Teresa: Not India’s Mother

5 minute read

Christopher Hitchens iconoclastic polemic against Mother Teresa makes for riveting reading, with uncomfortable questions raised that beget even more uncomfortable answers. Given Hitchens’ strong atheist views, it is perhaps not surprising and even inevitable that he would have trained his guns on Mother Teresa at some point. Mother Teresa was the brightest beacon of the Church in Asia, a continent where the Church remains convinced a “great harvest” of heathen souls awaits in the new millennium. At the end of this short book – all of 128 pages, I was more convinced that there had been something fundamentally fake about Mother Teresa.

Mother Teresa received enormous funds, donations, and patronage from the Government of India while she was alive. That money, Hitchens says, has never been totalled, nor has anyone “ever asked what became of the funds. It is safe to say, however, that if all the money had been used on one project it would have been possible, say, to give Calcutta the finest teaching hospital in the entire Third World.

The wretched, unhygienic conditions, in which the poor were given less than basic care, left one wondering why Mother Teresa thought it fit that the poor should be subjected to such pain in their dying moments, while she herself didn’t think twice before availing of the best and most expensive medical care that money could buy (“… checked into some of the finest and costliest clinics and hospitals in the West during her bouts with heart trouble and old age“).

Even more damning, to use this loaded word in the context of talking about Mother Teresa, is the testimony of Susan Shields, who for nine and a half years worked as a member of Mother Teresa’s order: “In the homes for the dying, Mother taught the sisters how to secretly baptize those who were dying. Sisters were to ask each person in danger of death if he wanted a ‘ticket to heaven’. An affirmative reply was to mean consent to baptism. The sister was then to pretend she was just cooling the person’s forehead with a wet cloth, while in fact she was baptizing him, saying quietly the necessary words. Secrecy was important so that it would not come to be known that Mother Teresa’s sisters were baptizing Hindus and Moslems.”

While she may have proclaimed herself as apolitical, it did not stop her from meeting with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on the eve of a private bill in Parliament that sought to “limit the availability of abortion“. This was appreciated by the M.P. who had brought the bill as providing an “immense boost to his campaign“. Nor did the she blink an eyelid when stating that she would have “sided with the Church authorities against Galileo.” To add to this litany, and ‘litany’ is again a loaded word here, Hitchens notes, Mother Teresa was silent about the genocide in Rwanda, “perhaps because the Roman Catholic leadership in that country was complicit in the attempted genocide of the Tutsi people in the summer of 1994.

Mother Teresa’s conveniently blind side, consistently poor judgment, and persistent dogma, call it what you will, did not confine itself only to theological matters. If it was her rather artless, or as Hitchens says, “faux naif“, letter she wrote in defence of Mr Charles Keating, a fraudster convicted to stealing over $200 million, it was her very public support for Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti at another.

Even sadder is her defence of the butchers of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984. “Mother Teresa was on the next plane to Bhopal. At the airport, greeted by throngs of angry relatives of the victims, she was pressed to give her advice and counsel, and she did so unhesitatingly. I have a videotape of the moment. ‘Forgive,’ she said. ‘Forgive, forgive.‘” Forgive? Forgive whom? Forgive for what? How did she know, at that time, that Union Carbide, now owned by Dow Chemical, was responsible for the deaths of eventually over one hundred thousand people? “Mother Teresa’s flying visit to Bhopal read like a hasty exercise in damage control”. Should the poor have to forgive the rich, the powerful, the culpable? In Hitchens’ excoriating words, Mother Teresa “furnished PR-type cover for all manner of cultists and shady businessmen (who are often the same thing)“.

India was also witness to Mrs. Indira Gandhi, late Prime Minister of India, and “friend and admirer” of Mother Teresa, who “who launched a demagogic and brutal attempt to bring about male sterilization.” Surely the Mother could have uttered a word or two in criticism? If she ever did, records do not provide any evidence of it. In Bangladesh, where the most violent and sickening of crimes were committed against close to half a million women in 1970-71, Mother Teresa appealed to these victims to “not to abort the seed of the invader and the violator“. It is quite another thing that Mother Teresa claimed to have adopted no more than “three or four dozen orphans from the entire Bangladesh calamity.” This out of hundreds of thousands of victims.

Calcutta (now called “Kolkata”) has had to suffer its share of tragedies. The upheaval caused by the Bangladesh War in 1971, the sectarian strife in Assam a decade later, or the ignominies heaped on the city and state by Communists, who ruled the state for more than thirty years, it is still “the city of Tagore, of Ray and Bose and Mrinal Sen, and of a great flowering of culture and nationalism.” The people themselves “are neither inert nor cringing. They work and they struggle, and as a general rule (especially as compared with ostensibly richer cities such as Bombay) they do not beg.” The manufacture and sustenance of the impression that “Calcutta is a hellhole” was therefore “Essential indeed to the whole Mother Teresa cult.” 

In the end, Hitchens summarization of Mother Teresa is succinct, and more depressingly, accurate – “A religious fundamentalist, a political operative, a primitive sermonizer and an accomplice of worldly, secular powers.”

The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, 1995, Christopher Hitchens

(Editor: To read the detailed blog entry from July 2012, see here and , here, along with this extended video with Aroup Chatterjee (“Mother Teresa: The Untold Story”).  Also read, Krishen Kak, as well as chapter 10 of Navaratna S Rajaram’s “A Hindu View of the World”, “The Real MotherTeresa”. This is a summary, given that today is the 109th birth anniversary of Mother Teresa.  The lay reader should not fall for articles that sugar-coat the real mother.  A nation that idolises false heroes will struggle to progress.)

Image: from here.

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