Annie Besant in India

Compiled by C.V. Agarwal and Pedro Oliveira
N.p.: Olive Tree, 2021. 590 pp., paper, $35.

Annie Wood Besant’s life would be worth chronicling even if she had never discovered Theosophy. Chafing under the restrictions on a conservative English minister’s wife, the young Besant set out on her own, becoming a writer on radical causes, a famed and controversial orator for Britain’s National Secular Society, and an advocate for legal birth control. This final stance nearly ended with her incarceration, as she was tried for obscenity for assisting in the publication of a text on the subject, and was only released on a technicality.

Only emboldened by the experience, Besant threw herself into the labor movement, organizing the so-called “matchgirls’ strike” over work and health conditions at a major London match manufacturer. In 1888, Besant was elected to the citywide London School Board, topping the candidate list, even though few women had the vote in England at that time.

One year later, Besant was asked to review The Secret Doctrine for a London newspaper, and her fascinating life was transformed yet again.

In Annie Besant in India, C.V. Agarwal and Pedro Oliveira examine in detail Besant’s life following her first exposure to Theosophy and the meeting with H.P. Blavatsky that came shortly thereafter. Besant joined the Theosophical Society just three weeks after meeting Blavatsky, and within three years was representing the TS at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago.

The last four decades of Besant’s life were devoted to the twin causes of Theosophy and India. In addition to assuming the presidency of the TS in 1907, Besant became a vocal advocate of Indian home rule, spending time in internment for her stance. She served as president of the Indian National Congress, and was a valued associate of Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. She founded the Central Hindu College, which became the heart of Banaras Hindu University, a major institution that exists to this day. And, of course, she mentored Jiddu Krishnamurti.

An exploration of Besant’s India period is overdue, but Annie Besant in India is only partially successful. It is telling that Agarwal and Oliveira say they “compiled” the text rather than wrote or edited it, since it consists primarily of lengthy excerpts from other sources: Besant’s own speeches and journals, the recollections of other Theosophists, newspaper coverage, and testimonials about Besant.

These texts are well worth collecting, and Agarwal and Oliveira have provided a great service. The book is essentially a compendium of research on Besant, which will be of great use to scholars and students. However, while there is some original text to tie these pieces together, there are too few of them, and they rarely dig into the details. There is a great deal of material documenting the split between Adyar and the supporters of William Q. Judge, for instance, but Agarwal and Oliveira do little to explain it beyond the document dump. The controversy over C.W. Leadbeater is barely explored.

Even so, Agarwal and Oliveira have accomplished something of great importance with Annie Besant in India. Besant’s life was exceptional and varied, and hard to encapsulate. (A two-volume biography from the 1960s went so far as to break her eighty-five years on this earth into nine “lives.”) It has been a generation since the last significant Besant biography. Annie Besant in India will be invaluable to whoever writes the next one.

Peter Orvetti

Peter Orvetti is a political writer and editor residing in Washington, D.C.