One of Atlanta’s hottest trends raises questions of cultish behavior—but does the label fit?
A little more than 35 years ago, a Jewish housewife named Joyce Green sat meditating in her apartment. In a trancelike state, Green says she was approached by Jesus Christ, who mentioned to her that she should go out and spread the good news of all religions, “for all ways are mine.”
Since then, Green, who has gone on to adopt the name Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, has become one of the leading figures of what many would consider the religious fringe of America, founding a church, cult, religion, “way.” However you care to define it, Ma has been quite successful. Her Kashi Ashram, based on the teaching of yoga, is open to members of all religions and beliefs.
She has become well-known for her colorful language, her attacks on the egos of her students, and what those close to her refer to as a wonderful sense of humor.
“Her personality is large,” says Sita Gange, spokeswoman for the Kashi Ashram. “It encompasses all facets, from the funniest to the most compassionate.”
Ma Jaya is the undisputed leader of the Kashi Ashram in Sebastian, Fla., an 80-acre property with 150 live-in members, as well as ashrams in New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta. Over the course of the past 30-odd years she has built quite a following and has amassed international recognition for her work with society’s castoffs, most recently becoming the first American to attain the spiritual status of Mata Maha Mandaleshwar, a sort of Hindu senior abbess. She has been honored by the Martin Luther King Jr. Board of Preachers at Morehouse College, where her portrait was unveiled by former South African President Frederik Willem de Klerk. And later this year she’ll be honored with the Ghandi Foundation USA’s Humanitarian Service Award.
But while most have chosen to recognize Ma Jaya for her community service, some, including former Kashi members, identify her as the leader of a cult.
Ma attends a meeting at the Atlanta Kashi Ashram in Candler Park about once a year, most recently on April 13, which The Sunday Paper attended. SP entered a room filled to capacity, a gathering of maybe 200 people. Three swamis, one male and two females, sat on a raised platform. Behind them was a chair adorned with a fur throw.
Five or six people began to drum and chant. The crowd joined in, and for the next 20 minutes the beat became more frenetic and the chanting louder. Then Ma Jaya entered the room and took her place on the chair. Children with offerings of flowers gathered in a line and each was welcomed with a hug and lollipop from Ma. When the last child exited, Ma cried, “Stop!” and the chanting stopped.
“This is why I’m a guru,” she said. “You’re like a bunch of vultures.” Then she glanced at the three swamis sitting in front of her, telling the crowd, “I stripped them of their ego today. Look at how humble they are.”
Ma then spoke of giving back to the community, saying that “you have to drink while you pour and you pour while you drink.” She told the crowd that the purpose of life is to give back, not to gain knowledge only to metaphorically climb a mountain to be alone—“Who gives a shit?” she asked the crowd. She acknowledged her habit of swearing and commented on her styled hair and makeup, saying that she knew it was considered unguru-like, but that she liked it that way.
After leading the crowd through a meditative visualization, she offered to take questions—“but not any that begin with ‘I.’”
The male swami pushed a mug toward her from time to time and she would take it, sip and give it back. After several questions, mostly having to do with meditation, she looked at a woman on her left, dressed all in black, and said, “What?” Then she looked at the audience and said, “A dyke on a bike. She’s trying to tell me I can take one more question.”
Ma concluded with a plea for the crowd to serve others and give back to the community, telling stories of tending to orphans in Africa and AIDS patients dying in her arms. She said she didn’t have time to address foolishness. She didn’t have much time on this earth to do all that needed to be done.
Gange, the Kashi spokeswoman, says for a first-time attendee, Ma’s manner might be a little shocking, but most people attending a meditation are not experiencing Ma’s spiritual practice for the first time.
“Most people do not drop in on a meditation. They are in a process where they kind of go at their own pace,” she says. “As is the case with any spiritual practice, people who attend generally come with a friend or have some background or context.”
Dropping in, but not out
In contrast to Ma’s brash personality sits Jaya Das, the manager of the Kashi Atlanta Ashram. Jaya Das is Caucasian, in his 30s, blondish, well-built—a good-looking man. He is calm and soft-spoken, the picture of an eager student of yoga.
It is a Saturday, and the 10 a.m. class—apparently a hot yoga class, because my glasses are fogging in the humidity—has just concluded. Jaya Das and I sit barefoot on the thick Berber-carpeted floor of Kashi Atlanta’s expansive main classroom, along with Agni Ma Mushkin, who, I learn later in the interview, is Jaya Das’ wife. Neither look as if they were given these names by their parents. In fact, I learn, these new Hindu names are bestowed upon students by their teachers.
