The Power of Place: the Transfer of Charismatic Authority to an American Ashram
It has largely been assumed that when an intentional community loses its charismatic leader for one reason or another, the group will most likely disband unless that individual’s charisma has become routinized. The Kashi Ashram in Sebastian, Florida, is a spiritual community that was established, thanks to the vision of their Guru, Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati. Her students were so devoted to her that her physical death in 2012 could have initiated a crisis in the community. Although bureaucratic offices had been established to carry out some of the necessary functions of the Ashram, no one came close to filling her role as a spiritual teacher. And yet, more than 6 years later, new members are still joining the community and the way they describe Ma’s presence in their lives is little different from how older members that knew Ma in this lifetime talk about her. While I do not disagree that the routinization of charisma is an important step in ensuring the longevity of new religious movements, in this paper, I argue that an individual’s charisma may be transferred to a geographic place such that the Ashram becomes an active agent in the attraction and retention of new members.
KeywordsAshram Charisma Intentional community Hinduism
“There is a grace that brings you here. It is called the grace of mutual consent. It comes from a very deep place. It’s like a magnet.” –Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati November 16, 2001
By afternoon on my second full day at the Ashram, I felt awful. Even one of the visitors from Atlanta, who was there for the annual Guru Purnima celebration during which Hindu devotees across the world honor their teachers, noticed that I was not doing well. My head was throbbing to the point where I was nauseous and could barely think. Granted, I had skipped my morning coffee…but this seemed a bit severe for caffeine withdrawal. I mentioned it to a few people later, after a nap and some ibuprofen had me feeling more like myself again. Oh yes, they had seen this before. They dismissed my etic explanation (caffeine withdrawal). I was suffering from a shakti headache.
In the Hindu belief system, shakti refers to creative energy or life force. As a sacred site, Kashi Ashram in Sebastian, Florida, has a lot of shakti. The energy was even more pronounced than normal because of the timing of my visit. Seekers from across the country were gathered there to honor their guru, Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati (or simply Ma as people in this community often call her), even though she left her physical body in 2012. I was told that everyone responds differently to the shakti on the Kashi property. And I was told that some people simply are not ready to be in such a sacred space or confront the aspects of themselves that this energy tends to bring to the surface. A frequent visitor to the Ashram compared it to going to the mountains; it takes a while for your body to adjust to the altitude. In light of this, my headache was completely understandable. I did not suffer another one for the duration of my visit.
The word “ashram” calls to mind a spiritual retreat, a hermitage for monks who separate themselves from the world in order to attain some transcendent bliss. Kashi Ashram both is and is not this. The short drive from the airport barely gave me enough time to get used to my rental car. If you drive past the hospital and then hang a right at the Walgreens, Kashi’s gated entrance will appear just a quarter mile or so past a Christian church, surrounded by fairly nondescript, middle-class subdivisions. The gates remain open during the day, but as I arrived at night, I had to enter a code before the mechanical gate would swing open.
As soon as I entered the property, it was as if the mere 3 miles to town and multiplied a hundredfold. A statue of Ganesh rose out of a fountain just beyond the gates, and I was soon wrapped in an embrace by my main contact at the Ashram. Daylight would reveal that the road we followed from the entrance to the guest house was little different than any other suburban neighborhood in southern Florida. Street lamps stood at regular intervals, nicely kept single-family homes lined the street, and residents had put their trash bins out at the curb for city-pickup. The house where I stayed was one of several communal homes on the property, where residents are expected to maintain a vegetarian and alcohol- and substance-free environment. Residents who own their own homes within the Ashram, however, are permitted more freedom as long as they do not flaunt their choices. A resident handbook outlines many of these codes of conduct, even if few people actually consult it on a regular basis.
Penetrating the perimeter of the inhabited portion of this 80-acre property reveals a hidden gem. The centerpiece of this spiritual community is a man-made pond that is referred to as the Ganga, evoking the sacred river in India that has the power to end the cycle of death and rebirth. The ashes of more than 1000 people who died from AIDS have been poured into this sacred body of water. While many Hindus believe that to have one’s ashes sprinkled in the holy Ganges in India will allow the deceased to escape the cycle of reincarnation known as samsara (see Oestigaard 2009), the same claim is not made of the Ganga at Kashi. However, the community does believe that to have one’s ashes immersed in these sacred waters bodes well for his or her next life. Surrounding the Ganga are a number of temples and shrines dedicated to various deities from different religious traditions. While there are of course several dedicated to Hindu deities like Hanuman (the monkey god known for his selfless devotion and service), there are also statues of Jesus Christ and Buddha, a Sikh temple, and stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments, a testament to Ma’s belief that all religions should be honored and respected.
Kashi Ashram is built upon a foundation of Indian tradition, but, as the director of their yoga school told me, it is also a distinctly American institution, with a female guru, which is uncommon. Ma, who was raised Jewish and married to a Catholic man, experienced a spiritual awakening in 1972; two years later, her guru—Neem Karoli Baba—appeared to her in a disembodied form. Neem Karoli Baba (c. 1900–1973)—called Maharaj-ji by his followers—was devoted to Lord Hanuman, praising selfless service to others and practicing bhakti yoga (loving devotion to god). He had devoted followers throughout India, but also became known to Americans through the teachings of Bhagavan Dass (born Kermit Riggs) and Ram Dass (born Richard Alpert) and musician Krishna Das (born Jeffrey Kagel). Neem Karoli Baba also purportedly inspired Steve Jobs, though they never met in person, and his legacy has led to the foundation of multiple philanthropic organizations such as the Seva Foundation, an international health organization.
