“She loved India with a fervor and devotion all her own. Our country’s philosophy, our history or legends, our spiritual heritage, our achievements in the past, our sorrows in the present, our aspirations for the future were part and parcel of Mrs Annie Besant’s own life.” – Sri Prakasa in Indian Political Thought
A consideration of Annie Besant’s role in the cultural and spiritual renaissance of India – in a period from the dusk of the 19th century to the dawn of the 20th – must be appropriately examined in the context of the larger renaissance movement which began with the Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772 – 1833), founder of the Brahmo Sabha movement, in the early years of the 19th century. Affectionately deemed the “Herald of a New Age,” Ram Mohan was, no doubt, largely responsible for laying the groundwork for the revitalization of the Indian spirit which was to follow.
Upon his death, the Brahmo Sabha became moribund, and out of its eclipse emerged the movement that would become the Brahmo Samaj, considered from an historical perspective as a significant contribution to the making of modern India, and among the most influential religious movements to spring forth from Hindu soil. The purpose of this latter was, in short, the total renaissance of Hindu culture; this to be accomplished by the rejection of scripture as an authoritative source of spiritual truth; the denial of the infallibility of Avatars; a denunciation of polytheism and idol-worship; a breaking down of caste systems; and freedom of thought as regards the doctrines of Karma and Rebirth.
Also significant to the Hindu reformation movement was the establishment of the Arya Samaj in 1875. This samaj was opposed, in certain of its objectives, to those of the Brahmo Samaj; and yet its influence is significant to the later work of Annie Besant towards the revival of the Hindu religion and cultural identity. The Arya Samaj was founded by the sannyasi, Dayananda Saraswati (1824 – 1883), who advocated the infallible authority of the Vedas and denounced the idolatry and ritualistic worship so prevalent in Hindu society at that time. The significance of this movement in paving the way for the reclamation of the Hindu identity led Annie Besant to state that, “It was Dayanand Saraswati who first proclaimed that India was for the Indians.”
This movement is noteworthy in theosophical history for the fact of the 1878 alliance between the Arya Samaj and the Theosophical Society, this emerging out of Colonel Olcott’s (1832 – 1907) extensive correspondence with the President of the Bombay Branch of the former. Whilst short-lived, this alliance is evidence of the importance of Hindu reformation in the thought of the theosophical Founders; a perspective which would, in time, spur the activism of Annie Besant towards the accomplishment of a Hindu revival.
That period of the Indian renaissance which was to follow, was undeniably due, to some significant extent, to the selfless and unabating toil on the part of Annie Besant for the liberation of the spirit of the Indian nation from the chains of ignorance and spiritual recession; to kindle in the darkness of the chasm of despondency a bright flame of hope and brotherhood to illuminate the way for troubled souls whose path is shrouded by the shadows of oppression.
Much of the academic study which has been published on the life and work of Annie Besant has tended to emphasize her political and activist endeavors; whilst these are, no doubt, highly significant aspects of her spectacular and spirited life, equally worthy of acknowledgement are her great efforts towards the liberation of the spiritual essence of India in the revitalization of Hindu culture and the development of education.
Such was the impact of her multifarious work that distinguished persons of vastly varied backgrounds and temperament were unanimous in their praise and admiration for her industrious travail, her prodigious commitment, her unparalleled oratorical potency, her generosity towards the underprivileged, and her fairness in dealing with associates and adversaries alike.
Annie Besant’s life was a necessarily public one; indeed, she considered herself a humble servant and missionary of the Masters in the guiding of humanity along the evolutionary path. Her role was the carry out the outer work of the Inner Government of the World by the means of selfless service and in the practical promulgation of the ideals of Truth, Unity, Altruism, and Brotherhood. As she wrote at the close of her Autobiography:
“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.”
In many ways, her early years – prior to her involvement with the Theosophical Society – may be considered, from a historical standpoint, as a “training ground” for the work that was to follow. The rare qualities which would be necessarily endowed in the individual who was to follow in the noble footsteps of H.P. Blavatsky, were suitably imbued in Annie Besant from those days of her youth; both by the blessings of congenital inherence, further due to the endeavors and trials of earlier life.
