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Remembering Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati

Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati

Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati

Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati, a former Brooklyn Jewish housewife turned Guru, lost her battle with pancreatic cancer last week at her home, Kashi Ashram, an interfaith spiritual community, which she founded 35 years ago in the central Florida town of Sebastian. A memorial service will be held at Kashi Ashram on Ma’s birthday, May 26, and will be open to the public.

Thousands followed Ma’s teachings and way of life through a network of affiliated communities and charities throughout the globe. As actress Julia Roberts said, “There are a few people in one’s life that create only the warmest and most powerfully positive impact imaginable. Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati was one of those people to me and my family. She was a beautiful person who shined with love and understanding in all ways. Kashi Ashram was created out of her devotion to all who sought her wisdom and ideas. Her transition was deeply sad news and yet, as with all she did, it has brought me even closer to her words and her teachings. May we all look upon one another with loving kindness in her name and in the memory of all Mothers who love and teach us all.”

Founded by Ma in 1976, Kashi Ashram blends Eastern and Western philosophies. The Ashram sits on 80 acres at the banks of the St. Sebastian River and has dozens of temples and shrines to many diverse religions and spiritual paths. People from all walks of life are welcome and embraced at Kashi and encouraged to worship and coexist in harmony. Kashi Ashram affiliates have been opened in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, and Santa Fe.

Ma was the founder of Kashi Church Foundation, The River School, The River Fund, Kashi School of Yoga, the Village of Kashi, and By the River affordable senior housing. Her present and past affiliations include Trustee Emeritus of the Council for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Advisory Board Member of Equal Partners in Faith, Advisory Board Member of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, Advisory Board Member of the Gardner’s Syndrome Association, Delegate to the United Religions Initiative, Member of the Board of Directors of the AIDS care organization Project Response, and member of the Parliament’s General Assembly. Ma also founded orphan centers in Uganda and India.

Click here to read article featuring remembrances of Arlo Guthrie

Click here to read the full obituary

URI: Cultivating Peace from the Inside Out

URI Youthby Rev. Charles P. Gibbs
Executive Director, United Religions Initiative

At the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia, I had lunch with Dadi Janki, the senior leader of the Brahma Kumaris, who had been an inspirational friend for fourteen years. Dadi told me the story of a queen who lost a precious necklace and sent people to the farthest reaches of her kingdom to search for it. The search continued unsuccessfully until the day one person went up to the queen and pointed out that the necklace wasn’t lost, but was around her neck.

“That’s the way it is with peace,” Dadi said. “We spend so much time looking here and there for peace when it is inside us all the time, waiting to be discovered and cultivated.”

When I think about United Religions Initiative (URI), an organization I helped found in 2000 and which I have served as executive director of ever since, I think about this, about cultivating peace—both the peace inside us as individuals and the peace inside our human community.

At our annual fundraising event in San Francisco this year, we honored one of our member organizations from Barcelona, Spain, the interreligious dialogue arm of the UNESCO Centre of Catalonia. In her speech, Elisabeth Lheure, a URI Trustee who is also a mediator for the Centre, spoke of its success in facilitating the funeral of a prominent Muslim in a Catholic church in a diverse Barcelona suburb where there was no Muslim worship space large enough.

“That was possible because of almost six years of daily working in that area,” Elisabeth told us. “Six years during which we seeded empathy and understanding; six years during which we’ve had workshops on religious diversity at schools, exhibitions about religious pluralism, some open doors days of the different religious communities, etc., and of course a very active interfaith dialogue group. Six years during which we’ve done several direct mediations of religiously motivated conflicts.”

Six years of cultivating peace.

In the hundred-plus years since the convening of religious leaders at the first ever World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, the interfaith movement has grown tremendously. And it has also evolved, from a movement focused on dialogue among leaders to one that acknowledges the importance of personal transformation and grassroots relationship-building—of cultivation—to interreligious peace.

Much like the first Parliament, URI was inspired by a top-down vision, a vision of United Nations-type body where disputes could be aired and mediated in the conference room rather than on the battlefield. The idea for it came to then-Episcopal Bishop of California, the Right Reverend William E. Swing, in 1993 after he was asked by the United Nations to host a large interfaith service in San Francisco for the 50th anniversary of its charter signing. He asked himself, “If the nations of the world are working together for peace through the UN, then where are the world’s religions?”

But the resistance he encountered among dozens of leaders he queried led him somewhere else entirely: to the people. At the grassroots of the world’s religions, more than anywhere else, he found people ready to open hearts, link arms, and create a new global hope through interfaith cooperation.

Today, URI is a vibrant community of nearly half a million people working around the world toward a common purpose – “To promote enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings.”

What this means in practice is different for each of the 500 locally-rooted interfaith Cooperation Circles that make up our network. For some, it means simply opening up a dialogue where none has been before. For others, it means working across religious lines to provide humanitarian aid and health care, build schools, or plant trees. For still others it means spreading a message of tolerance through art, music and the media. But all share in URI’s vision, and count themselves part of our global community.

Community is, in many ways, what URI’s work is all about. We believe that peace comes when people start seeing themselves as part of one another, as part of a whole, interdependent web.

When Peace Kawomera, a URI Circle in Uganda, organized Muslim, Jewish, and Christian farmers to work together to grow and sell fair-trade coffee, they not only reaped the benefits of cooperative production and marketing, but they began to see that the “other” could be their friend, their coworker, and their partner. This personal and relational transformation is the smallest seed of peace, the seed of an active community of citizens working together locally and globally to make their shared world a better place.

What we do at URI is cultivate those seeds: help people reach inside of their own hearts, their own homes, their own communities, find that peace for themselves and then extend it into the world through cooperative action. If we can succeed in that, in laying the groundwork for peace and positive change from the ground up, then we will have come a long way toward reaching the vision of interfaith harmony sparked by that seminal interfaith gathering of 1893. We will have found our necklace.