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The track to enlightenment: Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa

The greatest Indians of the 20th century found their calling on train journeys

Dominic Thomas, New Delhi

Dominic Thomas, New Delhi

Published: October 02, 2020 03:30 AM GMT

Updated: October 02, 2020 03:34 AM GMT

The track to enlightenment: Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa

Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa were the ultimate symbols of harmony, humanism and compassion in a word full of conflict and greed. (Image: Facebook)

The United Nations observes the International Day of Non-Violence on Oct. 2, the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of peace and non-violence. Gandhi led India to independence without war and inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world. Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa were undoubtedly the greatest Indians of the 20th century. This article explores how they complement each other:

Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa are India’s pride and envy of the world. They were the ultimate symbols of harmony, humanism and compassion in a world driven by conflict, politics, religion, gender, greed, money power and much else.

If Lord Buddha got his enlightenment while meditating under the Bodhi tree, then it was the train, the common man’s mode of transport, that enlightened Gandhi and Mother Teresa.

Gandhi had relocated to South Africa from Bombay in 1893. On June 7, 1893, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (the real name of Mahatma Gandhi), then a young barrister, was on his way from Durban to Pretoria by train. When the train came to a stop at Pietermaritzburg, Gandhi was ordered by the conductor to move from the first-class carriage (reserved for white passengers) to the van compartment for lower-class travelers. When Gandhi refused, showing the conductor his first-class ticket, he was evicted unceremoniously from the train.

This incident on the Pietermaritzburg railway platform changed the course of his life. That moment marked the turning point, the catalyst, when Gandhi made the momentous decision to fight the racial discrimination he experienced. This was his epiphany. Out of the incident at Pietermaritzburg emerged the concept of Satyagraha, meaning "holding on to truth". Satyagraha employs non-violent tactics to win over an opponent’s mind and create a new harmony between both sides of a conflict.   

Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, who adopted the name Mother Teresa, was born in 1910 in Skopje, Macedonia. At the age of 18 she left her parental home and joined the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish community of nuns with missions in India. She taught at St. Mary’s High School in Calcutta from 1931. 

Mother Teresa was sent for her annual retreat to the Loreto Convent in Darjeeling. During this train journeyon Sept. 10, 1946, she had a mystical encounter with Christ. In this encounter, which she later referred to as the "call within a call", Christ urged her to give up all and follow him into the slums to serve him and the poorest of the poor. "Come be my light, go amongst them, and carry me with you into them." This call within a call led to the establishment of the congregation of the Missionaries of Charity for sisters, brothers, fathers and laypeople and her lifetime of work for the poor and destitute across the world.

Gandhi kept evolving. He had the chance to read the Bible during a stay in London. “The Sermon on the Mount went straight to my heart,” he wrote. So he often quoted from the Gospel of Mathew 5:39. “To the one who strikes you on the cheek, turn the other cheek; to the one who takes your coat, give also your shirt. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”

Gandhi saw in Jesus' verse a picturesque and telling manner, the great doctrine of non-violent non-cooperation. The New York Times wrote that “Gandhi strove for perfection. He tries in the mood of the New Testament to love his enemies and to do good to all those who despitefully used him.”

Mother Teresa remained a strict catholic Christian. Her Christianity was all-pervading and her compassion was so great that she effortlessly transcended barriers to reach out all those who needed help. She lived the Sermon on the Mount in her life. 

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Mother Teresa was once living in a small house in Calcutta with some orphans. One day it so happened that there was nothing for the children to eat. Mother Teresa did not know what to do. There was one shopkeeper in the neighborhood who hated her. Mother went to him and said: “Please, give us something to eat.” The person looked at Mother Teresa with anger and spat on her hand. Mother gently wiped the saliva to her sari and said: “Thank you for what you have given for me. Will you give something for my children?”

Ninety nine years ago on Sept. 22, 1921, Gandhi made a momentous decision to change his attire to a simple dhoti and shawl. The dhoti is a rectangular piece of unstitched cloth wrapped around the waist and the legs and knotted either in the front or the back. This epoch-making decision was taken by Gandhi after he decided that he had to work for and with the poor people of India and how could he identify with them if he wore different clothes from them. He stuck to this dress code even on his trips abroad and until his very last moment. And he never regretted his decision. Indeed, the Mahatma followed what he preached. That is the reason his life — an open book — is itself a message.

On April 12, 1948, Mother Teresa was permitted to work outside the Loreto Convent. She was to remain outside the cloister for one year, after which it would be decided whether she should continue with her work or return to Loreto. She felt Jesus telling her that “I want free nuns covered with my poverty of the cross. You will dress in simple Indian clothes."  