Thus, did she possess all those qualities of bodily vitality, a brightness and intensity of intellect, an unequalled power of oratorical ability, moral integrity and courage, and, more significant than all the aforementioned, a sensitive and indomitable solicitude for the weak, the needy, the destitute, the subjugated, the oppressed, and the suffering. For over a decade prior to her momentous meeting with H. P. Blavatsky in 1889, she had been preparing the way for the theosophical work which would constitute the greater portion of her life; undergoing, as had been the case in Britain, the arduous training in public service (spurred, in significant part, by the ruin of her own private life), and in fearless defense for the rights of workers and woman alike.
After her move to India, she worked tirelessly for the religious, social, educational, and political reform which seemed to her and the vast population alike, to be imperative to the development of a new India, freed from the shackles of colonization. Central to her impact on the educational advancement and revitalization of the Indian nation was the founding of the Banaras Hindu University. This was initially intended to be a theosophical college, however later took shape along the lines of Hindu spirituality, as an institution dedicated the ideals of unity, rationality, and harmony between differing sects and subdivisions then existent in the Hindu community.
In line with her support of Indian self-rule, Annie Besant advocated for placing Indian education in the hands of Indians, and sought to inject a spirit of patriotism into the developing educational outlook of the nation. In the establishment of a Hindu university, she hoped to reunite education with the essence of religion, and further to bring it into affinity with the emerging fields of Western science and technology. Like Ram Mohan Roy, Annie Besant advocated for social reforms in Indian culture and spoke highly of the advantages of Western education in the elevation of the Indian people.
However, unlike the earlier reformer, she also supported the revival of traditional Hindu education, endorsing a full-rounded system of instruction which integrated the two spheres of thought. She emphasized that whilst Western education would be an enriching complement to traditional teachings, India must be cautious not to succumb to the pressuring grasp of Westernization, and that the Hindu people must, rather, return to the glory and greatness of their own Oriental past and culture for inspiration and encouragement.
This conception of a Hindu university followed in the wake of the establishment of a number of such religious institutions, challenging the heretofore strictly Western and secular education offered by the existing universities of that period. Among these was were the various colleges and schools which had been established by the Arya Samaj in the late nineteenth century, and the traditional gurukuls – consisting of shishya, or students, in a residential setting with a guru residing nearby – which epitomized the Samaj’s ideals of reformed Hindu culture.
There was also the Khalsa College in Amritsar, founded in 1892 by the leaders of the Singh Sabha movement, which would become a highly significant educational institution for adherents of Sikhism, and which aimed to revive Sikh religion by the means of formal religious instruction. The Muslim community was also actively attempting to establish a university, with a proposal to transition the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College into the Aligarh Muslim University. This proposal was, however, initially met with considerable opposition from the secular government at that time, which was not inclined towards acceptance of what they perceived to be faith-based and sectarian educational endeavors – whether Muslim or Hindu. The transformation would not be finalized until 1920, when the Aligarh Muslim University Act was enacted by the imperial legislation.
All these endeavors – Annie Besant’s Central Hindu College, the Arya Samaj colleges and schools, the Sikh Khalsa College, and the Aligarh Muslim University – could be rightly considered to be a part of that same movement of the Indian people towards an education which represented their cultural and traditional ideals and heritage. Annie Besant’s contribution to this educational movement corresponded with the general spirit of change and the rediscovery of identity which the nation was undergoing – spurred by the voices of the children of India, she channeled all the resources at her disposal towards the accomplishment of this high ideal.
At the time of her idea for the founding of a Hindu university, she was in contact with one Madan Mohan Malviya (1861 – 1946), an Indian educationalist and politician, renowned for his role in the Indian independence movement. Both fostered the idea of establishing a specifically Hindu university, and Annie Besant had already previously established her Central Hindu College in Varanasi in the year 1898, with plans for its expansion. A shortage of funds towards this end led Besant to join hands with Malviya and Kameshwar Singh (1860 – 1929), the Maharaja of Darbhanga, who were jointly responsible for financing much of the endeavor.
