Saints, Teachers, and Seekers in the Indian Tradition
Mother Theresa of Calcutta
The Catholic Saint who was Adopted by India to Serve its Poor

A picture of Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa of Calcutta

As a lifelong Catholic nun, many may question that Mother Teresa fits the pattern of a Hindu sage, holy person, or spiritual teacher. But when examining her life a bit more closely with some knowledge of the local traditions, we see that many of her values while emphasizing Christian love and service to the poor were also Hindu values that harmonize well with a northeast Indian Hindu world view. This is perhaps why she was accepted, loved, and even revered by many Hindu religious people who were familiar with her work with abandoned children, the poor, and the dying. She even identified herself as a citizen of India saying:
By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun.

So let us examine some elements of Mother Teresa's life in a Hindu context to explore the ways in which she appeared to be Hindu and why she was widely respected and even adopted by Hindus in India as one of their own.

Calcutta (the British name of a city renamed Kolkata in 2001 to its original Bengali name) is known throughout India as cultured city, and a center for learning and the arts. It is also known throughout the world as a city of great poverty and the home of hundreds of thousands of refugees who over the years have fled war, famine, natural disaster, and oppression to live on its streets and in its shantytowns. Calcutta's people are mostly proud of their tradition of accepting and welcoming of the world's most lowly and helpless. They know that though these people are a burden to the city, Calcutta's streets are friendlier than the places of war or poverty these refugees are fleeing.

Perhaps the most well-known resident of Calcutta was Mother Teresa, an Albanian nun who in the late 1940's got permission from the Catholic Church to resign from the teaching job she had done for almost 20 years in a relatively comfortable Roman Catholic school in Darjeeling. Darjeeling was a beautiful former hill station and vacation spot of the British Raj located in the Himalayas 300 miles north of Calcutta.

While Mother Teresa worked in India for many years and expanded the Missionaries of Charity order which she founded in 1950 worldwide, it was not until 1979 that she gained fame around the world when she won the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Mother Teresa was a member of the Irish Sisters of Lareto order when she received a religious call in 1946 that told her she must do more to alleviate suffering. She was especially affected by a devastating famine which hit Bengal in 1943 due to some of the power politics of WW II. A combination of the halt of rice imports from Southeast Asia due to the Japanese invasion and the British administration's failure to allow shipments of food within Bengal which many claim was available in sufficient qualities caused a famine where 3 million people died.

Mother Teresa came to the conclusion she was not doing enough to help the poor and disadvantaged in her teaching position.

She moved onto the streets of Calcutta herself for a time to live with the beggars, refugees, and outcast people in order to understand their suffering. She began by taking care of street children teaching them hygiene and other life skills.

She says,

I was washing the children that were always very dirty. Many of them were washed for the first time in their lives. I taught them about personal hygiene, good manners, religion and how to read. The soil was my blackboard. All the children were very happy. At the beginning they were only 5 of them but the number of children started to grow. Those that came to me regularly received a bar of soap as a reward for their efforts. At lunchtime I'd distribute milk to them. Today in the same place, a modern school has been erected and contains more than 5000 children. There is really God's help in this.

While living on the streets, Mother Teresa met some of her former students who had gotten older and one found her a small room to stay in. A small group of them began helping her attend to the needs of the poor. When the girls asked her how and what she would like them to do, she said,

Bring the love of Christ to the suffering, relieving their suffering sharing it with them. To be, become and remain the mother of love for everyone.

Mother Teresa said of the volunteers:

It is useless to talk, explain or try to convince these girls of the value of this great project. There is a need to testify, to demonstrate, to touch with a loving heart - all the poor, the abandoned, the lepers, but also the other people, the rich and healthy, because only together we can and must do something beautiful for God.
Mother Teresa says of the virtues of the poor:
Our people even if very poor, live and above all die happy, they are free. There is happiness in them; they are thankful for everything, very sensible and very good. One day I went and brought some rice to a very poor family. Later on, the mother of these 4 children ran away from home. After some time, she came back and I asked her, "where did you go to?" and she replied, "Mother, near us there lives a Muslim family. They are very, very poor and are dying of hunger, so I went there to bring them some rice." Her family was Hindu.

