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In Our Time: Annie Besant

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 18:13, Thursday, 21 June 2012

Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed the life of the campaigner and writer Annie Besant. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PMcD

Annie Besant - In Our Time



Well, after that gallop through the life of Annie Besant there isn't much left to say. Although of course, in a way, there's everything left to say. Did she have close relationships with the men whom she, if not hero-worshipped, at least took for mentors throughout her life? All the contributors alluded to the close relationships she had with Bradlaugh and Voysey and one or two others, but none, as it were, went into the bedroom. So I won't either. Apart from anything else, I haven't a clue what happened and I don't think it matters very much, if at all, in terms of what she did.

Afterwards the consensus was that she did so many different things that it was difficult to focus on what had made her outstanding. Somehow her success got in the way of her fame. Had women been able to enter Parliament in the late nineteenth century, she would most certainly have swept in and swept through Parliament with her great gift for speech-making and the power of her passion for causes, and been a huge and cleansing force to be reckoned with on the radical side of almost any argument.

But theosophy stepped in. Madame Blavatsky, a woman who claimed she was Russian but was suspected of being an American, cast a spell over women in particular because theosophy made a place for them which they did not have in the other religions at the time and because, clearly, they were intrigued by it.

So off to India in a white silk sari and round the lecture route as she had been in her home country, and once again there were solid achievements - the school for boys at Benares, for instance - and the extraordinary achievement of becoming president of the Indian National Congress. I can't remember whether I mentioned in the programme that she was interned in India, bizarrely, for urging the Indians to rise up against the British while they were preoccupied with World War One.

Then out into London, which is still deconstructing from the great event of the Diamond Jubilee. The Mall is still closed to traffic, which is wonderful for the likes of us who enjoy wandering round the city. St James's Park is gradually being cleared of fleets of lavatories and piles of bins and all the infrastructure of the great day. Central London is full of yellow signs diverting traffic so often that you get to Westminster by way of Bethnal Green if you start off in Barnet. But somehow a cheerfulness prevails, except among those who are driving cars and really want to go a little more directly to Bethnal Green, to Barnet, or to Westminster.

I was in St James's Park the other day when the sun was beaming and it was as it always is - quite magical. I drifted across to Green Park, full of the green and white striped deckchairs and only about half a dozen unoccupied, as London's tourists and, one hopes, office workers taking a bit of time off bathed in the sun. And today, when it's Ladies' Day at Ascot and I'm off to see an opera in the country, it is - I have to dictate this stoically - raining cats and dogs or staircase rods and, it is predicted, there will be thunder and lightning. Hey-ho.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg


  • Comment number 1.

    A most interesting show on the life & times of the revered Annie Besant. To my knowledge, apart from leading a somewhat feminist political life, Annie Besant became one of the greatest women occultists of our time. Having left atheism to those that either believe or do not believe (subjectively) she went on to triumph and climb the lofty heights of the Mystic Path - to Adepthood. Having read such works as In The Outer Court, one can only admire and applaud the incredible self-mastery this woman achieved in this particular incarnation. May she be an inspiration to all spiritual aspirants on the narrow Path.
    Cher Chevalier
    Author of The Hidden Secrets of A Modern Seer

  • Comment number 2.

    From the programme we get the impression of Besant as a doer,rather than a thinker,joining different movements prevalent in Victorian times, evangelism,secularism,atheism,socialism,theosophy.She is presented as fanatical about the various causes she embracedwhether in education, birth control,workers rights,Home Rule,feminism.We find that her atheism was part of her religiosity;that she had a martyr-complex,following different charismatic leaders,usually male,from Bradlaugh to Blavatsky. From the crisis of faith of Victorian times she developed doubts about the existence of God and the truth of Christianity,thereafter she sought truth alone.

    She contradicted herself by accepting Theosophy,which is a mystical belief in a secret order,then repudiates birth control because it opposes reincarnation.Being largely Irish she fought for Home Rule and opposed the British Empire,also in India,going to prison for it there.I place her as a New Age rationalist.Her socialism always has a religious edge.She is largely not cited in histories of the period because there is an underlying evolution towards mysticism,and her behaviour is largely explained by her unhappy marriage,the loss of her children,the lack of women’s rights and opportunities for women to get on in society in that age.

    She mentors Krishnamurti to be World Leader of theosophy.He later declines the role of great prophet,becoming what she was not, an original thinker: ” Truth,being limitless…unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organised;nor should any organization be formed to lead or coerce people along a particular path…I do not want followers…The
    moment you follow someone you cease to follow Truth…I desire to free man from all cages,from all fears,and not to found religions,new sects,nor to establish new theories and new philosophy.”

  • Comment number 3.

    A truly interesting character because she's both such a distinct individual and highly revealing of the age. I knew a little before from Don Cupitt's great programme 'The Sea of Faith' back in the 80s, and via the Krishnamurti story mentioned here. The thing that surprised me was that so little time was given to Theosophy and apparently there is no IOT programme on that subject amazingly - a future production surely?

  • Comment number 4.

    As you spoke about Annie Besant in India, would it be possible to do a programme on Rabindranath Tagore. He was an extraordinary man. As a Brahman, he "desecreted himself" by dealing with the pariahs and opened schools for underprivileged children. he too knew Gandhi and took some part in his movement. The Tagore songs - sangeet - are still listened too. he gained the Nobel Prize for literature for Gitanjali. I recommend it to you. Best regards, Michael


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