The latter two had originally formulated the idea of founding a university at a meeting in 1904, shortly after which a prospectus was published and circulated prominent educationalists and representatives from all corners of the Indian nation. They were met with overwhelming support for the scheme, gaining approval from the Congress of Hindu Religion under the presidentship of Jagadguru Sri Sankaracharya. This led to the final drafting of the prospectus, which was released to the public and press in 1906 to be met with instant approval and support.
It was around this time that Annie Besant was also laying the foundations for the potential establishment of a university in Varanasi under the proposed name of “The University of India.” In April of 1911, she met with Malviya to discuss their visions for such an educational enterprise, and decided to join hands in the founding of a common Hindu University in Varanasi. This shared vision was brought into actuality later that year, with a revised prospectus outlining the need for the university and its objectives being issued to the general public.
A condition set forward by the government necessitated that the Central Hindu College be absorbed by the Hindu University; Annie Besant, Dr. Bhagavan Das (1869 – 1958), and the fellow Trustees of the former agreed to its incorporation as the nucleus of the latter, and thus in November of 1915, the Central Hindu College was relinquished to the Hindu University Society, who were responsible for the campaign for the university’s establishment. Other theosophists from around the world traveled to India to assist with this, among them George Arundale (1878 – 1945) and Francesca Arundale (1847 – 1924).
The seeds having been sown, the university was formally established in Varanasi in the year 1916. It is today the largest residential university in Asia, with over 35,000 students. The success of the endeavor, and its continuing and significant influence and impact on the educational development of the Indian nation, places the founding of the Banaras Hindu University among the forefront of Annie Besant’s contributions to Indian society. Her role in its formation, too often overshadowed by the contributions of Madan Mohan Malviya and the other founders, was a decidedly central and vital one, the idea for which emerged out of her passionate service towards the betterment and rejuvenation of India’s education system. Indeed, in the perspective of Annie Besant, it is education which lays at the bedrock of a harmonious and just society; the lack of which logically results in conditions of injustice, poverty, oppression, and inequality.
Her fervent advocation of educational reform led her to publish several pamphlets on the subject; among these were Education as a National Duty (Banaras, 1903), The Education of Indian Girls (Banaras, 1903), Principles of Education (Madras, 1915), Education for the New Era (London, 1919), Theosophical Education Report (Madras, 1917), and the Kamala Lectures: Indian Ideals in Education & Philosophy, Religion and Art (Calcutta, 1925). Further, she wrote a variety of books and pamphlets on the topics of sociology, physics, physiology, biology, and the status of women in society.
In it clear that Annie Besant’s philosophy of education was rooted firmly in the principles of Theosophy. Indeed, the ideals of unity and universal brotherhood run like a constant thread interwoven throughout the vast variety of her life’s activities and work, permeating every aspect of the endeavors she brought into fruition, both during her time in India and elsewhere around the world. She envisioned an all-rounded education for Indian children, wherein the elements of literary, scientific, artistic, and technical branches of study would be taught. Her aim was to provide children with the skills they would need to earn an honest living, by which the conditions of poverty and destitution may be gradually assuaged.
She advocated the development of individual faculties; this being the idea that children should receive an individualised education best suited to his or her particular background, needs, and objectives. The ideal was that in receiving such an all-rounded, individualised education, the child would thus be equipped with the capacities necessary to becoming a healthy and useful citizen in his or her community. As such, the objects of theosophical education as outlined by Annie Besant were to train the body, emotions, and the mind towards the expression and love of all that is beautiful, compassionate, just, and inspiring. She emphasised the importance of developing the child’s ability to sympathise with the happiness and suffering of others, and in so doing to foster a spirit of universal brotherhood and kinship with all of life. Further, she stressed the disciplining of the child’s mind in the discernment of right thinking, right judgment, and right action.
