The British social reformer and theosophist Annie Wood Besant (1847-1933) made important contributions to a number of reformist and religious causes. She was a leader among Europeans in reviving and disseminating Hindu religion and culture.
Annie Wood was born in London on Oct. 1, 1847, to a well-connected but declining family, mostly of Irish descent. Her 7-year marriage to Frank Besant, an Anglican vicar, by whom she had two children, ended in separation in 1873, when she declared herself an unbeliever. The next year Besant joined Charles Bradlaugh in his Secularist movement, preaching man's freedom from God and the devil and a future existence of beauty, wisdom, and love for a regenerated mankind. She became a vice president of Bradlaugh's Secular Society and wrote and edited much atheist journalism. With Bradlaugh, she was prosecuted for spreading birth-control information, and in consequence she lost the custody of her daughter and suffered much social persecution.
In 1885 Besant joined the Fabian Society, drawn in by the writer George Bernard Shaw soon after its founding. She was already known as a brilliant speaker, and she did effective work for the Fabians. Shaw described her as "a sort of expeditionary force, always to the front …, carrying away audiences for us…, founding branches …, and generally … taking on the fighting…." She was one of the seven contributors to Fabian Essays in Socialism (1889), which Shaw edited.
In 1888 Besant organized a successful strike of 700 girls at the Bryant and May match factory. This strike demonstrated that unskilled Labor could successfully combine, by industry rather than by craft, and it was in effect a test for the famous London dock strike of 1889.
Besant joined the Theosophical Society, headed by the colorful and controversial Madame Blavatsky, in 1889. This movement, partly resembling spiritualism, then much in vogue, had the serious purpose of elevating the materialistic, scientific spirit of the West through preaching the mysticism and spirituality of Hinduism and Buddhism. Besant found in theosophy the "hidden power" she had been seeking. She served as president of the Theosophical Society from 1907 until her death.
Besant lived at the society's headquarters in Adyar, India, and frequently lectured there and in London to large audiences. She learned Sanskrit and translated the Bhagavad Gita, and she founded a Hindu college in Benares. During World War I she became a champion of Indian home rule, and she was fifth and last British president of the Indian National Congress. In the terrible disorders in the Punjab in 1919 she supported the imperial policy of repression, thus alienating the natives, who turned for leadership to Mohandas Gandhi.
Besant toured the Western nations during the 1920s with a young Hindu, Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom she regarded as the new messiah. After a period of failing health, Mrs. Besant died at Adyar on Sept. 20, 1933.
Annie Besant: An Autobiography appeared in 1893. The standard biography is now the two-volume work by Arthur Hobart Nethercot, The First Five Lives of Annie Besant (1960) and The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant (1963). Another source is Esther Bright, Old Memories and Letters of Annie Besant (1936). Mrs. Besant's Fabian activity is described in Anne Fremantle, This Little Band of Prophets: The Story of the Gentle Fabians (1960). Her years with Bradlaugh and Blavatsky are covered in lively fashion in Warren S. Smith, The London Heretics, 1870-1914 (1967).
Besant, Annie Wood, Annie Besant: an autobiography, Madras, India: Theosophical Pub. House, 1983.
Dinnage, Rosemary, Annie Besant, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England; New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Penguin Books, 1986.
Muthanna, I. M., Mother Besant and Mahatma Gandhi, Vellore, N.A. Dt., Tamil Nadu: Thenpulam Publishers; Madras: Available at Paari Nilayam, 1986.
Raj Kumar, Annie Besant's rise to power in Indian politics, 1914-1917, New Delhi: Concept Pub. Co., 1981.
Taylor, Anne, Annie Besant: a biography, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Wessinger, Catherine Lowman, Annie Besant and progressive Messianism (1847-1933), Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1988.