Iron Lady From Ireland
There is a saying, “When god blesses you financially, don’t raise your standard of living. Instead, raise your standard of giving.”
We know of people who visit orphanages and old age homes to donate clothes and distribute sweets on special occasions. That is a good gesture, but after that we get back to our daily whirlpool lives. We sometimes become so selfish that we do not have the time to think about those who are less fortunate than us. We expect others to do things for us, but refuse to share what we have.
A contrast to that was this woman, who gave up her country, pursued her beliefs, came to India and worked for society. She gave her time, and energy and worked hard to uplift the youth. The model woman I’m referring to is the lady from Ireland, Dr Annie Besant.
Her 168th birth anniversary was observed by theosophists all over the world on October 1.
She was born in 1847 in London to William Wood and Emily Morris. Her father died when she was hardly five years old, leaving the family helpless. But her mother ensured that Annie got a good education. They moved to Harrow, where a wealthy Lady Marriot took an instant liking to the smart and charming Annie. She took care of Annie’s education, which laid an intellectual foundation for Annie.
Her marriage to evangelist Reverend Frank Besant was not cordial as her views on religion and society vastly differed from those of her conservative husband and his family. They separated and Annie completely involved herself in social work, creating awareness on rational thoughts that taught to not succumb to religious dogma.
Annie joined the Fabian Society formed by Frank Podmore with the objective of promoting greater equality of power, wealth and opportunity, the value of collective action and public service and to work towards an accountable, tolerant and active democracy. The society attracted intellectuals like George Bernard Shaw, H G Wells, Graham Wallas, Charles Marson, Hubert Bland and Virginia Woolf. Bertrand Russell was also briefly a member.
Annie involved herself in helping the poor and prisoners by rendering legal aid. She started a paper, The Link, to reach out to the downtrodden section of society.
Annie Besant was deeply hurt by the sight of the suffering of the poor. Her early life was full of trials and tribulations, which made her ruminate deeply on the purpose of life, differences among people and why people suffered if god was as kind as all religions preached.
Irrespective of religion, ethnicity and creed, there should be a confluence of all humanity where each one helps the other attain a happy and healthy life.
Annie Besant was fortunate to meet the then head of the Theosophical Society, Madam Blavatsky, and read her book The Secret Doctrine and became an active theosophist.
Annie Besant participated in the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, where Swami Vivekananda made his famous speech addressing the participants as brothers and sisters. The same year, she came to India and made Adyar in Chennai the India headquarters of the Theosophical Society. She travelled the length and breadth of India sharing the message of unity, brotherhood and oneness of mankind.
The role of education in the development of the youth as responsible citizens was one of her vital messages.
In 1898 she founded the Central Hindu College and in 1913 established the Benaras Hindu University.
Annie Besant assumed charge as head of the Theosophical Society in 1907. She wanted India to get Independence and published a collection of her speeches in Wake up India. She compiled the incidents in India’s struggle for Independence from 1885 to 1914, which inspired many leaders and the youth to dedicate themselves to the cause of Independence. She wanted every Indian citizen in body, mind and spirit to feel united.
The plight of women in society deeply affected her and she believed that women should become a part of society by obtaining education and by involving themselves in the country’s progressive activities. With this aim, she started the Indian Women’s Association and with assistance from Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, the first woman legislator in India, she fought for women’s emancipation and educational rights.
In 1914 Annie started the Young Men’s Indian Association (YMIA) primarily to enthuse the youth to develop physical strength and mental calibre. This became the centre for physical activity and provided a forum for healthy discussions on various issues, along with being a centre for art and culture. YMIA celebrates its centenary this year and continues to live up to the high ideals cherished by Annie.
Her contribution to the Independence movement is immense. In 1917 she was imprisoned by the British government. She was elected president of the Indian National Congress in 1918 — a unique distinction for a foreign woman.
Annie started the Indian Scout Movement. Discipline, good conduct, cleanliness, humility and service — the cardinal principles of scouts — were spread among the students. Annie served as the movement’s India head. Recognising her services, Baden Powell, the founder and the international head of The Scout Association, came to India in 1922 to give her The Order of The Silver Wolf.
‘There is no religion higher than truth’ is the basic philosophy of theosophists. The Adyar centre of the Theosophical Society has a place for all religions. The 250-acre campus along the Adyar river is home to rare birds — even migratory birds from far countries. Saplings from various countries have been planted at the centre, to symbolise that entire human race is one.