Annie Besant (1847–1933), second President of The Theosophical Society from 1907 to 1933, was described as a ‘Diamond Soul’, for she had many brilliant facets to her character. She was an outstanding orator of her time, a champion of human freedom, educationist, philanthropist, and author with more than three hundred books and pamphlets to her credit.
She also guided thousands of men and women all over the world in their spiritual quest.
Annie Wood was born on 1 October 1847, and educated privately in England, Germany and France. She was a devout Christian, and was married at the age of twenty to an English clergyman, Rev. Frank Besant, Vicar of Sibsey, Lincolnshire, by whom she had a son, Arthur Digby, and a daughter, Mabel. However, the awakening of her character made her challenge several of the Christian dogmas. ‘It was not the challenge of unfaith’, as Jinarâjadâsa was to say later, ‘but rather of a highly spiritual nature that desired intensely not only to believe but also to understand.’ Unable to make logic out of Christian traditions, she left the Church in 1872 and became a freethinker, thus ruining her social position through her passion for Truth; consequently she had to leave her husband and young son. In 1879 she matriculated at London University and went on with her studies in science but met obstacles there owing to the sexist prejudices of her time.
She joined the National Secular Society in 1874 and worked in the free thought and radical movements led by Charles Bradlaugh, MP. She co-edited the National Reformer with him and wrote many political and free-thought books and pamphlets from 1874–88. At this point her husband moved court to take their little daughter away from her, alleging that she was ‘unfit’ because of her ideas. This deprivation caused her profound grief. However, when the children were older they became devoted admirers of their mother. She was prominent in the Labour and Socialist movements, a member of the Fabian Society and Social Democratic Federation, and took an active part in Trade Union work among unskilled labourers; with Herbert Burrows she led the path-breaking ‘match girls’ strike to a successful conclusion.
Meeting with H. P. Blavatsky
Feeling dissatisfied with the negative approach of free thought, Mrs Besant now made researches into spiritualism, hypnotism, and so forth. At this juncture Mr W. T. Stead, the editor of The Review of Reviews, sent her Madame Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine to review. As she read the book, it was as if a long lost vision of truth flashed through her mind.
She asked for an interview with the author, and from that first sight of HPB, her whole life changed. She abandoned her secularist ideas and also to some extent the socialist philosophy, but the new light which she received inspired her more firmly than ever to the service of the world. Her approach towards the various evils in the world changed and she began to deal with the root causes in the light of the laws which govern all existence.
The Theosophical Society
Annie Besant joined The Theosophical Society on 21 May 1889, and became a devoted pupil and helper of HPB, pledging her loyalty to the President-Founder, Col. H. S. Olcott, and the cause of Theosophy. She became the most brilliant exponent of Theosophy, both as orator and author. In 1893 she represented The Theosophical Society at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago.
In 1893 she landed in India, made a tour of the country in the company of H. S. Olcott, and, by her splendid presentation of Indian philosophy and her undisguised personal preference for the Indian spiritual heritage, won the support of orthodox Brahmins to Theosophy. The transformation of the religious life in India, particularly among Hindus, is one of the wonders she performed. She was an untiring worker for the upliftment of women, and pleaded again and again for a radical change in social conditions, but never desired any modification of the Indian woman’s temperament which she held to be one of the most spiritual in the world.
She soon gathered round her a band of Indians to work for the regeneration of the country and in 1898, after much planning, founded the Central Hindu School and College in Benares (now Varanasi). A few years later she started the Central Hindu School for Girls. Theosophists from overseas came to help her in the work of the college, which was established with the object of impressing India’s past glory on the minds and hearts of the students. A brilliant band of workers gathered round her, including Dr Bhagavan Das, his brother Govinda Das, Gyanendra Nath Chakravarti, Upendranath Basu, I. N. Gurtu, and P. K. Telang, all of whom worked in an honorary capacity. Later the college became the nucleus of the Hindu University, and in recognition of Mrs Besant’s services to Indian education the degree of Doctor of Letters was conferred upon her in 1921.
As Lord Baden-Powell deemed that Indians were unfit to be scouts, the Indian Scout Movement was founded by her in 1918, the boys wearing Indian turbans! When Baden-Powell came to India and saw how successful was the movement created by Annie Besant, it was amalgamated with the world movement, and she was made the Honorary Scout Commissioner for India. In 1932 Baden-Powell sent her from London the highest Scout distinction, the ‘Silver Wolf’ medal.
Second President of the TS
In 1907, after the passing of Col. H. S. Olcott, Annie Besant became the second International President of the Theosophical Society, an office which she held until her death in 1933. Mrs Besant had always been a great traveller, having visited in the course of her Theosophical work nearly all the countries of Europe more than once, and making several visits to the United States and Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Her great organizing capacity was used to ‘make theosophy practical’, and action became her ‘slogan’. During her presidentship, the Society grew considerably, with the addition of more than thirty-six Sections or National Societies to the initial eleven.
Dr Besant continued to tour and lecture all over India, dealing extensively with education. Lodges of the Theosophical Society undertook to open schools wherever they could. She also tried to draw women into the movement wherever possible, for at that time women were not encouraged to take part in public life.
Clear explanations of the many enigmas of life and the universe were presented in her outstanding books such as A Study in Consciousness, which is used in some universities as a textbook. Another of her major works, Esoteric Christianity, has been considered a historical document; and has helped to revive true knowledge of Christianity. Her lectures at Theosophical conventions on the great religions of the world were put into a valuable book entitled Seven Great Religions, presenting the core teachings of each one of them. The first edition of her English translation of the Bhagavadgitâ was published in 1905.