Answering the call to become a religious teacher necessitated that Ma walk away from her rather conventional life as a wife and mother. In the early 70s, she began establishing communal homes in Queens for her students and over the next few years, built a strong base of students all over the country in places like Los Angeles, CA, and Boulder, CO. In the early years of her development as a religious teacher, Ma and Ram Dass traveled in similar circles and were well acquainted as they did share the same guru, but each established their own ashram and went their own way. In 1976, Ma established “The Ranch” in Sebastian, Florida, which later became Kashi Ashram.
Whereas the setting for Ram Dass’s ashram, Taos, New Mexico, lends itself to countercultural experimentations, Sebastian is a conservative, right-leaning community of just over 20,000 people. Less glitzy than other places on the coast, it attracts a number of tourists that come to fish and enjoy the water. Residents are primarily white and slightly older than average for the state of Florida (city-data.com 2019). When Ma and her chelas first moved into the area, there was a significant amount of skepticism regarding the group’s intentions. Rather than being seen as a monastic community, which is what Kashi is, many people in the area suspected that Ma was running some sort of a cult. Residents of Kashi have worked hard to establish a positive relationship with the larger community. They participate in community events, invite the community to tour the grounds, and classes at their yoga studio are open to the public. Members of Kashi participate in local government and collaborate with their fellow Sebastian citizens on projects that support the region as a whole like watershed protection. Though some residents are still unsure about the Ashram, there is much less animosity than there once was and Kashi enjoys a mostly positive relationship with the town.
During her life, Ma’s way of speaking upended popular expectations of who a religious person should be. In her strong Brooklyn accent, she scolded her chelas (devotees), yelling that if they claimed to love her, but did not love themselves, that was “bullshit.”1 In the 1990s when many religious leaders wanted to turn a blind eye to the AIDS epidemic, she stood on a chair at the Parliament of World Religions and insisted that they listen to her. She took the ashes of someone who died from AIDS and risked arrest by throwing them over the fence and onto the White House lawn in a political statement about the necessity of dealing with this crisis. Though she might ask people to leave if she felt like they were not ready for her teachings, she acted from a place of radical love, creating a haven for members of the LGBTQ community, and so many others who were seeking something more than American society at large seemed to offer.
Without a doubt, Ma was a charismatic leader. In the early years of the Ashram, before an expansion of facilities, people were happy to sleep on the floor of a crowded room just to be at Kashi.2 Her chelas would sometimes stay awake all night long to be with her and absorb the teachings. But, as many groups with charismatic leaders have found, it is difficult to maintain an intentional community beyond the passing of that individual. Ma left her physical body in 2012, yet the community is still in existence. True, new residents move in at a much slower rate than they did during Ma’s lifetime, but the Ashram continues to attract many people. The anthropomorphizing of the word ashram in the previous sentence is no accident. In fact, it is the crux of my argument. In this paper, I argue that within the Kashi community, the Ashram itself has become an extension of Ma’s charisma.
Since Max Weber’s writings in the 1920s, social scientists have agreed that in order for a new religious movement (NRMs) to take hold and thrive beyond the death of its charismatic founder, that charismatic authority must be routinized. In practical terms, this refers to the creation of bureaucratic roles or offices so that the founder’s vision can be perpetuated when he/she is no longer there to guide the process. In the case of Kashi Ashram, this translates into the development of a process for selecting swamis, the institution of a business office to manage the day-to-day affairs of the Ashram, and a coordinated effort to maintain Ma’s legacy. Some of this was underway before her passing, but much of it had to be developed after 2012 (and some processes—such as how to select/induct new swamis—are still being developed). In this sense, Kashi appears to have survived the routinization of charisma that is so important for the perpetuation a new religious group3; however, Ma’s charisma has not disappeared. In addition to the routinization of charisma that NRMs must undergo if they are to outlast their founder, Kashi has been successful in attracting new members because Ma’s charismatic authority has been transferred to the place that her life and work made sacred.
I spent 2 weeks in July/August of 2018 at the Kashi Ashram in Sebastian, Florida, conducting participant observation fieldwork during the celebration of Guru Purnima and accessing materials in the Ashram’s archives. The community archivist tirelessly recorded Ma’s teachings, retreats, and aspects of the community’s daily life (e.g., group outings to the beach, roller-hockey games, holiday programs) through video and audio recordings. Some of these have been digitized and transcribed by members of the community as a form of seva (service), though the vast majority remain in an off-site storage facility. Textual materials in their private repository include extensive collections of newspaper clippings with stories that have been written about Ma and Kashi as well as advertisements for yoga classes and announcements of public events being held at the Ashram (e.g., tours, community meals, farmers’ markets). The archive also houses an extensive collection of Ma’s scrapbooks. It was through the generosity of the Kashi community that I was able to access these recordings and documents as they are not in the public domain.
The archive contains 83 volumes of scrapbooks, which Ma titled “Bone & Ash.” She assembled them at an astonishing rate, beginning right after her devoted student Dr. Thomas “Billy” Byrom passed away in 1991. By the end of that year, she had already completed 41 volumes. It is not clear whether or not each book had a particular theme, and mementos, photos, letters, and reflections are put together without regard for chronological sequence. In volume 5, she addresses the purpose of the books, which is “to befriend death as someone you must visit at the end of each lifetime.” These books have provided comfort and joy to her chelas. For a researcher, they contain a wealth of information about how Ma viewed her work and what remembrances she most cherished; however, many of the thank you notes and miscellaneous letters she collected do not contain dates or concrete information about the senders’ identities. Therefore, I have done my best to piece together this information by examining the surrounding context and asking members of the community for their insights.
