The Social Psychology of Sainthood

Canonisation of Mother Teresa at Vatican, 2016

Institutional Vs Subaltern Sainthood

Rajesh K. Jha

Mother Teresa has become the latest Saint to be canonised by the Pope. She is among more than 10,000 people who have been given the status of Saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed the history of conferring Sainthood on people is a long and interesting one. During the Church’s first 1000 years, Saints were declared based on popular demand. Later the Church decided to make it formal. St. Ulrich of Augsburg was the first saint to be formally canonized, by Pope John XV in the year 993. In earlier period, most of the Popes were declared Saint after their death so much so that out of the first 55 Popes in the history of Christianity, 52 were declared Saints. Now this trend has been stopped and in the last 1000 years, only 7 Popes have been declared Saints. The number of people being canonised has also risen sharply over time. Pope John Paul canonised 482 saints in one go which is more than the number of canonisation done in the last 600 years. Pope Francis declared more than 800 Saints in 2013 which included 800 people from the Italian town Otranto who were killed by Ottoman soldiers in 1480 for refusing to convert to Islam.

The process of conferring Sainthood on people was formally centralised by the Church in 12th century. And finally in 1243 Pope Gregory IX asserted that only a pope had the authority to declare someone a saint. The codification of the process of canonisation now requires that there must be at least two confirmed evidences of miracles happening in the name of the person who is to be declared a Saint. Apparently, these miracles involve healing of some incurable disease by invoking the presence of the Saint to be. These are later confirmed independently in a ‘scientific’ manner certified by a doctor in most cases. It is no surprise that the process of canonisation has come under criticism many times for various reasons. Sometimes, it is the canonisation of a wrong person at others it could involve authenticity of the ‘miracles’. It may be interesting to note that the Protestant and the Orthodox Christian church do not believe in the process of declaration of saint. According to these Christian schools, all those who reside in heaven are saints.

Mother Teresa at the Missionaries of Charity, Kolkata

Leaving aside these historical and scientific- rational debates about Sainthood, Mother Teresa’s elevation to the status of Saint has been seen as a just recognition of the service she rendered to the destitute, homeless, lepers and orphans- the most wretched of the earth. Her work among the poor people of Calcutta earned her wide appreciation and acclaim as reflected in Nobel Prize and Bharat Ratna being conferred on her. Missionaries of Charity, established by Mother Teresa in Calcutta in the early 1950s has today its presence in more than 100 countries. The sainthood of Mother Teresa may have been recognised by the Church now, but she was accepted as a great soul who dedicated herself to the service of the most neglected of people in the society.

Indeed, there have been sharp criticisms of her views on many issues which is difficult to defend. Like the Roman Catholic Church, Mother Teresa also believed that abortion is a great crime. In her Nobel Prize speech she said, ‘I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a direct war, a direct killing direct murder by the mother herself.’ Her reaction to the ghastly killing of thousands of people in Bhopal after the Union Carbide Gas leak in 1984 had drawn criticism from many quarters. According to a New York Times report on 12 December 1984, Mother Teresa termed the Union Carbide Gas leak possibly an accident. She is reported to have said, ”’This could have been an accident, it is like a fire could break out anywhere……that is why….it is important to forgive.”

Nobel Prize Ceremony
Bhopal Gas Tragedy Protest

It is not my intention here to get into the ideological debate about the usefulness of Charity or service of the poor to combat suffering in the world. Nor do I intend to discuss the culpability of Union Carbide in its utter disregard for human life by not putting in place the safety requirements at its Bhopal plant. Irrespective of the criticisms, it remains true that Mother Teresa is seen as a symbol of service and believed to be a saint. Her acceptance in society as a great soul does not require any formal recognition by the religious institutions like Papacy. This is also the connecting link between the idea of Sainthood across religions, irrespective of the formal element associated with it.

Looking at Hinduism, we find that it has a long and ancient tradition of Saints. One may look back at mythology and history to find that it abounds with Saints and seers. Vedas, Upanishads, ancient spiritual texts are all ascribed to some saint or seer. There is just a very thin line between the ‘Rishis, Munis and Sant- Mahatmas (Seers and Great Souls). Valmiki, Vishwamitra, Vyas, Shankaracharya, Kabir, Tulsi, Dadu, Raidas… there is a long list of seers and saints venerated in the Indian religious tradition. In the more recent history, Ram Krishna Paramhans, Swami Vivekanand, Aurobindo, Sai Baba, Raman Maharshi and many other spiritual people have been accepted in the great pantheon of saints. The process is completely informal. It is the people who start venerating some one as a saint and gradually they become part of the pantheon of Saint residing in the public memory.

Apart from the more famous set of Saints who have got a pan-Indian presence, there are a large number of Saints who have been given this exalted position relatively recently. We can look at a few examples from Bihar/ Jharkhand who are now revered and worshipped as Saints or divine souls by people. All these examples are from the last 250 years or so.

Statue of Laxminath Gosai

In the northern Bihar, for example, in the district of Saharsa, Laxminath Gosain (1787-1872) is venerated as a saint. He preached in Bangaon village of the Saharsa district. A temple stands in Bangaon for the worship of Gosainjee, as he is reverentially called. He has a large following in the region. Certain dates are associated with him for special offerings and Pujas.

Thakur Anukulchandra (1888-1969) is another spiritual figure who has a large following in Bihar, Jharkhand, Bengal and many foreign countries including Bangladesh. Born in Pabna, he eventually set up his Ashram in Deoghar, Jharkhand. He was a physician and social reformer who claimed to promote a scientific outlook to life. His sect is known as ‘Satsang’. The devotees of Thakurjee are required to collect at least one rupee daily, called ‘Ishvritty’ (ईशवृत्ति) which they donate to the Satsang.

