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Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, yoga teacher and ‘guru’ born Joyce Green, dies at 71

Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, a yoga teacher and spiritual leader who was born Joyce Green in Brooklyn, died April 14 at 71, leaving behind a large and complex legacy including thousands of devoted followers, celebrity acolytes, disgruntled former colleagues, and intentional communities in Florida and elsewhere. (Note: Please click here or read below for a discussion of why this obituary was posted on The Eulogizer.) 

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Bhagavati died, or as an announcement on the website of the ashram she founded in 1971 put it, “left her body,” after a three-month battle with pancreatic cancer.

A statement by the ashram quoted actress Julia Roberts as saying of Ma Jaya, “There are few people in one’s life that create only the warmest and most powerfully positive impact imaginable. Ma Jaya was one of those people to me and my family. She was a beautiful person who shined with love and understanding in all ways. Her transition was deeply sad news and yet, as with all she did, it brought me even closer to her words and her teachings."

Singer Arlo Guthrie, who has known Ma Jaya since 1984, was quoted in a Florida newspaper as saying, “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.”

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,” said Guthrie.

Guthrie, whose mother, Marjorie Guthrie Greenblatt, was a Yiddish poet and Martha Graham dancer, said he and Joyce Green, whom he did not know at the time, “grew up literally blocks away from each other” in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood. ”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. She was a yenta. 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.”

Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati was “born into a Jewish family in 1940” and “grew up in a cellar apartment in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, just a short walk from the ocean and the famous Coney Island Boardwalk,” according to her website. She was married at 15 to an Italian-American Catholic, and had her first spiritual awakening, a vision of Jesus Christ, while trying to lose weight in her early 20s, according to her website and various accounts. Christ told her to "Teach all ways, for all ways are mine," her website said.

As early as 1973, she began to “teach all ways, giving a contemporary voice to the great truths that underlie all spiritual paths,” her website said. Her teachers included Indian spiritual leader Swami Nityananda of Ganeshpuri, Neem Karoli Baba, Ramana Maharshi and Shirdi Sai Baba. The ashram she founded, Kashi, was designed to offer “an interfaith path of life.” Her website quoted her as saying her teachings were not a religion. “Rather, she encourages her students to use what she teaches within their own faiths or traditions.”

In an email response to an inquiry from The Eulogizer as to whether Bhagavati was still Jewish, ashram spokeswoman, Swami Anjani, wrote:

Ma remained the quintessential Jewish mother – loving, nurturing, in-your-face – for her entire life. Ma always wore a Star of David and a Brooklyn pendant – saying, “Never forget your roots."

The best person to describe her would be Rabbi Zalman Schacher-Shalomi. Reb Zalman and Ma loved each other’s ability to celebrate divinity in all ways.

One Florida newspaper said that over the past decades, her ashram drew “hundreds of practitioners of spiritual lifestyles outside the Judeo-Christian mainstream.” Over the years, the ashram housed AIDS patients in respite care, was the setting for a private grade school, and developed By the River, an affordable senior communal living facility. The ashram and satellite operations in Atlanta and Los Angeles have also run support programs for gays and lesbians and food distribution centers. As many as 150 of the ashram’s students lived together over the years.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the ashram was hit with charges of being a cult and misuse of funds. Ma Jaya’s chief accuser was her former public relations director, who sued and then settled his case before publicizing details of many of his claims. An anti-cult website offers links to many media articles, letters to the editor, and other documents claiming Kashi was a cult-like operation. But the Florida newspaper article quoting Guthrie said,

Ma Jaya was a colorful, charismatic and sometimes controversial figure…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.”

She won numerous religious and interfaith awards in recent years.

Note: I gave long and hard thought about whether to write a Eulogizer item about Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, who was born to a Jewish family in Brooklyn and was seen in many photographs with a Magen David around her neck, even as she embraced Hinduism and the teachings of other faiths. Some I consulted said, no, that even though she came from the Jewish world, she had left it. Yet I felt compelled to give a taste of her complex and controversial life. With this item before you and with the links embedded in this article that can give you more about her, I throw the question open to Eulogizer readers: Should this person, and others who may have similar life paths, be featured in a blog of Jewish obituaries? I will collect and publish (if you permit) any and all thoughtful responses. – Alan Abbey

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org. Follow the Eulogizer on Twitter @TheEulogizer

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