See how much generosity and altruism the poor have.

Mother Teresa believed there is a kind of blessedness, joy, and freedom in poverty. This is consistent with the Sermon on the Mount where the poor are blessed by Christ.

In the book Mother of Charity written by Lush Gjergji, Mother Teresa describes her mother's admonishment to her:

My dear daughter, do not forget that you went there [India] for the poor.

Mother Teresa also describes the pain of loneliness of some of the poor and sick people she encountered:

She is full of sores, but what torments her the most is that she feels all alone. We are doing our best to help her. In fact, the worst thing are not the sores she has, but because she has been forgotten by her relatives.

Mother Teresa believes that serving the poor is a spiritual discipline:

The work, the silence, the love in action, yes, but only if it is really fruit of faith and prayer, one must serve God in his fellow men, otherwise, we simply become social workers like many others and this could be our end.

About 10 years after the founding of her order, Mother Teresa started a home for abandoned children and also a home or Hospice for the dying. The home for the dying was located on a street very near the city's largest and best-known temple to the Hindu Goddess Kali. Mother Teresa was not welcome there at first since dying is considered to be spiritually impure by Hindus and this is especially true when Mother Teresa did not pay attention to the castes of dying people. The presence of dying and low caste people was thought to spiritually corrupt the sacred temple environment.

When the local people learned that the home for the dying was given to Mother Teresa by the city, they protested to the authorities, thus provoking a serious religious conflict.

With a large crowd protesting outside, a city police official promised that he would throw out this "white woman" who did not respect the Hindu religious tradition. He angrily entered the building to verify what was happening there. When he came into the big hall, he found there were about a hundred women and men lying near death. Mother Teresa with her sisters, were doing everything possible to save them and if that was not possible, at least try to help them die with dignity.

This official was very moved when he saw this. He spoke to Mother Teresa and told her:

Best wishes, Mother! You are truly the goddess Kali in person, the angel of consolation. Continue your work. I wish you all the best and great success. May God help you!

The official was especially impressed when a he saw a Brahman acquaintance dying in the facility. He had thought there would only be poor, low caste and outcast patients there. He asked the Brahman how he came to be there. The man told him that his family had caste him out onto the street and he had no place else to go when he got sick.

The police official went outside, touched and angry almost crying and addressed the group composed of Kali priests, local religious people, and journalists. He said,

Yes, I have promised that I would send this woman away and I will keep my word; but listen to what I have to say: before I do this, I ask that your mothers, your sisters and you yourselves come and do what these sisters are doing. In the Kali temple you have a black stone goddess, but inside there [in the hospice] is a live goddess!

Mother Teresa continued to fight the physical and emotional harassment but little by little the local population accepted the home. Even the Kali temple priests came to accept her presence over time.

Mother Teresa began recruiting lay and ordained volunteers to help her find and transport the sick and dying from Calcutta's streets, allies, and railway yards to her facility. Some could be nursed back to health while others could only be made to feel more comfortable in their final hours. Many were filthy and their wounds were full of maggots. They suffered from malnutrition and dehydration, leprosy and cholera, malaria and gastroenteritis - many ills still so common in the developing world that are mostly unknown in western countries today.

Mother Teresa explains,

One day I found a man in a sewer. All his body was a great sore. The mice had eaten pieces of his body. I brought him to our house for the dying. You know what that man told me? He said, "I have lived all my life like an animal in the street. Now I will die like an angel, surrounded with love and care."

I can never forget his words, but above all his serene and smiling face. After three hours, he died like an angel.

One author wrote that as a street person, Mother Teresa was:

Free from everybody and everything, she became part of the poor people, to be their teacher, mother, everything.

