A Press Journal special report
As others who left the Kashi Ashram before him, Richard Rosenkranz now expresses amazement, sometimes horror, at things he did and allegiances he held while a member of Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati’s new-age religion congregation in Roseland.
And, as those who went before him, he now believes he was in a cult, whose leader manipulated and controlled her followers down to the smallest detail of their lives. He and others say she used mind-control tactics some experts might describe as brainwashing and most would admit are powerful forms of persuasion, if not coercion.
Those who promote Bhagavati and her teaching at the 11155 Roseland Road ashram deny there is anything cult-like about Kashi.
To the contrary, they say Bhagavati is an AIDS and human-rights activist, author, artist and protector of the poor and the downtrodden. Her mission, they say, is world peace and the end of human suffering.
Richard Rosenkranz is the manipulator, they have said, upset he could not have his way in his divorce and other matters, both on and off the ashram.
But 62-year-old Rosenkranz insists his 24-year association with Bhagavati was the product of undue influence she brought to bear on him.
Repeated stories of miracles and sleep deprivation, plus “all sorts of other things got me into a state where I believed and accepted that (Bhagavati) was enlightened and my guru and that I had to follow her orders,” he said. “In a way, it was like I had been with Christ or with Moses … and the question of not doing it was not in the picture.”
According to several experts on the sociology and psychology of cults, the life Rosenkranz and other ex-Kashi members describe at the ashram closely resembles a cult. But whether Ma Jaya strove to, or even could, brainwash them is another matter entirely.
Love conquers all
People get involved with groups such as Kashi voluntarily because they see something attractive in them, said Rob Balch, professor of sociology at the University of Montana in Missoula and an expert in unconventional religions.
Balch likened the cult attraction to falling in love. “Only it’s a kind of neurotic dependency, a kind of love where the followers are so enamored of the leader,” he says, they “put any ugliness they see on the back burner” of their minds.
- Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Collaborationism and Research Integrity, Part 1, Chapter 1 of Misunderstanding Cults
In essence, “it’s like being in love with someone not really in love with you,” Balch says, “and that gives the leader a lot of power over you.”
Group members crave the leader’s approval and feel bad when it’s not given, Balch noted. Then when they get jilted they flip — changing from devoted follower to angry critic. “And that’s where all the brainwashing charges come in,” he said.
Theologian J. Gordon Melton, who also researches and writes about new religions and how they impact people, agrees, to a degree.
“There’s no evidence people get suckered in (to these groups),” said Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif. But if they think they have been suckered in, they begin claiming they were brainwashed, he said.
Is inner circle spin city?
Experts said a characteristic of many cults is a charismatic leader, words often used to describe Ma Jaya by her followers, her former students and those in the media who have met her.
And a charismatic leader with an inner circle of devotees is fairly stereotypical of cults, said Balch, who teaches classes on the sociology of alternative religions and extraordinary group behavior, among others.
Members of a cult’s inner circle are the “ones who compromise themselves the most,” he said. Those in the inner circle are extremely protective and screen information before giving it to the group, he said. “They end up keeping secrets” about what goes on, “secrets they don’t even tell family members,” he adds.
Balch, who said he is not anti-cult, worked briefly in 1993 on a cult research project with Melton.
That’s when he said he learned Melton and a team of three other researchers had conducted a study of Kashi in the early ’90s that never saw the light of day — a study ex-Kashi members said was buried to avoid embarrassing Kashi with damaging information.
To the contrary, Melton “found nothing destructive at Kashi and instead returned several times later and became a friend of the community,” said Sita Gange, the ashram’s public relations director.
More recently, Melton — who said he is friends with both Rosenkranz and Ma Jaya — agreed to address the issue of brainwashing on behalf of Gina Rosenkranz as part of the Rosenkranzes’ bitter divorce that ended with a settlement in March 2002.
Melton said he agreed to submit an affidavit on the issue but refused to testify if the case went to trial.
His concern, he said, were recent allegations of violence at Kashi voiced by ex-Kashi members, including Richard Rosenkranz, who during the 15-month-long divorce battle launched a public crusade to discredit Kashi.
“There was some discussion of corporal punishment” during the early ’90s study, “but nothing approaching a beating,” Melton said, referring to Rosenkranz’s allegations that both children and adults have been beaten or abused on the ashram at Ma Jaya’s direction.
However, the allegations don’t necessarily surprise Melton.
Over time, intense blowups are to be expected among such a well-educated bunch, most of whom are college educated and strong-willed and who “don’t take a lot from anybody,” Melton said. “We found few wallflowers and violets” during the early ’90s study, he added, noting he suspects some of the conflicts “amounted to two people exchanging fisticuffs.”
Melton also said he has monitored Ma Jaya’s work with AIDS patients both here and in Los Angeles since she took up the cause in 1993 or 1994, but said he has had little contact with Kashi since 1999.
That’s another reason he declined to testify on Kashi’s behalf in court. New religions such as Kashi “are fast-moving groups that change significantly every five years,” Melton said.
Balch readily agreed these kinds of groups undergo rapid change. As a researcher who conducts firsthand ethnographic studies of cults, Balch said even intensive time spent with a group is just “a snapshot in time.”
A group’s evolution takes various twists and turns. “Some groups are benign for a long while and then something tips them the wrong way,” or vice versa, Balch said.
Ex-members usually are trapped in the time period when they left, “and that becomes their sole focus when they look back,” he said.
Brainwashing: fact or fiction?
As for brainwashing, academics have been debating the question since the 1950s, when there was “a misunderstanding of Chinese indoctrination” of American prisoners during the Korean War, Melton said.
Many studies since have refuted the idea of brainwashing, but the term persists in the American lexicon, leading Melton to conclude that while the public may believe brainwashing exists, the scientific community does not.
However, many cult researchers do not deny that coercive persuasion can and often does occur.
“Brainwashing is a mystery,” Balch said, “but groups can use very powerful means of persuasion (that get) people to do things they would never have done before.”
And Ohio psychologist Paul R. Martin goes even further.
He says brainwashing can and does occur with “uncanny resemblance” among battered women, political prisoners and religious cults.
Study: Kashi is in control
Based on interviews with Rosenkranz and 20 other ex-Kashi members, Martin concluded in a report dated March 9, 2002, that Kashi exerted undue influence over Rosenkranz and the other study participants.
Rosenkranz commissioned Martin — a psychologist and director of the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center in Albany, Ohio, where people are helped to recover from what Martin calls coercive persuasion — to do a study on Kashi after he petitioned for an annulment from his wife of 19 years on grounds he had been coerced into the union by Ma Jaya.
Rosenkranz said his ex-wife was a Ma Jaya follower before he was and remains one of the guru’s highest-ranking female monks.
As part of the study, Martin compared the information provided by Rosenkranz and the other ex-Kashi members to the methods used to form cults that were defined in 1991 by Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist who began studying thought reform during the Korean War.
Martin concluded that Kashi fit Lifton’s model closely.
For one thing, Kashi controls much of the communication among group members by requiring “permission to cut your hair, get married, have children, get divorced …what-ever,” he said. Everything “had to have approval by Ma.”
Martin also said he found evidence that the leadership uses religious techniques, such as fasting, chanting and limited sleep, to create pawn-like behavior among the ashram residents.
” ‘Surrendering your ego’ … was almost the entire theme at Kashi,” and a constant source of tension between Ma Jaya and her students, he said.
“The boundaries between self and the group become blurred” and actions go unchecked, he concluded, “because there’s only one source of truth and that’s the truth of the guru.”
Melton countered, however, in his trial affidavit that while coercive persuasion can occur, a necessary component is physical confinement. Even then, he says, such persuasion is rarely successful and the end result very unstable. “Individuals so coerced (tend) to revert to their previous condition soon after coercion (is) removed.”
Balch said he would look at a group’s history and get a sense of its trends before applying any label or assuming any coercion.
“What makes these groups so interesting to me … is all their little twists and turns and complexities and ambiguities,” he said.
Profiles of cult experts
Robert W. Balch, Ph.D., has been teaching at the University of Montana for 32 years, focusing on unconventional religions. He has studied in-depth such groups as Heaven’s Gate, the Love Family and Aryan Nations. He has written about conversion, commitment, defection, charisma and corruption of authority, among other topics, and recently co-wrote a piece on “Making Sense of the Heaven’s Gate Suicides,” that appeared last year in “Cults, Religion & Violence,” edited by J. Gordon Melton and David Brompley.
Paul R. Martin, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in Ohio, where he has been director of the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center for 16 years. The center is a residential treatment facility for victims of coercive persuasion or psychological captivity and is the only professionally staffed facility of its kind in the United States, according to the affidavit he submitted in the Rosenkranz divorce case. In May 1993, Martin received the American Family Foundation’s John G. Clark award for distinguished scholarship in cult studies.
J. Gordon Melton, Ph.D., is director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif., and a research specialist with the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California — Santa Barbara. He has studied and written on the topic of brainwashing and cults for more than two decades, according to his affidavit submitted in the Rosenkranz divorce case. In the early 1990s, he spent about a week at the ashram as part of a research team hired by Kashi to study its lifestyle and practices. He also says Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati’s work with AIDS patients in Los Angeles is impressive.
Robert Jay Lifton, M.D., is a distinguished professor of psychology and psychiatry at John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He has written widely on the topic of thought reform and cult formation since the early 1960s. His paper “Cult Formation,” which appeared in “The Harvard Mental Health Letter” in February 1991, is the basis for the comparisons made by Paul R. Martin in his study on Kashi.
1. Milieu control: “Permission was needed to do certain things,” such as get a haircut, get married, have children, divorce and job seek.
2. Sacred science: “A generally uniform theme that Kashi was the only path.”
3. Cult of confession: “There was constant attacking of the ego, and the response was acquiescence.”
4. Loaded language: “There just wasn’t a rational way or mechanism to question the guru.”
5. Doctrine over person: “Surrendering your ego … was almost the entire theme at Kashi.”
6. Demand for purity: The “all-out purge of the ego that is incessant and unyielding and never abating” was a constant theme.
7. Mystical manipulation: “Ma is probably one of the most unique masters in producing a euphoria and instilling an energy in these people.”
8. Dispensing of existence (threatening a nonbeliever’s right to exist): “We see a myriad of ways she’s dispensed existence from spiritual anathema to threats of bad reincarnation.”