My participant observation included attendance at temple events, assisting with the preparations for Guru Purnima, participating in Guru Purnima, partaking of communal meals, taking yoga classes, and spending time in casual conversation with long-term residents and short-term visitors alike. My observations were recorded in detailed fieldnotes. I also conversed with several regular visitors to the Ashram via phone (and in one case, in person at a town approximately an hour away from the Ashram). This article results from my hermeneutic interpretation of my data from all sources mentioned above.
The Guru Tradition
In much the same way that Jakobsh (2008) struggled to characterize the 3HO organization—founded by the late Yogi Bhajan—as an NRM or as a branch of Sikhism, the practices of Kashi are also difficult to characterize. On the one hand, the focus on shakti (creative energy), meditation, pujas (rituals), kirtan (praise singing), bhakti (devotion), and yoga are very much aligned with traditional branches of Hinduism, keeping in mind that Hinduism encompasses a wide variety of spiritual beliefs and practices. Furthermore, Ma aligned herself with Neem Karoli Baba and was also influenced by Bhagawan Nityananda, whose successor Krishna Rai (Muktananda) went on to create Siddha yoga. Thus, she was clearly inspired by Indian Hinduism. Yet, there are aspects of the group’s practices and beliefs that are distinctly American (e.g., the feminist orientation of male and female leaders alike). Furthermore, residents of Kashi describe their community as being interfaith, with several individuals claiming affinity with religions other than Hinduism. Nonetheless, they are deeply committed to the Guru tradition.
In India, the importance of having a guru to pass on wisdom and facilitate a seeker’s journey to enlightenment is a well-documented one dating back to antiquity (see Lucia 2018) and is central to understanding Hinduism (Healy 2010). Ralston (1989, 55) outlines the four main functions of gurus as follows: “(a) to instruct the disciple in the spiritual ideal and the means of attaining it; (b) to awaken the power of spiritual intuition; (c) to remove egoism by correction; and (d) to connect the disciple to a particular spiritual tradition.” There is a “felt magnetism” between the guru and chela that is at least in part attributable to the guru’s ability to help a chela cultivate his or her shakti (Lucia 2018:954). While spiritual devotion is not necessary for the casual yoga student or a volunteer in the permaculture gardens to participate in the Ashram community, those who identify as Ma’s chelas hold their relationship with the Guru dear to their hearts.
While it is possible to have a guru and develop a relationship with him/her without living in an ashram, these “spontaneous [communities] of seekers or disciples” develop so that devotees may experience intensive guidance from their guru (Ralston 1989, 54). The various routines of spiritual discipline to which seekers in these communities are subjected are tools to help them attain fulfillment (ibid). In some cases, the exercises to which devotees are subjected may feel extreme (see Lindholm 2002)—and long-term residents of Kashi talk about the 1980s as a decade in which they endured difficult demands, like being woken up in the middle of the night and asked to change rooms with other residents at what seemed like a moment’s notice. This represents ancient spiritual teachings that help the aspirant divest himself or herself of unnecessary attachment. And yet their devotion to the Guru, in no small part because of her charisma, led them to do so without protest.
Though it is more common for Hindus to have a relationship with a living guru (Aymard 2014; Healy 2010), it is possible for an individual to be guided by a guru who has already left his (or less often her) body. Individuals who find themselves drawn to a guru who has already left his or her body “are in no less certainty as to their guidance than those who followed them in their lifetime” (Ralston 1989, 58). In other words, Ma’s followers who have become involved in Kashi after her physical passing in 2012 are not unusual in the strength of their commitment to someone they have not met in this lifetime. In fact, it is an accepted practice in Hinduism and the ashrams established by these now-deceased individuals often become pilgrimage sites for devotees (see Aymard 2014). In this sense, what I describe here as the centripetal pull of the Ashram is not novel; rather, what this article adds to our understanding of an ashram’s pull on devotees is an explanation for how this happens.
The Paradox of Charismatic Leadership
Though Weber’s notion of charisma has been applied heavily in the study of religion (including NRMs), his articulation of this concept was meant to have broad application (Feuchtwang 2008). As Feuchtwang (2008:91) writes, “charisma was invented as a concept for the interpretation and analysis of modernity, secularity, and disenchantment, though it [is] also applicable in principle to any period of history in any civilization or culture.” For this reason, I have opted not to split-hairs in terms of assigning Kashi’s belief system to a particular quadrant of a typology (e.g., Stark and Bainbridge 1987). For the purposes of my discussion, I am referencing NRMs because there is a great deal of useful literature that has been written on charisma in NRMs; however, these scholars’ observations could be applied equally well to sects of established religions or even secular institutions like intentional communities that formed around the leadership of a particularly charismatic individual (see Brumann 2000).4
Charismatic leaders of NRMs excite and energize their devotees, who will in turn go to great lengths to carry out the leader’s vision and plans. Although the NRMs of the 1960s and 1970s have often been disparaged as ”cults” or experienced persecution from the establishment (see Jakobsh 2008), and some charismatic leaders of NRMs have abused their power (Lindholm 2002; Lucia 2018), this does not have to be the case.
