Born into a Jewish family in 1940, Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati grew up in a cellar apartment in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, just a short walk from the ocean and the famous Coney Island Boardwalk. As a young girl, she found love and solace among the homeless people who lived under the Boardwalk. Welcoming her, they taught her many lessons about life, especially, “There are no throwaway people.” She grew up to dedicate her life to humanity.
Enrolling in a weight loss class in 1972 led her to learn a simple yogic breath that would ultimately bring about her spiritual enlightenment. Her personal spiritual journey moved quickly and at times chaotically. As a thoroughly modern urban woman, she tried to live a normal life and raise a family; at the same time, as a person of rare spiritual gifts, she daily opened to a series of mystical visions and experiences. She had an experience first of Jesus Christ, then of Shri Bhagawan Nityananda of Ganeshpuri, and finally her guru, Shri Neem Karoli Baba. As early as 1973, she began to “teach all ways,” giving a contemporary voice to the great truths that underlie all spiritual paths.
In 1976, Ma Jaya moved to Florida and founded Kashi Ashram, a spiritual community that embraces all religious and spiritual paths, where she continues to teach and serve. She became known for her passionate interfaith advocacy of people living with HIV/AIDS, and for her support of the LGBT community. Among her other accomplishments are developing Kali Natha Yoga, a modern yoga system drawn from ancient roots; guiding the River Fund, a service organization with projects in India, Uganda, and the United States; founding By the River, a model community for low income seniors; and creating a large body of sacred art.
Ma Jaya is considered by many to be a spiritual master who has attained inner realization. She teaches that divinity is ultimately beyond words and without form, yet manifests in countless ways to lead us to liberation. She embraces an interfaith approach, believing that all paths of love lead to the truth. She offers the example of a spiritual life alive with love, faith, creativity, service, and the rituals of many traditions. Emphasizing individual spiritual growth, she teaches seekers at all levels and does not ask her students to follow any particular set of doctrines or beliefs. Or, as Ma Jaya puts it when she describes her own teachings, “This is not a religion!” Rather, she encourages her students to use what she teaches within their own faiths or traditions. She asks them only to practice kindness.
Ma Jaya left her body on April 13, 2012 when she lost her battle with pancreatic cancer. She was surrounded by family and several hundred of her students who came to visit her shortly before she passed away.