Mrs Annie Besant, a theosophist and educationist, who came to India as a friend, lived her life with courage, searching for an all-embracing truth.
Born as Annie Wood in Clapham, London, her childhood was not a happy one as her father died when she was five. Mrs Wood was unable to care for Annie, so she persuaded a friend, Ellen Marryat, to take responsibility for her upbringing.
Ellen Marryat, a strict Calvinist, became her guardian. She saw to it that Annie'seducation was not too narrow and included travel in Europe. In 1866, Annie married the Rev. Frank Besant, a young clergyman. However, Annie was deeply unhappy because her independent spirit clashed with the traditional views of her husband. Annie also began to question his religious beliefs. And this led to her legal separation from her husband in 1873. The courts awarded their two children to the father because of Besant'spresumably unconventional views.
After leaving her husband, Mrs Annie Besant completely rejected Christianity and in 1874 she became a member of the National Secular Society, which preached ?free thought?. She also joined the Fabian Society, the noted socialist organisation whose members included George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The Fabian Society in turn led to the establishment of the Labour Party.
In the 1870s, Mrs Besant edited the weekly National Reformer, which advocated progressive ideas like establishment of trade unions, national education, women'sright to vote, and birth control. During the next few years, she wrote many articles on vibrant issues such as marriage and women'srights. She was even convicted for publishing a pamphlet on birth control but was later acquitted, however.
After the court-case, Mrs Besant wrote and published her own book advocating birth control and titled The Laws of Population. The idea of a woman advocating birth control received wide-spread publicity.
Social and political reforms were not sufficient to gratify Besant'shunger for some all-encompassing truths to replace the religion of her youth. In the 1890s, Mrs Annie Besant became a supporter of theosophy, a religious movement founded by Madame Blavatsky, as a way of knowing God. As a member and later leader of the Theosophical Society, Mrs Besant helped to spread theosophical beliefs around the world, notably in India. She made India her home from November 1893. Her long-time interest in education resulted in the founding of the Central Hindu College at Benares in 1898. Here, in India, she got involved in Indian nationalism and became a staunch supporter of the Indian freedom struggle. She declared, in 1918 in her paper New India: ?I love the Indian people as I love none other, and… my heart and my mind… have long been laid on the altar of the Motherland.?
In 1924, disillusionment within the Congress ranks incited an important section of the Moderates to drift away from the British Raj and think in terms of greater militancy. Bal Gangadhar Tilak came out to patch things up. Mrs Annie Besant stood beside him at that crucial hour. Thus, with their efforts a reunion of the Congress factions was possible at Lucknow in 1916.
The two Home Rule Leagues were then started in 1915-1916?one under the leadership of Tilak at Poona and another under the presidentship of Mrs Besant at Chennai. It was aimed to obtain the freedom of the country and revive the country'sglorious cultural heritage. The two leagues progressed jointly and as a result many dissatisfied Moderate leaders joined them. Mrs Besant'sNew India became the organ of the Home Rule movement. However, it soon attracted the British government'sattention and Mrs Besant was arrested in 1917.
She became the first woman president of Indian National Congress in 1917 for one term and headed its meeting in Kolkata. ?Dr Besant?, said Mahatma Gandhi, ?has awakened India from her deep slumber.? He wrote in his autobiography, The Story Of My Experiments With Truth, ?Dr Besant'sbrilliant Home Rule agitation had certainly touched the peasants.? She later split with the Home Rule leader, Mahatma Gandhi.
An orator and writer with poetic temperament, Dr Besant was a veritable tornado of power and passion. By her eloquence, firmness of convictions and utter sincerity, she attracted some of the best minds of the country for the national cause. She was largely responsible for the upbringing of the world-renowned philosopher, her prot?g? J. Krishnamurti. She claimed him to be the new Messiah and incarnation of Buddha.
In the late 1920s, Mrs Besant travelled to England and the United States. She was later reunited with her own children. She passed through several phases of life?housewife, propagator of atheism, trade unionist, feminist leader, Fabian Socialist and strong supporter of Indian nationalism. Mrs Besant died in 1933 in India, where her ashes were scattered on the seashore.