Annie Wood Besant (October 1, 1847 – September 20, 1933) was born in Clapham, London and died in Adyar, India where she was President of the Theosophical Society from 1907-1932. She was known as a women's rights activist, writer and orator. For two years (1917-1918) she was President of the Indian National Congress. Annie Besant is acknowledged in India as having contributed significantly to its political, educational and social advancement and to its re-discovery of a sense of pride and self-confidence after the experience of being subjugated by a colonial power. Her translation of the Bhagavad-Gita (1895) opened up Hindu scripture to millions while the school that she founded, the Central Hindu College, was the foundation for the Varanasi Hindu University. The curriculum which she wrote for the school represented a major contribution to the study of Hinduism. M. K. Gandhi said that she woke India from a deep sleep and that he "would have been more than satisfied if I could have touched the hem of [her] garment" India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote that Annie Besant was a "powerful influence in adding to the confidence of the Hindu middle-classes in their spiritual and national heritage." . In 1921, she was awarded the honorary Doctor of Letters by Varanasi Hindu University.
Annie Wood was born in 1847 in London into a middle-class family of Irish origin. She was always proud of being Irish and supported the cause of Irish self-rule throughout her adult life. Her father died when five years old leaving the family almost penniless. Her mother supported the family by running a boarding house for boys at Harrow. However she was unable to support Annie and persuaded her friend Ellen Marryat to care for her. Marryat made sure that Annie had a good education. She was given a strong sense of duty to society and an equally strong sense of what independent women could achieve. As a young woman, she was also able to travel widely in Europe. There she acquired a taste for Catholic color and ceremony that never left her.
In 1867, at age 19 she married 26-year-old clergyman Frank Besant, younger brother of Walter Besant. He was an evangelical Anglican clergyman who seemed to share many of her concerns. Soon Frank became vicar of Sibsey in Lincolnshire. Annie moved to Sibsey with her husband, and within a few years they had two children: Digby and Mabel. The marriage was, however, a disaster. The first conflict came over money and Annie's independence. Annie wrote short stories, books for children and articles. As married women did not have the legal right to own property, Frank was able to take all the money she earned. Politics further divided the couple. Annie began to support farm workers who were fighting to unionize and to win better conditions. Frank was a Tory and sided with the landlords and farmers. The tension came to a head when Annie refused to attend communion. She left him and returned to London. They were legally separated and Annie took her daughter with her.
Annie began to question her own faith. She turned to leading churchmen for advice. She even went to see Edward Bouverie Pusey, leader of the Catholic wing of the Church of England. He simply told her she had read too many books. Annie returned to Frank to make one last effort to repair the marriage. It proved useless. She finally left for London. Divorce was unthinkable for Frank, and was not really within the reach of even middle-class people. Annie was to remain Mrs. Besant for the rest of her life. At first, she was able to keep contact with both children and to have Mabel live with her. She got a small allowance from Frank. Her husband was given sole custody of their two children.
For a time she undertook part-time study at the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution, where her religious and political activities were to cause alarm. At one point the Institution's governors sought to withhold the publication of her exam results.. Besant enrolled on a science degree only one year after women were admitted to the University of London (1878). Some sources claim that Besant earned a science degree, but some say that she did not complete her studies One MP was so outraged that Annie had been admitted that he tried to withdraw funding from the school.
She fought for the causes she thought were right, starting with freedom of thought, women's rights, secularism (she was a leading member of the National Secular Society alongside Charles Bradlaugh), birth control, Fabian socialism and workers' rights.
Once free of Frank Besant and exposed to new currents of thought, Annie began to question not only her long-held religious beliefs but also the whole of conventional thinking. She began to write attacks on the churches and the way they controlled people's lives. In particular she attacked the status of the Church of England as a state-sponsored faith.
Soon she was earning a small weekly wage by writing a column for the National Reformer, the newspaper of the National Secular Society. The Society stood for a secular state: an end to the special status of Christianity. The Society allowed her to act as one of its public speakers. Public lectures were very popular entertainment in Victorian times. Annie was a brilliant speaker, and was soon in great demand. Using the railway, she criss-crossed the country, speaking on all of the most important issues of the day, always demanding improvement, reform and freedom.