Both Jaya and Agni have led “previous” lives—that is, they had what most of us would consider more regular lives before they became members of the Kashi Atlanta Ashram. Agni still occupies parts of her old life. She serves as a pro bono attorney for the poor, having worked as an attorney for Legal Aid, the Southern Center for Civil Rights Enforcement and the Georgia Law Center for the Homeless.
“I’d gotten to this point where I was really burned out and [yoga] really got me past being so cynical,” she says.
Jaya Das came to Kashi looking for a way to loosen up his tense vocal chords; he had been the frontman for a band. The group sounded “kind of like early Replacements or Hûsker Dû,” Agni explains. Das says that his experience at the ashram led him to decide that his tense vocal chords were the result of a deeper problem.
“I started doing yoga here and the first thing I realized was that I was not locked up because of my voice—that it was an emotional thing,” he says. “I realized there was a crust around my heart.”
At first, says Jaya Das, his introduction to Kashi was overwhelming.
“We met Ma and initially I thought this isn’t for us,” he says, “but I kept feeling this energy.”
Eventually, both Agni and Jaya Das chose to follow the path that Ma espoused. Jaya left his job as a banking consultant and became the manager of the Kashi Atlanta Ashram. Both live in one of several communal homes the ashram maintains around the city.
Communal living and community service seem kind of strange in the modern Western world, but rather than dropping out of society, Kashi members do quite the opposite—they take part in all manner of community service.
“For this ashram and for all of Ma’s ashrams, service is a way to engage yourself,” Jaya Das says.
And living in the communal houses, says Jaya Devi, founder of the Kashi Atlanta Ashram, just helps to strengthen the bond among members.
“More than anything it’s about creating a spiritual community where there isn’t a bunch of judgment,” she says.
For most of the thousand or so Atlantans who come to Kashi simply to do yoga, the experience is as superficial as taking Jazzercise classes in the fellowship hall of a Baptist church. Kashi is indeed a spiritual movement, but, says Agni, “There’s a number of people here who follow Ma, but they are far outnumbered by the people who come here simply because they enjoy the teachings of yoga. We’re not going to foist our religion on other people at all. There’s no proselytizing.”
But there is community service. Indeed, one of the fundamental tenets of the students of Ma Jaya is kindness. And it’s not really Ma’s tenet at all; it’s one of the eight limbs of yoga. In that tradition, the Kashi ashram in Atlanta is dedicated to service for others. Jaya Devi is a close student of Ma’s and is regarded by her students and colleagues as a great teacher in her own right. She founded Kashi Atlanta more than a decade ago and, as part of the yoga program, began community service outings as well.
“It was a natural evolution,” she says. “I was teaching yoga and the spiritual aspects of yoga and I started Street Meals. Just me and some of my students feeding people and bringing them clothes.”
What began as 40 bag lunches 10 years ago has turned into a weekly outing that feeds between 400 and 500 Atlanta homeless each Wednesday.
“We’ve created a relationship with them,” says Jaya Das, who accompanies Jaya Devi to distribute the Street Meals. “The sandwiches are really a vehicle for letting people know they are not forgotten. Ma always says there are no throwaway people.”
Jaya Devi is also well-known for her work with AIDS patients back when people were still scared of contracting the disease from toilet seats.
“They were so discriminated against,” she tells SP. “That sparked me more than anything.”
Members of Kashi Atlanta also spend time with young patients at Egleston and Scottish Rite. Twice a month, members spend time with the kids in the hospitals, teaching them to make puppets and other projects during art time, and they also teach twice-monthly yoga classes during Tot Time, reserved especially for young patients ages 18 months to 5 years.
“I believe the patients have a joyful experience. It contributes to their healing,” says Meryl Franco, special events coordinator for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. She says she has never had anything but positive experiences with Kashi members and sounds a little bewildered when asked if she thinks Kashi might be a cult: “I’ve never gotten the impression they’re a cult. I think they’re a really wonderful group of people.”
It’s just such a reaction—Franco’s bewilderment—that has Kashi’s Gange concerned about the impact of SP’s article (parts of which were read to her for verification of facts before publication).
“Going into a spiritual opening, you’re fragile, you’re open for maybe the first time in your life, and seeing an article like this, it makes you question your heart’s guidance,” Gange says. “Your heart is saying ‘this feels good,’ and you feel good about it, but then you hear this and it brings in the whole thing about doubts again. It puts people back in a place where they are judging.”
