But for the guilt-stricken Malcolm Muggeridge, I wouldn't be writing this piece nor would Christopher Hitchens have taken the trouble of writing perhaps the best expose of Mother Teresa in his devastating "The Missionary Position". Nor would we be witnessing the series of pieces that have appeared recently in the wake of the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat's comment that "her service was rendered with an intention that those served converted to Christianity". While true, Mohan Bhagwat's statement is also naïve. What Teresa was doing was not seva by any definition of the term - she spent her entire life harvesting poor, ailing, and diseased souls with the single-minded aim to be "united with Jesus".
I could say that Christopher Hitchens set out to investigate Teresa with the Socratic ideal of "an unexamined life is not worth living" but that'd be an obvious exaggeration. So I'll just say that he swam against the tide and more than merely "examined" Mother Teresa. Asked why he "picked on" this "sainted old woman," he said:
Partly because that impression is so widespread. But also because the sheer fact that this is considered unquestionable is a sign of what we are up against, namely the problem of credulity - One of the most salient examples of people's willingness to believe anything if it is garbed in the appearance of holiness is the uncritical acceptance of the idea of Mother Teresa as a saint by people who would normally be thinking? However lazily - in other words, in every sense it is an unexamined claim.
It's unexamined journalistically? No one really takes a look at what she does. And it is unexamined as to why it should be she who is spotlighted as opposed to many very selfless people who devote their lives to the relief of suffering in what we used to call the "Third World".
Myths are more enduring than mere stories whether they be fictional myths or people-myths simply because they call for a willing suspension of disbelief of a gargantuan magnitude. While fictional myths are recognised as such, people-myths are just the opposite: they attain the status of truth. And therefore the shock and the outrage and the intolerance when the first rays of the sun kiss people-myths. No matter how much evidence stares the face, people refuse to believe the actual truth and this is the true and frightening power of the human mind to absorb and defend the worst of people-myths, which the Church continues to use with skill, finesse and experience amassed over 800 years. This is the reason that Hitchens' busting of the Teresa "Mother" myth is not talked about in public discourse generally-in India or abroad. This is the reason Dr Aroup Chatterjee's Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict remains out of print. This is also the reason people never hear about scholarly work like Mother Teresa - Come be My Light - The Private Writings of the "Saint of Calcutta". It is easier and comforting to outsource one's own beliefs and convictions about vital concepts one largely takes as settled-concepts of charity, seva, poverty, suffering, Gods, saints-than subject them to brutal scrutiny.
I will not dwell in detail on the high-profile unsavoury aspects of Teresa; they're already too well-known and well-documented-like befriending tyrants like the Duvaliers or supporting the Lincoln Savings and loans-swindler Charles Keating or the brutal "treatment facilities" at her home in Calcutta or her double-standard with respect to the deceased Diana's divorce.
One of the singular contributions of Teresa to India is the fact that she openly advertised Calcutta as India's showpiece of a squalid and filthy Third-World city, an impression that is permanently embedded in the Western world. An excerpt from this interview - both the question and Hitchens' answer to it is revealing. And infinitely saddening if you are an Indian.
Q: The Mother Teresa myth requires the Indians to play the role of the hapless victims. What do the Indians think of Mother Teresa and of the image she gives of India?
Hitchens: I've got an enormous pile of coverage from India, where my book was published. And the reviews seem to be overwhelmingly favourable…There are many Indians who object to the image of their society and its people that is projected. From Mother Teresa and from her fans you would receive the impression that in Calcutta there is nothing but torpor, squalor, and misery, and people barely have the energy to brush the flies from their eyes while extending a begging bowl. Really and truly that is a slander on a fantastically interesting, brave, highly evolved, and cultured city, which has universities, film schools, theatres, book shops, literary cafes….There is indeed a terrible problem of poverty and overcrowding, but despite that there isn't all that much mendicancy. People do not tug at your sleeve and beg. They are proud of the fact that they don't. The sources of Calcutta's woes and miseries are the very overpopulation that the church says is no problem…
It's not far from the truth to claim that Teresa was not attracted to poverty but to poor people to ensure that they remained poor, hungry, and if they were sick and dying, the better for her in her quest to be "united with Jesus". If this is not some kind of twisted soul-sadism, I fail to discern what else it is. For a heart-rending sample of how this panned out in real life at her Calcutta home, read former Asiaweek journalist Balachandran's account. Also the first-hand accounts recorded by Germany's STERN magazine and the testimony of Susan Shields who worked as a nun with Teresa for a decade. It makes for queasy reading.