For many years Annie was a friend of the Society's leader, Charles Bradlaugh. It seems that they were never lovers, but their friendship was very close indeed. Bradlaugh, a former seaman, had long been separated from his wife. Annie lived with Bradlaugh and his daughters, and they worked together on many issues.
Bradlaugh was an atheist and a republican. He was working to get himself elected as Member of Parliament for Northampton to gain a better platform for his ideas.
Besant and Bradlaugh became household names in 1877 when they published a book by the American birth-control campaigner Charles Knowlton. It claimed that working-class families could never be happy until they were able to decide how many children they wanted. It suggested ways to limit the size of their families. The Knowlton book caused great offence to the churches, but Annie and Bradlaugh proclaimed in the National Reformer: "We intend to publish nothing we do not think we can morally defend. All that we publish we shall defend."
The pair were arrested and put on trial for publishing the Knowlton book. They were found guilty, but released pending appeal. As well as great opposition, Annie and Bradlaugh also received a great deal of support in the Liberal press. Arguments raged back and forth in the letters and comment columns as well as in the courtroom. For a time, it looked as though they would be sent to prison. The case was thrown out finally only on a technical point: the charges had not been properly drawn up.
The scandal lost Annie her children. Frank was able to persuade the court that she was unfit to look after them, and they were handed over to him permanently.
Bradlaugh's political prospects were not damaged by the Knowlton scandal. He got himself into Parliament at last in 1881. Because of his atheism, he refused to swear the oath of loyalty. Although many Christians were shocked by Bradlaugh, others (like the Liberal leader Gladstone) spoke up for freedom of belief. It took more than six years before the whole issue was sorted out (in Bradlaugh's favor) after a series of by-elections and court appearances.
Meanwhile Besant built close contacts with the Irish Home Rulers and gave them support in her newspaper columns. These were crucial years, in which the Irish nationalists were forming an alliance with Liberals and Radicals. Annie met the leaders of the movement. In particular, she got to know Michael Davitt, who wanted to mobilize the Irish peasantry through a land war: a direct struggle against the landowners. She spoke and wrote in favor of Davitt and his Land League many times over the coming decades.
However, Bradlaugh's parliamentary work gradually alienated Annie. Women had no part in parliamentary politics. Annie was searching for a real political outlet: politics where her skills as a speaker, writer, and organizer could do some real good.
For Annie, politics, friendship and love were always closely intertwined. Her decision in favor of Socialism came about through a close relationship with George Bernard Shaw, a struggling young Irish author living in London, and a leading light of the Fabian Society. Annie was impressed by his work and grew very close to him too in the early 1880s. It was Annie who made the first move, by inviting Shaw to live with her. This he refused, but it was Shaw who sponsored Annie to join the Fabian Society. In its early days, the Society was a gathering of people exploring spiritual—rather than political—alternatives to the capitalist system.
Annie now began to write for the Fabians. This new commitment, and her relationship with Shaw, deepened the split between Annie and Bradlaugh, who was an individualist and opposed to Socialism of any sort. While he would defend free speech at any cost, he was very cautious about encouraging working-class militancy.
Unemployment was a central issue of the time, and in 1887 some of the London unemployed started to hold protests in Trafalgar Square. Annie agreed to appear as a speaker at a meeting on November 13. The police tried to stop the assembly. Fighting broke out, and troops were called. Many were hurt, one man died, and hundreds were arrested. Annie offered herself for arrest, but the police refused to take the bait.
The events created a great sensation, and became known as Bloody Sunday. Annie was widely blamed—or credited—for it. She threw herself into organizing legal aid for the jailed workers and support for their families. Bradlaugh finally broke with her because he felt she should have asked his advice before going ahead with the meeting.
Socialists saw the trade unions as the first real signs of working people's ability to organize and fight for themselves. Until now, trade unions had been for skilled workers—men with a craft that might take years to acquire and which gave them at least a little security. The Socialists wanted to bring both unskilled men and women into unions to fight for better pay and conditions.