She adds, “You are speaking your truth and then you come up against an article like this and you think ‘maybe I shouldn’t delve into this.’ And I’m not just talking about Kashi. There are huge numbers of people looking into yoga right now, a lot of people are searching, and this could hurt them. That’s what hurts about this kind of article. I see their struggle.”
What’s a cult?
Kashi’s image as a “cult” came under wide scrutiny during a spate of high-profile bad press in the early and late 1990s. A former spokesman for the group, Richard Rosenkranz, made a sudden departure from the Kashi organization in Roseland, Fla., in the midst of a divorce proceeding. While Rosenkranz alleged that he had suffered abuse while a member of Kashi, he settled his divorce out of court before witnesses had the chance to testify on his behalf.
In 1982, a couple who had also been Kashi members in Roseland left the group, leaving their 1-year-old daughter in the care and custody of Ma Jaya. Seven years later, at the couple’s behest, a SWAT team removed the girl from the Kashi group during an outing that she, Ma Jaya, and several other members had taken to a local movie theater.
Gange says the police removal of the child was unnecessary, that the parents knew they could have peacefully come back for the girl at any time and they had always been welcome to visit her.
“They basically just left and asked Ma to raise her,” she says. “They abandoned the child, they left her here, and that [the removal] was very traumatic for the child. She didn’t know those people. She was taken from the only mother she had ever known.”
She surmises that they felt guilty about leaving the child and the guilt prompted such a dramatic way of getting the child.
She points out that now Kashi has a positive, close relationship with local law enforcement in Florida as well as with the county commission and the mayor. The ashram is considered a well-established part of the community, not an outsider group where one would see such incidents.
“For 35 years, we have not had one crime,” says Gange. “That should say something.”
However, cult expert Rick Ross claims that there is evidence that the Kashi are indeed a cult.
“I certainly wouldn’t recommend the ashram to anyone under any circumstances,” Ross tells SP. “Joyce Green, who calls herself Ma, is a person who has absolute control over the ashram without any meaningful accountability.”
Ross cites the three criteria for a destructive cult that Dr. Robert Jay Lifton first posited in his 1981 critical study, “Cult Formation”:
The leader must have absolute authority and be at the center of the cult.
There must be a process of indoctrination that impairs critical thinking.
The leader does the group harm.
Ross says he believes that Kashi meets all three of these criteria.
“It is a personality-driven cult,” he says. “If you remove Ms. Green from its center, the group loses definition.” He adds, however, that not all personality-driven cults are destructive, pointing to Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Charity. Nor does the Buddhist sect surrounding the Dalai Lama appear to be destructive, he says.
“These are groups that are personality-driven and defer critical thinking to leaders who do no harm to them,” Ross says.
Gange counters, “Ma has been compared with Mother Teresa. She’s been called the Mother Teresa of the West, and she’s very good friends with the Dalai Lama.” She explains that Ma has created a celebration called World Tibet Day in honor of the Dalai Lama.
Besides, Ross’ Web site offers hundreds of links to articles on everyone including widely accepted figures like Benny Hinn and Jerry Falwell.
Another expert, Dr. Norman Adler, a professor of psychology at Yeshiva University in New York, says that, although at first glance the Kashi ashram may appear to outsiders to be a “cult,” the doctrinal devil is in the details. He says that the word “cult” is not a word used by scholars, but he agrees to employ it for the purposes of this article.
“‘Cults’ are kind of in the eye of the beholder,” Adler tells SP. “Sort of like how history is written by the winners.”
Adler says he is aware of Lifton’s criteria for destructive cults, but he says that there are other, more succinct ways of examining groups to determine whether they are dangerous to themselves and society. Foremost among the red flags is a leader’s demand that followers sever ties with their former lives and families, as well as a requirement that they give up their earthly possessions, possibly to the leader. Most importantly for the sake of identifying a “cult” is whether a leader commands followers to commit acts that run contrary to their own values or society’s values and laws.
Kashi doesn’t seem to fit into any of these criteria, and Adler says that some of the behaviors in which they engage actually separate them from other groups that have been considered cults—like members holding down regular jobs and interacting with the rest of society through service to the community, for instance.
“That’s unusual,” he says, “and I think that’s a healthy sign.”
Stephanie Ramage and Julie Douglas contributed reporting to this story.
May 6, 2007