Whether discussing NRMs or intentionally communities—and Kashi is an example of both—charismatic leadership in these organizations is an unstable form of organization. Groups that are founded upon a charismatic leader’s vision tend to disperse after the leader dies or walks away from the community for some reason. However, Max Weber—the authoritative voice on charismatic leadership—did make provisions for situations in which the charisma of a leader was strong and pervasive enough to [outlast] “the historical person who embodied it” (Korom 2014, 20). The institutionalization or routinization of this charisma serves as a foundation for the community that carries on the leader’s vision beyond his/her passing. If such a group is going to survive, the leader’s charisma “must be rationalized and rigidified into a new tradition, based on the followers’ interpretations of the leader’s original message” (Lindholm 2002, 358–9). As new positions are created in order to carry out the vision of the original leader, “[t]he visionary must be replaced by the bureaucrat; the priest must take the place of the prophet” (ibid, 359). This routinization of charisma is the only way—it has been assumed since Weber took up this issue in the 1920s—that a movement founded upon charisma rather than legal-rationality can persist beyond the death of the movement’s founder.
Weber is not the only individual who has taken up this idea of what binds religious devotees or other identity groups together. Yet his work is notable for describing the processes that would allow a charismatically led group to become institutionalized and more stable. Whether one favors Weber’s notion of charismatic leadership or Durkheim’s focus, the collective ecstasy experienced by individuals who rally around such an individual what they have in common is that some shared experience helps people transcend the routines of everyday life, thus strengthening the bonds and collective identity of that group (Lindholm 2002), a point of course later elaborated by Victor Turner in his work on communitas. Yet, the routinization of charisma comes at a cost, at least theoretically. When the leader is gone, or if he/she has handed over the duties of running the organization to a bureaucratic hierarchy of workers, the charismatic power to attract new followers is weakened.
Take, for instance, what occurred in Bawa Muhaiy Addeen’s NRM. Guru Bawa came to the USA in 1971 at the request of an American woman who, almost a decade earlier, had a spiritual experience that she could not explain. Searching for an explanation led her to Guru Bawa and after 2 years’ worth of long-distance correspondence, she facilitated his move to Philadelphia. Here, he became the leader of a small fellowship of devotees that moved into a row home in West Philadelphia (Korom 2014). Over time, the followers of Guru Bawa’s idiosyncratic variant of Sufism routinized his charisma “by creating stricter rules of belief and behavior, strengthening institutional infrastructure, and expanding membership by disseminating the founder’s teachings through various forms of media” (Korom 2014, 31).
Although Weber clearly postulated the process through which a charismatic leader could build a bureaucracy to carry on his/her vision after his death (i.e., the routinization of charisma), scholars continue to believe that for most groups, the death of a leader will be a crisis event from which few are able to recover and thrive (see Healy 2010). It tends to be the groups that have already routinized the leader’s charismatic authority before his/her death that are most successful in surviving the founder’s death (ibid). The degree of dominance displayed by the leaders also appears to be predicative of a group’s lifespan (Brumann 2000). Groups with moderately dominant leaders tend to have longer lifespans than those with highly dominant leaders (ibid). By all accounts, Ma was a highly dominant leader. Using Brumman’s (2000) criteria for dominant leadership, members believe in her divinity, she enjoyed the unconditional devotion of members, she “ate” their karma through a process to which she was not subjected, and she experienced visions and supernatural revelatory experiences.
Why has Kashi been able to escape the fate of other NRMs and intentional communities founded on the vision of a highly dominant charismatic leader? One possibility is that the charisma of the Guru has been transferred to the Ashram itself. The way newcomers talk about the Ashram’s magnetic pull in fact mirrors the ways in which long-term residents and affiliates of the Ashram talk about Ma’s charisma and her propensity to “call” her chelas “home” to the ashram. In both instances, agency is attributed to someone or something other than themselves (i.e., the Guru or the Ashram) and occurrences that might seem random to outsiders are narratively constructed as evidence of a power greater than the self.
Kashi Ashram During Ma’s Lifetime: 1976–2012
When the Ranch—later Kashi Ashram—was first established, some people were living in Florida permanently while others remained in New York. Ma developed a rotational system that would encourage an exchange between the two groups. Every 6 or 7 months, small groups of New York students would have the opportunity to visit Florida for a week at a time. During a darshan (witnessing, viz. teaching, according to the Ashram) that was recorded in 1975, Ma said “these kids come back [from Florida] with a new essence and a new joy…” Recreational travel is known to hold restorative power (see Graburn 1983), but this should be seen as more of a pilgrimage than a vacation. Even at this early date, the Ashram was a wellspring of shakti.
Other evidence of the power people have felt at the Ashram can be found in letters that visitors sent to Ma after their visit, which Ma included in her Bones & Ash books. Take, for instance, this letter that was sent to Ma from someone named Jay in November of 1991:
Dearest Ma, It is with a heart-filled with love that I write this note to you. From the moment we arrived at the Ranch a feeling of love and acceptance has filled my being. I love you very much and thank you for allowing me to be part of your extended family. I will treasure my memories of my days here at the Ranch. I look forward to when I will be able to return. Thank you for your love and guidance. It has truly been a joy to see and experience the wonderful work you and your family are doing for the community and the world. As I continue to work through my illness and the challenges it presents I look forward to being able to serve others and help others in whatever ways I can. Thank you again for your inspiration and love. I love you, Jay.
On the one hand, this may be considered a very straightforward thank you note that could be sent to anyone who hosted you in their home. Yet, there are a few things I would like to highlight. First, note the emphasis on love and acceptance. Although we do not know what illness this particular individual is suffering from, Ma was known for her AIDS and advocacy for the LGBTQ community, and individuals who were treated like pariahs in society at large often found acceptance at Kashi. Second, these emotions were experienced “from the moment [they] arrived,” which suggests that it is not just the people and specific experiences he had that made his visit so powerful, but the entire environment or ambiance of the place. Third, there is an explicit intention to return. It is assumed that this visit is but the first for Jay and that he is involved in or hoping to enter into an extended relationship with the community. Finally, note the word love is repeated six times, an outpouring of emotion that conveys the intensity of his experiences at Kashi.