As regards the ethics advocated by Annie Besant and instilled as ideals in the formation of the Banaras Hindu University, she promoted, among other things, the pledge of boys and girls to delay early marriage. It is possible, as suggested by historical researcher Gail Reekie, that she was influenced in this regard by Thomas Robert Malthus (1766 – 1834), believing birth control methods within marriage to be the answer to the problem of over-population. However, it is likely that she discarded this perspective on birth control upon deepening her involvement in the Theosophical Society – birth control being against the philosophy set forward by Madame Blavatsky’s Master K. H.
In accordance with Annie Besant’s ethical perspectives on early marriage, the Central Hindu College was not open to married pupils. She advocated the Hindu ideal of Brahmacharya, or celibacy, insisting that such was necessary to the intellectual, physical, and emotional growth of students in their adolescent years. Further, religion and social work were considered as joint pillars of a proper education, and thus were such organisations as the “Sons and Daughters of India” and the “Scouts and Guards of Honour” formed, with the intention of training youths for selfless and practical social service.
It was her promotion of these ideals which culminated in the founding of the Banaras Hindu University, and further, in the formation of various theosophical and theosophically-inspired schools, among these the Vasanta College for Women in Rajghat (founded in 1913), the Besant Theosophical College in Andhra Pradesh (founded in 1915), the National High School in Basavanagudi (founded in 1917), the Annie Besant School in Allahabad (founded in 1926), and the Besant Memorial School in Chennai (founded in 1934).  In recognition of her efforts for the development of Indian education, the Banaras Hindu University granted her the Degree of Doctor of Letters in 1921.
The educational philosophy set forth by Annie Besant was rooted in a balance of secular and spiritual instruction. The Banaras Hindu University may be considered, in many ways, to be the epitome of her educational idealism. It represented all the principles and ideals of the theosophical conception of education, and yet far from being a fringe or alternate institute of learning on the wayside of society, succeeded in establishing itself as one of the most prestigious and renowned of India’s learning establishments.
Also significant to Annie Besant’s contributions to Indian culture and modern national history was the establishment of the Indian Boy Scouts Association, based out of Madras, in 1916. This emerged out of the aforementioned emphasis set forth by Annie Besant on the necessity of an all-rounded education – on intellectual, emotional, and physical levels alike. Organised along the lines of the international Scout Law, these Indian troops also incorporated aspects of their cultural background into their national expression of the movement, wearing Indian turbans and singing Indian songs at their meetings and events.
The Indian Boys Scouts Association was preceded by various efforts towards the founding of a Scouting movement in India, the first of these emerging out of the Bishop Cotton Boy’s School in Bangalore in 1909. Annie Besant’s involvement began in 1913, when a group of educationalists and representatives opened Scouting to Indian natives; it had previously been open only to British and foreign Scouts. Assisting her in this endeavor was fellow theosophist George Arundale, alongside Justice Vivian Bose (1891 – 1983), Madan Mohan Malaviya (1861 – 1946), Hridayanath Kunzru (1887 – 1978), and Girija Shankar Bajpai (1891 – 1954).
In 1916, Annie Besant sent a request to the founder of the international Boy Scouts movement, Lord Robert Baden-Powell (1857 – 1941), to formally recognize the Indian troops as a branch of the international movement. The request, however, was denied – on account of Baden-Powell deeming that Indians were unfit to be Scouts. This came as a surprise to Annie Besant, who was immediately up in arms, interpreting Baden-Powell’s declination as an affront on Indian race and the assumption of racial superiority on the part of the British.
Lord Baden-Powell experienced a change in perspective upon his visit to India in 1921, when a perusal of Annie Besant’s now 20,000 members and the incontestable success of the movement led him to recognize not only her Association, but further all the Scout organisations in the country, as part of the international Boy Scouts movement. As a result of her efforts, she was made the Honorary Scout Commissioner for India, and in 1932 Lord Baden-Powell conferred upon her the highest Scout distinction: the Badge of the Silver Wolf.
