The Power of Place: the Transfer of Charismatic Authority to an American Ashram

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    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.

  2. 2.

    See Lucia 2018 for more on the importance of proximity to the guru in the transference or awakening of shakti.

  3. 3.

    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.

  4. 4.

    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.

  5. 5.

    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.

  6. 6.

    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.

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Acknowledgements

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.

Funding

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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Correspondence to Lauren Miller Griffith.

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Griffith, L.M. The Power of Place: the Transfer of Charismatic Authority to an American Ashram. DHARM 2, 95–111 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42240-019-00040-3

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Keywords

  • Ashram
  • Charisma
  • Intentional community
  • Hinduism