Anukulchandra Thakur

Maharshi Mehi Das (1885-1986) was also born in Saharsa, Bihar. He set up his Ashram at Kuppaghat on the banks of river Ganga in Bhagalpur district. Born as a thin boy, he got the name ‘Mehi’ meaning ‘thin’. He propagated ‘Santmat’. In the tradition of Santmat, he preached the importance of Satsang, the company of the Guru and spiritual persons. Maharshi Mehi Das is credited with writing commentaries on Vedas (Veda Darshan Yoga), Gita and Ramcharit Manas. Maharshi Mehi took forward the Santmat tradition founded by Sant Tulsi Sahab of Hathras. Mehi Das ji has a large following in areas around Bhagalpur and many other places in Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Odisha.

Maharshi Mehi Das
Maharshi Mehi Ashram, Bhagalpur

Indeed there are many Saints who are now accepted as gods by their followers and worshipped accordingly. Sai Baba of Shirdi and many other Panths (sects) within Hinduism and also Sikhism are thriving and living in the hearts of people. This process of elevation of the selected few as Saints or gods is essentially informal and organic. No central agency or apex religious organisation declares a person Saint in this system. Even if some organisation does it, the society may not recognise it and the sect fails to take root in the minds and hearts of people. It dies a natural death eventually.

India today abounds in a large number of neo- religious sects which are potentially capable of creating new saints over a period of time. One can look at Ma Amritanandmayi (Amma), Brahma Kumari’s, Radha Soami Satsang, Sri Sri Ravishankar and many other sects which broadly operate within the Hindu religious ideology. Most of these sects are now fairly well organised with large commercial interest. Unlike in the past, there is a far greater level of planning, publicity and concerted effort made by the followers and quite often by the persons heading these groups themselves to project a divine personality to be worshipped by the devotees. Certain rituals are also developed around these sects.

However, only time can tell if these ‘spiritual and religious’ gurus would survive in the heart of people. It is difficult to imagine if many of them would get elevated to the level where say a Sai Baba of Shirdi or Mehi Das or Laxminath Gosai have reached. The filtering mechanism of society is quite imperceptible. Common people may often look gullible, but society does filter out the fake from the really spiritual ones over a longer period of time. One can look at the fall of Asaram Bapu in recent times to understand that biggest of the spiritual empires may fall like nine pins when the truth comes out, howsoever hard one may try to hide it.

Apart from their spiritual message, the Saints are invariably linked to certain acts of miracle happening with their blessings. Distinguishing rituals and prayers mark out the Saints in the eyes of their believers. Quite often, they are linked to some major social reform movements during their times. Taken together, these characteristics give us a peep into the finer elements in the making of a sect or cult in the name of a Saint. Absence of a centralised authority for conferring Sainthood does not however mean that patronage from the royalty or influential sections of society does not play any role in establishing them as Saints among the public.

It would be interesting to know that even within Christianity, there existed varied forms and methods of conferring sainthood. In the first 1000 years of the Church, Saints were declared based on popular demand. In this context the Cult of Guinefort could give us an insight into the plurality of traditions surrounding Sainthood within Christianity. In those times, people evolved their own interpretation of what Sainthood means. The subaltern traditions were known to evolve their own set of rituals too which Church frowned upon. But it remained quite ineffective for a long time in suppressing such subaltern interpretations of Sainthood as seen in the figure of Saint Guinefort.

St. Roch with Guinefort

Saint Guinefort was a greyhound dog. The story relates to the Dombes region of France, near Lyon where St. Roch lived with his dog Guinefort. Once the area was devastated by plague. Saint Roch also contracted the disease and went to live outside the city with his dog. The dog brought him food and water till St. Roch recovered. After his death, a nobleman of the area took charge of the greyhound. One day he had gone out with his wife leaving his infant child in the house with the dog. In the meanwhile a snake appeared near the child and Guinefort killed the snake after a bloody fight to save the child. When the noble came back and saw blood all around, he thought that the child has been killed by the dog. In a fit of rage, he killed the dog. He soon realised his mistake. Driven by remorse, he placed it in a well which he covered with stones.  He also planted trees beside it to memorialise the dog’s deeds.

Pictorial depiction of Saint Guinefort Story

Over time, the local peasant started visiting the dog’s grave and certain rituals developed around it. People started praying to Guinefort to heal their sick children. However, in the 16th century the Church tried to suppress this cult but it continued till the first world war. ‘In 1879 a folklorist named Vayssière passed through “Saint Guinefort’s wood” and found it still intact.  Similarly, the modern historian Jean-Claude Schmitt found evidence of the cult still in practice after World War I.’ [Cult of Guinefort].


Sainthood in its true and real sense is the society’s way to repay the gratitude of service and spiritual nourishment it receives from certain individuals. It does not really care if an organised religious body issues an edict declaring someone a saint or not. Much before the Vatican declared Mother Teresa a saint, she had secured a place in people’s heart based on her selfless service and sacrifice. Perhaps pompous formalities and elaborate processes are futile.

When it comes to society, it has a mechanism to sift the real from the fake, grain from the chaff, charlatan from the blessed, commercial from the spiritual and Saints from businessmen. It may take time but it does show its gratitude be it Mother Teresa, Lakshmi Nath Gosain, Mehi Das or many more similar saints. Trust me, it knows how to discard Asaram Bapu’s and bow its head to the likes of the St. Guinefort, never mind if it was a dog.

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