Mother Teresa said that the rich cannot really appreciate things as the poor do. She asks her nuns to enter into the spirit of poverty, to live poverty in order to help, understand, and love the poor. This approach to poverty is very appropriate to India where for thousands of years, religious yogis and older retired householders have renounced the things of the world including wealth, pleasure, ownership, and family in the search of moksha or spiritual freedom, or to worship their chosen deity as they approach death.

Many South Asian scholars that I have known are people who travel to India over and over again. They get addicted to the immediacy of everything, and the strong feeling that life is lived with a kind of intensity that is seldom seen in richer countries. Much of this intensity comes from the experience of being poor and on the edge of survival. Religious Hindus have traditionally had great respect for those who renounce the world to live a religious life of self-imposed poverty.

While living in Calcutta, I was able to spend some time at Mother Teresa's home for children in North Calcutta. The home is filled with many dozens of children. Some had been abandoned on the streets of Calcutta due to some deformity. Others are there because their parents could not support them or provide for their special needs.

The volunteers there worked tirelessly to help the children stay clean and comfortable trying to give them the attention they need so at least some of them might someday be independent and capable of caring for themselves.

There was a nursery with about 60 - 3 month to 2-year-old children in multiple rows of bassinettes with nuns, paid staff, or volunteers taking care of them. All were clean, fed, and well cared for just as one might find in a western hospital or nursery.

The more able children as they get older are given an excellent education. The girls are mostly married into good Hindu, Christian, or Muslim families when they come of age. Mother Teresa was even willing to pay the required dowry for some of the girls to secure a good marriage. Hindu and Muslim girls with a Christian education are considered to be very desirable wives even though they may be orphans, or their caste may be low or unknown. They are given a new identity by Mother Teresa's nuns and an opportunity for a good life.

Mother Teresa is highly respected in Calcutta for many reasons. This is partly because she made no distinction between the beggars and the well to do. Her followers will tell you that there is no task she asked of anyone that she would not gladly do herself. She is especially loved by Calcuttans because she did not force Hindu or Muslim children to convert to the Catholic faith. This is very different from the missionaries the British brought with them during the almost 200 years of colonial rule in India whose primary mission in addition to education was conversion.

She was also willing to teach the children in her care the highly developed Hindu arts of dance, song, and poetry. Her nuns also wore saris - a simple ancient form of dress worn by most Hindu women consisting is a sheet of cloth six yards long wrapped around the body in a spiral fashion. Saris are a symbol of modesty and associated with virtuous Hindu women. In multiple ways, Mother Teresa demonstrated her respect for the strengths of the local culture. And she tried to build on those strengths rather than forcing her native European ways on those she served. This earned her a special place in the hearts of the local people.

However, the admiration for Mother Teresa sometimes went beyond respect. Northeastern India has a tradition of Mother Goddess worship that stretches back many centuries. The power of the goddess is known as Shakti. Many Indians believe that Shakti, the creative force behind the world, is feminine rather than masculine. The goddess is the mother of all things and will go to great lengths to help her children.

There is also a belief that certain individuals can embody this divine power, much like the saints in Catholicism can manifest the power of the Holy Spirit and take on the qualities of Christ. The Goddess is even believed to be able to incarnate in a human being in exceptional circumstances.

Against this backdrop, Mother Teresa was seen by some to be a partial or full incarnation of the Divine Mother, the one who had endless compassion and love for the children of the world. Being in the presence of such a woman could evoke a kind of reverence and devotion in some Hindus which might be comparable to meeting a great saint in the flesh by traditional Catholics. In a country that has long prized its many living saints and spiritual teachers, the importance of this association of Mother Teresa with the mother Goddess could not be underestimated. In Calcutta, she along with the goddess Kali was known by many simply as "Ma" or "Mother".

Mother Teresa demonstrated her divine qualities to Indians in a very specific way. In Shaktism, or mother worship traditions, the goddess Kali has a very special ability: she is immune to the impurity that death brings. As the goddess of both life and death, she transcends and overcomes death. Her unique role allows her to encompass the forces of life and death, which makes her immune to the inauspicious and destructive side of death.

