By Anthoniraj Thumma*
In a televised debate conducted by a Telugu Channel based in Hyderabad on September 22, 2017 Swami Paripoornananda Saraswathi, Head of Sreepeetham at Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh, and Initiator and Advisor of Bhaarat Today TV Channel, levelled some false allegations and derogatory remarks particularly on Saint Teresa of Calcutta which are to be condemned by all right thinking persons. Since many citizens belonging to all religions are hurt and disturbed by Swamiji’s disrespectful comments, a need has arisen to clear the misgivings and apprehensions. The purpose of this article is not to hurt or attack anyone, rather to stall the attempts made to bring about rift and divisions between religions through hate-campaigns, and to promote peace and communal harmony among them by issuing necessary clarifications.
To begin with, the controversial comments and anti-Christian observations made by Paripoornananda Swamiji, whom deserves our respect as a religious leader and swami, were uncalled for, as the subject of the debate between him and Professor Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd was regarding the caste controversy and protests around the publication in Telugu of the chapter “Social Smugglers” from the book titled Post-Hindu India authored by the latter. He as the Director for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy and as a socio-cultural scientist, in this book put forth his theory of accumulation of capital that took place, according to his analysis, within the community of Bania / Arya-Yysya through caste controlled business, deceptive mechanisms, and cultural and economic exploitation. In response to his book in Telugu, he received threats to life and physical attacks from those who felt offended and hurt by it. He faced a similar situation when he had published his controversial book titled Why I am not a Hindu.
There was no need for the Swamiji to drag in the issues the Pope and Saint Teresa during the discussion with Kancha Illaiah on the present agitation. Nevertheless, he seemed to have a reason for doing so, which was let out of the bag during the course of the debate. This relates to the accusation made by Paripoornananda Swamiji on Kancha Illaiah of being “a foreign agent” of so called Christian countries. Swamiji appears to charge him and Christians of hatching a conspiracy for destroying Hinduism and converting whole of India to Christianity. Thus, he diverted the debate and converted the caste controversy into a religious one giving rise to many other controversies.
From the beginning of the debate, the Swamiji was repeatedly questioned by Kancha Ilaiah regarding his roots and parentage, a question the Swamiji adamantly refused to answer. During the course of discussion, to evade answering this question, the Swamiji retorted with another question on whether anyone would dare to ask the Pope about his parentage. He might be unaware that many journalists and interviewers did raise this question to Pope Francis and he answered them in detail.
Finally, the Swamiji walked out of the debate after over an hour of heated exchange alleging that the Professor insulted his visually impaired mother who had generously dedicated him to the service of the nation. The anchor of the debate, in his concluding remarks pronounced after the Swamiji had went away despite his pleadings to stay put, mentioned that it is a custom among swamijis not to reveal the names of their parents, and not to talk about their past and roots. This practice is found among the swamijis who totally renounce their relationships with parents and families, permanently leave their homes and native places, and take the vow of sanyasa. But in the case of Paripoornananda Swamiji, he is seen visiting his parents to get their blessing on his birthday in a video clip uploaded on the YouTube and his roots and parentage are mentioned on some websites related to him.
Veering away from the subject of discussion several times, Paripoornananda Swamiji repeatedly confronted Kancha Ilaiah for a debate on Mother Teresa and let leashed slew of insulting comments and false allegations on her. He cast doubts on the need for her to leave her homeland and on why she chose India for her service, when, according to him, hundreds of Christian countries were begging to survive. His outburst provokes various queries: Where are these hundreds of Christian countries?
Is not our country known for welcoming everyone who wants to come to India? Is he not seen to be going against this noble tradition of hospitality and our Indian culture itself? Indeed, the Mother Teresa was much loved by entire India and greatly appreciated by our national leaders for becoming totally an Indian not only by dressing in Indian attire and by taking the Indian citizenship, all the more by her service to Indian people. So much so, she was accorded a State funeral attended by the then Indian President Shri K.R. Narayana and Prime Minister Shri I.K. Gujral themselves along with hundreds of national and world leaders.
Then, the Swamiji went on to atrociously accuse Mother Teresa of trafficking illegally 50,000 nuns to other countries after converting them to Christianity. They are now in distress, facing several hardships, crushed and suppressed, he complained. Before throwing out such challenges and making allegations, the Swamiji should have checked the facts and figures that he claimed contained in the papers that he held in his hands and kept waving during the discussion. The fact of the matter is, at the time of Mother’s death in 1997, her Missionaries of Charity (MC) Sisters’ congregation had 3842 nuns residing in 594 convents serving in 120 countries. At present, there are about 5161 MC Sisters in 758 houses working in 139 Counters.
