Two questions swirl around the controversy caused by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s remarks about Mother Teresa. The first relates to the nature of Mother Teresa’s work. Was she the predatory Christian proselytiser that the RSS portrays her as, seeking to heal only to convert? Or was she the secular do-gooder her supporters claim she was, with a charitable intent unrelated to Christianity? And the second question is: Why? What is it about Mother Teresa that so irks the RSS that over a decade after her death, Mohan Bhagwat still feels obliged to be publicly dismissive about her? And why have so many BJP and RSS leaders echoed Bhagwat’s disapproval?
The answer to the first question is more complex than we may think. The RSS caricature of Mother Teresa is wrong. The order she headed, the Missionaries of Charity, did not find lepers lying in the streets of Calcutta and then demand that they convert to Christianity before offering them shelter or treatment. Mother Teresa and her sisters helped everyone they could, regardless of religion. The only example the RSS has been able to offer is that when people were dying, the nuns administered last rites, and that these rites were Christian in nature. This may well be true but it hardly amounts to an aggressive conversion campaign. Surely, it is an extremely inefficient way to convert people to Christianity if you wait till they are about to die and then offer Christian prayers?
But the contrary view of Mother Teresa as a secular social worker is also bogus. She once famously said, “I am not a social worker,” and made it clear that her mission was to spread the word of Jesus Christ. If the Missionaries of Charity picked up abandoned babies whose religion was not immediately apparent, they brought them up as Christians.
In her own mind, Mother Teresa was always clear. She was a Catholic missionary, aligned to a particular faction of the Church. And this was one of the most regressive and reactionary factions in the Vatican. She was a dedicated supporter of the policies of the hardline Pope John Paul II, many of whose ideas are now being abandoned by the more liberal Pope Francis. Her obsessions were peculiarly medieval, Catholic obsessions. She was a tireless opponent of contraception and when she won the Nobel Peace Prize, she left her audience slack-jawed in astonishment when she claimed that one of the greatest threats to world peace was — I kid you not — abortion!
This did not advance the secular image that some of her supporters created for her, particularly when she immersed herself in such political campaigns as the fight against the anti-conversion Bill or the demand for reservation for Dalit Christians.
Over the last couple of years, the Vatican has made Mother Teresa look slightly ridiculous by trying to attribute bogus miracles to her so that she can be declared a saint. (Mother Teresa never claimed to be a miracle worker but the eligibility conditions for sainthood require at least one ‘miracle’.) So, far from being a secular do-gooder, her own church wants us to regard her as a Christian version of a godwoman.
And finally, to add to the layers of complexity surrounding Mother Teresa, there is the posthumous revelation that emerged in a book containing letters she wrote to her confessors and spiritual mentors. In the last four decades (40 years!) of her life, she told them, she felt ‘no presence of God whatsoever, neither in her heart nor in the Eucharist’. This religious vacuum was kept secret from the rest of us. As Time magazine pointed out when the book was published, even as she told us that Jesus was all around, she couldn’t find him herself.
Which leaves us with the second question. Why is the RSS so keen on dissing Mother Teresa after all these years? To see it as part of the Sangh’s hatred of all other religions is to oversimplify the issue. To the RSS, Islam represents an apocalyptic threat. Muslims ruled India, oppressed Hindus and present an existential danger to the Hindu way of life. Fortunately, most of them went to Pakistan and those that remain must live here on Hindu society’s terms.
The Sangh’s attitude to Christians, however, is significantly different. While the Christian British did rule India, they did not do so in the name of Christ or levy taxes on Hindus. So, unlike Muslims, they are not the ultimate enemy.
The objection to Christianity is that it represents an alternative worldview, wrapped up with Western notions of science and logic. In the Hindu fundamentalist world, India was always far ahead of the West. We had aeroplanes, atom bombs, plastic surgery, and God alone knows what else, even before Christ was born. Our ancient system of medicine was a miracle cure that has been unjustly sidelined in favour of Western science. And so on.
So, Christianity must be attacked not because it poses any apocalyptic threat to Hindus but because it is the dogma of the scientific West and its anti-Hindu-culture view of the world. It is significant that when Hindu fundamentalists attack Islam, Indian Muslims are the target. But the attacks on Christianity are framed in terms that are entirely xenophobic. It is always foreign missionaries who are targeted and accused of bringing hundreds of crores to convert Hindus. The objection is rarely to Indian Christians — except for a few priests who are seen as Vatican lackeys. It is to missionaries from abroad.
As the most famous missionary India has ever known, Mother Teresa symbolises all that the Sangh hates about Christianity and its alternative worldview. That’s why, so many years after her death, the RSS still feels the need to attack her.
The irony is that if Bhagwat and his friends sat down and took stock of Mother Teresa’s reactionary social conservatism, they may find that the two sides have more in common than the RSS recognises.
The views expressed by the author are personal