Mother Teresa's ability to deal with the dying but not be negatively affected by such a powerful destructive force made her like the goddess Kali who is beyond the dualities of life and death, and even beyond all the oppositions and dualities of the physical world. Purity in the midst of great impurity is a divine quality. Mother Teresa, who took up residence next to Kali's most sacred temple, became for some like the city official mentioned earlier a living Kali.

Some in America wonder why Hindus and Muslims would honor a Catholic nun. In the West, there is a tradition of competition and exclusivity among the various denominations of Christianity and Judaism. The exclusivist positions say, "If my religion is right, then yours must be wrong".

But many of Calcutta's religious people are much more non-sectarian. Village Hindus and Muslims many times attend each other's religious festivals. Ramakrishna, Calcutta's most famous saint said in the late 19th century that all religions lead to the same goal. He claimed to have meditated upon the God's of the all world's major religions and found they all brought him to the same divine state of peace, unity, and wisdom. This "many paths, one goal" (or the Rigveda phrase translation "God is one but sages call him by different names") approach to religion is very widespread throughout India. This approach can best be described as a position of religious universalism.

It is common for traditional Indians to have a home alter or shrine full of Images and statues of saints and Gods from a mixture of religions. Christ and Mary may sit aside Guru Nanak (founder of Sikhism), Vamakepsa (a powerful tantric saint), Krishna, and his consort Radha (a divine couple), Kali (the goddess of the burning ground who controls creation and destruction), and Lakshmi (goddess of wealth and happiness). The list of revered divine figures can be very long.

Many families also contain people of different faiths. We were invited to the home of a Taxi driver in Calcutta. He said his home had three separate shrines. A different member of the family used each one. The driver's alter was for to Goddess Kali, but his sister had a Christian alter while his parents had their own alter to a mix different Hindu deities. A common approach is that each person is drawn most strongly towards one aspect of the divine that can be represented by one or more saints or Gods. It is believed people should pray and meditate upon, or make offerings to the form of the divine that inspires the most respect and devotion in them.

In this atmosphere, there is little concern about people from one religious tradition feeling admiration or reverence for a leader or saint of a different tradition. Mother Teresa believed that a person should live out the ideals of whatever religion they belonged to. Her idea that a Hindu, or Christian, or Muslim should strive to be the best religious person he or she could be in their chosen religion harmonized well with the non-sectarian milieu of Calcutta. The result of all this is a respect among the common people for the great diversity of spirituality found throughout India.

There were many interesting and even inspired people around Mother Teresa.

One volunteer was a French woman in her 30's who after working 11 months at her normal job as a nurse had spent her last few yearly vacations in Calcutta helping Mother Teresa. She told me of the strong heart and stomach required of those that worked at the home for the dying in South Calcutta. She said many were able to do this kind of work for a few weeks and could only return to it after a considerable vacation. In spite of the topic, her enthusiasm for the work she was doing was contagious.

There was a group of American Christian high school students from a mainline protestant denomination who were spending their summer doing volunteer work at Christian missions in India and Africa. In America, the mixture of a Catholic mission of nuns with protestant student volunteers would be an uncommon one. The willingness of the leaders of this group to ignore the common denominational boundaries and expose their young people to a Catholic mission was most impressive. It showed me that such was the power of Mother Teresa's work that it could even break down the normal cultural barriers a world away.

Perhaps the most exceptional person I met was an American woman named Peggy who had volunteered in different Missionaries of Charity missions around the world for many years. Peggy became "hooked on" doing service work years earlier during her time in the Peace Corps. She was sent to the Philippines where she came across an entire village which was cut off from a larger town by a swamp. The children had to walk through that swamp every day to go to school. Almost all of them suffered from a debilitating disease which was caused by a parasitic worm that would bore into their skin as they made their way to school each day through the swamp.

She determined that she would do whatever was necessary to get a road built to this village. She spent six months making periodic trips to the town officials demanding, cajoling, and pleading that they build the new road. Finally they got tired of hearing from this pushy American woman and built the road to get her off their back. The children's symptoms disappeared and Peggy learned that one determined volunteer could dramatically improve the quality of life for scores of people. She was off on her life's mission.

