Guru with a Schtick:
An interview with Ma Jaya

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, Atlanta, Apr. 18, 1998)

Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, an American-born spiritual teacher with a Hindu orientation, will be in Atlanta Friday and Saturday, April 24 and 25, to give darshan -- the self-revelation of the divine to visitors -- and to conduct a day-long workshop.

Ma Jaya's story is unique among contemporary "gurus." She grew up in poverty in an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn. Years of life in the streets and boardwalk of Coney Island made her friends early in life with the most rejected in American society, and she has come to be known most in recent years for her work with people with AIDS.

Wisecracking and earthy, she is an unlikely guru, having found her path in the 1970s as a middle-class Jewish wife and mother named Joyce Green. She was enrolled at a weight-loss clinic at a health spa and took some instruction in yoga. Soon afterward, she had a series of visions of holy men -- from Jesus to Neem Karoli Baba, the guru of Ram Dass.

Leaving her life as wife and mother, she was "adopted" by Hilda Charlton, whose lectures were a highlight of New York spiritual life of the time. Charlton dubbed her "Joya Santana." Soon afterward, she gained her most famous devotee, Ram Dass. He was with her for 15 months and then split from her in 1975. In 1976, he published a severe denouncement of her in Yoga Journal magazine.

Joya Santana was shortly thereafter diagnosed with a pituitary gland tumor. Planning to die, she moved with 100 followers to some Florida land she owned. She did not die, was rechristened as Ma Jaya, and founded the Neem Karoli Baba Ashram. There, she established an AIDS ministry, a small hospice and a school.

Ma Jaya calls her practice Kali Yoga. Kali, a Hindu mother goddess, sacrifices herself for humanity, taking on its pain and suffering. Thus, Ma's path is the path of compassionate service.

Although I have not attended darshan or an intensive with Ma Jaya, I have heard nothing but positive reports from people who have, including friends who are normally quite cynical about such experiences. Like my own teacher, Mother Meera, she tends to dissolve cynicism and bitterness by the sheer force of her presence, her "shakti." Sometimes it seems to me that people like Mother Meera and Ma Jaya have their greatest effect on the most skeptical. Darshan, the encounter with the guru, is a great mystery that is best understood by experience.

Ma Jaya will be giving darshan at the Atlanta Dream Hostel, 115 Church St., at 7:30 p.m. Friday., April 24. A donation of $15 is requested. The one-day intensive will be held the next day at the same location from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Cost is $108, including lunch. Call 404-524-6780 or 1-800-226-1008 for reservations.

Ma Jaya and I talked by phone recently. Although her beloved sister had died that week, she was in her usual buoyant sprits. As in all interviews of this sort, this is not a verbatim transcript but a highly edited version of our conversation. I try to remain completely faithful to the subject's language, but Ma Jaya talks at a rapid gait and often drops her sentences.

What is your darshan like? My own teacher, Mother Meera, gives darshan in total silence.

No, I'm not silent. I hope that I lead people to a certain silence, but c'mon, I was born in Brooklyn. I'm not silent. But for 20 years people have been coming here every night, from all over the world, for darshan.

What is it you have to teach? What will you be teaching at this intensive in Atlanta?

My guru, Neem Karoli Baba, has taught me that if you do not serve another human being, you are wasting your time. Ramakrishna said you must pour as you drink, drink as you pour. You must give as you take in. I think many people, especially caregivers, come to me, because they are curious about why we don't burn out at Kashi Ashram. This is what I try to teach, how to remain in service without burning out.

Well how do you do that?

You want to know why I don't burn out. It's simple: I stay completely in a place of gratitude. I am thankful every moment. I remember what I was taught in the streets of Brooklyn. I remember what it was like to be hungry and I don't want other people to be hungry. There is a heart space above the head to which I go. That is where you have to live, you have to understand this life is not about me. When my sister, my most beloved friend, died, I cried and cried and cried. But I must go on. We must pay everything back.

What do you mean?

I mean that we must pay back in gratitude and service the pain in this world. If you are gay and you don't have AIDS you have to pay all that back. You have to serve the pain of your tribe. This is just the way it is. This is the great purpose: service. My mother Kali has taught me to feed myself to the suffering. She devours. I devour.

How did you get involved with AIDS in the first place?

I have always, always been surrounded by underdogs -- people rejected by society. I've always disliked prejudice and bigotry. Back in 1981 or 1982, a man came to the ashram from California. He had a 105-degree fever and was covered with what we now understand to be Karposi's Sarcoma. He wanted to be with me but I told him, "Honey, you have to go to the hospital with two of my students." It was the biggest mistake of my life. So, I went to see him a little later and they told me it would be an hour. Then they told me it would me an hour and a half. Finally, they told me they had shipped him to a hospital in Gainesville and from there, I later learned, they shipped him home to San Francisco where he died. You see, he was the first person in Florida to show up with AIDS. It was all over the papers. They didn't want him there. He left me a note, though. It said to carry the torch but to know you will get burned. It's been my work ever since.

Do you know how to help people die?

Oh, I hope so, honey. That is what we must all do, die, and you can have a good death. The ganja, the pond in the ashram, is filled with the ashes of people who have come here to die. We allow people the death they want -- to be in nature, to be surrounded by children, however they want it.

My own experience with so many, many of my friends dying in the '80s was that many died angry and bitter or completely unaware, as if they didn't want to know.

Oh that's so true! I believe in the truth though. I remember when the woman who raised me on the streets was dying with a needle in her arm under the boardwalk. Someone had sold her rat poison instead of heroin. "Girlchild," she said, "don't do this. This is my pay back. Do not do this." The ambulance didn't even come. She was poor and black. Oh, but she died in the truth. The truth! I've had vases thrown at me in hospitals. But I kept coming back. Yes, we can die in the truth. We can die in ecstasy, in fact."

