October 1, 1847 to September 20, 1933
Though, born as a British and trained in the Western Socialist school of thought, like many other Western scholars, Annie Besant could realise the soul of Bharat. She said Hinduism is the soul of Bharat. Hinduism is the soil into which Bharat’s roots are struck and torn of that she will inevitably wither as a tree torn out of from its place
Prof. D.D. Pattanaik
Even if the nomenclature Hindutva gained currency only by 1923, its underlying imperatives had been ingrained phenomenally in the overall expression of the savants of renaissance in which Annie Besant occupies an august position. While to the critics of Hindutva lacked intellectual insights and narrative, perusal of Annie Besant dispelled this kind of unfounded criticism in view of her stature and learning.
Annie Besant (1847-1933) was London born in middle class Irish parentage – got educated in Cambridge, France and Germany. She was married to an evangelical Anglican vicar of St. Margarate Church and she herself also became its servitor. But after lapse of only six years Besant’s marital life waned due to her critical feeling on religious tenets where she was involved. She rather got swayed with “national secularism” and political activism in the Marxist tinged Social Democratic Party and trade unionism.
One Theosophical Society had been founded by English Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and Russian Lady Helena Petrovna Blavatsky at New York in 1875. It intended to buttress universal brotherhood as a means for achieving human prosperity. Literally theosophy connotes divine wisdom, which is of closest proximity to Vedanta; and as such the founders felt it essential to stretch its tentacle to India in 1879 assuming the terminology “Brahmo Vidya Samiti”, whose location was Adyar, Madras (Chennai).
Annie Besant again got transformed by the year 1890, while contacted with Blavatsky. She became such a devotee that she was asked to represent Theosophical Society in the Parliament of Religions in 1893. She accepted it, and in Chicago availed opportunity to confabulate with Swami Vivekananda. In fact, her lecture supplemented the cause of the latter. As a sequel, Vedanta found a boost in the Parliament of Religions.
Besant, at the age of 46, vowed to devote herself for the rest of her life in India leaving behind her young son and daughter at home. She became determined to accentuate Hindu spiritualism, its citadel Bharat, its society, culture and entailing dimensions. She sailed to Bharat right from America along with Colonel Olcott and moved all across the country to get herself acquainted with people & the land.
Devotion for Bharat
Bharatiya renaissance in 19th century is characterised with religio-reform movements; and Theosophical Society abundantly contributed to it being steered by Annie Besant. Her task was to restore among the Bharatiyas, a faith in Hinduism, a pride of its ancient cultural heritage and a desire to revive its glorious past.
Annie Besant founded different subordinate organisations in different places; namely Sons of India, Young Man’s Indian Association etc. She was bent upon eradicating social predilections which contradicted the ideals of Hinduism. In this move she founded one Brothers of Service in 1913. She advocated against untouchability establishing one Depressed Class Association. She challenged the western establishment pleading White man’s burden camouflaging as reformers of the native society. She scripted to the intent “Eastern Castes and Western Castes” in 1885. While defending different spectrums of Hindu society she rather advised the British to introspect their own ridiculous social fabric instead of raising finger against India. She argued and defended Hindu social manifestations and she was careful to extol the virtues of traditional Hinduism. In order to promote patriotic fervour Annie Besant authored books like ‘Ancient Ideals in Modern Life’, ‘New Civilisation, Shall India Die or Live’, How India Wrought her Freedom’, ‘Awake India’, etc.. The last one is a poem which gives clarion call thus: “O India! Awake! Arise”. With this agenda she started English daily ‘New India’ and a weekly ‘Commonweal’.
Besant plunged in establishment of educational institutions to spearhead social evolution. She founded a number of schools including Girls’ schools in South. Interestingly, she founded one Central Hindu School at Kashi in 1898, which was later elevated as a college, and when Kashi Hindu Vishvavidyalaya was established the Hindu College got merged with it.
By the time Annie Besant arrived in India the primary political forum was Indian National Congress, which had then been vertically split into Moderates and Nationalists. The former hastened to believe in the British sense of justice and fair play and whose approach to the colonial regime was mendicant. Besant was critical of “mushroom civilisation of the West” without and “hybrid and sterile ideals of anglicised Indians” within. She took exception to the notion that India was a nation in making; rather she upheld India as a “Perfect Nation” (the same being the title of her work). She was bent upon infusing self-respect and confidence among the Bharatiyas.