Dr Besant was a practical mystic, exemplifying in her life and in all her actions a lofty idealism and a truly religious awareness — a combination found in very few people. In 1908 she announced the formation of a Theosophical Order of Service, which aimed at banding members together in groups with the motto ‘Union of all who Love in the Service of all that Suffer.’
From 1908 onwards Dr Besant proceeded to enlarge the Headquarters estate at Adyar. In order to link Adyar more intimately with the rest of the Theosophical world, she started The Adyar Bulletin, which continued until 1929. Presently the Adyar Newsletter fulfils a similar function.
Annie Besant and J. Krishnamurti
A new phase of Dr Besant’s activity began when she came into contact with two remarkable Indian boys, and declared that the elder of them, J. Krishnamurti, was destined to be the vehicle of the ‘World Teacher’, the Bodhisattva Maitreya. In 1910 she assumed the guardianship of J. Krishnamurti and his brother, and despite great difficulties launched him on his remarkable career.
Mrs Besant saw her role in Krishnamurti’s life as that of a catalyst: ‘Amma never told me what to do’, Krishnamurti gratefully recalled in later life. She merely tried to prepare him for a worldwide regenerative mission. He was encouraged to meet people, to give talks and lead discussions. The Order of the Star in the East was organized to pave the way for the very special work he was to do.
Political Work for India
A new period in Annie Besant’s life began in 1913 when she became active in Indian politics, and gave a lead by claiming Home Rule for India. She entered politics because she saw that India’s independence was essential for her age-old wisdom to become a beacon for the whole world. The Home Rule movement she organized spread all over India. She used all her resources to bring together on the common platform of the ‘All India Home Rule League’ the two sections of the Indian National Congress which had been divided since 1907.
Later she was elected President of the Indian National Congress inspiring Indians with a dynamic vision of India’s future. Since the British government merely suppressed agitation but did little to remove the grievances, she started the Young Men’s Indian Association in 1914 to train them for public work and donated Gokhale Hall in Madras as a centre for national awakening and free speech. She also started two journals: The Commonweal, a weekly dealing with issues of national reform; and New India, a daily newspaper which for fifteen years was a powerful instrument promoting Home Rule and revolutionizing Indian journalism.
Ten months after she began her political work, the Great War broke out. India was called upon to make great sacrifices, which she did gladly but not a single word was said by any British statesman as to India’s contribution. It was this blunder of British statesmen that convinced Dr Besant that the political work in India had to continue, and could not be modified or slackened because the Empire was at war. She was interned in 1917 for three months because of her success in arousing the love of freedom in the Indian people. She took as her motto not only ‘strike while the iron is hot’, but also ‘make it hot by striking’. She taught Indian journalists to write strong leading articles denouncing the action of the government, yet keeping within the letter of the law. As President of the Indian National Congress; she made the office one of active work throughout the year, instead of only presiding over it during the four-day annual meetings, as was the practice earlier.
Annie Besant’s life was one of incredible activity. By 1918 she had started the Madras Parliament, opened Madanapalle College (now in Andhra Pradesh), inaugurated the Adyar Arts League, started the Home Rule League in Bombay, started the Girls’ College in Benares, founded the Order of the Brothers of Service, presided over the Women’s Indian Association at Adyar — from which grew theAll-India Women’s Conference at Poona (now Pune) in 1927 and the All-Asian Women’s Conference at Lahore in 1931 — and started the Society for the Promotion of National Education (SPNE). Unfortunately, she fell into disfavour with the Indian National Congress because of her opposition to Mr Gandhi’s plan of non-cooperation and civil disobedience as she foresaw the danger of instilling disrespect for the law. Although she had a deep regard for Gandhi as someone whose life was guided by truth and compassion, she herself stood by constitutional methods for achieving political reform. Mr Gandhi’s policies were adopted and the disasters she had anticipated occurred in various parts of India. Though she became unpopular and lost her position as a political leader, she still continued with her work for India.
Those who came into intimate contact with Annie Besant were aware of her spiritual powers and first-hand knowledge of many occult matters. She used certain of her yogic powers to investigate the nature of the super-physical realms, and several books on this recondite subject were written in collaboration with her colleague, C. W. Leadbeater. A remarkable piece of writing done by them was Occult Chemistry, in which they described the chemical elements examined by them. The first edition was printed in 1908, when it did not appear possible to reconcile their observations with the scientific knowledge of atomic structure of those times, but recent developments in the field support them. C. Jinarâjadâsa, a former President of the Theosophical Society, published in 1951 a third, enlarged edition of Occult Chemistry, containing descriptions of 111 atoms, including 14 isotopes, and the molecules of 29 inorganic compounds and 22 organic compounds. Dr Stephen M. Phillips, a theoretical physicist, made a detailed analysis of the Besant–Leadbeater studies in the late 1970s and provided a lucid explanation and reinterpretation of their observations, reconciling them with present-day physics.
On 20 September 1933, Dr Besant laid aside her physical body at Adyar. Her Presidentship spanned twenty-six years full of glorious devoted service to the Theosophical Society and to mankind at large, and she passed away as she had lived — a warrior Soul. Mr N. Sri Ram, who was then her Secretary, wrote the following tribute:
‘Dr Besant was nothing if she was not wholehearted and whole-souled in all that she undertook, in every aim and every inner impulse. Almost always, as I know from personal knowledge of how she affected various people, they were struck with the extraordinary magnetism that seemed to surround her, the brightest energy, which seemed to leave her at the end of the day almost as fresh as at the beginning.’