Her most notable victory in this period was perhaps her involvement in the London matchgirls strike of 1888. Annie was drawn into this first really important battle of the "New Unionism" by Herbert Burrows, a young socialist with whom she was for a time in love. He had made contact with workers at Bryant and May's match factory in Bow, London, who were mainly young women. They were very poorly paid. They were also prey to horrendous industrial illnesses, like the bone-rotting Phossy jaw, which were caused by the chemicals used in match manufacture. Some of the match workers asked for help from Burrows and Annie in setting up a union.
Annie met the women and set up a committee, which led the women into a strike for better pay and conditions. The action won enormous public support. Annie led demonstrations by "match-girls." They were cheered in the streets, and prominent churchmen wrote in their support. In just over a week they forced the firm to improve pay and conditions. Annie then helped them to set up a proper union and a social center.
At the time, the matchstick industry was an immensely powerful lobby, since electric light was not yet widely available, and matches were essential for lighting candles, oil lamps, and gas lights.(Only a few years earlier in 1872, lobbyists from the match industry had persuaded the British government to change its planned tax policy. Besant's campaign was the first time anyone had successfully challenged the match manufacturers on a major issue, and was seen as a landmark victory of the early years of British Socialism.
During 1884, Annie had developed a very close friendship with Edward Aveling, a young socialist teacher, who lived in her house for a time. Aveling was a scholarly figure and it was he who translated the important works of Marx into English for the first time. Annie seems to have fallen in love with Aveling, but it is not clear that he felt the same way. He was certainly a great influence on her thinking, and she was a great support to his work. However, Aveling left Annie to live with Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx. This led to permanent ill-feeling between Annie and Eleanor and probably pushed Annie towards the rival Fabian Society at that time. Aveling and Eleanor joined the Marxist SDF but they distrusted its leader, Henry Hyndman. Soon they left the SDF to join the Socialist League, a small Marxist splinter group which formed around the artist William Morris.
It seems that Morris played a large part in converting Annie to Marxism, but it was to the SDF, not his Socialist League, that she turned in 1888. She remained a member for a number of years and became one of its best speakers. She remained a member of the Fabian Society, but neither she nor anyone else seemed to think the two movements completely incompatible at the time.
Soon after joining the Marxists, Annie stood for election to the London School Board. Because women were not able to take part in parliamentary politics, it is often thought that they did not have the vote until 1918. In fact, women householders had been brought into the local electorate in 1881, and soon began to make a mark in local politics.
Annie drove about with a red ribbon in her hair, speaking at noisy meetings. "No more hungry children," her manifesto proclaimed. She made clear that her Socialism had a feminist side too: "I ask the electors to vote for me, and the non-electors to work for me because women are wanted on the Board and there are too few women candidates." Astonishingly, Annie came out on top of the poll in Tower Hamlets, with over 15,000 votes. Annie wrote in the National Reformer: "Ten years ago, under a cruel law, Christian bigotry robbed me of my little child. Now the care of the 763,680 children of London is placed partly in my hands." Annie was also closely involved in the struggle for the Dockers' Tanner. The dockers were poorly paid for hard and dangerous work. They were casual laborers, only taken on for one day at a time. Ben Tillett set up a union for dockers. Annie was crucial in this. She helped Tillett to draw up the union's rules and played an important part in the meetings and agitation which built up the organization. Tillett led the dockers in a fight for better wages: sixpence an hour. Annie spoke for the dockers at public meetings and on street corners. Like the match-girls, the dockers won a lot of public support for their struggle. Even Cardinal Manning, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England, came out on their side. After a bitter strike, the dockers' tanner was won.
Besant was a prolific writer and a powerful orator. In 1889, she was asked to write a review for the Pall Mall Gazette on The Secret Doctrine, a book by H. P. Blavatsky. After reading it, she sought an interview with its author, meeting Blavatsky in Paris. In this way she was converted to Theosophy. Annie's intellectual journey had always involved a spiritual dimension, a quest for transformation of the whole person. As her interest in Theosophy deepened, she allowed her membership of the Fabian Society to lapse (1890) and broke her links with the Marxists. When Blavatsky died in 1891, Annie was left as one of the leading figures in Theosophy. Her most important public commitment to the faith came in 1893, when she went to present it at the Parliament of the World’s Religion during the Chicago World Fair. There, "she expounded on the spiritual duty of service to humanity and the 'heights to which its daily practice may at length conduct the human soul.'" 
