· Birth and Early life
· Further Events
· The Calling
· To The Shores Of India
· Setting Up Educational Institutions
· As a Social Reformer
· The Theosophical Society
· Her Travels
· Books and Essays
· Annie Besant and J. Krishnamurti
· Later Events
Among the foreigners who made India their home and strived for the revival of the country’s glorious heritage, the legacy of Annie Besant stands unsurpassed. She was a writer and orator and with passion, power, eloquence and sincerity of conviction she sought to awaken India from her deep slumber and recognise her spiritual greatness. She felt that Hindu religion was as vast and deep as an ocean which enabled both extremes- the great and the strong to love and have his or her own religious experience and at the same time its shallow ponds for the weak and timid to safely swim. She felt that education and religion were interconnected and Manava Dharma could be graded according to the inner nature and inclination of each. Before she came to India she passed through various phases of housewife, trade unionist, feminist, atheist and Fabian socialist. One of her greatest contributions is to bring forth to the world, the renowned philosopher J. Krishnamurti. She had brilliant facets to her character and was described as a ‘Diamond Soul’.
Birth and Early life
Annie Besant was born in the year 1847 to a middle-class Irish family in London. Unfortunately, her father died when she was only five years old, and her mother ran a boarding house for boys at a school and supported the family. She persuaded her friend to take responsibility for her daughter who ensured that Annie had a good education. Annie also travelled widely in Europe thus broadening her outlook and independent thought.
When she was twenty years old, she married a clergyman named Frank Besant, and they had two children. Annie was independent in thought and began to make money by writing articles. Also, she began to support union workers in their fight for better pay conditions and was always trying to help others achieve equality and justice. These developments led to differences of opinion between the couple and consequently resulted in legal separation.
Annie Besant now began to question her conventional thinking and long- held religious beliefs. She began to write articles expressing doubts on the Church and Christianity. She became a member of National Secular Society which preached free thought and ideas like atheism and birth control. She also supported the Irish freedom struggle. She then joined the Fabian Society, the noted Socialist organisation. Her thoughts and ideas were far ahead of her time which was not accepted by the rigid society of those days.
As a young woman and married to a clergyman, Annie Besant found that Christianity could not answer her questions and doubts especially when her children were suffering due to ill health, and she wondered why a compassionate God would allow suffering. The church and ministers advised her not to ask questions and to just accept the religious doctrines with faith and dedication. This made her lose interest and become an atheist. But she had a great love within her and seeing the inequality and poverty around her she became a Socialist as she felt that to bring about equality and justice, the economic system needed to be addressed first. Later that too did not satisfy her and she came into contact with Madame Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine about the deeper philosophical views of life which changed her entire thought process. Theosophy became a way of knowing God, and this was the time when she came to India.
To the shores of India
Annie Besant came to Tuticorin in India in the year 1893. Her intellectual journey had a deep spiritual dimension and a hunger for her quest fo an overall inner transformation. She slowly entered into the soul and spirit of India by absorbing the truths in the various holy texts of Hinduism. Her daily life, outward appearance, mode of living and total identification of Hindu culture and thought helped her to propagate to the masses, a practical way of living in modern times.
Setting up Educational Institutions
Annie Besant realised the harmful effects of western education and to concentrate on the study of Indian culture and tradition, she set up the Central Hindu college in Benaras and made the system of thought wholly Indian in spirit along with the benefits of Western learning and Sciences. She also started the Central Hindu School for girls, and a number of theosophists came from overseas to help her in her mission. The college later became the nucleus of the Hindu University and in the year 1921, Annie Besant was conferred the degree of Doctor of Letters in recognition of her contribution to Indian education. When the British formed the Scouts and Guides Movement, they felt the Indians to be unfit for it, but Annie Besant undauntedly founded the Indian scout movement. Impressed by it, the British later amalgamated it with the World Scout movement.
As a Social Reformer
Along with the setting up of various education institutions for the emancipation of women in India, Annie Besant also concentrated on the political and social spheres of activity. She set up the Women’s Indian Association to encourage women to think and act independently in the male dominated society. Two of its members were the first to be admitted to the Indian bar which was a breakthrough achievement. To fight against the oppression of the British, she joined the Indian National Congress and was the first woman President to lead it. She founded the Home Rule League which advocated self-rule by Indians and drafted the Commonwealth of India Bill. She wished to induct Indians to a democratic way of life, so she founded the Young Men’s Indian Association and the Gokhale Hall where with the help of a mock Parliament she trained young people to learn Parliamentary procedures and behaviour and to debate, study and speak about their views. She inspired Indians to a dynamic vision of India’s future as she felt that India’s independence was essential to highlight their spiritual greatness to the whole world as a beacon of light. She aroused the love of freedom in the Indian people and taught Indian journalists to denounce the rule of the British policies by expressing strong views yet keeping within the framework of the law.
