Annie Wood was born on this day, the 1st of October, in 1847.
Under another name she would eventually gain fame as a journalist, and later a theosophist as well as a tireless worker for social justice, including working for Irish self-rule, and eventually a leader in the early Indian struggle for home rule.
At 20 she married an Anglican priest, Frank Besant. And it is under that name, Annie Besant, that she is best known. They would have two children together before their marriage collapsed. Apparently spurred on by Annie Besant’s increasing distaste for organized religion and equally increasing devotion to the work of justice.
In 1877, as a leader of the National Secular Society, she and a colleague, Charles Bradlaugh were prosecuted for publishing the American physician Charles Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy, or, the Private Companion of Young Married People. They won. But, it cost Besant the custody of her children. As an advocate for birth control she was deemed unfit to be a mother.
When George Bernard Shaw recruited Annie Besant to the Fabian Society in 1885 he called it a major victory for the cause, as he declared she was “the greatest orator in England.” Besant was a social activist and journalist. As one of the most famous women in England her presence helped further the prestige of the Fabian Society.
Everything changed when Besant was engaged to interview and expected to expose the spiritualist Helena Blavatsky who had announced she was channelling ascended masters. Like Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, himself famous for exposing fraud and waste during the Civil War, and who then engaged by a newspaper to expose Madam Blavatsky, only to become a life long disciple. Pretty much the same thing happened to Annie Besant.
Besant became a close associate of Blavatsky for the rest of her teacher’s life, helping to establish Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society as a significant spiritual force. Theosophy is an unlikely mishmash of spiritualities. What is amazing is how in its half life how wide its influence has been in matters both spiritual and social. The Theosophical Society was largely responsible for presenting Buddhism to the West while significantly misrepresenting its teachings.
The TS was also was responsible for the small but for me endlessly fascinating constellation of Christians associated with the Liberal Catholic Churches.
Ms Besant would have her hand in both these movements. Probably the heart of her heart was as a theosophical Hindu.
When Madam Blavatsky died, and it turned out she’d privately told several people they were her chosen successor, there was a war of succession. Besant ended up leading the by far largest faction of the splintered Society.
Annie Besant ended up spending much of the balance of her life in India. There it turned out she’d not lost her taste for politics. She was one of the founders of the Home Rule League and a longtime member of the India National Congress, which she served for a time as president, the first woman to do so. She was dismayed when Nehru and Gandhi and other Indians took over the party, really, as had to be. And it is worth noting how the party of which she was for a time a leader would end up being the leading force in Indian independence. And for years the leading party in the new republic.
She was the adoptive mother of the philosopher and spiritual writer Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom she believed to be and raised to be the next messiah. Even after he rejected the role, they remained close if conflicted for the rest of her life.
She died in 1933 at Adyar, which was the headquarters of the Theosophical Society. Annie Besant was 85.
An amazing figure.