Memories of Mother Teresa and a religious-freedom story worth watching in India

One of the highlights of my journalism career came in 1982 in Bombay (now Mumbai) where I had the opportunity to conduct a news conference for Mother Teresa, the late Nobel Peace Prize-winning nun and current candidate for Roman Catholic sainthood. The occasion was a conference staged by the International Transpersonal Association. My wife, Ruth, and I handled the press and Mother Teresa was one of the star presenters, hence the news conference opportunity.

Her talk and media comments were boilerplate Mother Teresa. Love the unloved, love the unwanted, love the dying; love, love, love until you think you have no more love to give -- then force yourself to love even more, for that is the way of God.

The diminutive, stoop-shouldered nun repeated some variation of that formula endlessly, in her talk and in response to every question asked at her news conference, and I, for one, was impressed. So it came of something of a shock to me years later when she famously admitted -- despite her popular image of saintly devotion to the poorest of the poor and the global public's assumption that her faith gave her the strength to persevere -- that she suffered for years from a spiritual dryness that distanced her from feeling connected to her God.

I'm sure that long ago news conference was just another day on the job for Mother Teresa. For me, though, it was a day to remember.

Mother Teresa, however, was a controversial personality, despite all the charitable work done by her and the order she founded, the Missionaries of Charity. Critics abounded, including the late atheist icon Christopher Hitchens. She was attacked for cozying up to the likes of Yasser Arafat and Jean-Claude Duvalier, ostensibly doing so for the large donations they sent her way (in return for reputation burnishing photo-ops). She was criticized in India and abroad for operating what were viewed as substandard medical and other facilities, which they certainly were by Western standards, and for her organization's alleged loose bookkeeping.

Mother Teresa died in 1997. Yet she continues to be a controversial figure, not least of all in the nation to which she devoted her life, India, as evidence by the recent words of the leader of the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Mohan Bhagwat. He sparked a firestorm (in news media in India, anyway) by saying her work was tainted by her desire to gain Christian converts from among those she served. The RSS doubled down on his charge by demanding that the Indian government enact an anti-conversion law to stop coerced conversions it claims stem from "false promises, forceful or other wrong means," according to The Hindu, a leading English-language Indian newspaper.

This is not the first time Mother Teresa has been so charged (Missionaries of Charity leaders have denied the accuracy of this and the other criticisms leveled against her). And it surely won't be the last, because majority Hindu India, the world's most populous democracy and a burgeoning economic power, has serious ongoing religious tolerance problems that bear close watching by journalists and others. They have the potential to undercut the nation's democratic foundation.

For instance, a recent Pew Research Center report on global religious restrictions and hostilities singled out India as having "the highest level of social hostilities involving religion" among the world’s most populous countries.

Hindus, who account for more than 800 million people, or more than 80 percent of the population, dominate culturally and politically. The current Indian government is led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), another Hindu nationalist organization, which believes strongly in governing India in accordance with Hindu values. The RSS has been described as the BJP's ideological wellspring.

But India also has the world's third largest Muslim population, despite Islam accounting for only about 15 percent of the nation's 1.2 billion-and-counting people. Great antagonism's between Indian Hindus and Muslims date back to before the subcontinent's horrific rendering into majority Hindu India and majority Muslim Pakistan (and later Bangladesh). These conflicts often flare into deadly rioting between Hindus and Muslims.

Then there's the ongoing and occasionally bloody military standoff between India and Pakistan over political control of Jammu and Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state. Nor is foreign Muslim terrorism against Hindu and national targets unknown. (Under Modi, once chilly relations between India and Israel have grown warmer, in part because both fear Muslim terror. New Delhi "is concerned that Islamist groups are out to radicalize members of the 180 million people strong Muslim minority in India or recruit Indian Muslims for 'holy war' in the Middle East," The Globalist Website noted recently.)

Perhaps what is most surprising in this era of global Muslim discontent, I dare say, is that India's Hindu-Muslim conflict is not worse. The two faith traditions have been in competition since the 7th century, when the First Muslim traders reached India's west coast. There followed a series of Muslim regional invasions in the north and west that culminated in the Muslim Mogul Empire that ruled much of the subcontinent in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Conflict between India's Hindu rulers and the minority Sikh community has also been no small matter.

But my focus here is conflict between India's Hindus and Christians, who account for only 2 to 3 percent of the population. That conflict is underscored by the remark about Mother Teresa uttered by Mohan Bhagwat of the RSS.

If one is to believe the London-based organization Hindu Human Rights (HHR) -- and I have no reason not to, except that an admittedly cursory Web search turned up little in support or critical of this organization that I do not know well -- Hindus are being physically attacked, discriminated against and misunderstood around the world and on a regular basis; in neighboring Muslim states, by Buddhists (I've seen this myself in Bhutan, where temporary Indian Hindu laborers are treated horrendously) and by Christians as well. Just the other day, HHR posted a piece, picked up from the Website of New Delhi Television (NDTV, a leading Indian channel) saying that an 11-year-old Hindu girl attending a Christian school in India was forced to stand outside her school for two hours because she was wearing a tilak, the distinctive red forehead dot that has religious and cultural significance and is pervasive in India (it's also known as a bindi). To be punished in India for sporting a tilak seems to me as unlikely as being admonished for wearing a cross in St. Peter's Square.

Christianity is India's third largest religion, despite claiming such a small percentage of the national population. Thomas the Apostle is traditionally believed to have first introduced the faith to what is now India in year 52 of the Common Era. Today, India's 24-million-plus Christians belong to Roman Catholic, Eastern Rite Catholic, Oriental Orthodox and Protestant churches, and live, mainly, along the nation's long coastline and its northeast.

With relatively so few Christians, why all the concern about Hindus leaving the fold via conversion to Christianity because of the now-deceased Mother Teresa? Why has Bhagwat made it a headline-grabbing issue now? What is behind this story?

Could the deeper threat on his mind be economic and cultural globalization, seen in so much of Asia and Africa as a particularly insidious form of contemporary Western colonialism? Is Bhagwat echoing what so many in the Muslim world say, that globalization, with it's ostensibly secular but in actuality progressive Western Christian values, threatens to undermine and eventually replace the historic values of non-Western cultures? (I say a lot more about this in my book, "Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval.")

Remember that it's not that long since a heavy British hand -- colonialism at perhaps its most romantic, though no less exploitative -- ruled the Hindu homeland. And as is evident in much of today's global turmoil, the colonized do not soon forgive the indignities suffered, both real and imagined, at the hands of the colonizer.

This, then, is the story behind Indian Hindu annoyance expressed as criticism of Mother Teresa. As a Christian, the standard bearer for Western religion and culture, for many she stands in here as a proxy spear tip for Western colonialism -- whatever her motives. It's a story that is not going to go away.

PHOTO: Ira Rifkin with Mother Teresa, during that 1982 press conference.

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