The Theosophical Society
Madame Blavatsky’s book The Secret Doctrine ignited a long lost vision of truth in her mind and she decided to meet the author. This momentous meeting changed her life and she joined the Theosophical society at Adyar in Madras. It preached Universal Brotherhood and was against discrimination based on gender, race or colour with its supreme goal being service to humanity. She became a brilliant orator and author of Theosophy and represented the Theosophical Society at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. She became the second international President of the Theosophical Society after the death of Col H.S. Olcott until her death in the year 1933. The motto of the Theosophical Society was ‘Union of all who love in the service of all who suffer’.
Annie Besant travelled extensively in the course of her theosophical work all over India and around the world. Gradually she enlarged the headquarters estate at Adyar in Madras and the Society grew considerably. Consequently she started the Madras Parliament, Madanapalle College (in present Andhra Pradesh), Adyar Arts League, Society for Promotion of National Education, All India Women’s conference at Poona etc. A number of great personalities who came into her ambit were Charles Leadbeater, Henry Olcott, Francesca Arundale, George Bernard Shaw, Helena Blavatsky, Charles Bradlaugh, George Holyoake, Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, J. Krishnamurti, Lokmanya Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi, Aldous Huxley, Rosalind Rajagopal to name a few.
Books and Essays
Annie Besant’s thoughts and spiritual heights can be assessed from the books and essays (more than three hundred of them) that she has left behind to be assimilated by future generations. Her topics on devotion, sorrow, duty, discipleship, perfection, ethics, morality, peace and right attitude reflects the great and hallowed mind that existed behind the personality. She started the newspaper ‘New India’ which criticised British rule and she was jailed for sedition. Her book ‘A Study in Consciousness’ is considered outstanding and is used in certain universities as a text book. Yet another of her books, ‘Esoteric Christianity’ has helped to revive the true knowledge of Christianity and is considered a historical document. Her core teachings and lectures on the great religions of the world at Theosophical conventions have been compiled in the form of a book ‘Seven great religions’. She did an indepth study of the Bhagavad Gita and translated it into English. She started the Adyar bulletin to maintain a link with the rest of the Theosophical world which continues at present as the Adyar Newsletter. Annie Besant also had yogic and spiritual powers and she wrote the book on occult matters called ‘Occult Chemistry’ with her colleague Charles Leadbeater.
Annie Besant and J Krishnamurti
Annie Besant soon came into contact with two remarkable Indian brothers and felt that the elder of the two, J. Krishnamurti(JK) was the vehicle of the Bodhisattva Maitreya. Surmounting great difficulties, she assumed their guardianship and prepared JK to become a great World Teacher seeing herself in the role of a catalyst in his great life.
With the arrival of Mahatma Gandhi on the political scene, there were differences of opinion between them. Gradually, she withdrew from active politics.
Annie Besant died at Adyar (Madras) in the year 1933 at the age of eighty five. Her ashes were then immersed in the Ganges at Benares as per her desire.
Her children greatly admired her in later years and the Happy Valley School was renamed Besant Hill School in her honour. A suburb in Chennai near the Theosophical Society at Adyar too has been named Besant Nagar in her memory. A postage stamp was issued in her honour by the Government of India. Roads and parks have been named in her memory throughout India.
Annie Besant was a great influence on the intellectual masses of India. In spite of her fervour and insight into Indian ideology, it was felt that her erudition and powerful literary prowess was greatly supported by the educated elite and not so much by the masses of India. Yet her sincerity and conviction in the fact that the Western system of education would only give material benefits like employment and awareness to the people but would result in a society devoid of moral values, was the backbone of her contention. Her primary aim was her quest in seeking spiritual bliss and her first love was the Bhagavad Gita which she felt imparted the powerful weapons of knowledge, devotion and power to be used in the battlefield of life. She voraciously read the Upanishads, Ramayana and Mahabharata. She considered her work to be not just a spiritual journey but a means of economic and social progress with education the harbinger of change and progress. Her aim in life was the well being of society and she emphasised the value of science and technology in success to the development of the Indian economy. She tirelessly worked for the upliftment of Indian women and a radical change in their social conditions though she reiterated that they had one of the most spiritual temperaments in the world. Her truly religious awareness and her lofty idealism exemplified her life as a practical mystic which was a rare combination in a person. Her extraordinary magnetism and her bright energy which attracted people of all sections of life will always be remembered.