Annie Besant

Born in 1847, Dr. Annie Besant was raised a Christian. A rocky marriage and several life tribulations led to her foray into theodicy, however, she could find no theodicean answers in Christianity. Her quest for answers eventually brought her under the Theistic influence of Mr Charles Voysey, and later culminated in her leaving the Christian faith for Free-Thought. After her divorce, she made the acquaintance of Mr Charles Bradlaugh, whom she credited with having a significant influence over her, and joined the National Secular Society. She went on to preach extensively about Atheism, actively engaging in Free-Thought propagandist work. It was in 1878 that her interest in India was stirred by Lytton’s rule in India. She published England, India and Afghanistan, a summary of the serious defects of British Rule in India. In 1883, both influenced by the works of Henry Hyndman and Bernard Shaw and moved by the plight of the working class, she became interested in Socialism. She joined the Fabian Society and worked extensively to spread Socialist propaganda. She further helped to organise the Socialist Defence Association to help poor persecuted workmen gain access to proper legal defense. Together with William Stead, she produced The Link, a half-penny weekly that sought to raise awareness for the plight of the working class. Yet, whilst working for the Socialist movement, Besant felt that something was amiss. Indeed, her Socialist work helped advance an economic agenda, but not a spiritual one – she still further sought the realisation of a ‘Brotherhood of Men’. It was through reviewing two volumes of The Secret Doctrine by H.P Blavatsky that she found answers to what she had been seeking. Though Besant had come into contact with Theosophy in 1882, it was not until 1889 that she became a devoted pupil of Blavatsky. She became the most capable exponent of her ideals and eventually took up the position of President of the Theosophical Society in 1907. Her work in Theosophy was closely connected with India’s moral and material welfare, serving as a reminder to Indians to pause and reflect on the ability of their ancient philosophy to satisfy their spiritual and moral needs at a time when there was a rising devotion to Western materialism. As an educationist, she believed firmly in promoting national education for both males and females. To that end, she established the Central Hindu College, the Hindu Caste Girls’ School and the Theosophical College in Madanapalle. She was the founder of the Commonweal and bought over The Madras Standard, the oldest of the Madras dailies, which was renamed New India. As editor of New India, Besant aimed to turn the paper into a conduit for Indians’ hopes and grievances, a means to the dissolution of all racial inequalities, and a medium for promoting camaraderie between all the members of the diverse – and therefore often divided – Indian populace. A supporter of the Home Rule movement, she started the Home Rule League in Madras in 1916 and arranged for wide and effective Home Rule propaganda. In 1917, she was arrested along with two other followers. Her internment is thought to have strengthened the Home Rule movement, as leading figures who had previously distanced themselves from the movement came out in open support of it after her imprisonment. After her release, she was elected President of the National Congress in 1918 and continued to work tirelessly for the movement, passing away in 1933. Source: Dr. Annie Besant: A Sketch of her Life and Career, Indian Biography: Volume I (Madras: G.A Natesan & Co., 1920), 1-46

Works

The Story of the Great War: Some Lessons from the Mahabharata for the Use of Hindu Students in the Schools of India (Benares: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1899) Hindu Ideals: For the Use of Hindu Students in the Schools of India (Benares and London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1904) Shri Rama Chandra; The Ideal King: Some Lessons from the Ramayana for the Use of Hindu Students in the Schools of India (Benares: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1905) India: Essays and Addresses (Vol. IV) (Madras: Theosophist Office, 1913) The Birth of New India (Madras: Theosophical Publishing House, 1917) The Case for India: Presidential Address Delivered by Annie Besant at the Thirty-Second Indian National Congress Held at Calcutta 26th December 1917 (Adelphi: The Home Rule for India League (British Section), 1917) The Future of Indian Politics: a Contribution to the Understanding of Present-Day Problems (Adyar: Theosophical Pub. House, 1922) India: Bond or Free?  (Madras: Theosophical Publishing House, 1926)

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