The night the dark-haired guru declared herself greater than God, the chanting started at dusk.
Scores of sweaty followers squeezed around a platform and closed their eyes. Their features slackened, and they rocked to a rhythmic mantra echoing inside the cramped hall. Before them, sinking into an ocean of pillows, was Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati: the guru. In the candlelight, her gold-wrapped wrists and white teeth glowed like fire. She was the one who could swallow their pain and make it vanish.
A hush settled over the room. "When the Christ first came to me," she called out in a Brooklyn accent as thick as her long, equine hair, "when I anxiously waited for him to appear, afraid that he would and more afraid he wouldn't, I turned on every light in my house. When he appeared then, my house looked dark — to his brightness, the house looked dark."
The guru paused, and a chubby blond girl wearing white-rimmed glasses began plucking a one-stringed instrument. The guru smiled, and her grins infected the audience like a contagion. Her black eyes were big. Her smile widened. The moment was near.
"But," the guru began, quelling the mantra with one word, "the guru is greater than God. Flesh man knows. The guru you can see and touch and feel. God, unless you're perfect, you cannot."
She closed her eyes. "The guru," she intoned as the supplicants melted into a trance, "is greater than God."
The phrase would reverberate across the decades. From this 1977 retreat in California until her death last year, Ma Jaya's infallibility was nearly unquestioned by her followers. At an isolated Florida ranch near Sebastian, 20 miles north of Vero Beach, she cocooned herself with hundreds who'd abandoned home and family to worship her like a deity. Together, they formed what would become the Kashi Ashram. "I am the breath," she told them. "I am inside you."
For many, to exist near Ma Jaya — a beguiling New Yorker with a tenth-grade education — was rapture. To them, her dogma was beyond the mortal ken. There was incredible benevolence and service to the sick and dying, which eventually afforded her audiences with Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama and lured high-profile fans like actress Julia Roberts and folksinger Arlo Guthrie.
But there were also stories of profound cruelty and despotism. Eight former followers interviewed by New Times say Kashi members were beaten for disobedience or spiritual cleansing. A man said he dunked his head into a vat of red paint because Ma Jaya had asked him to. Masked teenagers reportedly battered a 13-year-old boy with rocks inside socks because he'd angered their leader.
In the church's 35 years of existence, adherents claim abuses including beatings, pedophilia, forgery of official documents, and extortion occurred by order of Ma Jaya, according to a New Times analysis of never-before-disclosed court filings, psychological studies, police records, and dozens of interviews with former members. "Kashi Ashram fits every criteria of a destructive cult," says Rick Ross, a nationally recognized authority based in New Jersey. "And the most defining element of a cult is a charismatic leader."
Now, months after Ma Jaya's death, her adult daughter has sued the Kashi Church Foundation in Miami court. She claims much more happened on the ranch than anyone knew and has pushed the church, which still has hundreds of members in New York, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, into quite possibly its most contested episode to date. In 1981, when she was 14 years old, Ma Jaya's daughter says she was raped repeatedly by a 25-year-old church member.
And her mother had ordered it.
Once — before the name changes and the jewelry and the acolytes — the guru didn't exist. Five decades ago, there was only an impoverished and garrulous Jewish teenager named Joyce Green tending a quiver of umbrellas along the boardwalk on Coney Island. Every night, as the sun set, the 16-year-old returned to her family's basement apartment of peeling paint and mold in Brooklyn.
One day at the beach, a confident olive-skinned kid named Sal DiFiore sauntered up to the girl. To him, Joyce Green was beautiful, her black hair tangled and teeth gleaming. She loved to gab and was drop-dead funny, recalls DiFiore, today age 75 and still in Brooklyn. "None of her family was like that," he says. "They were very poor. You could tell by the clothes she wore. Her father was a loser."
After they married a year later, the young couple fashioned a traditional Brooklyn life of three children, lasagna dinners at 6 p.m. sharp, and Sundays with relatives. But even then, the young wife showed sweeping vanity and a combustible temperament, says DiFiore, who later divorced her. She gained weight easily, spurring several bouts of depression, says the ex-husband, who drove a Coca-Cola route. One day, while Green was devouring a meal, he looked upon her with disgust and said sarcastically, "You should eat a little."