Skip to main content
Select Source:

Besant, Annie (1847-1933)

Besant, Annie (1847-1933)

Prominent Theosophist and successor to Helena Petrovna Blavatsky as the international leader of the Theosophical movement. Besant was born Annie Wood in London, England, October 1, 1847. She was raised by a widowed mother in a very religious environment and in 1867 married Frank Besant, a Church of England minister. However, when she became increasingly skeptical of Christian teachings and refused to silence her doubts, the marriage ended in separation (1873) and divorce (1878). In 1874 she met atheist and freethinker Charles Bradlaugh, leader of the National Secular Society, became friends with him, joined the society, began to write for the National Reformer, and was elected vice-president of the society in 1875. Her first public lecture concerned the political rights of women. In 1876 she and Bradlaugh formed a partnership, the Freethought Publishing Company, and Besant became coeditor of the National Reformer.

Pursuing her feminist agenda, Besant led in the publication of Charles Knowlton's The Fruits of Philosophy, an early text advocating birth control. In 1877 she and Bradlaugh were arrested on charges of publishing obscene literature, and in a sensational trial, which became a forum for both to present their opinions to the public, they were convicted of intending to corrupt morals (the conviction was later overturned on a technicality). The trial established Besant's reputation as one of England's finest orators, an atheist, and advocate for women's rights.

In the 1880s she was drawn into the circle of George Bernard Shaw's associates. Besant became a socialist, which led to her break with Bradlaugh, and in 1887 she resigned as coeditor of the National Reformer. She joined Shaw's Fabian Society. Meanwhile, she championed the strike of the underpaid matchgirls in 1888 and became the first woman to be accepted at the University of London.

In 1888 she was given a copy of The Secret Doctrine for review. The event proved life-changing. She found the answers that had eluded her in Christianity and in freethought. She soon became a close associate of Blavatsky, joined the editorial staff of the Theosophical Society's magazine, Lucifer, and turned her oratorical skills to defend her new mentor and promote Theosophy. In 1890 she made her first trip to the United States to revive the society badly shaken by the scandal that followed when Richard Hodgson of the American Society for Psychical Research accused Blavatsky of fraud.

After Blavatsky's death in 1891, Besant headed the Esoteric Section, the group of Blavatsky's personal occult students. In 1892 Besant published her first theosophical books, Karma and The Seven Principles of Man. In 1893 she visited India for the first time and made a triumphal American tour climaxing with an appearance at the World's Parliament of Religions. She settled in India at the society's headquarters at Adyar, Madras, where she resided for the rest of her life. She had to head off the challenge to her power from William Q. Judge, the third co-founder of the society, who remained in America when Blavatsky and Henry S. Olcott moved to India. Besant kept him marginalized internationally, but her efforts cost the society most of its American members. Succeeding to the presidency of the society following Olcott's death in 1907, she had to devote considerable energies to rebuilding the American work.

In 1908 she became sponsor (with C. W. Leadbeater ) of Jiddu Krishnamurti as the vehicle of the world savior, and to that end in 1909 organized the Order of the Star of the East. The order flourished for 20 years, but was dissolved when Krishnamurti abandoned it in 1929.

Besant became deeply involved in Indian life. In 1917 she was elected to the Indian Nationalist Congress, one of the organizations promoting Indian home rule. She also led in the founding of many schools, including some of the first for Indian women.

Besant, who came to the society because of her acceptance of its ideas and worldview, did not manifest or claim any outstanding occult abilities. After Blavatsky's death, Besant had no close associates until she met Leadbeater, who claimed to possess clairvoyant vision capable of seeing the occult worlds, and they developed a close friendship and professional working relationship. She co-authored several books based on his occult experiences and generally promoted him in the society. Besant paid dearly for this friendship, as Leadbeater was homosexual and his attraction to young boys became a second major scandal for the society.

