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Arlo and Ma Jaya: ‘I fell in love with her’

STORY BY MICHELLE GENZ, (Week of April 19, 2012)
Photo: Folk singer Arlo Guthrie helps his friend, the late Ma Jaya Bhagavati, distribute food at Kashi Ashram's weekly "Feed Everyone" program at a Gifford church.

Arlo Guthrie was getting ready for a concert in Tacoma, Wash., when he got word his old friend had died back home in Sebastian.

Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati “left her body,” as the 75 members of Sebastian’s Kashi ashram would say, three months after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Ma Jaya founded the ashram in the 1970s, when she and others bought seven acres on the St. Sebastian River. That later expanded to 80 acres. She died late last Friday in her bedroom.

At 71, she had been undergoing alternative treatment, unable to continue with chemotherapy after nearly dying in the midst of treatment in February.

A spiritual leader to hundreds if not thousands around the world, the Brooklyn-born  Ma Jaya was a colorful, charismatic and sometimes controversial figure in the small community of Roseland. Through the years, as many as 150 of her students lived together in a multi-denominational effort at communal kindness, religious inclusivity and spiritual self-discovery.

Guthrie’s last visit was several weeks ago, before he left for his recent tour. “We really knew that the day would come very shortly that was going to be it,” he said. “And we kidded around and we laughed and made fun of things and that was all I needed.”
As for what Ma needed, Guthrie went on: “I think she needed to allow those who loved her the chance to express it. And they did.”

Ma Jaya did “what any good spiritual practitioner does – they give people the tools to believe they can do the things that other people tell them they can’t. She helped us see the better part of ourselves.”

Guthrie, 65, met Ma Jaya through a mutual friend when they visited the ashram in 1984.

“I just fell in love with her,” said Guthrie. By then, Guthrie had gone through years of spiritual searching, studying Judaism, Catholicism, and Tibetan Buddhism before embracing aspects from many religions. “I was never threatened by anybody’s approach. So I fit right into Kashi’s humanism.

“I don’t think she knew who I was. I don’t think she knew who the president was, in those days,” he said with a laugh.

Guthrie and his wife Jackie bought a home in Sebastian five years later. 

The grandson of a renowned Yiddish poet, son of folk singer Woody Guthrie and a former dancer with Martha Graham’s company, Arlo Guthrie grew up in a household of fascinating people. He studied for his bar mitzvah with no less than the radical rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League, and read his father’s books about eastern religions as a boy.

But he did not hold back on superlatives to describe Ma Jaya.

 “I’ve met a lot of people that were very important. Some were nuts and some were great and some were a little bit of both. But I can honestly say no one I ever met in my entire life was as funny and as sincere and as courageous and as unapologetic as she was.”

“Unapologetic” may be one way to describe Ma Jaya’s reaction when confronted with various controversies over the years, most of which seem to have faded away in the past decade. While an ashram spokesperson said the 5-foot-8 tae kwon do black belt suffered from intense back pain over the past  20 years, she put on a brave face to her students around the world, even in her last days.

A Los Angeles-based radio show taped in December had her delivering the same guffaws and raucous jokes as ever.

“She was from Coney Island. We grew up literally blocks away from each other,” said Guthrie. ”When I heard her voice in all of its bravado, I saw through it immediately, and I just adored it. It was like speaking to a girl from home.”

Guthrie said Ma Jaya brandished that accent unchecked before the Pope, the Dalai Lama and even in the halls of hospitals  and nursing homes where she regularly visited patients.

“She was a yenta,” he said. “You talk that way to everybody in the world no matter how important they think they are. You talk that way to the biggest religious leaders in the world and you can see why they loved her. Nobody else had the honesty to talk to them like that. She was herself when she met them.”

Guthrie, best known for the 17-minute protest song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” recorded in 1967, was inspired to help the poor largely under Ma Jaya’s influence, he says. In 1991, he bought the Massachusetts  church that was once home to the “Alice” in the song and converted it into a respite for the homeless and patients with AIDS.

Ma Jaya  went to its opening.