Soon after becoming a member of the Theosophical Society she went to India for the first time (in 1893). After a dispute, where William Quan Judge, leader of the American section was accused of falsifying letters from the Masters, the American section split away. The remainder of the Society was then led by Henry Steel Olcott and Besant and is today based in Chennai, India and is known as the Theosophical Society Adyar. Thereafter she devoted much of her energy not only to the Society, but also to India's freedom and progress. Besant Nagar, a neighborhood (near the Theosophical Society) in Chennai is named in her honor. She wrote books on Hindu teachings as well as on Theosophy. With the assistance of Dr. Bhagvan Das she translated a number of Sanskrit texts into English, most notably the Bhagavad-Gita. Gandhi himself records how it was as a law student in England that, through the writings of Sir Edwin Arnold, Madam Blavatsky and Annie Besant that he became disabused of 'the notion, fostered by the missionaries, that Hinduism was rife with superstition" .
Together with Charles Webster Leadbeater, an Anglican clergyman whom she had first met in London in April 1894, she investigated the universe, matter, and the history of mankind through clairvoyance. Besant was elected president of the Theosophical Society in 1907 upon the death of the previous president Henry Steel Olcott, and would remain its president until her own death in 1933.
Up until Besant's presidency, the society had as one of its foci Theravada Buddhism and the island of Ceylon, where Henry Olcott did the majority of his useful work. Under Besant's leadership there was a decisive turn away from this and a refocusing of their activities on "The Aryavarta," as she called central India. Besant actively courted Hindu opinion more than former Theosophical leaders. This was a clear reversal of policy from Blavatsky and Olcott's very public conversion to Buddhism in Ceylon, and their promotion of Buddhist revival activities on the subcontinent (see also: Maha Bodhi Society).
Annie set up a new school for boys at Varanasi: the Central Hindu College. Its aim was to build a new leadership for India. The boys lived like monks. They spent 90 minutes a day in prayer and studied the Hindu scriptures, but they also studied modern science. It took three years to raise the money for the CHC. Most of the money came from Indian princes. The College became the foundation for the Varanasi Hindu University, founded in 1916 with her support. The University awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1921. Annie had previously founded the Central Hindu Girls School in 1904. Both schools continue under the oversight of the University . The original curriculum that Annie designed for the school used the term sanatana dharma (eternal truth) for Hinduism, which many Hindus prefer.
The way in which she presented the religion, using the four aims in life, the four stages of life, the four classes, although all taken from ancient sources, pioneered this approach to teaching Hinduism as a coherent system. Almost all text books now follow this formula. Many British scholars depicted Hinduism in a very negative way, pointing to such practices as venerating images (which they called idols), widow immolation and the caste system as morally or theologically deviant. Provoked by such criticism, Hindus such as Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) re-examined the ancient texts and declared that all the above were later corruptions. Hindus, too, believed in a single universal soul, although this Soul has plural manifestations. Annie Besant's advocacy of Hindu wisdom, from which the West had, she believed, much to learn, reversed the almost universal idea that wisdom only flowed West to East—not East to West. India, she believed, was being robbed of its wealth and of its heritage by the West. Her schools aimed to instill a new pride in their pupils in their own cultural and spiritual heritage. Her universal understanding of Hinduism found support in the Advaita Vedanta teachings of Vivekananda, who was also present at the Chicago Parliament of the World Religions, and in those of Mahatma Gandhi. In contrast to those who see Hinduism as a way of life into which one must be born, the type of Hinduism championed by Besant, Vivekananda and others is open to all. It is this universal school that became attractive to some in the West, where Vivekananda established the Vedanta Society. Although numerically small, Theosophy in the West has had a wide impact, influencing new age ideas, the environmental movement, alternative medicine, near-death experiences research, and other fields as well.
Arguably, Besant gave to Hinduism almost as much as she received from it, and is remembered as having had a genuine, warm love of India and India's spiritual heritage, stating:
Soon after Besant's inheritance of the presidency, in 1909, Leadbeater "discovered" Jiddu Krishnamurti on the private beach that was attached to the society's headquarters at Adyar. Krishnamurti had been living there with his father and brother for a few months prior to this. This discovery started years of upheaval in the Theosophical Society in Adyar, as the boy was proposed as the incarnate vessel for the Christ. Jiddu Krishnamurti and his brother Nitya were brought up by Theosophists from that moment on, with a subsequent lawsuit filed by his father.
