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.

Ma Jaya spoke with a heavy Brooklyn accent and often reminisced about her New York childhood.
PRNewsFoto/Kashi Ashram/Newscom
Ma Jaya spoke with a heavy Brooklyn accent and often reminisced about her New York childhood.

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.

Those who condemn Ma Jaya emerged in a vicious 2001 divorce between former Kashi resident Richard Rosenkranz and his wife, Gina, who remains in the ashram. In court filings, several ex-church members remembered scenarios they say constitute mind control. One afternoon in the early 1980s, Richard Rosenkranz dipped his entire head into a vat of red paint. "When asked what had happened, he answered that he'd gotten the message from Ma," onetime resident Helene Rousseau recalled in a sworn statement.

Or they recalled Ma Jaya's sudden fixation on children after she had several miscarriages with her new husband, Soo Se Cho. Rosanne Henry is a former Ashram resident who's now a psychologist in Littleton, Colorado. "My husband and I wanted to have a child in 1981," she remembered in a deposition logged in the Rosenkranz divorce case. "But we had to ask permission."

Before she entered labor on October 21, 1981, Henry says she dyed her blond hair raven to impersonate Ma Jaya. She even signed the guru's name on her daughter's birth certificate. Then, after she was wheeled out of Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami carrying her newborn, she spotted a van full of Kashi followers. Without hesitation, she handed over her daughter, who was secreted back to the ranch. (Henry testified to all this in court, adding she did this because she believed Ma Jaya to be the "Divine Mother.")

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Larry Herrero
Larry Herrero

John Lennon (in part..): "Imagine there's no heaven....and no religion too...."

Michael Fiorellino
Michael Fiorellino

all religions started out as cults, so in my opinion all cults and religions are dangerous

Timothy Brenden Stout
Timothy Brenden Stout

Scouted the property to propose lighting for a wedding...thankful I did not get the job. Never been so creeped in all my life!

Lleo A Knight
Lleo A Knight

Ashrams ... people do not understand any way of life that isn't their own. I have no idea what was going on there, however these claims could be explained by people ignorant of the workings within the ashram