What could Henry Kissinger and Mother Teresa possibly have in common?
by Ravindra Svarupa Dasa
When the Nobel Prize Committee awarded the 1979 Peace Prize to Mother Teresa, the sixty-nine-year-old nun who has devoted her life to helping the poor of Calcutta, it seemed as though the learned men in Stockholm must have received some sudden enlightenment; so great is the contrast between her and previous recipients, like Henry Kissinger. How much more fitting to give the award to this frail and humble woman, who descends into the streets of what Kipling called “the City of Dreadful Night” to bathe the wounds of lepers and console the dying, than to those powerful adepts of realpolitik who bomb for peace. Considered beside her predecessors, she is an inspired choice.
Yet a word must be said on behalf of the politicians. Granting the dedication, self-sacrifice, and compassion of Mother Teresa (not to minimize her excellent qualities), we may still question the practicality of her work. After all, for every maimed or diseased person she helps, the world’s social machinery pitilessly grinds out ten thousand more, and an army of Mother Teresas could not stem the tide. As the human detritus piles up, nations grow bellicose over increasingly scarce resources: oil, land, minerals, grains—a dwindling supply that can never hope to fill the bottomless maw of demand. Surely any solution requires social and political action on a global scale.
Can people like Mother Teresa really do anything to rectify those relentless social injustices Pope John Paul II so eloquently spoke of before the U.N. General Assembly? There cannot be a peaceful world until there is a just world. As long as the rich live at the expense of the poor, violence will be endemic to human relations. The slums, barrios, ghettos, and refugee camps of the world’s disinherited teem with wars and revolutions to come. Certainly the Marxists, who find in these places such eager ears, at least recognize the need for radical change. Seen in this context, Mother Teresa’s efforts appear as effective as fighting a forest fire with a water bucket: a brave and beautiful gesture, quixotic and doomed.
Ah, but the politicians! What Strangelovian peace do the Dr. Kissingers prepare for us? What hope can we place in peace-makers who abhor “terrorism” while holding each other’s entire citizenry hostage with nuclear missiles? Is peace a balance of terror? Do doves have talons?
So in the obvious inconsistency of the Nobel Prize awards we confront a familiar dilemma: it seems that a person can be either virtuous or powerful, but not both. How could the power of a Kissinger and the purity of a Mother Teresa ever unite in the same person? If one is to be effective in changing things on a large scale, can he also be moral, humane, compassionate? Conventional wisdom holds that there is something about the demands of political leadership, the exercise of temporal power, which inevitably excludes saintliness or holiness. As it is said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Yet this idea was not always considered self-evident. In fact, the highly respected Bhagavad-gita refers to the ideal leader of a state as a rajarsi (a Sanskrit term that combines the word raja, meaning “king,” and rsi, meaning “saint”). The compound signifies that sanctity is a sine qua non for political leadership.
Moreover, far from holding up the saintly king as an unrealizable ideal, the Bhagavad-gita provides a practical way to unite power with purity. The means is bhakti, or devotional service to God. Bhakti as a discipline trains people in sanctity. A saint is understood to be one who fully recognizes the authority of God and who thus acts exclusively as His servant. A bhakta (a practitioner of bhakti) learns to understand existentially, practically, that everything belongs to God.
Recognizing the supreme position of God means accepting that He is the enjoyer and controller of everything and everyone. The Vedic analysis of the human condition traces back the lust for pleasure, power, and profit (a lust which has virtually created the present social order) to our forgetfulness of God’s position as master, and our own as His servants. Contemporary human civilization is in a condition of radical deformity, for the natural servants are artificially aspiring to become the masters; the enjoyed and the controlled are perversely trying to enjoy and control.
A bhakta, a devotee of God, must quit this obscene masquerade. To do so, he (or she) must give up those self-deceptive activities upon which the charade rests. Principally, these activities are eating flesh, taking intoxicants, indulging illicitly in sex, and gambling. Rejecting these corruptions, the bhakta systematically remembers God by hearing His glories and repeating them, and by worshiping the Lord in other ways. Eventually, remembrance of the Lord becomes spontaneous. We are all naturally loving servants of God, but that loving devotion has become covered by the twin illusions of envy of God and the desire to take His place. We have thus invested our original love in inauthentic surrogates, but it can be restored by devotional service.