In another thank you card, dated May 25, 1992, a visitor wrote:
Dear Ma, thank you for helping me open my heart and take steps towards forgiving and loving in a different way. It’s difficult for me to let go of anger & pain, but I know that I must, if I’m to live. Meeting you and experiencing Kashi Ranch has been wonderful. I feel a lot closer to my family, especially my sisters and I pray for healing for all members of my family…
Whether or not this individual had been in long-distance communication with Ma prior to visiting is not clear, but this letter appears to have been sent after his/her initial face-to-face encounter with Ma. The focus again is on love, and how “experiencing Kashi Ranch” helped the individual heal from unspecified forms of pain.
The previous two letters, which Ma saved in the Bone & Ash scrapbooks that she gifted to her chelas, are testaments to the power of pilgrimage. Yet as I have argued elsewhere (Griffith 2018), pilgrims often follow patterns of increasing commitment in which they might begin by connecting with their commitment system virtually, then by short-term visits to regional destinations (e.g., a yoga intensive held near their own home), and then by visiting the actual core of that community (e.g., the ashram).
As much as Ma valued the long-distance connections that were forged with her chelas via letters and eventually the Internet, she also believed that there needed to be something beyond these virtual connections. In an all-women yoga retreat that was held in November 2001, Ma discussed the ways in which “...over the many years, for a lot of you, you have gotten very close through letters, the Darshan line (an Internet forum)…. There’s been a very, very deep closeness. But that closeness has to be brought in...” In the digitized audio recording of this retreat, which I accessed while at Kashi, Ma acknowledged that some of the people in attendance at the retreat had been in long-distance contact with her, but seemed to be suggesting that this in and of itself is not enough, because it “has to be brought in”.
Ma was explicit about calling some of her chelas home. At that same retreat, she addressed a young woman by name, calling out to what can only be presumed from the audio recording as a room full of people. “Where are you baby?” She asked. “Come home, bas,5 finish, done. Its time, it really is time.” Interestingly, this young woman had lived as a child in another ashram and had entered a period of her life in which she was seeking something more than she had been able to find in conventional American society.
Similarly, Divya,6 a young professional who found Kashi in the late 1990s, had a friend that was struggling with addiction. She dropped him off for a week-long program that was supposed to help him give up his attachment to substances and then came back a week later to get him. He did not want to leave…and truth be told he did not really have a home to go to anyway. So, he stayed at Kashi for about 5 years. After this initial encounter with Kashi, Divya became a frequent visitor. In the early 2000s, she was at an intensive with Ma who said to her, “come home, it’s time.” She said that if you had told her 20 years ago that she would have a guru and be living in an ashram, she never would have believed it, yet here she is.
Members of this community appreciate that Ma would call people home when they were ready, that she had a keener sense of an individual’s progression than did that person him or herself. Swami Anjani knew upon seeing Ma speak for the first time in the 1970s that Ma was her guru. She also had a feeling that Ma would not talk to her for 3 months, which also turned out to be true (see Brown 1997). Others have told me similar stories, of being ready to move to Kashi and being denied or wanting to attend Darshan and being asked to leave because Ma did not feel they were ready.
At the aforementioned retreat in November 2001, Ma called out to one student in particular, saying: “[f]ive years ago you begged to come home. I said, ‘you have five more years’“ The student had been upset and frustrated with Ma’s decision. Ma continued by saying, “her bags were packed. I said, ‘no you have 5 more years out here; you have to do what you have to do out here.’ Again, she was petrified. Now I’m saying, ‘you’d better get your ass on this Ashram and build your house, because I’m giving them plots of land, facing the river, and its time.” Rather than breeding resentment, these delays were accepted in the spirit of “mother knows best.”
Throughout the time she was teaching, people report having these “aha” moments in which they just instantaneously knew that Ma was their guru. Others who became involved with Kashi had strong feelings towards Ma but did not necessarily have the same instantaneous sense that she was their guru. Oftentimes, this respect/love/attraction came from Ma’s particular way of being (e.g., irreverent, foul-mouthed, blunt) or from her stance on particular issues like the LGBTQ community or her eagerness to embrace victims of the AIDS epidemic.
Still others who moved to Kashi felt the attraction to the place (i.e., the Ashram) before they even met Ma. For instance, Tulsi moved to Kashi about 20 years ago. Her son had been attending a local community college and some of his fellow students lived at Kashi. When he came home to visit, he was going by a new name and Tulsi assumed her son had been taken in by a cult. She and her husband came to investigate and from the second she arrived on the property, she knew she needed to be there. Her husband did not feel the same way. He did not have any negative feelings, he just did not experience the same connection. So, she started coming up on the weekends, but says it was more about seeing Ma than it was about her son. Eventually, she decided to move to Kashi. She remains married, and her husband comes to visit, but he has not moved to the community.
The Vibrational Pull of the Ashram: 2012–Present
Following Ma’s physical death, the reasons people join the community seem on the surface to be far more varied than they were during her lifetime; however, people continue to feel her presence and credit her with drawing them to Kashi. Some of the people who wind up at Kashi were clearly on a spiritual path before they found Ma/Kashi; others seem to have been taken by complete surprise as to where their paths have led them.
