BESANT, ANNIE . Annie Besant (1847–1933) was a British activist with many facets to her life: Anglican; atheist and Freethinker; socialist; Theosophist; educator, reformer, and politician in India; and prophetic announcer of the coming World-Teacher and New Civilization. Besant's monism and her desire to serve humanity were the unifying themes in her diverse efforts. She accomplished pioneering and influential work in Britain and India, and exerted an international influence in her political and religious work. As the second president of the Theosophical Society (1907–1933), Besant popularized Theosophical concepts around the world through her lectures and writings, putting the concepts articulated by Helena P. Blavatsky into accessible language.
Besant possessed a progressive millennial outlook, believing that human effort guided by superhuman agents or forces (when she was an atheist she defined them as Nature and Evolution; when she became a Theosophist they were the Masters and the Solar Logos) could create the millennial condition of collective well-being on Earth. In 1908 Besant added messianism to her thought, and groomed a young Indian, J. Krishnamurti, to be the physical vehicle for the Lord Maitreya, a messiah who would usher in the millennial New Civilization. Besant believed that Krishnamurti as the World-Teacher would present a teaching that would become the next world religion, and thus raise humanity's awareness of spiritual unity and create the "New Civilization." Much of Besant's progressive millennialism, including its messianic themes, were perpetuated in the written works of Alice Bailey (1880–1949), another British Theosophist. Bailey was among the first to use the terms New Age and the Age of Aquarius, making Annie Besant an important source for the New Age movement.
Annie Wood was born and raised in London by parents with a predominantly Irish background. She was raised in the Anglican faith and received an education in the home of a maiden lady. She married Frank Besant, an Anglican priest, in 1867. They had a son and a daughter, but the marriage failed, in part due to her intellectual questioning and rejection of Christian doctrines and the Bible. The couple separated but a divorce was never granted.
Atheism and socialism
After a brief passage through theism, Besant found an intellectual home in Charles Bradlaugh's National Secular Society in 1874, where she became an atheist and Freethinker. Besant and Bradlaugh had a close relationship. She became a vice-president of the National Secular Society, and she and Bradlaugh formed the Freethought Publishing Company. Besant became a noted public speaker, questioning Christianity and the Bible and advocating social reform and women's rights. In 1877 Besant became the first woman to be prosecuted for disseminating information on birth control when she and Bradlaugh were prosecuted for publishing a pamphlet on contraception. Besant subsequently published her own booklet on contraception that was translated and sold internationally.
In the late 1870s Besant studied science at London University, but did not receive a degree. Besant's atheism was a monistic materialism—she believed that the one universal substance was matter—but she had a lively interest in the study of world religions and philosophies, as manifested in a magazine titled Our Corner she founded in 1883.
In 1885 Besant joined the Fabian Society of socialists, and maintained her commitment to nonrevolutionary socialism for the rest of her life. In 1888 Besant and Herbert Burrows organized the Bryant & May match girls strike, and subsequently the strikes of other workers, marking the formation of the trade union movement.
Besant joined the Theosophical Society in 1889 after reviewing Helena P. Blavatsky's The Secret Doctrine (1888). The two thick volumes of The Secret Doctrine titled "Cosmogenesis" and "Anthropogenesis" purport to reveal the secrets of progressive evolution of consciousness in the universe and humanity. Blavatsky claimed that his complex philosophy was revealed to her by elusive Masters of Wisdom, described as men in physical bodies possessing highly evolved awareness who directed evolution on this planet. Besant went to meet Blavatsky, then residing in London. She took the ailing Blavatsky, who was much beleaguered by critics skeptical of the existence of the Masters and their appearances and communications, into her home, where she resided until the end of her life. Becoming a Theosophist marked Besant's shift from monistic materialism to a monism that affirmed the reality of a spiritual dimension to life. Theosophy's assertion that spiritual reality could be investigated and confirmed by the development of new faculties of perception appealed to her rationalism.
When Blavatsky died in 1891 a power struggle ensued within the Theosophical Society, with Besant and Henry Steel Olcott, the Society's president, on one side, and William Q. Judge on the other. Judge led the American Section in its succession from the Theosophical Society. His organization was inherited by Katherine Tingley upon Judge's death in 1896, and she created the Point Loma community of Theosophists. A new American Section of the Theosophical Society was built up, boosted by lecture tours by Annie Besant, which is now called the Theosophical Society in America. Besant was elected the second president of the international Theosophical Society, headquartered in Adyar, Chennai (Madras), in 1907 after Olcott's death.
Work in India
Annie Besant first visited the international headquarters of the Theosophical Society in India in 1893, and she made the country her home in 1895. In India Besant worked to build Hindu pride and worked for educational and social reform and Indian Home Rule. Olcott had worked to revive Buddhism in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in an attempt to counteract the demoralizing effects of colonialism and Christian missionaries. Besant was determined to do the same for Hinduism in India. She believed that she had been a Hindu in previous incarnations and regarded India as her homeland.
