March is Women’s History Month, and in celebration of the extraordinary life of an extraordinary woman, in today’s Story from the Museum Floor, Luke discovers more about the story of Annie Besant, a tireless campaigner for the rights of the oppressed and an explorer of the spiritual boundaries of humanity. Annie features as part of the Jallianwala: Repression and Retribution triptych by the Singh Twins on display in our Living Worlds gallery.
Find out more about the objects and stories at Manchester Museum in our Curators’ blogs. And to keep up to date with news about the Museum’s exciting transformation, including the forthcoming South Asia Gallery, have a look at our hello future blog.
Annie Besant – Revolution to Revelation
Anne Besant is not a household name, however few people have led such an unusually varied and subtly influential life.
Annie Besant in her younger days (source)
The Vicar’s wife
She was born on the 1st of October in 1847 in London, England, to a relatively ordinary middle-class family. By the time she was 20, Anne was married to Anglican Vicar, Frank Besant, and that could have been the end of it. She could have settled down to a life of obedient obscurity, but Annie’s life would go on to take such a wildly different course that it almost defies belief.
Even Annie herself would go on to say in later life that her and Frank were always an ill-matched pair and disagreements over their beliefs meant that after only six years of marriage they were separated and living apart. Her husband was a Conservative while Anne supported the cause of the workers, he was an orthodox Anglican Christian while she, even at this early point in her life, was a spiritual free thinker and soon enough began to question her own faith and the teachings of the Church. She turned to some of the leading churchmen of the Oxford Movement for advice, but when she asked what books might answer her questions she was simply told that the problem was that she had read too many already.
Annie returned to Frank and made one last effort to try and repair their marriage, before finally packing her bags and leaving for London after the custody of their child was awarded solely to Frank.
“Better to remain silent, better to not even think, if you are not prepared to act.”
– Annie Besant
The newly liberated Annie soon went on study at the Birbeck Literary and Scientific Institution, where the combination of her gender, intelligence, and political views caused such unease that the institution’s board of governors went as far as to try and withhold the publication of her exam results.
Annie was not deterred.
From this point on she would go on to spend the rest of her life fighting for causes that she thought right and just, in one form or another: freedom of thought, worker’s rights, and women’s rights, including the right to birth control.
Once she had graduated from Birbeck Annie discovered and was soon invited to join the Fabian Society by none other than the playwright George Bernard Shaw. Shortly thereafter, she became increasingly involved in Unionism, throwing herself into the growing protest movement for worker’s rights, indeed Shaw is said to have considered her the greatest orator in England at the time. It was due to this talent for public speaking that she was both was both blamed and credited for the Trafalgar Bloody Sunday protest of 1887.
Not long afterwards, Annie became closely involved in the London Matchgirls strike of 1888 after the participants approached her to ask for assistance in their fight for better pay and working conditions. During this time of social awakening, women had achieved the right to vote but were still unable to stand for parliament themselves. So instead, Annie ran for and was elected to the London School Board, remarking upon her victory that, “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.” At around this time, Annie also achieved public notoriety by becoming the first woman in pubic life to openly endorse birth control.
A portrait photograph of Annie Besant, unknown date (source)
Mistress of Theosophy
In 1889, Anne was asked to review a copy of a newly published book called The Secret Doctrine for the Pall Mall Gazette. The book was by a then obscure and somewhat controversial Russian noblewoman by the name of H.P. Blavatsky and was an esoteric mixture of various philosophies and religious traditions from around the world. In certain educated circles the book was beginning to generate a certain amount of interest. After reading it, Anne sought an interview with it’s author. Over the course of this first interview it seems that Besant went from ardent secularist to theosophist. Shortly afterwards, she joined the then newly established Theosophical Society, an organisation founded to build on Blavatsky’s ideas, among others from Buddhism and Hinduism, to Gnosticism and Alchemy, and of which Annie would emerge as one of the leading lights.
Not long after joining the Society she would later describe her transition from socialist to theosophist as like travelling “through storm into peace.” This shift in outlook distanced her from many of her former colleagues among the Fabians, but Annie’s road would now take her elsewhere, and by the time of H.P. Blavatsky’s passing in 1891, Anne Besant would be left as one of the most senior figures of theosophy. It was through her work with the Theosophical Society that Annie first went to India, a country that would become her second home and who’s ideas and struggle would go on to have a profound and lasting impact on her life.