The Vedas especially recommend the chanting of the Hare Krsna mantra as the most appropriate way for us to remember God. Since God is present in His names, chanting Hare Krsna puts us directly into contact with Him. This close proximity cleanses away our desire to be God and to usurp His position. God, the supremely pure one, purifies whoever comes in touch with Him, just as fire heats everything put into it. Bhakti puts the practitioner into the refining fire of God consciousness and keeps him there. Thus, through bhakti, one accepts God as the Supreme Lord and Master, not just theoretically or officially, but in actual practice.
From this we can see that when a bhakta, a purified devotee of God, has political power, he does not foolishly think the power is his. He understands that he must exercise it only on God’s behalf, and he rightly sees all resources at his disposal as meant for serving God. Just as a loyal and faithful servant may manage an estate on behalf of his employer, so a devotee may assume great political responsibility without falsely assuming proprietorship. Only such a person can exercise power without becoming corrupted by it, for he always remains acutely aware that he himself is nothing but an instrument of God, a servant acting under His orders.
But what are the “orders” such a saintly leader would follow? What would he do? As a loving servant of God, who is all-merciful, a rajarsi would naturally work for the welfare of everyone by trying to establish peace—freedom from war and social violence, from hunger, pain, disease, and so on. His program, however, would not be some scheme hatched in a planning commission or think tank. Instead, as a devotee, he would follow the program for peace explicitly laid out by the Lord in the Bhagavad-gita (5.29):“The sages, knowing Me [Lord Krsna] as the ultimate purpose of all sacrifices and austerities, the Supreme Lord of all planets and demigods, and the benefactor and well-wisher of all living entities, attain peace from the pangs of material existence.” Thus the main program of the saintly leader is universally to inculcate the knowledge that God is the proprietor of everything, the friend of everyone, and the enjoyer of all. The rajarsi understands that all the miseries of material life follow from our fundamental spiritual amnesia.
Forgetting God, we plan our material careers in violation of our real spiritual nature. Deluded, we identify with matter, with our transient bodies and bodily relations. False to ourselves, we erect institutions for the direct and indirect exploitation of others, competing for property and status against those similarly deluded. Since no one’s position is secure, we are always anxious and fearful, and even if we seem to prevail for some time, we are inevitably cut down by old age, disease, and ever-waiting death. Sometimes we are the oppressed, sometimes the oppressors, but either way we are stretched on the rack of this rough world until we break and break again. Yet it is all a needless nightmare, an evil spell that vanishes at once when we recall our authentic identity and our relationship with God.
Anyone who desires to relieve people’s suffering must enlighten them about this relationship and help them reestablish it. Not only will a person thus enlightened be able to tolerate the most oppressive conditions, but also, nothing short of this spiritual reformation can alleviate the oppressions of war and social and political exploitation. Communism, though claiming to be a radical solution, fails to reach the root of the universal spiritual disease: the willful ignorance of the supremacy of God, the perverse desire of the tiny servant to become the all-powerful master. A “classless society” is unattainable and unnecessary; but if all social classes would learn to serve God, then no one would be misused.
Mother Teresa embodies that necessary spirit of sacrifice and dedication to others, but even the superior service she renders is ultimately superficial. She ministers to the ravaged flesh of men, but the ultimate source of suffering is that single festering wound on the human spirit which is forgetfulness of God. We do not fully acknowledge Him until we accept His final order to us: “Abandon all varieties of dharma [religious duties, social and political schemes, material welfare work, obligations to family and to the state, and so on J and just surrender to Me.” Only by accepting this injunction, and thus by concretely accepting God’s position, can we possibly have peace, and on that basis there is no difficulty for a leader to be both powerful and pure.
The world desperately needs these genuine peacemakers. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness as an attempt to produce such pure leaders for the future.
Since the Nobel Prize Committee has taken such a big step from Henry Kissinger to Mother Teresa, perhaps it is not too much to hope that they will continue on the path of enlightenment, come to recognize the only authentic formula for world peace, and encourage humanity to apply it. Indeed, the committee itself would then qualify for the prize.