Annie Wood was born in 1847 in London to a middle-class Irish couple. The premature death of her father left the family in poverty.While relatives paid her brother’s education, Annie was lucky to be admitted free to the home school of a family friend. Her middle-class childhood was marked by economic struggle.
Aged 19, she married an Anglican priest, Frank Besant. But Annie’s progressiveness and Frank’s rigidity constituted a poor match. After divorcing him, she left for London with her daughter, her son staying with his father, and supported herself by writing and lecturing for the Freethinkers, Theism and Fabian Socialism. And she declared herself an atheist. She was an extremely diverse, intelligent and motivated woman.
Her diversity could be seen through the different causes she fought for : for instance, she promoted Home Rule for Ireland, Trade Unions, Women’s rights (she led the protest of 700 Bryant and May’s women in what was the first women’s rights strikes and promoted their Matchgirls Union), socialism and birth control ( with The Fruits of Philosophy that she tried to publish with Charles Bradlaugh and which cost her the custody of her daughter, and with her own book The Law of Population).
She was also able to fight for spiritual development which reached its highest degree with her conversion to theosophy. In 1887 indeed, Annie Besant converted to Theosophy after meeting Madame Blavatsky, who in 1875 had founded the Theosophical Society. Annie Besant became her pupil, and she applied all her enthusiasm to this new religion cause. The Theosophical Society was formed upon the basis of a “Universal Brotherhood of Humanity”*, in order to promote a feeling of “Brotherhood among nations”*.
In 1889 Annie Besant joined the Theosophical Society, and very soon she was lecturing and writing on theosophy. And that same year she wrote “Why I became a Theosophist ” : in this essay, she shows that it was simply a point of departure to her process of self-consciousness.
On May 8th, 1891 Madame Blavatsky passed away. And in 1893, Annie Besant left “barbaric England for a more civilized India” where she was enthusiastically welcomed. At Adyar she started the famous Convention Lectures, which, with the exception of a few years, were continued until 1930. In India, Besant changed her entire wardrobe, abandoned almost all furniture and ate her Brahmanic vegetarian meals (she became vegetarian at the same occasion) from large green leaves instead of plates. When she spoke of the future of India, whole audiences were moved to tears of hope. And she pointed her finger against European mentalities as a powerful enemy. For instance, concerning the Indian culture, Annie Besant was worried about the way the British made the appropriation of India’s cultural features, as it was a colonised people.In 1895 she made her home in Benares where she started her renowned religious, educational and social services to India.
In 1898 she founded Central Hindu College at Varanasi. From 1895 to 1906 was a period of vigorous growth for the Theosophical Society. And in 1898, the Theosophical Society began to hold its Annual Convention alternately in Adyar and Benares, and also decided to hold periodic World Conventions outside India.
In 1906 H.S. Olcott, the president of the Society, the successor of Madame Blavatsky, had a serious accident and in February 1907 he passed away. So that same year, Annie Besant was nominated as his successor, subject to the ratification of the Society, and kept the presidency until her death in 1933.
Annie Besant made Theosophy practical, by urging the members to theosophize various fields, such as the religious, social, economic and political fields. For this purpose, she instituted the Theosophical Order of Service, and the Sons of India in 1908.
But even if her main cause was held in India, and based on a traditional Hindu culture (system of caste, patriarchal system....), and was active in the Theosophical society, she often returned to England to speak for Theosophy and social reform, but also remaining active in the British suffrage movement and an important speaker for Human suffrage (even if her attitude towards women in India was the complete opposite).
After August 1914, because of the war in Europe, Mrs Besant remained in India, developing her important political work and arousing great interest throughout the country in Theosophical education.One of her works was to create the Indian Home Rule for India League (which meant fighting for independent government and legislation for India), of which she became the president in 1916. But because of this activism, she was interned by the British Authorities during the first world war.
In 1917 she was elected president of the Indian National Congress and in 1919 she was still deeply engaged in political work both in India and England. The increasing life and vigour with which she inspired the Theosophical society found expression in the first World Congress held in Paris in 1921.
Still in the same year, she became Dr Besant by receiving a Degree in Sanskrit literature, English literature and Indian history from the Benares Hindu University, and in the summer she visited Australia in order to calm down the opposition made against Mr Leadbeater. On her return to India, she opened the Brahmavi Ashrama for students from over the world. In 1923 she became general secretary of the National Convention of India.
A year after, in 1924 in London, a public tribute was paid to her at a great meeting held in the Queen’s Hall to celebrate her 50 years of public life. This meeting illustrated how great was the influence she exercised upon men and movements, all directed to the service and enlightment of Humanity. The first 50 years of the Society’s existence were celebrated at Adyar in the brilliant jubilee Congress in December 1925.
Annie Besant lectured frequently on Theosophy and in 1926 she travelled widely with her Indian protégé Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom she declared to be the new Messiah, or World Teacher. Then she went to the U.S.A where she remained until April 1927, in order to supervise the plans for the Happy Valley Foundation.
The work of the society went on extending during the next two years. In 1928 Dr Besant was re-elected for the fourth time as president of the Theosophical Society, and a third World Congress was held in Chicago in 1929.
A year after, in 1930 she presided over the European Congress held in Geneva. At the 55th Anniversary of the Society at Benares, she gave her last Convention lecture, with as a subject : “the future of the Theosophical Society”. And on 20th September 1933, Annie Besant passed away, she was 86 years old.
One of the first acts of her successor, Dr Arundale, in 1934 was to establish the Besant Memorial School, and the nucleus of a future college and university.
Annie Besant was a woman of conviction and extremes. She was considered as a great social reformer in both England and India, even if she was frequently criticized for having a double standard with regard to women’s rights in India. The Besant who fought for women’s rights in England, favoured the Traditional Hindu Customs towards women and advised that Hindu widows should not remarry. She venerated old Hindu ideas, including the caste system and the Hindu patriarchal system, devoted more time to the education of Hindu boys than girls, and resisted some nationalists as Gandhi. She taught obedience to the Indians and militancy to the Suffragettes in England. But despite her veneration for Hindu customs, Annie Besant was still a ferocious mind, championing movements from Indian self-government to women’s suffrage. Upon arriving in India, she believed herself to have found her home, and it was there, in Madras, that she died in 1933 .
Her works included Reincarnation (1892), The Basis of Morality (1915), A World Religion (1916), and India, Bond or Free(1926).
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