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.
Hippies deluged their Brooklyn home, babbling about meditation and spirituality. "I couldn't believe it," DiFiore says. They fawned over his wife, wept in her presence, and did anything she asked. DiFiore discerned something dark in his spouse. "She controlled those people," he says. "They were all superrich kids who were dysfunctional, and they would go to her for guidance. Her norm was high upbeat, like: bom bom bom bom. Then she'd be mellow."
Even today, after decades of analyzing these chaotic months in 1973, he can't comprehend his wife's sudden transformation. Or what happened next.
One night, DiFiore heard a loud crash. He rushed downstairs and saw the future guru frantically careening about the house. She'd had a vision of Christ, she whispered. Wounds, she said, had appeared on her hands. "What are you talking about?" DiFiore remembers exclaiming.
She showed him her pajamas. Red splotches blotted the fabric. "So I took the pajamas to a friend who owned a dry cleaner, and he said it was theatrical blood."
Word nonetheless rippled across the boroughs: There'd been a stigmata. Joyce Green DiFiore soon materialized in basements and parks across the city, delivering nightlong sermons. "I thought, 'Get skinny with Christ or fat without him,'" she later told the Palm Beach Post. "I lost 65 pounds on the Christ diet."
But Christ wouldn't be the only apparition. In the same year, she claimed she had visions of a deceased and bald Indian guru named Neem Ka'roli Baba, who endowed her with the name Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati. Her following ballooned to include hundreds of inquisitive college-aged kids mostly convinced Christ had plucked this Jewish housewife from poverty to teach "all ways to God."
In 1975, Ma Jaya left her two oldest children, Jimmy and Denise, and her husband, who filed for divorce a year afterward. Jimmy was especially wrought up over the abandonment, his family said. Those feelings would be with him the rest of his life.
The guru, however, held onto her youngest, Molly. (At the daughter's request, New Times has changed her name.) In 1976, Ma Jaya and her flock fled New York for a sprawling plot of grass and creek in Indian River County, in Central Florida. In one of the most Christian areas in the state — where steeples dominate most horizons — the nascent community built Buddhist and Hindu temples and followed an ascetic existence of celibacy and vegetarianism.
Hidden behind thick foliage, they locked out the world. "This was about finding a way to God," remembers one longtime resident who'd traveled from California. Hundreds of others arrived, bedraggled from the road, and there was Ma — grinning and bejeweled. She hugged them. She called them child. Together, they promised to serve humanity. And in the name of spirituality, Ma Jaya bestowed them with Hindi names and forbade recreational sex, according to interviews with eight former residents.
Without warning, she ordered marriages between devotees who barely knew each other. "Ma married Chandra and Madhava on the spur of the moment last Sunday," one follower named Lyn Deadmore scribbled in her journal on June 5, 1981. "They seem really happy about it." Weeks afterward, on June 22, Deadmore wrote in her diary: "She doesn't care how happy she makes us or how miserable she makes us." In an interview, Deadmore said members abetted her whims because they considered Ma Jaya to be divine.
(Anjani Cirillo, spokesperson for Kashi Ashram, denies that Ma Jaya arranged marriages or that Kashi members worshiped her. "I never heard anything like that," she said. "People married when people wanted. No forced marriages ever happened.")
Whether she was deified or not, every person interviewed for this article agreed that Ma Jaya's charisma was almost preternatural. "When you were around her, it felt like being stoned," Deadmore recalled. "The energy that surrounded her made you feel that way." This, however, is where consensus regarding the guru stops.
Indeed, an examination of court records and in-depth interviews reveals just one theme: obsession. Along the serpentine Sebastian River, Ma Jaya spurred powerful emotion at both extremes. Followers either loved her with such abandon that they couldn't discern a fault. Or they came to hate her so much that it consumed them.