Hindu Identity of India
Annie Besant embedded basically to the perception of Hindu identity of Indian nationhood. Sum total of her works demonstrate that Hinduism and Bharat are inextricably interwoven and both these terms are interchangeable. To quote her, thus: “Hinduism is the soul of India. Without Hinduism there can be no India. Without Hinduism India has no future. Hinduism is the soil into which India’s roots are struck and torn of that she will inevitably wither as a tree torn out of from its place. Many are the races flourishing in India, but none of them stretches back into the far dawn of her past, nor are they necessary for her endurance as a nation. Every one might pass away as they came and would still remain. But let Hinduism vanish and what she is? A geographical expression of the past, a dim memory of a perished glory, her literature, her art, her monuments all have Hindudom written across them. And if Hindus do not maintain Hinduism, who shall save it? If India’s own children do not cling to her faith, who shall guard it? Hindus alone can save India, and India and Hinduism are one”. She continued, “…I do not mean Hinduism narrow, anglicized, dogmatic, I mean Ancient Hinduism enlightened, full of vigour and strength”. In similar strain Besant, in first Convocation of Kashi Hindu Vishvavidyalaya addressed, “Christianity came to India and might go away, Zoroastriansim reached India and leave……Similar is the case with Islam. But let Hinduism perish, India shall remain as a corpse”.
Annie Besant tangibly ventured to promote Hindu philosophy and literature. She accomplished two volumes of “Sanatana Dharma”, “An Elementary text book of Hindu Religion and ethics” and “Sanatana Dharma Catchism”. She also retranslated Bhagvat Geeta into English. Her another work was one analysis of Bhagvat Geeta and another question-answer model on Geeta meant for the students.
Annie Besant did not formally convert to Hinduism clarifying that she was a Hindu right since her previous birth and had accepted Bharat as motherland. She used to wear ‘rudrakhsa’ necklace over white gown and often ‘saree’ in Tamilian model. Once, Kanchi Shankaracharya was reluctant to share dais with her (may be for her white skin). Besant started her lecture reciting ‘Shiva Stuti’. Listening to her lecture Shankaracharya exclaimed: “You are exact incarnation of Mother Saraswati”.
Besant believed that a nation is not a lifeless instrument, she has her own ‘jivatma’. She held, “a nation is not constituted of popular opinion, but age-old collective wisdom and appreciation”. She repudiated materialistic nationalism and instead adhered to the sustenance of spiritual nationalism which gives the Indians an illustration of power & resource of a movement which is something essentially different from other conception of nationalism.
Annie Besant founded one Home Rule League in 1913 which spread its activities to so many places including the north. When Bal Gangadhar Tilak started a similar movement at Pune in 1916 both worked together. A collection of her writings and speeches during those days entitled “A Birth of New India” was published in 1917.
Annie Besant was interned in April 1917 because of her nationalistic movements and released four months later owing to adverse public opinion even in Britain. Tilak proposed that she be installed as the President of the Congress as a matter of befitting reply to the Government; and it was materialised in the Calcutta session of the Congress in December 1917. She expounded the glory of Mother India in her address.
With the advent of Gandhian era in 1920, Besant distanced herself owing to her own reservation and interpretation. It was basically due to her staunch opposition to the Khilafat Movement, which had nothing to do in Indian context. She did not appreciate compounding the extraterritorial Khilafat agitation along with the nationalistic non-cooperation movement.
However, her dissociation from the Gandhian movement did not mitigate Besant’s nationalistic stand; and she remained quite active in literary sphere during the rest of her life. It is evident that 11 volumes of her collected works were published five years later to her demise. It is customary for the pseudo-seculars to denounce the cultural nationalists as deficient of intellectual insight. When Annie Besant is placed before them the critics get marginalised in view of her stature and acumen besides her identity as a sophisticated western personage to reckon with to whom the Macaulayens-Nehruvians have high esteem.
One point is ironical that Annie Besant was made International President of Theosophical Society in 1907 which she held till end of her life in 1933 and at the same time she was a militant crusader for veritable Indian nationalism. It must be clarified that Indian nationalism is essentially humanistic and universalistic, and thus it did not affect her role in international flora.
It is noticed, further, ironical that she is in oblivion in the mind of the contemporary adherents of nationalism; and hence it needs urgent study on her which would keep the flame of Indian nationalistic fervour ablaze. She may be clubbed with the great savants of renaissance such as Dayananda, Bankim Chandra, Vivekananda, Aurobindo and Tilak. It is testified that she was revered by none less than Swami Vivekananda. In fact, she was not only one among them, but she spearheaded the cause of Hindu nationalism both conceptually and operationally. She expounded and spread the wide field of the ancient wisdom on one hand, and also exhorted the Hindus to place their ‘dharma’, cultural heritage and above all the nation at high pedestal. Finally Annie Besant remains a shining star in the galaxy of modern Hindu thought structure in proper scrutiny.
(The author is a Member of Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi)