Indumati Parikh: The Humanist Anti-Mother Teresa

Despite the blatant abuses committed by the Missionaries of Charity — shady financial practices, medical neglect, hoarding money and supplies, ignoring basic standards of hygiene — Mother Teresa is still considered to be a paragon of virtue and selflessness, even among many secular people. Rather, than celebrate the undeserving Mother Teresa as a model of humanitarianism, I suggest that we pay more attention to Indumati Parikh (1918-2004), an Indian secular humanist who did what Mother Teresa should have done, but didn’t: empower desperately poor Indians not be poor anymore.

Like Mother Teresa, Parikh spend the bulk of her adult life in India’s slums, but that’s where the similarities end. Parikh was moved to work in the slums of Bombay (now Mumbai) because of the misery caused by overpopulation, poverty, and ignorance. She started the Streehitarkarini NGO to help empower women with vocational education, access to contraception, and information on women’s health and child nutrition. While this organization is quite small when compared to the Missionaries of Charity, it has done far more to help bring real dignity to the poor, especially women. Rather than “work for the poor” as Mother Teresa claimed to, Parikh worked with them to empower them to make choices that would lessen their poverty and improve their health. This distinction between “working for the poor” and “working with the poor” goes back to the difference between charity and solidarity I discussed several weeks ago.

In addition to working with the women of the Mumbai slums, Parikh was also heavily involved in the work of the Indian Radical Humanist Association as well as the International Humanist and Ethical Union. She wrote a really good chapter in Challenges to the Enlightenment: In Defense of Reason and Science (edited by Paul Kurtz) on why the people of the Third World are in desperate need of humanist values and why Western humanists need to help fight against global poverty. Parikh also worked to ease tensions between Hindus and Muslims in Mumbai after radical Hindu nationalists destroyed the 16th century Babri Masjid in Ayodhya:

One reason why Mother Teresa is a household name, but Parikh isn’t is because the former had the good fortune to run into a certain Malcolm Muggeridge, a famous twentieth century British journalist who would publicize her work in a hagiographic 1969 documentary called Something Beautiful for God (Muggeridge would later convert to Catholicism in 1982 as a result of Mother Teresa’s influence). All past and future saints need good publicity, which is why the vast number of canonized saints are priests, monks, or nuns, because their congregations were able to advocate their cases in a way that was impossible for members of the laity. Mother Teresa happened to be blessed with the kind of mass media publicity that previous saints could have only wished for. Who goes on pilgrimage to see the shrine of Rumwold of Buckingham?

No one, that’s who. Maybe Rumwold should consider getting a publicist.

Why are people so eager to buy into the Mother Teresa myth when there are Indian women who have done so much more to help their fellow citizens? I suspect that the old trope of the “great white savior” bringing hope and Christianity to poor, incompetent brown people dies hard, even among people who ought to know better. White conservotrads are the biggest boosters of the Mother Teresa cult and most of them already consider any religion or philosophy other than euro-centric Catholicism to be wrong, so the idea of a saintly white woman devoting her life to imposing a “Christian death” on impoverished Hindus is right up their alley.  Parikh’s life and work shows that it’s possible for brown people to help themselves, without Christianity or any religion at all.

While its a shame that Parikh isn’t better known outside of India, I don’t think Parikh would care, since her primary goal was empowering poor women, not seeing her name in the media. Her life and work shows how atheism and humanism are not the domain of wealthy white men, but are for everyone, and needed especially by “the least of these” who are most likely to be negatively impacted by fundamentalism and superstition.