Mother Teresa's Christian faith does not undermine her social work

  • Viju Cherian, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Feb 26, 2015 11:36 IST

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat on Monday cast aspersions on the work done by late Mother Teresa saying that she did good work with the ulterior motive of converting people to Christianity.

He said: "Mother Teresa's service would have been good. But it used to have one objective to convert the person, who was being served, into a Christian."

Many people — mainly Christians and opposition leaders —condemned Bhagwat's statement. The spokesperson for the Missionaries of Charity (MoC) said that Bhagwat's "comments reflect how misinformed he is."

Those who condemned Bhagwat tried to highlight Mother Teresa as a 'secular' person — and this is far from the truth. She was a religious person, a Christian, a Catholic. To buttress her defense, the MoC spokesperson said that Mother Teresa was "above religion". This claim runs on thin ice. Mother Teresa was canonised by the Vatican and recognised by the Church for her work towards spreading and strengthening Christianity. The Vatican does not canonise people just for their extraordinary social work. If that was the case we would have had Saint Nelson Mandela and Saint Baba Amte by now.

Mother Teresa was a Roman Catholic by faith and as a nun spreading the Christian faith was her raison d'etre. She chose to serve the most underprivileged and outcast people in society and opened her arms to lepers, TB patients and terminally ill people at a time when the government and society had abandoned them. Her work in this field, no doubt, is without parallel.

To accept that Mother Teresa was a great social worker and at the same time an ardent Christian is not at odds, but at a certain level complement each other. Some of the greatest social work has come from people of faith and organisations that have a religious leaning. The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), for example. The AKDN is well-known for its work in various sectors like health, rural development, education, etc in Asia and Africa. While it does not 'restrict its work to a particular community, country or region', the AKDN is 'underpinned by the ethical principles of Islam'. The Ramakrishna Mission is a spiritual movement that has a worldwide presence, and its philanthropic and educational endeavours have brought succour to many people.

Being affiliated to a particular religious thought need not undermine the social work done by the individual or organisation. It becomes a problem when religion supersedes the social work done. Mother Teresa cannot be accused of this and her organisation and supporters should not be apologetic about her faith.

Bhagwat's statement has a greater political motive to it. On the face of it he has not made a new revelation — allegations against the work done by Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity is not new. However, Bhagwat's statement is important for its timing and the message to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

It comes roughly a week after Modi assured minorities that India was and will be a secular nation. Interestingly, Modi gave this assurance at a function held in New Delhi to celebrate the canonisation of Saints Mother Euphrasia and Kuriakose Elias Chavara — both helped spread Christianity (and thereby helped in religious conversions).

The Sangh parivar is underlining its message that India is a Hindu rashtra and Hindutva is the agenda that will be pursued. Love jihad, ghar wapsi and other statements by the likes of Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti and Sakshi Maharaj are not random utterances or fringe voices — they are sneak peeks into a grand vision the Sangh has for India.

This is no 'good cop bad cop' game as the opposition would want us to believe. Bhagwat is sending out an unambiguous message to Modi: 'You might be the PM, but remember, it’s us who got you there'.

The challenge for Modi will be to keep his promise to minorities without being pilloried by right-wing groups. India's secular bandwidth is decreasing by the day and, along with the economy, protecting this will be Modi's greatest test while in office.

(You can reach the author on Twitter at @vijucherian. The views expressed are personal.)

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