ANNIE BESANT (1847–1933)
Annie Besant was a Fabian socialist, a Theosophist, a passionate crusader for women’s rights, and a founder and first President of the Indian National Congress. She is sometimes remembered as the mentor of Jiddu Krishnamurti, a young farmer’s son whom she considered the prophet of the new century, though he himself renounced messiah-hood when he came of age.
Annie Besant was born in London on 1 October 1847. Her father, William Page Wood, was half Irish and half English, while her mother was of pure Irish descent. They were a well-to-do middle class family, but faced a financial crisis on the sudden death of Mr. Wood. Subsequently Annie met Miss Marriyat who took care of her education. In 1866 she met the Rev. Frank Besant and married him. Their marriage was not a compatible one, with the couple separating finally in 1873. Together with Charles Bradlaugh she became the editor of the National Reformer and, declaring herself an atheist, she was elected Vice President of the National Secular Society in 1874. The following year she published a text advocating birth control, The Fruits of Philosophy, and she and Bradlaugh were prosecuted for these publications, at that time deemed obscene. The sentence was overturned on appeal, but Annie lost custody of her daughter. In 1877 she published The Gospel of Atheism. She had a close personal relationship with the socialist Edward Aveling, which broke up in 1885, and she joined the Fabian Party that year, and became one of the organisers of the Match Girls’ strike in 1888. She also campaigned for better working conditions for dock workers.
In 1889 she chanced to read Helena P. Blavatsky’s (q.v.) Secret Doctrine, which completely transformed her. She met Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, a movement that combined Western occult philosophy with Buddhist and Hindu teachings, and was greatly influenced by her personality and ideas. That year Annie joined the Society, and in 1907 she was elected President, a position she held till her death.
She came to India for the first time in 1893 to attend the Annual Convention of the Theosophical Society at Adyar, near Chennai. In 1895 she settled in Varanasi and completed her translation of the Bhagvad Gita. In 1898 she laid the foundation of the Central Hindu College of Varanasi. This institution later formed the nucleus of the Varanasi Hindu University. To discourage early marriages she refused admission to the institution to married girls. She learnt Sanskrit and studied the sacred books of India.
In October 1913 she spoke at a public meeting at Chennai, recommending that there be a Standing Committee in the House of Commons for discussing Indian affairs. This Committee would go into the question of how India might attain her freedom. To facilitate her political campaign she began a weekly newspaper called Commonweal in 1914. In June that same year, she purchased the Madras Standard and renamed it New India, which became her chosen platform for India’s freedom.
With a nod to her Irish roots she called this freedom ‘Home Rule’ for India. Her firm belief was that India should have her freedom, but should remain a part of the British Commonwealth. She explained her plan for the establishment of the Home Rule League at a meeting at Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1916, and tried to persuade others like Bal Gangadhar Tilak to accept her view, but without success. With the emergence of Mahatma Gandhi and the mass movements he initiated, her popularity waned. A whole lifetime of fighting by constitutional means and within the law had left her with a deep mistrust of massive lawbreaking even when apparently non-violent.
In 1916 Lord Pentland, the Governor of Madras, asked her to leave India but she refused to go. A few months later she was placed under house arrest, only to be released once more. She established the Indian Boy Scouts’ Association in 1917 and the National College in South India. In 1917, she started the Society for Promotion of National Education, and the next year, the National University. She was a prolific writer and wrote about 300 books including a memoir and numerous commentaries on Indian philosophy. Her political work helped to win freedom for India while her spiritual interests won respect for India in the eyes of the West.