She found a like-minded spirit in Mother Teresa. Peggy, a woman now in her mid-70s has lived for years off a modest retirement left her by her late husband traveling the world working much of the time in Mother Teresa's missions. Though she was not specifically Christian, I met her in Calcutta where she was splitting her time between work at Mother Teresa's Calcutta mission and a rural mission school run by a priest outside of Calcutta. A few years ago, she taught children English in Viet Nam part of the year, and the rest of the time nursed young children many of them dying from AIDs in one of Mother Teresa's African missions. The following year she returned to Calcutta where she was caring for a group of about a dozen street children, keeping them fed and clothed, and making sure they had medical attention when necessary. They were "her kids" and she took care of them leaving them in the charge of another volunteer when it came time for her to return to the U.S. A month ago she returned to Calcutta, and continues to work there always trying different approaches.

I was fortunate to attend noonday services at Nirmal Hridoy (translation: Pure Heart), the Missionaries of Charity's nunnery a few blocks from the Children's home. Perhaps thirty nuns said prayers with one of the sisters acting as leader during the hour-long service. Mother Teresa arrived a few minutes after the service began, and used a kneeler near the door perhaps ten feet away from the visitor's area where we both had our own kneelers. The rest of the nuns were assembled in rows of seats across the room. The room was large and dimly lit with light coming in a few windows behind a small podium that was left empty during the service. The atmosphere was peaceful and reserved. Mother Teresa was very concentrated in her prayers as were many of the other sisters. It seemed that the nuns depended heavily on prayer and quiet contemplation to help them face the difficult and chaotic realities they would encounter daily on the streets of Calcutta.

On other occasions, Mother Teresa would sit with the visitors in chairs and would be inches away from me during the meeting.

In the best of situations, life in Calcutta is difficult. There is the constant dust, the diesel exhaust, the dirty streets, the beggars, the acrid smell of outdoor urinals, the street vendors who cover sidewalks of the main streets, the over-crowded buses and trains, the hot season where temperatures often reach beyond 110 degrees F., the constant honking of horns, and the snarled traffic. The monsoons turn parts of the city into lakes for months during the year. It is probably one of the most difficult cities in the world to live in, and the nuns spend every day in some of the worst areas of Calcutta.

I grew up hearing about the horrors of the depression of the 1930's from my parents. At that time, there was almost 20 percent unemployment in the U.S. This difficult period lasted about ten years but those who experienced it will tell you it seemed to go on forever.

However, for half of the people on this earth, the "depression" had no start and has no end in sight. They live in societies submerged in perpetual depressions with all their negative material, social, and psychological consequences.

Mother Teresa is one of those rare people who could stand to look squarely at this reality. And she could not ignore the suffering she saw all around her. Many wonder how any person can take on such a burden - the life-long commitment to alleviate suffering when there is so much of it out there.

Mother Teresa was fond of a sermon about the "burden" of loving service towards others. The lyrics of a popular song from the 1960's refer to the same story she based this sermon on. It describes the act of helping others in the metaphor of "carrying one's brother". But though it might seem contradictory, the burden of caring for others for her creates a powerful sense of joy, freedom, and lightness. For Mother, such service is not a burden when its motivation is love: As the song goes, "And the love doesn't weight me down at all". Mother quoted song's refrain when she spoke of the joy of helping the needy, "He not heavy, he's my brother."

The question remains: Can Mother Teresa be considered a Hindu saint and teacher or guru being that she lived in India most of her life, spoke Hindi and Bengali, was a citizen of India, and was a respected role model and inspiration for many in India? From her own perspective as a Catholic, the answer is probably, no. Catholics practice an exclusive form of monotheism and India has a wide variety of approaches to God including both monotheism and many flavors of polytheism. But her respect and support for people who practice the local religion sets her apart from many Catholic missionaries and their institutions around the world. Her uneasy relationship with the Vatican seems to stem partly from her openness to and support of people in other religions.