Magdalena Polton, who later became Sister Gertrude, the second nun to join the Missionaries of Charity, recollects her first meeting with Mother Teresa in her new religious dress: “For the very first time in my life I saw her in her white sari with three blue borders. And what a shock it was for me — Mother Teresa, a Loreto nun, my headmistress, was now dressed like a poor Bengali woman in a simple white cotton sari with three blue borders!" In those days women who swept the streets used to wear a similar kind of a sari. Even today each Missionaries of Charity nun possesses only three blue-bordered saris.

Mother Teresa accepted India as her home when she accepted Indian citizenship. It may be a mere coincidence that she willingly offered herself to the service of the unwanted and the unloved in the same year Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of peace, non-violence and renunciation, became a victim of violence. Gandhi was assassinated on Jan. 30, 1948. The philosophy, ideology and message of Mahatma Gandhi were reborn in Mother Teresa. Gandhi’s death was equated to “the light went out of our lives”. Mother’s arrival had rekindled that light once again when she fully embraced, accepted and assimilated Gandhian values in her life and work.

Mother Teresa dedicated her life to the millions of destitute, orphaned, abandoned and poorest of the poor. In fact, she took up on herself the mission of the emancipation of the “last man” Gandhi spoke about as his talisman. Gandhi said: “I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man (or woman} whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him (her). Will it restore him (her) to a control over his (her) own life and destiny? Then you will find your doubts and yourself melt away.” Mother Teresa literally and figuratively followed this talisman.

Mother Teresa eschewed public notice, working in the obscurity of slums. But her humble approach could not hide the greatness of her work. She was decorated with all the accolades and awards a human being can aspire for in one’s life. In 1979, Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize "for work undertaken in the struggle to overcome poverty and distress, which also constitutes a threat to peace".

As for Gandhi, the French scholar Romaine Rolland regarded him as the greatest Indian after Buddha and the greatest human being after Christ. And yet the Father of the Nation was not awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to humanity and world peace despite being nominated in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947 and 1948 for the award.

Geir Lundestad, former secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, once admitted: “Our record is far from perfect and not giving Mahatma Gandhi the Nobel Prize was the biggest omission.” In a bid to make amends for this massive oversight, when the Nobel Peace Award was given to the Dalai Lama in 1989, the Nobel selection committee chairman remarked: "In a way, this an honor to Mahatma Gandhi too." A small apology for a significant oversight. 

Mother Teresa was canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church on Sept. 4, 2016, for her dedicated service to the poorest of the poor. But in the eyes of millions she had been anointed as a saint in her lifetime. The late Khushwant Singh, a noted columnist, wrote: “I do not believe in God but I believe in Mother Teresa, who believes in God. I don’t believe in miracles but I believe in Mother Teresa, the human miracle. What she did every day was a miracle enough. We conferred sainthood on her long before anyone outside India heard of her.”

But was Gandhi a saint or a politician? Had he been a Catholic, the Church would have canonized him as a saint long ago. When Gandhi found that moral authority was a better weapon to fight against the British, the saint in him came out. Gandhi is what we want him to be.

My own point of view is that he was a politician who experimented with finding a unique way to connect with the masses. He experimented with the spiritual side of things through asceticism. It is here that he discovered a way to connect to the common person who is largely non-violent. His brilliant political tactic of using non-violent resistance to oppose a regime on a mass scale did not require large sums of money as an armed conflict would have required.

It inspired future non-violent movements. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Christ gave me the message, Gandhi gave me the method.” Gandhi did it not for any selfish desire of getting power but as a pure selfless activity and a life of total sacrifice. Unlike many saints, he did not abandon real life but embraced it. He was a freedom fighter with a way like a saint. His philosophy of peace and non-violence, the two key ingredients in his freedom struggle, made him a saint-like personality and a citizen of the world.

Albert Einstein, one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century, was a contemporary of Mahatma Gandhi. They never met each other but exchanged letters. Einstein, who died in 1955, may not have heard of Mother Teresa during his lifetime. Yet what he wrote about Gandhi on Gandhi's 70th birthday holds true for Mahatma and Mother: "Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”

To understand Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa, one needs to have the intelligence of Einstein.

Dominic Thomas is a veteran international radio broadcaster, producer and writer in India. He has written and produced many award-winning radio documentaries and scores of programs on Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa. He is currently engaged as a consultant, adviser and content creator for community radio stations in India.The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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