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Annie Besant biography

Annie Besant

(1847-1933)

biography

Annie Besant was born as Annie Wood in London on 1 October 1847.While her mother Emily was full Irish, her father William Page Wood was half English half Irish. Annie was proud of her Irish parentage and always called herself an Irishwoman and had certain pronounced Irish traits in her character. Her father was a doctor,
but he died when Annie was five years old, leaving his wife Emily to bring up her two children, Henry and Annie. Emily moved to Harrow and ran a boarding house for some Harrow boys. So in her childhood Annie had lot of boys for company and was “as good a cricketer and climber as any of them”. But soon, one Miss Marryat took responsibility for Annie’s education with the permission of her mother. She was taught Latin grammar, French and German, which she perfected during her seven months stay in Paris and on the Rhine respectively. She read widely and cultivated a love for knowledge, which lasted her life time. In 1863 Annie completed her education with Marryat and returned to Harrow. “Here she devoted to archery and croquet, and danced to her heart’s content with junior masters, who could talk as Well as flirt. Never had a girl a happier home life”.
Annie Besant
At the age of twenty, Annie Wood married Rev. Frank Besant, a Cambridge man, who was a clergyman in a small church in a suburb of London. They had two children, son Digby and daughter Mabel. Mrs. Besant found that “the position of a clergyman’s wife was only second to that of a nun”. The couple separated and her struggle in life began. She could not get custody of her two children because of her views and a small annuity was sufficient for ‘respectable starvation’. But she was a free person now, not tied down to the dogmas, rituals and myths of orthodox Christianity, which her rational mind discarded. She became an atheist and wrote a tract, My Path to Atheism. She was now twenty six and in search of a job, when she met Charles Bradley, a Labour MP who liked her views and offered her a small weekly salary and a place on the staff of the National Reformer, which was the official mouthpiece of the National Secular Society of England. She became a co-editor of the journal and thus began a journalist career which lasted till the end of her life. This was in 1874. Along with writing for the National Reformer, she indulged in prolific literary activity, writing books and pamphlets in abundance during the period 1878 to 1886. Some of them are Freethinker’s text Book; History of the French Revolution; Sins of the Church England; a popular treatise on Light, Heat and Sound. Besides, there were innumerable tracts on all sorts of subjects. She also started to work for social reform in many directions including the labour unions. During this period she was busy holding public debates on religion and politics and travelling all round the country lecturing. She became one of the best orators in England, a fact conceded even by her enemies. From 1885, she became closely associated with the Fabian Society and came in Contact with such famous people like Sydney Webb, G.B. Shaw and later, Ramsay MacDonald. The same year, she organised the strike of ‘match girls’ and won the fight for them.
Then turning point in her life came while she was reviewing Madame Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine, for Review Reviews. “The moment she read the book, it was as if a long lost synthesis of truth suddenly flashed out in her mind. She asked for an interview with the author, and from that first sight of Madame Blavatsky, Annie Besant’s whole life was changed”. She joined the Theosophical Society, which was founded by Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott in 1875 in New York and became the most devoted and brilliant disciple of Blavatsky. Blavatsky died in 1891, passing over leadership of the society to Annie Besant, who became the president of the society in 1907, an office she held till her death. Annie Besant represented theosophy at the Parliament of Religions in 1893 in Chicago, where she met Swami Vivekananda “in one of the rooms set apart for the use of the delegates, and was highly impressed by the personality and speech delivered by the Swami”. From America, she came straight to India, landing here on 16 November 1893, and making it her permanent home. In India, she did not confine her work to the Theosophical Society, the headquarters of which were established at Adyar near Madras. Soon, she started to work for the social, religious and cultural reforms in her adopted country. She started living like an Indian wearing a sari instead of a skirt', sitting cross-legged for hours and eating with her hands.
The main thrust of her activities, during this period, was in .the educational field. She came to Banaras (Varanasi) in 1895 and lived there till 1907. She learnt Sanskrit to understand the Hindu scriptures and soon translated the Bhagvad Gita with the help of Dr. Bhagwan Das. A branch of the Theosophical Society was opened in Varanasi. But her greatest contribution towards the city was the establishment of Central Hindu College in 1898. The principal object of the college was “to combine moral and religious training in accordance with the Hindu shastras with secular education”. The college started in a rented small building but soon moved to its new campus in Kamachha, gifted by the Maharaja of Banaras.. The institution became a model for other schools and colleges in the country, The Central Hindu College ‘later formed the nucleus for the Banaras Hindu University (1916).
