The second international president of the Theosophical Society, Adyar, and the most prominent woman orator and social reformer of her time. She was born on October 1, 1847, in London to parents of Irish extraction. Between the ages of 7 and 16, Annie was reared and educated by a family friend, Ellen Marryat.
In 1867, Besant married the Rev. Frank Besant. Their son, Arthur Digby, was born in 1869 and daughter, Mabel, in 1870. When the infant girl nearly died from whooping cough, Annie questioned why a benevolent God would allow an innocent child to suffer and underwent a crisis of faith, leading her eventually to refuse to take communion in her husband’s church. He insisted that she either resume taking communion or leave his house. She left and obtained a legal separation with custody of Mabel.
In 1874, Besant joined Charles Bradlaugh’s National Secular Society, which was committed to social reform. Bradlaugh offered her a job as a reporter for his newspaper, the National Reformer, and she quickly became its subeditor, a vice-president of the National Secular Society, and one of Freethought’s foremost public lecturers, who braved rowdy crowds of men who did not hesitate to throw rocks at the female atheist.
During her intellectual transition to non-theism, Besant was attracted to monism. She concluded that spirit and matter were identical in substance although different in manifestation. In 1877 Besant and Bradlaugh published a book on contraception entitled The Fruits of Philosophy (originally published in 1832). Besant was convinced that accessible information about how to limit offspring was essential to alleviating poverty and improving women’s health, thus becoming the first woman to publicly advocate the dissemination of information on contraception. They were prosecuted for publishing and selling pornography, but the guilty verdict was later overturned on a technicality. However, Besant lost custody of Mabel due to her atheism and advocacy of contraception. Years later, Digby at the age of 21 went to his mother and Mabel followed at the age of 20. They both joined the Theosophical Society, and their father refused to have further contact with them.
In 1885, Besant joined the Fabian Society, a group committed to political and nonviolent socialist reform. In 1888, she and Herbert Burrows contributed greatly to the birth of the trade union movement in Britain by organizing the strike of some young women for better working conditions; these “match girls” were being poisoned by the phosphor used in the manufacture of matches. Besant was also elected to the London School Board, where she secured free meals for poor children and the boycott of goods from sweat shops.
Toward the end of this period, Besant recognized that materialism could not explain the mysteries posed by mesmerism, séances, and psychic phenomena. The magazine Our Corner, which she published, revealed her increasing interest in the comparative study of religions, particularly those of Asia. She also began to think that social reform was insufficient to bring about the collective human happiness for which she worked but that a transformation in human nature itself was needed.
In 1889, Besant adopted Theosophy after reviewing Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine for the Pall Mall Gazette. She embraced Theosophical monism of a continuity of spirit and matter with spirit as ultimate, providing a basis for universal brotherhood, to which Besant had always been committed. The Theosophical teachings of reincarnation, karma, and the progressive evolution of consciousness satisfactorily answered the question of suffering and evil that had so long troubled her. Besant quickly became Blavatsky’s favored disciple and coeditor of Blavatsky’s journal, Lucifer, as well as a member of the Inner Group of the Esoteric Section, in which Blavatsky taught selected students. Besant’s house became Blavatsky’s home and the headquarters of the Blavatsky Lodge in London, of which Besant was elected president.
After Blavatsky’s death in 1891, for a time Besant and Judge were joint Outer Heads of the Esoteric Section, but Judge issued a statement deposing Besant as joint head, and in 1895 the American Section led by Judge seceded from the international Society, although Judge died within a year. In 1893 Besant made her first visit to India, where she immersed herself in Hindu culture, and studied with an Indian Theosophist, Bhagavan Das. She published a translation of the Bhagavad Gita in 1895. In 1898, she founded the Central Hindu College with George S. Arundale as its headmaster. She also wrote a Hindu catechism entitled Santana Dharma and a Universal Textbook of Religion and Morals for students of all religions.
In 1902, Besant learned of Co-Freemasonry, which admits women and men on equal footing. Francesca Arundale took her to Paris, where she received the first three Masonic degrees in the French order of Le Droit Humain. On her return to England, she began founding Co-Masonic lodges throughout Britain and eventually elsewhere in the British Empire, thus converting what had been primarily a Francophone movement into an international one. In 1904 she was responsible for the foundation of Dharma Lodge in Benares, India, where a form of Masonic ritual now used around the world was developed.
Annie Besant was elected president of the Theosophical Society in 1907 after Olcott’s death and reelected every seven years until the end of her life. She founded the Theosophical Order of Service and the Round Table for young people. Membership of the Theosophical Society under her presidency grew from 14,700 in 1907 to a peak of more than 45,000 in 1928. In 1908, Besant and Leadbeater began lecturing on the imminent return of the World Teacher and then began to train a twelve-year-old Brahmin boy, J. Krishnamurti, to play a part in that event as a vehicle for the World Teacher. Besant created an international organization, the Order of the Star in the East, whose members awaited the imminent coming of the World Teacher. Besant also collaborated with C. W. Leadbeater in psychic research that led to the 1913 publication of
Man: Whence, How and Whither and the 1924 book, The Lives of Alcyone.
In 1913, Besant entered politics to gain Indian Home Rule and to effect social reforms in Indian society through techniques she had learned from Bradlaugh: public rallies and speeches, newspaper and pamphlet campaigns, and litigation. In 1914 Besant began publishing two political newspapers, a weekly entitled The Commonwealth and a daily named New India. In 1916 she started the Indian Boy Scouts Association and founded the All-India Home Rule League, which by the end of 1917 had a membership of 27,000, including Jawaharlal Nehru, who gained his first political experience in it.
Besant was convinced that before India could gain Home Rule and become the spiritual teacher of the world, it had to clean its own house of corrupt social customs: early marriage and premature motherhood of girls, the prohibition of remarriage of widows, the oppression of untouchables, and the lack of education for girls and members of the lowest castes. In 1917, Besant was under house arrest for her writings. She designed and flew a Home Rule flag of green and red representing the Muslims and Hindus of India, which later, with additional features (such as Gandhi’s spinning wheel, representing Indian self-sufficiency) became the national flag of India. During this time, she was elected president of the Indian National Congress, the organization that would become the political party led by Mohandas Gandhi. She was the first woman to hold that office and to do so actively. Under Besant’s leadership, the 1917 Congress passed a resolution abolishing the social disabilities of untouchables.
After Krishnamurti dissolved the Order of the Star in 1929 in Annie Besant’s presence, she still proclaimed her confidence in Krishnamurti as the World Teacher, saying, “People always want to make a greater being in their own image, and then complain if he is different.” Besant acknowledged that organizations cannot promote personal spirituality, which comes from within, but she believed that they are useful in propagating knowledge.
Annie Besant died at Adyar, Madras, on September 20, 1933. Her body was cremated on a pyre lit by Charles Leadbeater. Some of her ashes were poured into the Ganges at Benares by her colleague in Sanskrit studies, Bhagavan Das. The rest were deposited at the Garden of Remembrance on the Adyar estate, which marks the site of Besant’s cremation.
Annie Besant’s long and complex career was devoted to the service of humanity and the elimination of suffering. During her lifetime, Besant served as a model for British, Indian, and American women who wished to move beyond the traditional female role limited to the domestic sphere; and the example of her life continues as a model for women who wish to balance the nurturing of others with creative public work.
Besant, Annie. Autobiographical Sketches. London: Freethought Publishing Company, 1885.
———. An Autobiography. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908.
Nethercot, Arthur H. The First Five Lives of Annie Besant. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.
———. The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963.
Wessinger, Catherine Lowman. Annie Besant and Progressive Messianism. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1988.