Eventually, in 1929, Krishnamurti ended up disbanding the Order of the Star of the East, which had been founded to support him and of which he had been made the leader. This destroyed Besant's spirit, as it went against her ideals.
As well as her religious activities, Annie continued to participate in concrete political struggles. She had joined the Indian National Congress. As the name suggested, this was originally a debating body, which met each year to consider resolutions on political issues. Mostly it demanded more of a say for middle-class Indians in their own government. It had not yet developed into a permanent mass movement with local organization.
In 1914 war broke out in Europe. Britain needed the support of its Empire in the fight against Germany. Annie said: "England's need is India's opportunity," a clear echo of an Irish nationalist slogan. As editor of a newspaper called New India, she attacked the (British) government of India and called for clear and decisive moves towards self-rule. As with Ireland, the government refused to discuss any changes while the war lasted.
In 1916 Annie launched the Home Rule League, once again modeling demands for India on Irish models. For the first time India had a political party to fight for change. Unlike the Congress itself, the League worked all year round. It built a strong structure of local branches, enabling it to mobilize demonstrations, public meetings and agitations. In June 1917 Annie was arrested and interned at a hill station. She flew a red and green flag in the garden to show her defiance. Congress and the Muslim League together threatened to launch protests if she were not set free. Annie's arrest had created a focus for protest, giving those who wanted long-term independence for India a chance to work together for a simple, achievable goal.
The government was forced to give way and to make vague but significant concessions. It was announced that the ultimate aim of British rule was Indian self-government, and moves in that direction were promised. Annie was freed in September to a tremendous welcome from crowds all over India. In December she took over as president of the congress for a year. It was perhaps the greatest honor she received in her lifetime.
After the war ended, a new leadership emerged around Mohandas K. Gandhi - one of those who had written to demand Annie's release. He was a lawyer who had returned from leading Asians in a peaceful struggle against racism in South Africa. The future Prime Minister, Nehru, Gandhi's closest collaborator, had been educated by a Theosophist tutor. Both men held Annie in the highest esteem.
The new leadership too was committed to action that was both militant and non-violent, but there were differences between them and Annie. Despite her past, she was not happy with their socialist leanings. Until the end of her life she continued to campaign for India's independence, not only in India but also on speaking tours of Britain. In her own version of Indian dress, Mrs. Besant remained a striking presence on speakers' platforms. She produced a torrent of letters and articles demanding independence for India.
She tried to accommodate Krishnamurti's views into her life, but never really succeeded. The two remained friends, however, until the end of her life. Annie Besant died in 1933 and was survived by her daughter, Mabel.
In honoring her with a Doctor of Letters, the Varanasi Hindu University gave due recognition both to her scholarly achievements and to the value of her contribution to the towards emergence of a universal consciousness within Hindu thought, as opposed to the more nationalistic, exclusive Hinduism of Dayananda Sarasvati (1823 – 1883) who founded the Arya Samaj. Her legacy lives on in these schools, and in numerous publications which are still in print as well as available in electronic form. Although her ideas sometimes polarized people on the issues around which she campaigned, she was at heart a bridge-builder. She wanted above all to build bridges between the east and the west. She favored what she called an "Indo-British commonwealth" and is indeed credited with first using the word "Commonwealth" in the context of the British Empire She is widely credited with helping to make India the country that India has become, confident and assertive in world affairs. At Chicago, she described Vivekananda thus:
 India's pride in its heritage and unwillingness to "be shamed before the hurrying arrogant West" owes its own debt to Annie Besant's legacy. Gandhi and Nehru, two of the shapers of modern India, credit her with awakening their pride in India, as did Rabindranath Tagore. Bhagavan Das, citing Shri Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949), the first Indian woman president of the Indian National Congress, stated that Besant "is entitled by her great qualities, her work, and her experience to say—that if Annie Besant had not been, Gandhi-ji could not be" 
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