There were several other activities that she was involved in for the cause of education, even after she had settled in Adyar near Madras. In 1915, she established the National College at Madanpalle in the Madras Presidency on the lines of the one started by the nationalists in Calcutta in 1906. In 1917, she started the ‘Society for the Promotion of National Education’. In 1918, the National University was established by her at Adyar. The chancellor of the University was Rabindranath Tagore and vice-chancellor S. Subramanian Iyer. Dr. G.S. Arundale was the principal'. She also established several schools for boys and girls. In 1917, she started the Women’s Indian Association, which later was transformed into the All India Women’s Conference. In 1918, she organized the Indian Boy Scouts Movement where the boys wore Indian turbans and sang Indian songs, while in other ways obeyed the Scout’s laws. There was no constructive work done during the forty years of her active service in India of which, if not the originator, she was not one of the most powerfulsupporters.
Besant perhaps will be remembered most for her political work in India. She entered the political arena in 1913. She founded a weekly newspaper, The Commonweal in January 1914 and a few months later she purchased the Madras Standard, a daily paper, and changed the name toNew India. Through these two papers, which soon gained popularity, she conveyed her political views and the aspirations of the Indian people. She declared, “I am an Indian tom-tom, waking up all sleepers so that they may wake and work for their motherland”. With that aim, she launchedHome Rule League at Madras in September 1916. Tilak, who had already formed his own Home Rule League in April of the same year, did not agree to Annie Besant’s proposal for a merger of the two Leagues. However, both worked in tandem. Through her Home Rule League she preached Swaraj for India by which she meant ‘self-government within the Empire’. The Home Rule movement made a swift and strong impression on the country. Though her demand was modest enough, her advocacy was militant. Through her speeches and writings she created an awakening in the country. Swaraj was now in the air. Gandhi in a speech at the Gujarat Political Conference in November 1917 said, “The air is thick with cries of Swaraj. It is due to Mrs. Besant that Swaraj is on the lips of hundreds of thousands of men and women. What was unknown to most men and Women only two years ago, has by her consummate tact and her indefatigable efforts, become common property for them. There cannot be the slightest doubt that her name will take the first rank in history among those who inspired us with the hope that Swaraj was attainable at no distant date.” The government wanted to crush her movement; asked her to abandon the campaign or leave the country. She did not agree to either of the options. In order to stifle her propaganda the government first forfeited the securities of her two papers and demanded additional deposit. She complied. As a last resort they interned her on June 1917 along with her two colleagues, B.P. Wadia and G.S. Arundale at Ooty. Protest meetings for her release were held throughout the country and in England. She was released after three months. The imprisonment added to her fame, as it often does. She was made president of the 1917 Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress. Whileconcluding her stirring presidential address she said:
     “To see India free, to see her hold her head high among other nations,’ to see her sons and daughters respected everywhere, to see her Worthy of her mighty past, engaged in building a yet mightier future - is not this worth working for, worth suffering for, worth living and worth dying for? Is there any other land which evokes such love for spirituality, such admiration for her literature, such homage for her valour, as this glorious mother of nations, from whose womb went forth the races thatnow, in Europe and America, are leading the world. Has any land suffered as our India has suffered and having suffered, and having survived all changes, unbroken India, who has been verily the crucified among nations, now stands on this her resurrecting morning, the immortal, the glorious, the ever-young, and India shall soon be seen, proud and self-reliant, strong and free, the radiant splendour of Asia, as the light and blessing of the world.”
Then came Gandhi on the political horizon of the country. He promised, Swaraj in one year, and started the Non-Cooperation Movement asking lawyers to boycott the courts, students to walk out of schools and colleges, government servants to resign from their jobs and everyone to burn foreign made clothes. The reason for starting the Non-Cooperation Movement was ill-treatment to the Khalifa of the Muslims of Turkey by the British and atrocities committed by the government in Punjab. The saner elements in the country including Tagore, Bipin Chandra Pal, Madan Mohan Malaviya, MA. Jinnah, and Annie Besant were horrified. Besant warned the nation that what Gandhi was preaching would lead the nation to lawlessness and anarchy. She went around the country preaching against the Non-Cooperation Movement and was hooted down at almost every place where she spoke, including Bombay and Allahabad. “With saintly cunning, Gandhi had seen to it that the old lady was insulted. Gandhi could not bring Swaraj in one year and the Non-Cooperation Movement fizzled out by 1922.
 Though Besant became unpopular and lost her position as a leader, she still went on with her work for India. She organized the ‘National Convention’ with an aim to draft a bill. She succeeded when in ‘1925 the ‘Commonwealth of India Bill’ was drafted. She took it to England and got it accepted by the British labour party and one of its members presented it to Parliament but it could not be enacted. Her political career had come to an end. She was already in her eightieth year.
         The remaining years of her life were spent in Adyar involved in the work of the Theosophical Society. But her health was deteriorating slowly. She passed away peacefully on 21 September 1933.Annie Besant was a prolific writer. It will be impossible to enumerateall the books, pamphlets and tracts which she wrote.



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