Besant, Annie (1847–1933)
Prominent Theosophist and successor to Helena Petrovna
Blavatsky as the international leader of the Theosophical
movement. Besant was born Annie Wood in London, England,
October 1, 1847. She was raised by a widowed mother in a very
religious environment and in 1867 married Frank Besant, a
Church of England minister. However, when she became increasingly
skeptical of Christian teachings and refused to silence
her doubts, the marriage ended in separation (1873) and
divorce (1878). In 1874 she met atheist and freethinker
Charles Bradlaugh, leader of the National Secular Society, became
friends with him, joined the society, began to write for the
National Reformer, and was elected vice-president of the society
in 1875. Her first public lecture concerned the political rights
of women. In 1876 she and Bradlaugh formed a partnership,
the Freethought Publishing Company, and Besant became coeditor
of the National Reformer.
Pursuing her feminist agenda, Besant led in the publication
of Charles Knowlton’s The Fruits of Philosophy, an early text advocating
birth control. In 1877 she and Bradlaugh were arrested
on charges of publishing obscene literature, and in a sensational
trial, which became a forum for both to present their
opinions to the public, they were convicted of intending to corrupt
morals (the conviction was later overturned on a technicality).
The trial established Besant’s reputation as one of England’s
finest orators, an atheist, and advocate for women’s
In the 1880s she was drawn into the circle of George Bernard
Shaw’s associates. Besant became a socialist, which led to
her break with Bradlaugh, and in 1887 she resigned as coeditor
of the National Reformer. She joined Shaw’s Fabian Society.
Meanwhile, she championed the strike of the underpaid
matchgirls in 1888 and became the first woman to be accepted
at the University of London.
In 1888 she was given a copy of The Secret Doctrine for review.
The event proved life-changing. She found the answers that
had eluded her in Christianity and in freethought. She soon became
a close associate of Blavatsky, joined the editorial staff of
the Theosophical Society’s magazine, Lucifer, and turned her
oratorical skills to defend her new mentor and promote Theosophy.
In 1890 she made her first trip to the United States to
revive the society badly shaken by the scandal that followed
when Richard Hodgson of the American Society for Psychical
Research accused Blavatsky of fraud.
After Blavatsky’s death in 1891, Besant headed the Esoteric
Section, the group of Blavatsky’s personal occult students. In
1892 Besant published her first theosophical books, Karma and
The Seven Principles of Man. In 1893 she visited India for the
first time and made a triumphal American tour climaxing with
an appearance at the World’s Parliament of Religions. She settled
in India at the society’s headquarters at Adyar, Madras,
where she resided for the rest of her life. She had to head off
the challenge to her power from William Q. Judge, the third
co-founder of the society, who remained in America when Blavatsky
and Henry S. Olcott moved to India. Besant kept him
marginalized internationally, but her efforts cost the society
most of its American members. Succeeding to the presidency
of the society following Olcott’s death in 1907, she had to devote
considerable energies to rebuilding the American work.
In 1908 she became sponsor (with C. W. Leadbeater) of
Jiddu Krishnamurti as the vehicle of the world savior, and to
that end in 1909 organized the Order of the Star of the East.
The order flourished for 20 years, but was dissolved when Krishnamurti
abandoned it in 1929.
Besant became deeply involved in Indian life. In 1917 she
was elected to the Indian Nationalist Congress, one of the organizations
promoting Indian home rule. She also led in the
founding of many schools, including some of the first for Indian
Besant, who came to the society because of her acceptance
of its ideas and worldview, did not manifest or claim any outstanding
occult abilities. After Blavatsky’s death, Besant had no
close associates until she met Leadbeater, who claimed to possess
clairvoyant vision capable of seeing the occult worlds, and
they developed a close friendship and professional working relationship.
She co-authored several books based on his occult
experiences and generally promoted him in the society. Besant
paid dearly for this friendship, as Leadbeater was homosexual
and his attraction to young boys became a second major scandal
for the society.
Besant led the society until her death on September 21,
1933. She wrote several hundred books (many are transcripts
of her lectures) that cover the scope of theosophical philosophy.
She also explored Hinduism and gave the society its current
focus on Hindu thought, as opposed to the Buddhism that
had attracted many of the first generation leaders.
Besant, Annie. Annie Besant An Autobiography. London,
———. Autobiographical Sketches. London Freethought Publishing,
———. My Path to Atheism. London, 1877.
———. Why I became a Theosophist. London Theosphical
Publishing Society, 1891.
Besterman, Theodore. A Bibliography of Annie Besant. London
Theosophical Society in England, 1924.
Nethercot, A. H. The First Five Lives of Annie Besant. Chicago
University of Chicago Press, 1961.
———. The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant. Chicago University
of Chicago, 1963.
Taylor, Anne. Annie Besant A Biography. Oxford Oxford
University Press, 1992.

Previous articleBaal Shem Tov (1698–1760)
Next articleBeraud, Marthe