Shortly after her elevation to the presidency of the Society in 1907 after the passing of Henry Olcott, she founded the Central Hindu College in the holy city of Varanasi and shifted the Society’s focus toward the Hinduism of central India as well as early Christian Gnosticism. Her ties to India would grow steadily over time and she would eventually become one of the most prominent voices in favour of the Indian independence movement, indeed Annie Bessant became one of the original founders and leaders of the Indian Home Rule Movement.
During 1916 and 1917, she organised large peaceful demonstrations in favour in Indian home rule across the subcontinent before finally being arrested while defiantly flying the red and green flag of the Indian Home Rule movement. Such was the esteem that Annie was now held in that the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League threatened to hold rare joint protests across India if she were not released. Eventually the colonial government was forced to relent, releasing Annie, and for the first time declaring that the ultimate aim of British rule was now to be a return to Indian self-government. Her release was welcomed by cheering crowds across the country. In later years, both Mohandas Ghandi and Jawaharlal Nehru would speak of her with nothing short of admiration. Indeed, not long after her release Annie would even be elevated to the presidency of the Indian National Congress itself.
Annie Besant with Jiddu Krishnamurti (source)
A ‘World Teacher’?
Anne Besant went on lead the Theosophical Society for 25 years, through many trails and tribulations. Although the cause of social justice was never far from her heart, as the years went by her concerns became more and more spiritual. One of the Spiritual stands that increasingly consumed her attention was the so-called ‘World Teacher’, or Maitreya. This was a concept that had been floating around in theosophical circles for some time, the idea being that one day someone would come forward onto the world stage who was able to unite the various philosophies and religions of the world, and that person would be a holy man of considerable wisdom and vision, a successor of both Christ, the Buddha, and many others.
In 1909 they believed they had indeed found such a person, His name was Jiddu Krishnamurti and he was discovered at the age of fourteen living in impoverished conditions with his father in the grounds of the Theosophical headquarters in Adyar. Soon enough Annie adopted the young boy with the consent of his father, who no longer had the means to take care of him. Although lovingly cared for and well treated, from this moment on Jiddu was groomed for the role that he was expected to play. Much to the dissatisfaction of some Western members of the Society, Annie bent a considerable amount of Theosophical resources toward the World Teacher project (this would eventually cause a major split in the Society – but that is another story!), even going as far as to found the Order of the Star of the East, which was specifically devoted to clearing the way for the World Teacher’s emergence. At its peak the OSE was said to have had up to 43,000 members.
Jiddu as he grew up was indeed becoming many of things he was expected to be, he was an intensely charismatic, intelligent, and spiritual man, however he was not destined to follow the path that his adoptive mother and the Theosophical Society had set out for him. Finally, in 1929 Jiddu Krishnamurti made the following surprise announcement in the front of the now elderly Annie Besant and 3000 Theosophists and OSE members:
I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or to coerce people along any particular path.
— Jiddu Krishnamurti
And with that he dissolved the OSE and began to distance himself somewhat from his former Society. Jiddu went on to spend much of the rest of his life as an unaffiliated speaker promoting his post-theosophical message. Despite this, he and Annie always remained close, indeed she purchased and gave him 6 acres of land adjacent to the Theosophical estates in Adyar that would later become the headquarters for the Krishnamurti Foundation India.
Annie Besant flanked by Henry Olcott and Charles Leadbeater, in Adyar, 1905 (source)
Legacy of a leader
In the end, Annie Besant succumbed to illness at the age of 85, on the 20th of September 1933 in Madras. After she passed, her body was cremated in the traditional Hindu style. She had lived an extraordinary life and left behind an exceedingly complex legacy. The former Vicar’s wife had gone a very long way in her 85 years, and to this day remains a much loved figure in theosophical circles and indeed across much of India. It is hard to know exactly what to think this of this near-singular figure, but during her era at least, she was surely a woman like no other.
Annie Besant, depicted in her prime and as seen as part of the ‘Jallianwala: Repression and Retribution’ triptych by the Singh Twins, currently installed in our Living Worlds gallery.
Luke A. Williamson
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A lecture by Prof. Stephan Hoeller of the Gnostic Society on Annie Besant, given on the occasion of her 170th birthday in 2017 at Besant Lodge, Los Angeles.