But the Indian nuns who joined her order likely saw her as a great teacher and even a guru. As shown above, many religious people in Bengal saw her as a partial or full incarnation of the Mother Goddess. From a Hindu perspective, she was undoubtedly a great teacher, saint, and seeker of God who traveled the path of Karma Yoga (or the yoga of service to others and spiritually motivated action in the world) to reach God.

There is certainly plenty of criticism of Mother Teresa. Some say she defamed Calcutta creating an image of the city as a place of suffering and poverty that ignores its great history of literature, art, and religious wisdom and devotion. Others see her as a glutton for attention and fame who was friends with dictators and enjoyed her relationship with the rich and powerful. Still others see the care provided as lacking medical procedures, resources, and knowledge leaving those in her care to suffer unnecessarily.

While many nuns probably became skillful nurses over time, critics wonder why there was apparently little focus on simple though relatively expensive medical interventions like administering antibiotics and morphine. Mother Teresa's approach to medicine was sometimes described as medieval and it is a mystery why she focused so little on modern medicine when dealing with those in her care.

My guess is that the resources and expertise required to buy, administer, and monitor the use of drugs and other medical interventions might help a single dying person survive or die with less pain. However that would mean that those resources would be unavailable for five or ten other people who desperately need care. When looked at in these terms, the lack of use of drugs and other life saving medical interventions can perhaps be justified.

However most criticism comes from secular Western writers who know very little about the culture in which she did her work and the balancing act required to create and spread the Missionaries of Charity as a religious helping organization that spans the globe. Many also disagreed with her views on abortion and contraception which were consistent with the Catholic Church's approach to these issues.

Taken together, these criticisms created a strong counter-narrative to the idealism that Mother Teresa professed. But for the most part, the critics have not lived in the developing world and could not begin to imagine the reality that Mother Teresa and her nuns encountered every day. The counter argument is that the critics were profoundly ignorant of the facts on the ground and could be accused of being both vain and self-satisfied in their ignorance. The authors advice to them is to let them live amidst the realities of sickness, poverty, and life and death in the developing world and then write their criticisms. Then they would have the credibility that they seem to lack as distant observers.

But encountering death on a daily basis is something difficult to convey to those who do not experience it. I once went to a lecture by Kathleen Singh, the author of a book titled The Grace in Dying. The lecture was a powerful one which expressed the reality of death, and its intensity and numinous quality.

After the lecture, I spoke with the popular minister of a large church in the area. I asked him what he thought of the talk. He made a funny, embarrassed smile and said something I will not forget. He said that he "felt like a total fraud". In the context of facing the stark reality of death, he seemed to feel that his sermons, his counseling, he daily interactions with parishioners seemed superficial and even frivolous. The reality of death stands out in extreme contrast to day-to-day life and its reality seemed to have hit him with the power of a thunderbolt. Perhaps the critics need to have such an experience to see Mother Teresa's life with greater clarity.

Why is there such fascination with Mother Teresa? Why was she one of the dominant religious personalities of the 20th century?

My answer is that she was an alchemist. She took what was lowest and transformed it into what was highest, and this captured people's imaginations. Like the Goddess Kali, she could transform great impurity and misfortune into purity, joy, and spirituality.

She transformed:

  • Death and dying into angelic transcendence
  • Horror and abandonment into love and caring service
  • The heavy responsibilities and burdens of caring for the poor into a source lightness and joy
  • Poverty, insecurity, and fear of the future into freedom and independence
  • The coveted excess wealth and high social status so common in the modern world into a burden that could be lightened by giving and performing service to others
  • She took the basest of metals, lead, and turned it into the most valuable of metals, gold. She took the worst aspects and experiences of human existence and found a way to express the highest and most noble human qualities in their midst. She was a modern day alchemist who challenged others to confront the contradictions and injustices of this world, and to follow in her footsteps to come to the aid of the wounded, the desperate, and the unwanted.

    There are a number of books about Mother Teresa on Amazon and at other book seller's web sites.


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