 “Her life was absolutely filled with a compulsion to do something for other people. It just drove her and she drove everybody else to do the same thing,” he said.

Together, the tattooed and bejeweled Ma Jaya with her long black curls and Guthrie with his blond  hippie frizz traveled weekly to nursing homes in West Palm, and four times a year to AIDS wards in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

“I would not have had the courage or conviction to do that kind of thing but I am so thankful that I went. I learned so much. It was the most thrilling part of my life,” said Guthrie, who said he shunned hospitals after caring for his father who suffered from Huntington’s disease for 15 years before his death in 1967.

“I went because she asked me to go,” Guthrie said. “And I got to feel good about myself. I got to feel there’s something more than just working for a living and raising good kids.”

Her visits to hospital wards tapped her in early to the AIDS epidemic, a cause that became a defining one for Ma Jaya, along with gay and lesbian rights, religious inclusiveness and respect for the elderly.

Among the most memorable of her many moments of candor was when she addressed the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1993 on the subject of AIDS.

“She berated thousands of religious leaders all at once because they wouldn’t talk about something,” said Guthrie, who in 1999 accompanied her to another meeting of the group, this one, in Cape Town, South Africa, where members of the ashram brought portions of the AIDS memorial quilt in an effort to raise awareness.

Not that the seriousness of her mission precluded levity. She claimed to have first greeted the Dalai Lama in Chicago by kissing his feet and saying, “Hello, Dalai!” 

Ma Jaya was known for exuberantly hugging AIDS patients and lavishing kisses on HIV-infected babies, preaching against ignorance about the safety of such demonstrativeness. She befriended Kimberly Bergalis, a college student from Fort Pierce who contracted AIDS from her dentist and became a national symbol for the need for HIV preventive measures among health care professionals.

For a time, the ashram housed AIDS patients in respite care on its premises. It was also home for many years to the River School, a private K through 12 school that served children both within and outside the ashram.  The school closed in 2005.

Most recently, Kashi opened By the River, an affordable senior communal living facility. That project, which opened in 2009 and is supported in part by government grants, was built as a prototype for the state.

With the ashram’s help, through the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Guthrie staged a half-dozen concerts benefiting environmental issues at Riverside Park and at the fairgrounds, calling on friends like Kris Kristofferson, Michael McDonald, Richie Havens, Don Henley and Pete Seeger to play here.

Though Guthrie did not live at the community, he moved to Sebastian because of it, he said. Over the years, he remained a very frequent visitor, at one point allowing his daughters to live there while he took in one of Ma Jaya’s daughters, a sort of parental swap intended to breathe freshair into the attitudes of their adolescent girls.

Given an almost familial kinship between Guthrie’s family and Ma, Guthrie wondered how she could have escaped his notice, long before meeting in Sebastian.

Born into a Jewish blue-collar Brooklyn family, married at 15 to an Italian-American Catholic, Joyce Green DiFiore had her first spiritual awakening while trying to lose weight in her early 20s.

At first converting to Catholicism following what she claims was a vision of Christ, she eventually turned to eastern religions then coming into vogue. It was through her influence that over her 35 years here, hundreds of practitioners of spiritual lifestyles outside the Judeo-Christian mainstream came to assimilate into Indian River County’s professions, schools and cultural institutions.

Kashi spokesperson Anjani Cirillo described Ma’s death as a very peaceful passing, following weeks of  valiant optimism on her part. It came moments before a sudden fierce storm blew through the night sky.

The next morning as Guthrie woke up to a Daffodil Parade in Tacoma, there for his concert that evening, the paths of the Sebastian ashram were being strewn with rose petals in preparation for Ma’s body being moved from her bedroom to a waiting hearse.

Cirillo says Ma left the community well-equipped to go forward. “Moving forward is what we train to do,” she said. There will be no formal leader to replace her. A memorial service for Ma Jaya is planned at the ashram on May 26, her birthday. 

“I don’t think people go very far when they die,” said Guthrie. “I think they move into your heart. And I can’t wait to hear her voice again.”