A very common path among the people I talked to was having an injury or chronic pain that led to them to try yoga as a natural therapy, and from there, they found Kashi and Ma’s interfaith teachings. I initially came to Kashi because I was interested in tracing increasing patterns of devotion to the yogic lifestyle. While I now know that yoga is far more complex than “just” the asanas (poses), and that people can be engaged in various forms of yoga without ever unrolling a mat (e.g., service, devotion), I still assumed that the physical practice of yoga would be a core component of peoples’ lives at Kashi. For some, this is true. Others are dedicated to meditation. Still others seem to engage very little with the embodied aspects of yogic life. Shakti Durgaya, the director of the yoga school explained to me that when Ma was alive, people were more disciplined with their regular asana practice. However, one man in his 30s who grew up in the ashram said he remembers doing yoga with Ma about once a week but did not consider it a defining aspect of their lives there. In fact, he found it a bit odd when he went away to college and suddenly, his new friends started getting into yoga. Nonetheless, the director said that people who are committed to the union of mind, body, and spirit do maintain their practice of Kali Natha Yoga, the unique form of yoga that was given to Ma. However, as she noted, this is not the only way to fill yourself with shakti. Multiple forms of spiritual engagement can fill you with this power; yoga is but one tool to cultivate your shakti. Yet, for those individuals who have become part of the Kashi community after Ma’s passing, this is one of the most common pathways.
It is not uncommon for an individual to become more deeply drawn into a community of practice or a form of serious leisure, based on their connection with other individuals in that community. Nearly half of the serious but particularly religious yoga practitioners in an Australian study reported that their commitment to yoga increased as a result of “forming a bond with a particular instructor that the respondent most admired” (Patterson et al. 2016, 305). In other words, even secular yogis tend to become more deeply committed to the practice as a result of a teacher’s charismatic influence. Speaking of a teacher who led a class at the first YogaFest she attended, one of these respondents said “I just knew that was it...I needed to know more about whatever it was that she knew. So I signed up and left my college course and never looked back after that” (ibid, 305). Yet there appears to be something more than interpersonal connection or mentorship going on at Kashi.
On the one hand, it feels funny to talk about the “marketing” of Kashi considering how fervently residents and affiliate members feel about being called by Ma to come home. And no one wants people to come to Kashi if they are not ready for it. Indeed, I was told multiple times of people who fell in love with Kashi but had bad experiences because they were not prepared to confront some of the ugliness in themselves that tends to come out when people begin living in a spiritual community that values transparency and transformation. Yet to keep the financial side of the community sustainable, they need to make people aware of what Kashi has to offer. From that point, whether or not people come is beyond their control.
In the Kashi archives are a number of magazines and newspapers that contain older advertisements for the yoga school. Based on these texts and conversations I had with Kashi’s marketing director, it was around 2000 (before Ma’s death) that Kashi began including classes and workshops for the general public in its portfolio. They announced these opportunities in venues like the local Natural Awakenings magazine that is distributed in the Indian River area as well as in the local newspaper. They also produce their own tri-fold booklets that are mailed to their distribution list announcing upcoming courses and programs and increasingly use social media to recruit participants.
Students who want to become teachers in Kali Natha Yoga have to apply and interview with the director of the yoga school. Shakti Durgaya, the director, explained to me that she has seen many prospective students come to the ashram—sometimes with “perfect” yoga bodies, the right clothes, and an overall polished look that probably would not look out of place in a Lululemon catalog—but if their hearts aren’t open, she will suggest practices that will cultivate and open heart. However, she acknowledges that many of these prospective students think they are open, and perhaps compared with where they were at the beginning of their yoga journey, they are open, but she maintains that, without further work, they are not really ready to embark on the journey of introspection and self-discovery that is required by devotees of Kali Natha Yoga.
Sometimes, it is the most unexpected and unlikely people that have what it takes to succeed in the teacher training course. The director described one woman as “a hot mess,” but had a feeling that she should accept the new student. From the first day of her training, the director saw serious problems with her form, and she struggled emotionally during the first few sessions, but her heart was open, and she was seeking the shakti of Kashi. She passed the class and the director said “[the student] would say she’s ready to move here,” but time will tell how deep her involvement with the ashram will be now that training is done.
According to Shakti Durgaya, when Ma was alive, it frequently happened that someone would come for a yoga training and wind up moving to the Ashram. People wanted to be with her. It does not happen quite as often anymore, but it does happen. Most of the graduates from the teacher trainings, however, incorporate what they have learned into their preexisting routines and are beginning to spread Kali Natha Yoga and Ma’s teachings in their communities. Several graduates have introduced their own students to Kashi, several of which have become certified teachers of Kali Natha Yoga themselves. Some will make repeated visits to Kashi to bask in the energy of the ashram, perhaps attending major events like Guru Purnima. Others’ engagements may be limited to the teacher training course. Yet, the individuals I spoke with consistently talk about the serendipitous ways in which they found Kashi as evidence of Ma’s power in their lives. They talk about being “energetically led” to Kashi, and may consider it a “second home,” as a yoga teacher who lives and teaches approximately an hour away from the Ashram told me.
Brumann (2000) argues that it is detrimental for the long-term survival of a utopian commune if members attribute quasi-divine qualities to their charismatic leader. Granted, Brumann is focusing on utopian groups that pool their property; however, the attribution of divine qualities to Ma has not posed a serious problem for the members of the Kashi community. In the previous two sections, I have shared the narratives and experiences of individuals who have become involved with Kashi both before and after Ma’s physical death. In both instances, individuals feel like they have been called or drawn to the Kashi community by someone or something larger than themselves. Yet, the literature on NRMs and intentional communities both suggest that newcomers would not feel the same charismatic tug as did the members who joined during Ma’s lifetime.
Ma’s physical death did fundamentally change the nature of the Kashi community, and it necessitated a new set of skills and orientation to commercial activity. In some ways, this supports the prevailing assumption in the literature that intentional communities founded on the vision of a charismatic leader will need to transition from charismatic to bureaucratic leadership if they want to survive. However, I do not believe that this gives a complete picture of how people feel about Kashi and the strength of their connection to the community and the place.
In an interview that was conducted by Kashi’s resident archivist (Braun 2018) , a long-term resident of the community who had left the Ashram for a time but then returned shortly before his death reflected on things he had learned both while at Kashi and during his travels in India. He said, “The guru is temporary illusion.” Humans with our “unenlightened minds” need a physical form to relate to, he explained, but that the guru’s physical body is only a tool for transmitting knowledge and love. When he was in India, another spiritual teacher from the same lineage as Ma told him, “When the guru leaves his body, the ashram becomes his body.” According to the archivist conducting the interview, Ma often told her chelas “I am Kashi, Kashi is me. Meaning the Ashram. You can take that as another form of the guru.” So, while it is true that the community has had to learn to deal with the absence of Ma’s embodied charismatic leadership, especially in terms of the day-to-day running of the Ashram, it is perfectly in keeping with this community’s worldview to conceptualize the Ashram as an extension or alternate form of the Guru’s influence. Whether or not they realize this, most of the newcomers I have spoken with articulated their experiences with Kashi in these terms.
The selection of applicants for the yoga teacher training course is a case in point. While they do make use of relatively conventional advertising outlets, the director told me that sometimes people are simply attracted by Kashi’s vibrational energy. For instance, one applicant had intended to call a different yoga studio in town but accidentally dialed the number for Kashi instead. An outside observer might call this coincidence, or even serendipity, but to members of the community, it suggests Ma’s presence at work. Nothing is random, they told me.
Despite the yoga school being the main conduit for newcomers to learn about Kashi and Ma’s teachings, the community is not as aggressive with their marketing as one might expect because they specifically want those seeking depth and inner growth to apply. In the marketing materials they do produce, they highlight the fact that this training course takes place at an ashram. Several individuals working in the various business offices at Kashi suggest that this deters people who are not serious about the spiritual side of the yogic lifestyle. Because the shakti (or what I am characterizing here as a manifestation of Ma’s charisma) at Kashi is so powerful, they walk a fine line between being welcoming of everyone who wants to experience the ashram and making sure that people aren’t overwhelmed by the intensity of the experience if they are not ready for it.
Hoyez (2007) argues that yoga centers throughout the world are part of a therapeutic landscape that has been crafted in India and is replicated elsewhere. The ashram—where the guru and his/her disciples live—is a central feature of this therapeutic landscape (Hoyez 2007). Traditionally, ashrams have been located in rural locations that are both physically and symbolically removed from the quotidian world. When circumstances are such that an ashram/yoga center cannot be located in a particularly salient natural landscape like the mountains or on a body of water, the teacher may decorate the space to either resemble one of these places or at least recall them in the minds of the practitioners who will sue the space (Hoyez 2007). A training hall, for example, might be decorated with photographs of the Himalayas or the Ganges River as a way of creating a connection with those sacred places (ibid). While Kashi’s location on the Indian River is idyllic and, in some ways, fits naturally with Hoyez’s description of therapeutic landscapes, residents have also built the Ganga, erected temples, and commissioned statues in order to bring this sacredness into being in Sebastian, Florida.
Why, of all places, would Ma choose to create an ashram and fill it with a bunch of self-described hippies in such a conservative place (see Blue Cobalt 2016)? Intentional communities were common in the 1960s and 1970s, when Kashi was established, and there were plenty of places in the USA where its residents would have been more accepted and the neighbors more accustomed to the idea of a spiritual community (see Miller 1999). Sebastian, Florida—while beautiful—seems like a bit of a “random” choice. But if I’ve learned anything from my new friends at Kashi, it is that nothing is really random. Ma wanted to be somewhere warm and was told to look for a property with a huge, 7-limbed tree. And so she did.
Reinhalter (2014, 9), herself a member of the Kashi community who was raised on the Ashram, describes contemporary intentional communities as aspirational projects of “responsive place-making.” Intentional communities are both place-based and interest-based, connecting members not only on the basis of shared geography but on the basis of their commitment to some form of common purpose, whether that be spiritual, environmental, economic, or something else entirely (ibid). A dialectical relationship exists between place and society (Shinde 2012). A place is made sacred through the socio-cultural activities that are performed there. A nondescript piece of land becomes sacred when a guru is entombed there (see Aymard 2014), the sanctity of the Ganges is reinforced by the rituals that occur there (see Shinde 2012), and the experience of walking around Kashi’s Ganga is made special when an individual learns the stories of those whose ashes were scattered therein. Theoretically, Kashi could be situated anywhere in the world…but one of the things that makes Kashi today so special is the way in which it has become a stand-in for Ma’s love. In other words, the place itself has been sacralized by the community such that it is not an incidental setting upon which Hindu rituals are carried out but an integral part of what makes the community a haven for Ma’s chelas as well as yogis, seekers, environmentalists, the LGBTQ community, and so many others who feel blessed to have discovered it. And now, in Ma’s physical absence, the Guru has become the Ashram.
Jane Bennett (2004) calls attention to the agency exerted by inanimate objects, which she calls “thing-power.” An object of this sort “commands attention, exudes a kind of dignity, provokes poetry, or inspires fear” (Bennett 2004:350). Humans and things are different, of course, but Bennett warns us not to dismiss the importance of materiality and the force objects can exert on us. Kashi Ashram is both a collectivity of people and a physical place. That place has agency and affects visitors in different ways. Recognizing the “thing-power” of material objects acknowledges the “energetic forces that course through humans and cultures without being exhausted by them” (Bennett 2004:367, emphasis in the original). In this line of thinking, there seems no reason why Ma’s shakti could not be transferred to the Ashram, augmenting whatever agency it already possessed during her lifetime.
