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  • Malkiat Singh Duhra

Annie Besant, President of the Theosophical Society

Annie Besant ( October 1, 1847- September 20, 1933 ) second President of the Theosophical Society from 1907-1933, was described as a “Diamond Soul” for she had many brilliant facets to her character. She was a British socialist, theosophist, women’s rights activist, prolific writer, powerful orator, educationist, and philanthropist. She is regarded as a champion of human freedom, an ardent supporter of both Irish and Indian self-rule. She was an author with over three hundred books and pamphlets to her credit and she was one of the founders of the Banaras ( Varanasi ) Hindu University.

She married Frank Besant, a clergyman, in 1867 and they had two children. She became a prominent speaker for the National Secular Society, as well as a writer. She was involved with union actions, including the Bloody Sunday demonstration and the London matchgirls strike in 1888. She was a leading speaker for both the Fabian Society and Marxist Social Democratic Federation. She was also elected to the London School Board for Tower Hamlets, topping the poll, even though few women were qualified to vote at that time. In 1890 Basant met Helena Blavatsky, and over the next few years her interest in theosophy grew, whilst her interest in secular matters waned. She became a member of the Theosophical Society and a prominent lecturer on the subject. Annie Besant became the leading figure in Theosophy after the death of Blavatsky in 1891. She went to present at the parliament of the World”s Religion during the Chicago World Fair in 1893. She went to India for the first time in 1893 after becoming a member of the Theosophical Society.

In 1907 she became the President of the Theosophical Society, whose international headquarters was by then located in Adyar, Madras. Annie set up a school for boys at Varanasi: The Central Hindu College with the help of Indian Princes. The college became the foundation for the Varanasi Hindu University in 1916. The university awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1921. In 1922 she helped to establish the Hyderabad National Collegiate Board in Bombay. In 1902, she established the first overseas Lodge of the International Order of Co-Freemasonry. Over the next few years, she established lodges in many parts of the British Empire.

Annie took interest in Indian politics and participated in the freedom movement. She was elected President of the Indian National Congress for two years ( 1917-1918 ). She is acknowledged in India as having contributed significantly to its political, educational, social advancement, and to its re-discovery of a sense of pride and self confidence after the experience of being subjugated by the colonial power. Her translation of Bhagavad Gita ( 1895 ) opened up Hindu scripture to millions while the school that she founded, the Central Hindu College, was the foundation for the Banaras Hindu University. The curriculum which she wrote for the school represented a major contribution to the study of Hinduism.

In 1902 Annie had written that “India is not ruled for the prospering of the people, but rather for the profit of her conquerors, and her sons are being treated as a conquered race. She encouraged Indian national consciousness, attacked caste and child marriage, and worked effectively for Indian education. In 1914 World War One broke out, and Britain asked for the support of its Empire in the fight against Germany. One and a half million Indians participated in the war, with the hope to get independence. Echoing an Irish nationalist slogan, Annie declared, “England’s need is India’s opportunity”. As editor of the New India newspaper, she attacked the Colonial Government of India and called for clear and decisive moves toward self-rule. As with Ireland, the government refused to discuss and make changes while the war lasted.

In 1916, Annie launched the All India Home Rule League along with Lokmanya Tilak, once again modeling demands for India on Irish nationalist practices. This was the first political party in India to have a regime change as its main goal. The party worked all year round. It built a structure of local branches, enabling it to mobilize demonstrations and public meetings. In June 1917, Annie was arrested. The Congress and the Muslim League together threatened to launch protests if she was not set free. The government was forced to give way and to make vague but significant concessions. It was announced that the ultimate aim of the British Rule was Indian self-government, and moves in that direction were promised. Annie was freed in September 1917, welcomed by crowds all over India. Gandhi and Nehru spoke of Annie’s influence with admiration.

Until the end of her life, however, she continued the campaign for India’s independence, not only in India but also on speaking tours of Britain. She produced a torrent of letters and articles demanding independence. In 1931 Annie Besant became ill in India and died on September 20, 1933, at age 85 years in Adyar, Madras. She was survived by her daughter, Mabel. After her death, colleagues Jidda Krishnamurti, Aldous Huxley, Guido Fernando, and Rosalind Rajagopal, built the Happy Valley School in California, now renamed Besant Hill School of Happy Valley in her honor.

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