The Missionaries of Charity (MC) Sisters hail from traditional Catholic families, and are not converted Christians as the Swamiji asserted, except for a few. They happily serve the needy, sick and destitute with joy, compassion and contentment, not in distress as alleged, by voluntarily taking upon themselves three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Here, one needs to be reminded that the Missionaries of Charity (MC) make an additional special fourth vow of whole-hearted free service to the poorest of the poor. In order to fulfil their vocation, they willingly embrace any hardship and make self-sacrifice, and are ready to go to any country to render their services. Being a Swamiji himself, before complaining about the nuns of Missionaries of Charity (MC) Paripoornananda Swamiji ought to have kept in mind that nuns and monks in all religions freely renounce the worldly pleasures and comforts and embrace hardships to render service to the society.
Paripoornananda Swamiji also stirred up another vicious dispute by denouncing those who conferred the national award of Bharat Ratna on Mother Teresa in 1980, implying that she did not deserve it; albeit, by then, her services were acclaimed world over and she had been bestowed Noble Prize in 1979 and honoured by many other global awards. Does this contention not amount to discrediting the President of India and our national leaders, and demeaning the Indian citizens who admired and honoured Mother’s self-effacing service to the outcast, abandoned children, terminally ill, HIV/AIDS affected and leprosy patients?
By raising doubts over the conferment of the highest national award of Bharat Ratna to her, has not the Swamiji projected India in bad light in the face of the world and brought disrepute to India? Unfortunately, although inadvertently, Swamiji has brought into controversy the highest office of the President of India who confers Bharat Ratna and dragged into dispute the highest national civil award Bharat Ratna itself. Apart from this, one is sorry to point out that Paripoornananda Swamiji, by ruthlessly criticising Saint Teresa, has unknowingly violated the sacrosanct tradition of Indian Culture of giving respect to the departed by refraining from speaking ill of them.
Undoubtedly, the derogatory remarks and false accusations on Mother Teresa by the Swamiji have hurt the sentiments not only of the Roman Catholic Church and Christian Community, but also the people of all regions and nations who revere her as a Saint and universal Mother. Following the example of their Guru Jesus Christ, Christians would surely pardon Paripoornananda Swamiji for his anti-Christian comments and allegations. They would not hoard hatred and rancour towards him as he might have been made some of his claim either unintentionally or due to unawareness. The Swamiji and others like him need to be convinced that Christians are not “foreign agents” spreading a foreign religion.
Rather, they are native Indians practising an Asian (not Western / European) region which has existed nearly 2000 years in India, even before some of the Indic religious sects originated. Though a Minority, they are not second class citizens to be threatened to behave or else leave the country as Paripoornananda Swamiji attempts to insinuate. The Churches and Christians consciously shun forced and mass conversions as they are against the Gospel of Love they endeavour to preach and practice.
However, what is of great concern is the spreading of hate-campaign and violence, and sowing of discord and divisions among various religious groups and caste communities. Paripoornananda Swamiji and religious leaders of all Faiths should make efforts stop this poisoning of Indian social fabric. Preachers of religious tenets, including the Christian pastors, must immediately end denigrating the beliefs and practices of other Faiths. Though the core ethical values and spiritual experience are present in all religious traditions, there are many shortcomings among their followers in realizing them. Instead of focusing on them and degrading other Faiths, religious leaders need to endeavour to fulfil their primary duty of fostering peace and communal harmony in our pluralistic India.
They need to toil for safeguarding Indian secularism and the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution of India. It is just not enough to show mere tolerance to other religions, what is needed is mutual respect and equality, and realizing the inclusiveness of all communities and sections of the society. Religious leaders need to go beyond their boundaries to break the barriers and to collaborate with each other in fostering love and fraternity, and in promoting social justice and inclusive development of all, especially the Marginalized.
In the present juncture, all Indians need to keep in mind that in a democracy, everyone has the right to question, criticize, express their opinions on any issue; but no one has any right to hurt, threaten or attack others even if their views are different. But, now days in our country, intimidations, assaults, molestations and lynchings by aggressive groups are becoming common. Especially, the journalists and writers like Professor Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, who question the injustice, inequality and discrimination in the society, are facing threats to their life and fundamental rights. Sad to note some of them have been brutally killed recently.
Hence, the State Governments of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh must provide required protection and security without delay to Professor Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd and others facing life threats. The Central and State Governments ought to give directions to the officials concerned to check the hate-mongers and vigilante groups so that peace and harmony may prevail in our beloved country. To conclude, a wise quote from Saint Mother Teresa relevant to today’s context is apt: “If we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other”.
*Visiting Professor in Contextual Theology, Regional Director, Commission for Ecumenism & Interreligious Dialogue, Executive Secretary, Federation of Telugu Churches (FTC)