Among the schools founded by Besant and other Theosophists in India were the Central Hindu College for boys, which was founded in 1897 and in 1916 became the Benares Hindu University, and the Central Hindu Girls' School, founded in 1904. In 1914 Besant began speaking out for social reform in India and working for Indian Home Rule within the British Commonwealth. Besant believed that a self-ruling India as part of the Commonwealth would contribute to the ultimate unity of humanity in the New Civilization. She founded daily and weekly newspapers to promote her political efforts. She also founded associations to promote patriotism among young Indians, and started the Indian Boy Scouts Association. In 1916 Besant founded her Home Rule League. She also worked for women's rights in India, and in 1917 helped found the Women's Indian Association and later the All-India Women's Conference.
As a result of her work for Home Rule, Besant and some of her colleagues were interned in 1917 by the colonial government. Besant's internment increased the Indian public's awareness of the agitation, and at age seventy Besant was elected president of the Indian National Congress. She promptly turned the office into a base for political activism. Historian Nancy Fix Anderson has written that Besant was the "primary instigator of the organised Indian nationalist movement," and that she worked "for a sense of inclusive Indian identity" (p. 36). Besant's career as Indian politician was quickly eclipsed by that of Mohandas Gandhi, who called for complete independence from the British empire, which Besant opposed.
In 1908, just after becoming president of the Theosophical Society, Besant and her colleague in psychic investigations, Charles W. Leadbeater, began lecturing on the imminent appearance of the Lord Maitreya, the Master who was said to hold the office of the bodhisattva. Drawing on Buddhist and Christian expectations, Besant and Leadbeater added messianism to the progressive millennialism of Theosophy. Besant adopted a twelve-year-old Indian boy, J. Krishnamurti, and raised him to be the vehicle of the World-Teacher (jagadguru). She believed that Krishnamurti as the World-Teacher would present teachings that would become a new religion and raise humanity's awareness of spiritual unity, thereby creating the millennial New Civilization. Besant created an international organization known as the Order of the Star in the East, with about thirty-thousand members who anticipated the coming of the World-Teacher. She purchased a home for Krishnamurti in Ojai, California, along with additional land she named the Happy Valley. Besant believed that the "new race" of aware human beings would develop in southern California, Australia, and New Zealand. The many New Age and Theosophical groups that continue in the Ojai valley carry on Besant's expectations.
Beginning in 1922, Krishnamurti had experiences that led him to conclude that his consciousness had blended with that of the Lord Maitreya. He began speaking publicly as the Lord Maitreya in 1925. Eventually, however, Krishnamurti concluded that people were not hearing his Zen-like message advocating personal effort in achieving "choiceless awareness," and instead were relying on him for salvation. In 1929 Krishnamurti dissolved the Order of the Star and distanced himself from the Theosophical Society and his role as the World-Teacher. Krishnamurti never denied being the World-Teacher, and he went on to become an internationally known teacher. Annie Besant maintained her faith in Krishnamurti as the World-Teacher until her death in 1933.
The stages of Annie Besant's life were held together by her commitment to the service and betterment of humanity and by her monism. She was a strong believer in the Victorian doctrine of progress, believing that humans working according to a higher plan could create a collective salvation on Earth (the millennial kingdom). She found it frustrating that despite all her hard work society remained imperfect. So in 1908 she added messianism to her progressive millennialism; the World-Teacher would accomplish the New Civilization. After Krishnamurti distanced himself from her messianic plans in 1929, the Theosophical Society gave up messianism while maintaining its progressive millennial orientation, although many individual Theosophists remained intensely interested in Krishnamurti's teachings. Annie Besant's hope for a New Civilization accomplished by a critical mass of people developing a consciousness of spiritual unity under the guidance and influence of Masters, and including the possible return of the Christ, continues to influence the New Age movement, especially through the writings of Alice Bailey, a former member of the Theosophical Society.
Anderson, Nancy Fix. "'Mother Besant' and Indian National Politics." Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 30, no. 3 (2002): 27–54. Describes Besant's impact on the Indian Home Rule movement.
Besant, Annie. Autobiographical Sketches. London, 1885. Initial autobiographical account written prior to becoming a Theosophist.
Besant, Annie. Annie Besant: An Autobiography. London, 1908. Revision of Autobiographical Sketches after her conversion to Theosophy.
Jayakar, Pupul. Krishnamurti: A Biography. San Francisco, 1986. The first biography of Krishnamurti that revealed he thought of himself as the World-Teacher until the end of his life.
Nethercot, Arthur H. The First Five Lives of Annie Besant. Chicago, 1960.
Nethercot, Arthur H. The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant. Chicago, 1963. These two books by Nethercot remain the most thoroughly researched biographical treatments.
Sloss, Radha Rajagopal. Lives in the Shadow with J Krishnamurti. London, 1991. An eye-opening biography of Krishnamurti.
Wessinger, Catherine Lowman. Annie Besant and Progressive Messianism. Lewiston, N.Y., 1988. An intellectual biography of Besant that traces her evolving millennialism.
Wessinger, Catherine Lowman. "Annie Besant and the World-Teacher: Progressive Messianism for the New Age." Quest (spring 1989): 60–69. Short description of Besant's progressive millennialism and her influence on the New Age movement.
Catherine Wessinger (2005)
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.
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.
——. The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1963.
Taylor, Anne. Annie Besant: A Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.