Modern India owes a lot to Annie Besant
Theosophical Society of India's founder sought to create a new educational approach that honoured India's spiritual and cultural traditions.
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The Theosophists were one of the first and most influential spiritual groups to arise in the West that sought their inspiration from India.
The Theosophists began as a diverse association of Western spiritual seekers and teachers in the late 19th century. We must remember that this was the height of the colonial era and the missionary assault upon Asia. The Theosophists, contrary to the existing colonial mindset, sought out the wisdom of the East and developed their ideas based upon it.
The Theosophists honoured India as the spiritual homeland for humanity. They countered the mainstream view of India as a land of superstition and poverty with India as a land of great gurus, yogis and esoteric knowledge. They echoed Hindu and Buddhist teachings, including karma and reincarnation, Kundalini and the chakras, Himalayan masters, and the idea of global esoteric spiritual traditions going back for thousands of years.
The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 in New York by Russian Helena Petrova Blavatsky and spread throughout the world. When Vivekananda visited the West after 1893, it was often Theosophical followers who welcomed him.
While the Theosophists fell into the background over time, they created the basis of what later became the New Age movement in the West that claims millions of adherents today. While some have criticised the Theosophists for confusing occult and spiritual teachings, their role in promoting interest in these fields remains undeniable.
Annie Besant and Theosophy in India
The Theosophists had a strong influence in India that few are aware of. Madame Blavatsky became active in India after 1879. The Theosophical Society moved its main office to Chennai (Adyar) India in 1885 and brought many Indians into the movement.
Annie Besant, who followed Blavatsky, was the most prominent of the Western Theosophical leaders in India. She served as the head of the Theosophical Society from 1907 up to her death in in 1933. Of Irish origin, she was a visionary and social reformer, claimed clairvoyant powers, was a prolific author, charismatic speaker, and staunch proponent of women's rights.
Annie Besant was present at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 where Swami Vivekananda spoke, representing the Theosophical Society. She wrote about the event: "A striking figure, clad in yellow and orange, shining like the sun of India in the midst of the heavy atmosphere of Chicago, a lion head, piercing eyes, mobile lips, movements swift and abrupt - such was my first impression of Swami Vivekananda. All was subdued to the exquisite beauty of the spiritual message which he had brought, to the sublimity of that matchless truth of the East which is the heart and the life of India, the wondrous teaching of the Self. Enraptured, the huge multitude hung upon his words; not a syllable must be lost, not a cadence missed! "That man, a heathen!" said one, as he came out of the great hall, "and we send missionaries to his people! It would be more fitting that they should send missionaries to us!" Annie Besant became the most vocal and dynamic Western figure in India to support India, its culture and traditions. She was critical of the British effort, starting with Lord Macaulay, to anglicise Indian education and identity. She sought to create a new educational approach that honoured India's spiritual and cultural traditions, but modernised them as well.
Annie Besant joined India's National Congress in its early years. Along with Lokamanya Tilak, she launched the All-India Home Rule Movement in 1917 for which she was imprisoned by the British. After her release, she was honoured by the Independence movement and for a year became president of the National Congress. She continued active in the Indian Independence movement until her passing.
All Indian Independence leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi, were well acquainted with her. Jawaharlal Nehru joined the Independence movement, it is said, inspired by Annie Besant's imprisonment, and came into contact with her. Nehru when young, had a Western Theosophist tutor who guided him for a time.
In addition, Annie Besant was like a mother to the great meditation teacher J Krishnamurti, who always spoke highly of her. Krishnamurti was trained to be the world teacher by the Theosophical Society but broke away to create his own direct path to truth.
Other Western women had powerful impacts on India's spiritual and independence movements, including Sister Nivedita, who worked closely with Swami Vivekananda, and the Mother, Mira Alfassa of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Annie Besant was the most visible of these at a public level.
Any study of modern India should afford an important place to Annie Besant and the Theosophists, whether one embraces their views or not.
They help us remember that Westerners defending the traditions of the East is not something new, but has a long history and was an integral part of India's own Independence movement - with Western women having prominent roles in the process.