Gurus and their followers:
Ma Jaya comes to Atlanta this weekend

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, Atlanta, Apr. 25, 1998)

This week's column concludes an interview with Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati a Brooklyn-born spiritual teacher with a Hindu orientation. She will be in Atlanta Friday and Saturday, April 24 and 25, to give darshan -- the self-revelation of the divine -- to visitors, and to conduct a day-long workshop

Ma Jaya will be giving darshan at the Atlanta Dream Hostel, 115 Church St., at 7:30 p.m. Friday., April 24. A donation of $15 is requested. The one-day intensive will be held the next day at the same location from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Cost is $108, including lunch. Call 404-524-6780 or 1-800-226-1008 for reservations.

Part of Ma Jaya's story is that she attracted Ram Dass as her disciple during the '70s. After 15 months of following her, he repudiated her in an infamous article in Yoga Journal. My own teacher, Mother Meera, was similarly repudiated by her most famous disciple, Andrew Harvey. I was curious about Ma Jaya's experience of the guru's repudiation.

I know that Ram Dass repudiated you ...

I have nothing negative to say about him. He is a phenomenal human being. I love him and I pray for him. [Ram Dass recently had a stroke.]

I'm not so interested in the details of your falling-out, but what you tell people. ... I mean, this has happened to my guru, Mother Meera, to Guru Maya, to Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche -- to so many.

I want you to listen very closely to me. You are not just a student of Mother Meera. You are not just a devotee. You are her son. I love a woman, Pema Chodron, who was the disciple of the Rinpoche, who came under such attack. She says she couldn't care less for what is said about the man. What she knows is what she learned in her heart. So, you hold your mother in your heart. She is a fountain. You go to the fountain as you go to a well, you go and you keep coming back. You smear yourself with her ...

And what is it like for the guru to be repudiated?

You mean what is it like for Mother Meera to bring a man like Andrew Harvey to such knowledge and then be turned on? I suspect she treats the situation as a mother treats a rebelling child: You hold him in your heart in love. Honey, I was taught to walk on like an elephant and let the puppies fight at my feet. I'm just not interested in this kind of stuff ... I want to be of service.

But what causes this? It's almost predictable.

Yes, whenever someone comes along and gathers any kind of following, the rumors start flying. Perhaps it's human nature. I don't know. People get devoured by it and then they forget God. But I am telling you, if you are in love with your guru, nothing can bother you. Muktananda taught me to take a deep breath and to go to the sacred place above my head. And then to serve.

People who have not experienced the power of a guru can't really grasp this, I guess.

No, of course not. I mean, even the followers of Rajneesh, who was so criticized, know that people don't understand what they experienced in the guru.

What is it we experience exactly? I literally felt huge energetic vibrations the second time I visited Mother Meera -- an ecstatic state.

The shakti, the love ... the total gratitude.

And I know that when I visited Mother Meera after all the garbage about Andrew Harvey came out, it seemed totally irrelevant -- unbelievable, in fact.

Honey, it's baloney! It's about doubt of the self, not the guru. I never had a larger flock than after Ram Dass attacked me. It's all baloney -- Mother Meera is supposed to hate gays. Andrew Harvey is gay, so he says she hates gays. I'm supposed to hate Jews. Ram Dass is Jewish. I mean, come on. None of this matters.

You said last week that people in hospitals, AIDS patients, sometimes threw vases at you.

I believe in being honest. We must face death head-on. So, I went into the AIDS wards and I always carried a flower for each person. Some people threw it back -- or an entire vase -- but I kept coming back. I want people to die with dignity. You can have a phenomenal death, an ecstatic death if you choose it. ... I held a man for five days once. He came to the ashram to die. We rejoiced in his death.

What do you believe happens at death?

I believe a light appears. It's available to everyone. Each soul enters this light. There's a resting gap. You can return or, if your karma requires it, you can stay and rest longer. There are those whose only wish is to serve humanity and they return quickly. I believe in Mother Kali, the devouring goddess. She can teach us to serve by devouring the pain of others.

What will you be teaching at your Saturday intensive here?

I'll be teaching the awakening of kundalini, for one thing. This is the great shakti that can arise within each of us.

* * * *


I am endeavoring to get an interview with the author of the by now infamous JAMA piece on energetic healing. Unless you've been living under a bridge, you know that the journal published the research of a young girl, written by her mother, that supposedly disproves touch and energy therapies.

In the research, the girl cut armholes in a partition and asked healers to put their hands through the hole and find her own hand. No more than the usual percentage found her hand on the first try. Supposedly this disproves the idea of energetic healing because, I guess, the healer should have been able to sense the energy field of the hand.

My nature has long been to distrust this kind of healing myself (until I tried it!). It seems to me that the experiment is ill-conceived. An analogous test might place two unaware people on opposite sides of a wall. Neither knows the other is there. Does that mean that hugging or simple company might not be consoling or otherwise "therapeutic" if they are brought into contact?

Granted, I may have missed something in the point of the research, so I do hope to interview the young researcher and her mother.

Please check out my website, which recently moved to its own domain. Designed by Phil Robst, it has won quite a few awards and includes a column called "Archetypal Advice." You can submit questions and I'll try to give you answers grounded in Jungian psychology. Also check out the "Theater of Dreams" information under the Events button. This is an eight-week, low-cost group in which we will be looking at our dreams from the perspective of James Hillman's Archetypal Psychology. Or you can call 404-525-4774 for information.

Copyright 1998 by Creative Loafing | Published Apr. 25, 1998

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