Debating India


The Mother Principle

Balbir K. PUNJ

Tuesday 25 November 2003, by PUNJ*Balbir K.

Article paru dans outlook India, ?dition en ligne du 1er d?cembre 2003.

An evangelist is Calcutta’s mascot, even though more authentic figures abound

Saba Naqvi Bhaumik’s ’Saint Teresa’ (Outlook, November 3) is lavish in its adulation of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity for ’Indianisation of Christianity’. Not caring much for rationality and its precepts, it eulogises Pope John Paul II’s 50th ’miraculous’ canonisation ceremony and his concerted effort to repackage Christianity for Asia. All that she says is completely true but not the complete truth. She does not quote the chief pontiff’s November 1999 call in New Delhi for the "evangelisation of Asia in the 3rd millennium AD, on the lines of Europe in the 1st and Americas in the 2nd".

Bhaumik’s contention that the spread of Christianity in India can’t be linked to the British also doesn’t hold water. Elizabeth Susan Alexander, in her The Attitude of British Protestant Missionaries Towards Nationalism in India, says: "The evangelical revival of Christianity that swept Britain from the last decades of 18th century changed the situation completely. The Company had to cede entry rights to British missionaries in its controversial Charter Act 1813, paving the way for intensive activities by British Protestant missionaries."

Historian R.C. Mazumdar, while dwelling on the pre-1857 period in his History and Culture of Indian People, Vol. IX, observes: "Some schools, mainly supported by the government, were actually run by clergymen on a strictly Christian basis. About the modus operandi of conversion through these schools, it’s sufficient to note that the pupils were asked such questions as ’Who’s your God?’ and ’Who’s your redeemer?’. The inevitable reply, as a result of regular coaching was, of course, Jesus Christ."

As for her examples of Bengali liturgy and ’pusphanjali’ in churches, I wish she had credited Christianity in Bengal as such and not Mother Teresa. In West Bengal, unlike in Bangladesh where the Missionaries of Charity is not allowed to operate, Christians have indistinguishably Hindu names. The first president of the Indian National Congress, Sir Womesh Chandra Bonerjee, Reverend Krishna Mohan Banerjee and poetess Toru Dutt were baptised Christians. Brahma Bandhav Upadhyay, an important figure of Bengal Renaissance, called himself a "Catholic Vedantin".

The Church uses "miracles" to impress and draw innocents to its fold. But why should the media, with claims to secularism and rationality, glorify them?

One need not learn the alphabet of Indianism from Mother Teresa. Can we forget Belgian priest Camil Bulcke, a Padma Bhushan (1974), who spent his life delving into literary lore involving Lord Ram. I can, in fact, give instances of three born Catholics-David Frawley from the US, Koenrad Elst from Belgium and Francois Gautier from France-who are truly immersed in this spirit of Indophilia. These lovers of India are working silently with no reward or hype, the kind which attends the Teresa myth. Is it because they are enamoured with the soul of India and thoroughly oppose evangelisation?

Even in Calcutta, leave alone India, never was she the only philanthropist. One can, without reflection, name the Ramakrishna Mission, Bharat Seva Ashram Sangha, Chinmaya Mission, Satya Sai Baba Trust among the organisations engaged in doing hands-on social work. But thanks to figures like Malcolm Muggeridge and Dominique Lapierre, in the western consciousness Calcutta is synonymous with Mother Teresa.

What a tragedy this, for a city that is regarded as the cultural capital of India! Calcutta has produced many luminaries who could claim its brand ambassadorship better than Mother Teresa-Raja Ram Mohun Roy, Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Sir J.C. Bose, Nirad C. Chaudhuri and Satyajit Ray-to name a few.Should Calcutta be associated with them or Mother Teresa, who portrayed the city as an overgrown slum?

Does the name Sister Nivedita, aka Margaret Noble, ring a bell in the historical memory of Indians fawning over Agnes Bojaxhiu, better known to them as Mother Teresa? Nobel, an Irish, belonged to a family of Catholic priests. Her father Samuel Nobel had returned from preaching in India and had told little Margaret: "India, my little one, is seeking her destiny. She called me once and will perhaps call you, too, some day. Always be ready for her call." The national destiny that the priest was referring to was perhaps no different from the one envisaged by Pope John Paul II. Margaret did adhere to her father’s word, but very differently. Her meeting with Swami Vivekananda in 1895 in Dublin had a strong impact on her. She came to Calcutta the following year and the Swami consecrated her to the nation as Nivedita (the dedicated one).

Unlike Teresa, who spent 50 years in this country, Nivedita mastered Bengali and Sanskrit. Braving the hostilities of an orthodox Hindu society, she started her first school for girls in 1898. When a plague epidemic broke out in Calcutta in 1899, Nivedita set an example by cleaning the roads and scavenging garbage around the clock. She had the physical characteristics of a Celt, but the soul of an Indian. She accompanied Vivekananda on his 1899 America tour, preaching about India’s rich contribution to world civilisation and human thought.

But the Church functions like a multinational company for souls and continues to repackage itself for target consumers. Adoption of Hindu symbols is a similar acculturation strategy on its part. We, on our part, have to decide on our role model: Mother Teresa or Sister Nivedita?


The author, a Rajya Sabha MP and convenor of the BJP’s think-tank, can be contacted at

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