Wednesday’s Wise Woman … Annie Besant
This is not an original piece … ‘What’s new?’ I hear you say. As I have been beaten by a recent BBC radio programme this week Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed the life of the prominent 19th-century social reformer Annie Besant who was born in 1847.
However, I did come across books by Annie Besant when cataloguing a small and rather old collection of religious books that had remained in our basement ‘uncatalogued’ for a bit too long. As a student of Buddhism and a Sanskrit scholar I was drawn by one called A study of Karma c1910. and decided then that I would research her at some point.
Annie Besant championed many so called lost causes and bought them to public attention including secularism, women’s rights, Socialism, Irish Home Rule, birth control and better conditions for workers. She wrote numerous articles and pamphlets and spoke publicly in support of workers who worked in shocking conditions. For example the female workers who went on strike with a successful result at the Bryant and May match factory in East London in 1888. She was a member of the Socialist League and the Fabian Society.Even though women at that time were not able to take part in parliamentary politics; she combined her socialist principles with feminism and stood for election for the London School Board she won the poll with a majority of 15000 votes.
In the early 1890 she broke away from her political links and became a follower of theosophy. A belief system founded by Madame Blavatsky in 1875; that brought together elements of Hinduism, Buddhism and other Eastern religions. Theosophy maintained the Hindu idea that karma and reincarnation with nirvana (freedom from suffering) and then enlightenment was the aim.
Annie Besant lived in India where she remained interested in the the rights of women and founded the Central Hindu College at Benares (Varanasi) in 1898. Here she studied and graduated with degree in Sanskrit literature, English literature and Indian history.
Meanwhile she continued to write to British newspapers in support of the women’s suffrage movement. In 1911 was one of the main speakers at a suffrage rally in London.
While in India, Annie was an advocate Indian Home Rule. In 1916 established and became the president of the Indian Home Rule League.Later, in 1917 she became the president of the Indian National Congress, but later split with Gandhi; although she shared his commitment to action that was both militant and non-violent, they had other differences. Despite her previous left wing views she was not happy with their socialist leanings.
For many years until the end of her life, she campaigned for India’s independence at home and abroad. Wearing her own adaptation the Indian dress, she was striking presence on speakers’ platforms.
After her death in 1933, colleagues; including Aldous Huxley and Guido Ferrando, built Happy Valley School, now known as Besant Hill School in California in her honour.
For 19 years Annie traveled the world, tirelessly campaigning for the poor and underprivileged with humility and grace. Never reflecting the sadness and grief she had endured in her private life … a noteworthy wise woman.
Karma (from The light of Asia by Sir Edwin Arnold)
It knows not wrath nor pardon ; utter true
It measures mete, its faultless weighs ;
Times are nought, tomorrow it will judge
Or after many days.
By this slayer’s knife did stab himself ;
The unjust judge hath lost his own defender ;
The false tongue dooms its lie ; the creeping thief
And the spoiler rob, to render.
Such is the law which moves to righteousness,
Which none at can turn aside or stay;
The heart of it is love, the end of it
Is peace and consummation sweet. Obey!