Towards the fag end of the 19th century, Annie Besant emerged as one of the leading figures of the Indian spiritual renaissance. The period was flooded with a search for new values and a rethinking of India’s cultural and religious orthodoxies. It was also a phase of a germinating social and cultural awakening. Raja Ram Mohan Roy who was regarded as the father of the modern Indian renaissance had already left a rich legacy of reformist churning in India.
Raja Ram Mohan who was often called as ‘Herald of a New Age’ was successful in generating a new current of reformation without denying the need for revitalizing India’s spiritual heritage. His concept of modern India was of a careful transaction between spirituality and modern enlightenment values. Roy had sufficiently brought out the need for retrospection of coercions of ancient scriptures, polytheism, casteism, the notion of Karma, and a vicious cycle of rebirth.
The works of Annie of Besant had larger proximity to Hindu cultural and religious movements. She was rather influenced by the works of Dayanand Saraswati who founded the Arya Samaj in 1875. Arya Samaj fundamentally came as a response to Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s sweeping appropriation of Western values, including Christianity. Annie Besant, despite her British origin, saw more sense in the legacy of Dayanand Saraswati.
She was in favor of reviving Hindu religious and cultural spirituality. Annie Besant’s Theosophical Society trod on the path of reclaiming Hindu identity as an alternative to Western cultural hegemony. While endorsing the views of Arya Samaj pioneers, Annie Besant was never hesitant to endorse that ‘India was for the Indians.’
Founding Ideas of Annie Besant
Annie Besant joined the Theosophical Society in 1889. Annie Besant was an embodiment of selfless service and practical commitment to Truth, Unity, Altruism, and Brotherhood. With her socialist orientation, she was an ardent supporter of freedom, reclaiming theosophical values and self-rule. Annie Besant was involved in the Fabian socialist movement. Towards 1890 she was attracted to the study of Indian society.
She was keen to promote school and college education in India. She played an active role in establishing the Central Hindu School (1898) and later got involved in founding the Hyderabad National Collegiate Board. Having been exposed to Fabian socialism, she believed in balancing self-rule, secularism, and reclaiming ancient spirituality.
She brought in democratic values to uplift the status of women in India. Despite her modern orientation, Annie Besant believed in the liberation of Indians from the shackles of ignorance which she termed as ‘spiritual recession’. She was keen to expose the oppressive elements of religious practices in India. Her association with the Theosophical Society focused on the spiritual revitalization of Hindus through education. Her association with cultural nationalists in India resulted in establishing closer proximity with Madan Mohan Malvia who along with her played a crucial in the foundation of Banaras Hindu University in 1915.
A citation from her Autobiography can explain the commitment she had towards the service of the human world. She writes, ‘I am but the servant of the Great Brotherhood, and those on whose heads, but for a moment, the touch of the Master has rested in blessing, can never again look upon the world save through eyes made luminous with the radiance of the Eternal Peace.
Annie Besant’s philosophy reflected a cosmopolitan view and indomitable solicitude for the destitute around the world – of the colonized, workers and women, etc. Her interest in the cultural and spiritual values of India did not deter her from taking serious note of India’s need for self-rule. Her role in the field of education was propelled by ideas of religious harmony in India which she thought Hinduism was capable of.
Annie Besant’s idea of the renaissance was to enable Indians to become the harbinger of patriotism and nationalistic aspiration. For her, the Indian renaissance was to be modeled on a harmonious intersection of spiritual values and Western science. Following the footprints of Brahmo Samaj, Annie Besant believed in the combination of two values – the West and the East. She was keen to give an upper hand to traditional knowledge as she feared the danger of being superseded by the dominant Western values and technologies.
She was keen to differentiate between Westernisation and modernization. She suspected Westernisation as supplementary to colonialism. Her focus was on the Hindu society as she advised them to reclaim ancient heritages. She was aware of the despotism of orientalism. Her idea of secularism was, therefore, not Western-centric. Present India’s constitutional interpretation of secularism with a deviation from the West is reflective of the model of secularism that was coming from the Arya Samajists and Annie Besant. The cultural resurgence of India was abundantly seen in the times when Annie Besant was deeply enmeshed in Indian affairs.