Besant led the society until her death on September 21, 1933. She wrote several hundred books (many are transcripts of her lectures) that cover the scope of theosophical philosophy. She also explored Hinduism and gave the society its current focus on Hindu thought, as opposed to the Buddhism that had attracted many of the first generation leaders.

Sources:

Besant, Annie. Annie Besant: An Autobiography. London, 1893.

. Autobiographical Sketches. London: Freethought Publishing, 1885.

. My Path to Atheism. London, 1877.

. Why I became a Theosophist. London: Theosphical Publishing Society, 1891.

Besterman, Theodore. A Bibliography of Annie Besant. London: Theosophical Society in England, 1924.

Nethercot, A. H. The First Five Lives of Annie Besant. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

. The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1963.

Taylor, Anne. Annie Besant: A Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Besant, Annie (1847-1933)." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . Encyclopedia.com. 12 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Besant, Annie (1847-1933)." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 12, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/besant-annie-1847-1933

"Besant, Annie (1847-1933)." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/besant-annie-1847-1933

Besant, Annie

Annie Besant (bĕz´ant), 1847–1933, English social reformer and theosophist, b. Annie Wood. She steadily grew away from Christianity and in 1873 separated from her husband, a Protestant clergyman. In 1879 the courts deprived her of her children because of her atheism and alleged unconventionality. As a member of the National Secular Society she preached free thought and, as a member of the Fabian society, socialism. With Charles Bradlaugh she edited the National Reformer and with him reprinted an old pamphlet on birth control, The Fruits of Philosophy, for which they were tried (1877) on a charge of immorality and acquitted. In 1889 she embraced theosophy, becoming a disciple of Mme Blavatsky and, later, her biographer. She pursued her mission to India, where she soon became involved in nationalist politics. She founded the Central Hindu College at Benares (Varanasi) in 1898 and in 1916 established the Indian Home Rule League and became its president. She was president of the Indian National Congress in 1917, but later split with Gandhi. She traveled (1926–27) in England and the United States with her protégé Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom she announced as the new Messiah. President of the Theosophical Society from 1907, she wrote an enormous number of books and pamphlets on theosophy. Her works include her autobiography (1893), Four Great Religions (1897), The Ancient Wisdom (1897), and a translation of the Bhagavad Gita (1905).

See biographies by A. H. Nethercot (1960, 1963), R. Dinnage (1987), and C. Wessinger (1988).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Besant, Annie." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 12 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Besant, Annie." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 12, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/besant-annie

"Besant, Annie." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/besant-annie

Besant, Annie

Besant, Annie (1847–1933). Secularist, socialist, and theosophist. Born in London of Irish descent, Annie Wood married the Revd Frank Besant in 1867, but the marriage broke up in 1873 over her religious doubts. She moved to London where in 1874 she made her first public speech, on ‘The Political Status of Women’, and joined Charles Bradlaugh's National Secular Society. Largely at her insistence, in 1877 they republished The Fruits of Philosophy, an old birth-control pamphlet by Charles Knowlton. The subsequent trial, which was inconclusive, gave unprecedented publicity to birth-control arguments. She now worked closely with Bradlaugh to promote secularism, but after 1884 was drawn into socialist politics and in 1887 helped plan the ‘Bloody Sunday’ demonstration in Trafalgar Square. The following year she organized the Bryant & May's matchgirls' strike and was elected to the London School Board. In 1889 her views shifted to theosophy of which she became the leader, and in 1894 she moved to India, where she devoted the rest of her life to Indian nationalism.

Edward Royle

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Besant, Annie." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 12 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Besant, Annie." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 12, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/besant-annie

"Besant, Annie." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/besant-annie

Besant, Annie

Besant, Annie (1847–1933) British theosophist and social reformer. Besant was president (1907–33) of the Theosophical Society. She established (1898) the Central Hindu College at Varanasi, n India. Besant was active in the struggle for Indian independence and was president (1917) of the Indian National Congress. See also theosophy

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Besant, Annie." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 12 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Besant, Annie." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 12, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/besant-annie

"Besant, Annie." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 12, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/besant-annie