Her assiduous and dedicated work to the Indian cause resulted in her election to the presidency of the Indian National Congress in 1917. This was significant for a variety of reasons; among these for the fact of her being the first woman to ever assume such a position. B. Palammal writes:
“In 1917, seeing the services and sacrifices of Annie Besant, the Congress elected her as the president of the 32nd session of the Indian National Congress at Calcutta. Being the first woman president of the Congress, She enhanced the prestige of Indian womanhood. Her presidential address was widely applauded as the charter of national liberty. But Annie Besant already had contacts with the Congress in the year 1914 when she participated in the 29th congress held at Madras during 28 to 30 December.
She was the first lady to occupy a post on the platform of India’s National Assembly. As the president of the Indian National Congress, she got an opportunity in planning out a system of national education in India. It was a graded scheme suiting each type of unit to be educated. Regional universities were established with research facilities in the indigenous knowledge of ancient literature, science, art and crafts, village education was to be developed country wide.”
Equally significant to arriving at an understanding of her character and work, was Annie Besant’s influence from, and on, Hindu spirituality and religion; an influence which would permeate many aspects of her societal, cultural, educational, and political work both in India and elsewhere. It was, in many ways, this religious, philosophical, and intellectual aspect of her work which laid the foundations for such later initiatives as the Central Hindu College and Banaras Hindu University; these serving as the practical manifestations of her Hindu-inspired spiritual ideals.
Her work towards reform in the areas of Indian education, Hindu social customs and traditions, the place of Indian women in the new India, her ardent support of Indian self-rule and the Swadeshi movement, her attempts at alleviating the suffering of the depressed classes, and the development of the Scout Movement in India may all be considered as being rooted in a spiritual foundation. For Annie Besant, it was spirituality which formed the core of all altruistic service; this latter being the keynote of the theosophic life.
It is important, also, to remember that Annie Besant was largely responsible not only for the rekindling of Hindu spirituality within the continent of India, but further for influencing the awakening of interest in Hindu religion, thought, and culture in other corners of the world, at a time when the sons and daughters of India herself were becoming strangers to the essence of their own culture and thought. It was with the object of the reawakening of the Indian man and woman to the profundity and spiritual quintessence of their own theosophic teachings that she undertook the work of spurring the Indian renaissance from an ideal into actualization; only once this was achieved, in her mind, could India become the nucleus of a global shift in thought, in which materialism would give way to the revival of mysticism through the consolidation and uplifting of ancient Hindu ideals.
Her intensive study of Sanskrit and Hindu religious texts culminated in her translation of the Bhagavad Gita into simple, comprehensible English, alongside which she also published a variety of short booklets of Aryan legends and tales for children with the objective of the instilling spiritual ideals and principles at an early age. Also published were a number of booklets and pamphlets for general English-speaking readers. It was largely these efforts of Annie Besant, alongside those of Swami Vivekananda, which served to introduce the multifarious gems of India’s treasure chest of wisdom to the world of the West.
The influence of Annie Besant’s role in the cultural and spiritual renaissance of India is a continuing one; indeed, she was at the very forefront of the changing tides, the depths from which India would arise renewed and reborn, its people awakened to the dawning of a better day, illuminated by the radiant rays of hope. Her life was one of service and dedication to the ideal of Truth; she was, in every sense, a freethinker; a radical of her time; a world leader equipped with the steady sword of resolute sincerity and the infrangible shield of principle.
To the afflicted sons and daughters of India, she was a beacon of light amid the howling winds of oppression, a devoted Steward of the Flame of Truth. Into the bosom of India did she cast her warming light, to impart the breath of life unto the lifeless, and to instill the seed of hope in the broken hearts of the hopeless. Now passed beyond these finite realms, still yet in the depths of the spirit of India may be felt the sublime presence of Annie Besant – the Pearl of the Indian Renaissance.
~ By Luke Michael Ironside, from a paper published in the Friends of Theosophical Archives Newsletter in July, 2017