Is shakti “real” and can an ashram really have agency to pull people in? I do not presume to know, but I can say that the communitas I witnessed during Guru Purnima and the conviction with which people share their stories is indicative of a very powerful force in these individuals’ lives. Furthermore, from an anthropological perspective, the veracity of claims about energy and spirituality is not the point. What is important is that we consider how processes of place-making might contribute to the longevity of charismatic NRMs and intentional communities that are presumed to have short lifespans.
Without a doubt, the individuals who met Ma in life and shared in her rise as a spiritual teacher, moving from Brooklyn, NY, to Sebastian, FL, have had a unique set of experiences that newcomers will never have. However, at a more abstract level, it is possible to identify four general paths of increasing commitment that members of the Kashi community have followed regardless of whether they became involved before or after Ma’s physical death in 2012. (1) Some people come, feel an extraordinary connection to Kashi, and stay long-term either because they were enamored with Ma or because they were down and out with nothing to lose. (2) Some people feel a gentle tug. They know Kashi will have a special meaning for them but may not pursue a deep relationship with the community until they feel “called home,” either literally (as was the case during Ma’s lifetime) or figuratively (as is the case with many of the yoga teachers that feel drawn to Kali Natha Yoga trainings). (3) Others find their way to Kashi via personal or professional opportunities. Their values are in alignment with Kashi, but they might not have found the community/teachings if not for a class or job that became available (e.g., directing the permaculture program). (4) Still, other people come to Kashi through the process of sampling the energy. These individuals may be introduced to Kashi through a friend/acquaintance or through a program like Phoenix is Rising (a veterans’ yoga retreat). They may eventually become more fully involved or they may maintain a bit of distance, engaging if and when they feel moved to do so without making a long-term commitment to the community.
Many people in this community have told me that there is no such thing as coincidence and that nothing is random. What I, as an outsider, might call serendipity, they would be more likely to see as evidence of Ma exerting her influence or people being attracted to Kashi Ashram because of its vibrational energy (shakti). After all, what are the odds that I would suddenly deviate from my trajectory of research on capoeira (an Afro-Brazilian martial art) to, on a whim, see if I could answer a thorny theoretical issue by studying “yoga communes”? And what are the odds that the preeminent communal studies archive in the country would (a) have material on this topic and (b) offer a grant to fund my whim? And of the 22 yoga-based communities about which data was available, how and why did Kashi stand out to me as the place to visit? To say that I used purposive sampling does not negate the possibility that I too was attracted by Kashi’s essence or energy.
Kashi is not so much a retreat or hermitage as it is a refueling station. As is true of most charismatic leaders, Ma’s devotees drew strength and energy from being in her presence. Her death is still mourned by the original chelas that moved to Florida with her, something that was remarked on by more than one of the newcomers I met at Kashi. The loss of a force as strong as Ma should—theoretically—create a vacuum and, without sufficient routinization of charisma, cause the community to collapse. Yet, they are still thriving in no small part because of their investment in place-making. Kashi is more than a therapeutic landscape, though it is that. It is the embodiment of Ma’s charisma that supports and works in tandem with the bureaucratic institutions that have arisen to keep the Ashram operational; it is the sacred complement to the mundane, and that is a powerful thing indeed.
Although she may have said this on multiple occasions, the instance to which I am referring was a Guru Purnima festival in the early 2000s when Ma dipped her feet in paint and walked on a canvas so that her chelas would forever have access to them. The event was captured on video and played in the main temple during the 2018 Guru Purnima weekend.
See Lucia 2018 for more on the importance of proximity to the guru in the transference or awakening of shakti.
I have used the phrase “appears to” in this sentence because it has been less than 10 years since Ma left her body. While the Ashram is quite stable and embarking on new projects of their own design, cultivating new leaders and asking what problems will be most relevant to humanity over the next 10 to 20 years, all of which suggests that they plan to be in existence well into the future, many scholars will wish to reserve judgment until a longer period of time has elapsed. Therefore, I recommend that this issue and my tentative conclusions be revisited after more time has passed.
Although intentional communities with charismatic leaders often achieve extraordinary feats like managing unconventional marriage arrangements or growing with explosive force, the survival rates of these communities roughly mirror that of intentional communities without charismatic leaders (Brumann 2000). In short, they are rarely successful.
Bas is an Indian idiom meaning “stop” or “enough.” Although Ma was not educated in any Indian languages, the community has adopted words and phrases that are relevant to spiritual practice and—it would seem from this utterance—other assorted phrases. All of which points to the intentional cultivation of an indexical relationship between their practices in the USA and India.
Given the absolute uniqueness of the Kashi Ashram and Ma’s teachings, it would be futile to try to disguise this place with a pseudonym. Public figures within this community (i.e., swamis) are referred to by name both because of how easily any pseudonym for this small group could be “worked out” and because of their stature within the community. I have, however, used pseudonyms for other members in the interest of maintaining their privacy.
I would like to thank everyone at Kashi Ashram who has supported this work, particularly Swami Anjani, Swami Durga Das, Yashoda, and Swami Mata Giri for so generously sharing their vast knowledge with me.
I would also like to thank the Texas Tech University Libraries for their financial support of this research through the Gloria Lyerla Research Travel Grant.
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