In recent weeks, the chief of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak (RSS) brought up the motives of the late Mother Teresa. When doing so, he joined other Hindutva supporters, who had expressed their suspicions about her activities and saw in them, a desire for religious conversion.
For me, who had the largest part of my school education in convents, run by nuns, this sounded rather curious. When I look back and reminisce, I can hardly recall any attempts at conversion. Whilst our Catholic classmates went for Catechism in the first school hour, the rest of us had to do a subject called Moral Science, for which one had to write an exam every term. There was a Moral Science prize also at the end of every year, which I used to win quite regularly, eliciting some veiled comments from my mother! Many of these lessons came with a moral at the end but I cannot recall a single reference to Christ or any preaching of Christianity.
During early-morning assembly, when each class gathered in front of the Sister Superior, the prayer was a neutral one. The closest that one might have come to learning a Christian prayer was “The Lord’s Prayer.” But since it speaks of a Father, who dwells in Heaven, no Hindutva supporter can really cast aspersions on the reciting of what I find to be, quite a universal prayer. Many of my friends from school, and some relatives, say that they find it the most convenient prayer to recite, on account of its neutrality! Of course, assembly chorus-singing did have some references to Christ, as in hymns like “Abide With Me,” but perhaps those were politically-incorrect times, when one just sang along, without thinking too much about the God who was being referred to! To date, I find the philosophy of this hymn absolutely endearing and heart-touching.
The greatest advantage for a non-Christian to attend a school run by Christians is that it teaches respect for a religion outside of one’s own. Besides Moral Science, the one other lesson that was regularly visited was an awareness of a world, outside one’s privileged one. We were always being asked to bring clothes for “the poor” or make paper packets in which medicines were placed for “the poor.” As part of social service and Girl Guide activities, one also had a choice to visit the habitat of these deprived sections of society (now, often referred to as slums; never by our nuns, then!) and learn how they lived. In addition to the Moral Science Prize, there was the other more coveted award called a “Prize for Social Service,” that was gifted across classes to one deserving girl. Amongst the many winners of academic awards whom I have all but forgotten, I am surprised that I recall the name of the winner of the Social Service Prize! In a country of great economic disparity and the ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots, I am most grateful to these nuns for creating this awareness, and a sense of duty and responsibility towards the less-privileged.
Among my favourite Biblical quotations is the one which says, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Perhaps, indirectly, our nuns in school were teaching us that a spirit of service to the less-privileged was a way of enhancing one’s spirituality, irrespective of the religion one belonged to. This Biblical quote also makes clear that Mother Teresa and her Sisters of Charity, were only living their religion in the truest sense of the term. The poor, the infirm and the diseased, whom Mother Teresa and her flock brought into their shelters, were the ones dumped by society. These outcastes, often on their death-bed, could really not have cared if they were administered the Holy Rites of Christianity. In Mother Teresa and her dedicated band of nuns, they would have already seen God on Earth, after being shunned and condemned to lives of indignity.
Perhaps Mother Teresa, with her faith, felt that she owed the assurance of a passage to Heaven, to each of these wretched beings.
In the battle for the “harvesting of souls” between the different religions, it seems unfair to cast aspersions on someone so saintly. The city of Calcutta was thrown into deep gloom on the day of her passing and the feeling of loss went well beyond religions and communities. One has to only recall television images of the huge crowds that thronged the streets of the city, to get a last glimpse of Mother Teresa.
Besides, who can say what happens to someone, after s/he leaves this world? Soul and rebirth is only conjecture. So how can someone like Mother Teresa or Christian schools be accused of conversion? If I have any fault with the nuns, it is to do with the huge burden of morality that they have often placed on their students, which often clashes with the realities of the real world. A colleague at the workplace once told me that in his group of friends, there was this joke cracked, when someone crossed the line on ethical decisions: “He did not study Moral Science!”
It appears that in Christian institutions today, parents of a student have to sign an undertaking that they have no objection to their child being exposed to Christian moral instruction. My schooling happened during more innocent times, and our parents never feared any threat of conversion from the nuns! Thinking back, I realize that I might have forgotten some of my history and geography, but what has endured are those Moral Science lessons. And my school friends and I seem to agree that we are none the worse for those instructions!
Melanie Kumar is a convent-educated, Bangalore-based writer. From a young age, Melanie has been fascinated with the magic of words. She enjoys writing about life in its many manifestations. She also does literary reviews and is an avid traveler, who never misses an opportunity to pen her thoughts about her travels.