Significant Contributions of Annie Besant
The legacy of Annie Besant is unforgettable. Her conception of self-rule, culture and education was a unique contribution towards India’s resurgence which ultimately matured into a demand for freedom from colonialism. The Banaras Hindu University, today, has become Asia’s one of the largest residential universities. Her close association with Madan Mohan Malviya helped in expediating a reformist churning in India. Her commitment stood out in three different fields of Indian lives: cultural renaissance, educational reform, and self-rule. Some of her writings included Education as a National Duty (1903), The Education of Indian Girls (Banaras, 1903), Theosophical Education Report (Madras, 1917), etc.
The writings of Annie Besant were keen on mixing modern education and theosophy. According to her, education was to be an all-around process of developing children with a focus to train in literature, science, arts, and technological learning systems. She was a pioneer in the field of imparting skill education. Skill education was to ensure employment, self-reliance, and fight destitution in India. For her skill education was to ensure honest livelihood for the youths in India. As every child was a distinct individual, she was in support of knowing the individualized traits that would be prepared to constitute an ideal part of the whole – the community.
Everyone possessed distinct social background which in turn required specific training and development. Exemplifying her theosophical backdrop, education was to train the body and emotions of the individuals. It was to empower the human self to have a passion for beauty, truth, and a spirit of compassion. Education was a project to lead a wholesome character building of children to enable them to have the right thinking, decision-making, and conduct.
Annie Besant’s contribution was not limited to opening educational institutions. Her initiatives on education were accompanied by a critique of child marriage in India. She attempted to delay the early marriage of boys and girls in India. In this regard, the Central Hindu College did not admit married pupils. She was in support of the Brahmacharya system – abstaining from marriage and sexual relationships. She supported celibacy as it had the capacity to boost intellectual growth of selves. To instill such values, she founded organizations like ‘Sons and Daughters of India’ and ‘Scouts and Guards of Honour’.
She established the Indian Boy Scouts Association in 1916. In the same year, Annie Besant applied for the recognition of Indian Scouts as a part of the international scouts. The proposal was rejected because the Europeans considered Indians unfit. After her prolonged insistence, Annie Besant was made the Honorary Scout Commissioner for India and conferred with the highest Scout distinction – the Badge of the Silver Wolf.
Annie Besant’s commitment to the social orientation of youths stood significant throughout her involvement in Indian affairs. Her concerted efforts resulted in the establishment of the Banaras Hindu University, many theosophical schools. The Vedanta College for Women in Rajghat, 1913, the Besant Theosophical College in Andhra Pradesh, 1915, the Annie Besant School in Allahabad, 1926, and the Besant Memorial School in Chennai, 1934 were her crucial contributions. As a recognition of her efforts in the field of uplifting education in India, in 1921 the Banaras Hindu University granted her the Degree of Doctor of Letters.
The socio-religious perspective of Annie Besant was to balance secularism and theosophical values of India. The educational institutions established by her pursued the cause of spirituality and cultural values. As a result, she was able to establish a close association with Indian cultural activists. She worked in association with theosophists of the 20th century like Girija Shankar Bajpai, Madan Mohan Malaviya, and Hridayanath Kunzru.
Annie Besant’s works and life were not limited to social and religious affairs. Annie Besant became the first lady to hold the post of President of the Indian National Congress. In other words, she tactfully synergized Indian tradition and Western values. She was an ardent supporter of Home Rule by Indians themselves. Her idea of Home Rule served as a germinating point for India’s self-rule and political independence in 1947. Her Home Rule movement brought her in proximity with leading nationalists like Bal Gangadhar Tilak.
The formation of Swarajya Sabha in 1920 was a distinct influence of Annie Besant’s Home Rule movement. Though the movement aimed at attaining a dominion status for India under the British Indian Empire, it set the ground for poorna swaraj.
Her ideas of self-rule, encouraging scout movement, education for boys and girls, and socio-economic empowerment of the depressed classes were cemented through a consistent interest in the theosophical heritage of India. The works of Annie Besant made her parallelly significant to the works of Swami Vivekananda who introduced India’s Vedic values to the Western world. If Raja Ram Mohan Roy was to be titled as the Father of Modern India and Swami Vivekananda as the Patriot Saint of Modern India, Annie Besant unfailing was the Pearl of the Indian Renaissance.