Earlier this week the Vero Beach Press Journal published "Ma's Ashram," a four-day series on Kashi, a Hindu ashram in Sebastian, Fla., founded by Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati. (She's known simply as "Ma" to followers and detractors alike). Staff writer Jayne Hustead did most of the heavy lifting for the series, and she writes with subtlety about an uncommon and embattled group.
Richard Rosenkranz, who was Kashi's spokesman for 18 of the 24 years he lived there, is now Ma's most visible critic. Rosenkranz and others accuse Ma of living extravagantly; practicing humiliation, mind control and voodoo; assaulting Rosenkranz's 13-year-old son; asking followers to give her their babies; and forging birth certificates.
Some of these allegations have been discussed in court cases involving divorce and child custody, but the Press Journal does not mention any investigation by police. Kashi officials dispute each of the accusations, and the 13-year-old is now 22 and says he fabricated the beating claim because he was desparate for attention from his father.
Hustead describes how Rosenkranz first came to follow Ma:
"Fifteen minutes after she came into the room ... I had an incredible, involuntary heart-opening experience," he said.
He saw her aura, too -- an aura, he said, "stronger and brighter than any I had seen up to that moment."
And so, 34-year-old Rosenkranz -- Yale graduate, Fulbright scholar, Pulitzer Prize nominee, prolific writer and pampered son of upper middle-class Jewish parents -- became a devotee of a high-school dropout who had proclaimed herself a spiritual teacher three years earlier.
Folk singer Arlo Guthrie has considered Ma his guru since 1985. He has repeatedly praised Ma as teaching him to care for the suffering -- whether people with AIDS, the elderly or the dying. Guthrie has never lived at the ashram, but divides his time between a longtime home in Massachusetts and a second home near Kashi. While he defends his guru, Guthrie agrees that life at Kashi is demanding.
"This is a very disciplined way of life that ain't for everybody," he told Hustead. "This is not day camp or play school. It takes a lot of work to do this."
The series is rich with details, including Kashi's ownership of Macho Products, which manufactures martial arts and police equipment; a brief profile of Kali Ma (her name means "Compassionate mother who consumes evil and protects her children"), who is the ashram's grandmother figure and its liaison to United Religions Initiative; and a feature about Arnold Pomerantz, a gay follower of Ma's who feeds homeless people in Los Angeles. (Pomerantz "credits his guru for showing him that a person's soul has neither gender [nor] sexual orientation."
Staff writer Katie Campbell, in exploring whether Kashi is a cult, unearths a wry detail: a school run by Kashi was not sufficiently Hindu to satisfy a Hindu parent:
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.
Author Laura Lee wrote about Guthrie and Ma in her book Arlo, Alice and Anglicans: The Lives of a New England Church (2000). Lee describes the evening when Guthrie reconsecrated the church in Housatonic, Mass., that was the setting of his song "Alice's Restaurant" and Arthur Penn's subsequent film. Ma was there for the evening, and so was Alice Brock, the restaurateur mentioned in Guthrie's song.
Lee describes the more skeptical responses to Ma's presence:
"She was this absolutely exotic woman," says one observer. "There was a couch and a couple of people who obviously weren't well, and she started to do a promotion of her thing. She totally upstaged Arlo and Alice. Every once in a while she'd snap her fingers and say, 'Let's have a song, Arlo.'"
Alice says the whole thing made her uncomfortable. "I didn't like Ma. This was Arlo's guru. I didn't want to make a big stink, but this woman was like a queen. I went. I was happy for Arlo. He wanted me there, so I went. I thought it was kind of ludicrous. Once she was being filmed and she pushed me out of the way. I was just kind of laughing. Here is this dame, she's my age, she's from Brooklyn, she's Jewish, just like me, but she had this giant scam. You become a leader, you become a religious figure, and people worship you, and they pay."