by Louise E. Wright
From 1974, when she set off for training in India, until 1992, when she left the organization known as Ananda Marga, Marsha Goluboff Low answered to one or another of these names. Ironically, she had joined Ananda Marga at a time when, she declares, “I didn’t have any clue who I was.”
In her book, “The Orange Robe: My 18 Years as a Yogic Nun,” Low provides an engaging and candid account of her involvement with the organization.
The 62-year-old Flourtown resident describes Ananda Marga as “a controversial spiritual sect.” Founded in 1955 by Shrii Shrii Anandamurti, the organization teaches meditation and yoga and engages in social and relief work but also has a political agenda. While it envisions “localized economies,” Low explains, it advocates “a centralized world government” in the form of “a benign dictatorship.”
The sect was highly controversial. Anandamurti was called “Baba” by his followers, who were known as the Margiis. Baba spent seven years in an Indian prison for allegedly conspiring in the kidnapping and murder of several of his followers. Some of Baba’s followers stood trial for the 1978 bombing of the Sydney (Australia) Hilton, but they were acquitted.
The Margiis often skirted the law and, regarded with suspicion, ran afoul of immigration authorities. Low was no exception, hence the need for aliases such as “Sandra Holmes” and “Hanna Hartt.” Blacklisted by Indian immigration, she was also deported from Egypt and refused entry into Turkish Cyprus. She worked underground in Fiji, resided illegally in Australia and violated the conditions of her visa in Russia, resulting in her detention by the KGB.
Low fraudulently reported traveler’s checks lost, used health care and tickets issued to other Margiis and, on one occasion, smuggled video equipment into India. Other members of the sect did worse, knowingly or unknowingly dealing drugs or pornography.
Although seemingly at odds with a spiritual organization, such activities evidence Ananda Marga’s belief that the ends justify the means. Initially, Low embraced the strict code of conduct Ananda Marga imposes on its followers. “You don’t have to think,” she explains. “Almost every situation is spelled out. For the person I was then, that was very appealing.” Ultimately, she came to question the values of an organization that would condemn, say, the eating of a mushroom or an onion but condone lying, cheating and stealing.
Low’s Hindi names chart her advancement in the sect. As an initiate, a few years after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, she was known as Liila. Upon completing training as an “acarya,” or one who teaches by example, she became “Malatii.” Achieving the status of “avadhutika,” one who takes special vows and practices advanced meditation, she received the name “Ananda Madhuchanda.”
Although Low organized food distributions and tried to improve the diets of those she lived among, she spent much of her time teaching, not just yoga and meditation but also English. In “The Orange Robe,” she describes the founding of Vistara, a primary school outside of Lismore, New South Wales, as “one of the most immensely satisfying accomplishments” of her life. Funded by the Australian government, Vistara offered low-income families an affordable alternative to the local public school and, despite its affiliation with Ananda Marga, did not teach the organization’s doctrines. It remains in operation to this day.
Since leaving Ananda Marga, Low has continued to work in education. She earned an M.Ed. from Cabrini College, helped found Germantown’s Wissahickon Charter School and currently teaches English as a Second Language at Montgomery County Community College and Alvernia College.
The orange robe of the memoir’s title refers to the burka-like garb Low wore: an orange headpiece and jacket over a white — later orange — sari. Donning this uniform, Low shed the identity of a mixed-up Jewish girl from a materialistic culture and morphed into one of Baba’s devotees.
Ananda Marga provided Low the sense of family and belonging she yearned for, having grown up in an emotionally cold, uncommunicative household. She considered her ethnic background “limiting,” for her parents spoke Yiddish and “distrusted people who weren’t Jewish.” In contrast, she declares, “I was going to be universal and embrace people.”
Low has dedicated the book to her parents, whom she saw only once in those 18 years as a yogic nun. By the time she left the organization, both had died. She is also researching her Eastern European heritage and talks of writing a historical novel based on her grandparents’ lives in Tsarist Russia.
In addition to identity, “The Orange Robe” treats the theme of tolerance. Low sees the book as “a cautionary tale of how young people are very idealistic, but they don’t have much life experience. They find something, and they think, ‘Wow!’ but then become intolerant of other ways.”
With respect to herself, she says, “I belonged to an organization that was going to change the world, but I was naive and immature and didn’t understand how to help people.” Furthermore, rejecting the materialism of the West, she viewed the lives of those she worked among as “beautiful” and “simple.” In fact, she realizes, “They were poor.”
Low began writing about her experiences almost as soon as she left the organization. Initially she produced short, comic tales under the title “Recollections of a Wandering Vegetarian” for the newsletter of the Vegetarians of Philadelphia. In these stories she did not mention Ananda Marga, fearing that readers would stereotype her as belonging to a cult.
In “The Orange Robe,” Low avoids the word “cult,” which she labels “a loaded term,” not wanting sensationalism to sell the book. “My focus is to tell my own story,” she explains, “and allow readers to make their own decisions.” Still she acknowledges that Ananda Marga fulfills several criteria of a cult, among them having a “charismatic leader” who attracts “unquestioning devotion.”
Low continued writing and finally realized she needed to deal with Ananda Marga. In part, the writing was therapeutic: “It helped me work through a lot.” She acknowledges a “tremendous sadness” with respect to the way she treated her parents. In addition, she admits, “I had a lot of bitterness. I didn’t have kids; I didn’t have a career. It took time to work through those feelings.”
Doing so enabled her to gain the perspective necessary to craft the memoir. She began working on it in earnest about 2003. Another reason for waiting so long (11 years) to write the book, quite simply, was fear. In the introduction, Low refers to “monks who had run afoul of the organization and ended up dead.” She had no desire to join their ranks. “It took me a long time to overcome my fear,” she reveals, having done so by talking, not only to her husband and trusted friends but also to a therapist.
Still, Low changed the names of almost all the individuals mentioned in the book. Even while working on the project, there were times when “I wasn’t sure I’d publish because I was afraid.” She thought of producing just a small edition for private distribution but decided against it. She also considered, but dismissed, the idea of a pen name. “I don’t need another name,” she laughs. “I’ve had so many.”
Ultimately, Low resigned herself: “Whatever happens, happens.”
“The Orange Robe” is available, in print as well as ebook editions, from amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. Readers with questions can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.