However, apart from being "united with Jesus," what else propelled this sort of soul-sadism and other patently unethical actions as we shall see? We turn to Hitchens again:
Why is it never mentioned that her stated motive for the work is that of proselytisation for religious fundamentalism, for the most extreme interpretation of Catholic doctrine?... That she has been an ally of the most reactionary forces in India and in many other countries; that she has campaigned. To prevent Ireland from ceasing to be the only country in Europe with a constitutional ban on divorce, that her interventions are always timed to assist the most conservative and obscurantist forces.
That the global evangelical industry undertakes conversions at different levels using different techniques is common knowledge. There are conversions by force, fraud, allurement, etc but it is truly sickening to convert the weak, the terminally-diseased, the defenceless, and the dying no matter their age. But then this was Mother Teresa's area of specialisation and the millions of dollars sitting in the bank accounts of her order worldwide shows how she attained excellence in it. What kind of mind-set brings a person to utter what Teresa told a suffering person at her home:
"The most beautiful gift for a person is that he can participate in the suffering of Christ," said Mother Teresa. Once she had tried to comfort a screaming sufferer, "You are suffering, that means Jesus is kissing you". The sufferer screamed back, furious, "Then tell your Jesus to stop kissing me".
It is this same zealous fanaticism that also explains Teresa's millions (all received as donations for helping the poor) stashed at various places across the globe including at the Vatican bank. Zealous fanaticism because she didn't use even a fraction of that money to actually help the poor. Zealous fanaticism also because she didn't spend a great deal of it on herself or on the worldwide web of her order of missionaries. The fact that her Missionaries of Charity is the most successful order of the Catholic church and that it is also one of its biggest donors should tell us a thing or two about helping the poor and the suffering. It is also important to remember that there is no account for this money.
That despite a pile of such evidence which disproves her saintliness and other associated virtues people continue to believe the opposite points exactly to the problem of credulity that Hitchens mentions. From ill-informed beauty-pageant contestants to Chiranjeevi to the Bharat Ratna all the way up to the Nobel, the Mother Teresa phenomenon is one of the most successful instances where credulity has challenged reason. And won.
More fundamentally, it is astonishing why people don't take Teresa's words at face value. Why do so many mainstream commentators, authors, and lay people make excuses and apologies on her behalf when she herself is candid about her fundamentalist position on critical issues? Here are some excerpts from her interview published in the May 31, 1983 issue of India Today:
Q: As a Christian missionary, do you adopt a position of neutrality between Christian poor and other poor?
A: I am not neutral. I have my faith.
Q: Can the Church do any wrong?
A: No, as long as it stands on the side of God.
Q: Mother, if you were born in the Middle Ages, and were asked, at the time of Galileo's inquisition, to take side, which would you have chosen - the church or modern astronomy?
A: (Smiling) The church.
Or when she tells STERN magazine in 1988 that: "…We are not here for work, we are here for Jesus. We are religious above all else. We are not social workers, not teachers, not doctors. We are nuns," why don't we take her at her own words and examine her legacy accordingly instead of going by her outward appearance and conjuring unreasonable mental images of her because she lives a simple life and works among the poor?
Indeed, Teresa had a keen insight into human nature. That she remained unfazed by Hitchens' book and a whole heap of exposes that revealed her to be a heartless plunderer of souls and still stuck to her fundamentalist quest to be united with Jesus is perhaps an enduring illustration of this insight.
Something beautiful for God indeed.