BESANT Anne (Annie)—theosopher and political-social activist, b. October 1, 1847 in London, d. November 20, 1933 in Adyar (India).
In 1867 she married an Anglican pastor, F. Besant. The marriage was a failure and ended in divorce after six years. She was forced to work for a living and began to work in an atheist journal called “National Reformer” published by C. Bradlaugh. From 1877 she performed the function of his substitute and published articles promoting Malthusian and atheistic ideas. In 1833 she joined the socialist movement. She joined the Fabian Society which had started in 1884, a socialist group that primarily served as a focal point for British intelligentsia. G. B. Shaw was one of the founders of the organization.
In 1888, Annie Besant was greatly moved after reading H. Blavatsky’s book The Secret Doctrine (Wiedza tajemna [Secret knowledge]). She repudiated her atheistic world-view and in 1889 joined the Esoteric Section of the Theosophic Society founded and directed by Blavatsky. From the beginning, Besant performed important organizational functions in the Society. After Blavatsky’s death (1891) she first become co-president, and from 1907 until her death she was president. Under her governance, the Society became the most influential organization of its type in the world and gained many adherents. Besant’s authority was greatly weakened when, inspired by the Anglican cleric C. Leadbeater, she began a search for the “World Teacher”. According to the teaching of the theosophists he would be the herald of a New Era that had already been revealed earlier to the world, and he dwelt in the bodies of Buddha and Jesus. According to the sayings of H. Blavatsky the time of his reappearance had come. In 1909 Besant began to proclaim that the new incarnation of Buddha Maitreya was Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895–1986). She adopted him and took him and his brother to England. She devoted the following years to preparing Krishnamurti to perform his role as “World Teacher”. In the end, however, Krishnamurti distanced himself from the role Besant had assigned to him; in 1929 he dissolved the Order of the Star of the East that had been specially convoked by Besant. The Order was going to name him messiah. He rejected the honors and titles offered to him and began to teach on his own. The next event that weakened Besant’s position was a conflict with the lawyer W. Q. Judge who directed the American division of the Theosophic Society. This led to a schism in the Society, and Judge’s followers left. Besant was also responsible for expelling Rudolph Steiner from the Society, and so without willing it she contributed to the rise of the Anthroposophical Society. In 1902 she had became a member of the freemasonic organization, the Grand Loge Symbolique Eccosaise Mixte de France with headquarters in Paris. After a certain time she became vice-president of the Supreme General Council of the Order, and then Grand Mistress of its British Federation. In her journeys to spread theosophy, Besant also visited Poland. In 1927 she traveled to Warsaw where she was a guest of the Polish Theosophic Society.
From 1893 Besant lived permanently in India. In connection with her functions she lived either near Benares or in the main center of theosophists in Adyar in the suburbs of Madras. In 1898 she founded the Central Hindu School in Benares, a college with the chief aim of brining the cultures of east and west closer. In 1915 it was changed to Hindu University. She also founded the first Indian school for women. Besant was deeply involved in struggle for India’s autonomy. In 1916 at her initiative the Indian Home Rule League was established. This organization was intended to build a national awareness among Indians and to remind the British of the rights due to the inhabitants of India.
Besant’s most important works: Seven Principles of Man and Karma (Lo 1892); The Ancient Wisdom (Lo 1897); Dharma (Lo 1899, Wwa 1937); Esoteric Christianity (Lo 1901); Karma (Lo 1901, Wwa 1936); Thought Power (Lo 1901; Potęga myśli [Power of thought], Wwa 1932); Introduction to Yoga (Benares City, 1908); The Spiritual Life (Lo 1912) and with C. Leadbeater: Occult Chemistry (1909, Adyar 19513) and Man: Whence, How and Whither (Adyar 1913). She was also the author of many brochures and booklets on social topics, but unlike her works on theosophy they are not of interest today.
Annie Besant primarily concentrated on developing and popularizing H. Blavatsky’s principles of theosophy. She took her main views from him, especially the idea that theosophy is the highest divine knowledge (i.e., the same knowledge that the gods possess about things).
She emphasized God’s immanence in the world and connected this view with pantheism. She thought that the main achievement of theosophy was to show the truth that all exists in God. The view that God and the world are identical forced her to reject the theory that the world owes its existence to a divine act of creation. She said rather than the world emerges cyclically and passes “from a subjective to an objective state”. She emphasized at the same time that the world known by the senses is only an illusion, a reflection of a spiritual reality. Only the spiritual world truly exists.
Besant’s connection of theosophy with the Gnostic interpretation of Christianity is regarded as her greatest achievement. In her views concerning the person of Jesus she presented Him as one of the “mahatmas”—the teachers of mankind. She emphasized that He did not proclaim any new truths—His teaching was a continuation of the views of his predecessors such as Buddha. According to Besant, Jesus belonged to the Essenes who were devoted to occult practices. Jesus developed His skills in this field during his time in Egypt. In Egypt He became familiar with the secret knowledge of the Egyptian occultists. After achieving the necessary initiation He became Master of the White Lodge, an elite group of chosen individuals who watched over the fate of the world. A divine spiritual source that is called Christ was incarnated in His body. This power guided Jesus’ body and by his mediation performed miracles and taught. For fifty years after his death Jesus appeared in his spiritual body and taught occultism to selected disciples. The result of this doctrine was the rise of so-called esoteric Christianity. It is not mentioned in the official Gospels since it was based only on oral transmission and revealed only to a small group of the most perfect. Besant’s views on the life and work of Jesus met with serious criticism as soon as they were published. Contemporary research on this problematic have shown that the revelations proclaimed by Besant were the result of an over-interpretation of facts that originate from sources that cannot be regarded as credible in our present state of knowledge.
A. H. Nethercot, The First Five Lives of Annie Besant, Ch 1960; P. Siwek, Wieczory paryskie [Parisian evenings], Pz 1960, 391–431; J. N. Farguhar, Modern Religious Movements in India, ND 1977, 267–291; J. Kryg, Mistrz wewnętrznej premiany [Master of inner change], in: J. Krishnamurti, Rozmowa z samym sobie [Conversations with oneself], Pz 1996, 163–166; L. Górnicki, Prawo przyczyny i skutku. Przypisy do “Karmy” Annie B. [The law of cause and effect. Notes on Annie Besant’s “Karma”], in: Annie Besant, Karma. Śmierć i co potem? [Karma. Death and what after?] Wr 1999, 109–144.
Robert T. Ptaszek