended Ma's birthday and had a blast. No alcohol or drugs, but lots of fun and friendship and celebration into the night. The Kashi followers were normal people who believed in their religion and philosophy. They were not empty-headed cult followers. They planned projects to enhance the community and participated in the community's (Sebastian city) every day life. They once had a school on the Ashram that was well-known and approved of in the area.  Council people and non-Kashi friends of Ma's were at her birthday celebration and welcome at the Ashram. I attended Darshan and yes, the young people and some of the older ones swayed to the music and the words. I suppose the writer has never been to a Baptist Church during a service or to a charismatic Catholic or Christian service; all involve swaying and verbalizing (humming, singing, chanting) along with the words and the music.I attended yoga classes and was never a member. My children had recently lost their father, and I had a 7-year-old son and teenage daughters, and no one at Kashi ever suggested that my children become members, although the primary friend I made at Kashi did, as any friend would, ask how me and my children were doing when we would meet socially for lunch outside of Kashi. Kashi members were in touch with their non-Kashi family members, and were able to get on a plane and visit relatives or friends or take trips. Ma accepted, loved and nurtured gay people, sick people, and all people. I felt wonderful when I was at Kashi, and after leaving Florida, I always wished to g back and see Ma and my friends there, Anjani and Sita Ganga, once more. Unfortunately, that never occurred. I believe that when a person rises from poverty to become a leader and a caregiver, many people become jealous. Any Mother who leaves her children is ridiculed, but our society accepts fathers leaving their families. No one is perfect, and Ma did have a dry sense of humor that could easily be misunderstood by a person without a similarly dry sense of humor (regarding saying she was God, etc.) Her words can be taken out of context and twisted to accommodate an attack, as can anyone's words.  I have a very good sense of people. I always have, and I do not believe that Ma was cruel or vindictive. I was contact Kashi (as a news reporter) when her son chose to end his life, and they were open and honest regarding that tragedy. I can only say, in closing, that the world would be a better place if there were more people like Ma, Anjani, Sita and those at Kashi Ashram. Folksinger Arlo Guthrie, who followed Ma Jaya's teachings for decades, mourned her without reservation. A quote about Ma from Arlo Guthrie: "I've met a lot of people that were very important," he told reporters. "But I can honestly say no one I ever met in my entire life was as funny and as sincere and as courageous and as unapologetic as she was."

God and the Mother Bless Ma and us all. Namaste.

beingmenow_99
beingmenow_99

We're very proud to announce that Ma's book, The 11 Karmic Spaces, has been awarded a Gold Medal in the 2013 Independent Publisher Book Awards!


The book was entered in the New Age (Mind, Body, Spirit) category (scroll down to #59). Ma's daughter, Denise, will be receiving the award on her behalf at the award ceremony on May 29 in New York. See press release.

The 11 Karmic Spaces was published in November 2011, just five short months before Ma succumbed to pancreatic cancer. Ma continues to touch people's lives as more than 2,000 copies of the book have been sold to readers of all backgrounds and situations.

The 11 Karmic Spaces is available through all major booksellers on line, as well as in ebook format.

pavo1994
pavo1994

Great story. I'm amazed i never heard of her.

brokerverde
brokerverde

There's a word for this: "sickophant".


brokerverde
brokerverde

there's a word for this..."sickophant"     ;)

CheckpointCharlie73
CheckpointCharlie73

People that join cults get what they deserve. It is Darwin's Law of Evolution. 

 
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