Annie Besant as Instructor and Educator

John Algeo

Learning is of two types, which we might call exoteric and esoteric. Exoteric learning puts facts into the minds of students and develops their skill in using those facts; it preserves and expands the traditions of a culture. Esoteric learning elicits from students an interior wisdom that they did not know they possessed; it attunes their outer minds to inner archetypal truths. Both sorts of learning are good and necessary.

One of my university mentors taught a course that was an introduction to advanced work for new postgraduate students who were studying to become college teachers,. He told us: ‘You are the last of the Romans. The city of Rome is surrounded by invading barbarian hordes. You have only two options: you can let the barbarians overrun the city and destroy it, or you can make Romans out of the barbarians. I am here to tell you how to transform the barbarians into Romans.’ He was, of course, speaking metaphorically. By ‘Rome’ he meant Western culture and by ‘Romans’, those whose had inherited that culture and valued it; by ‘barbarians’ he meant the new generation of young people who had not yet fully absorbed the culture.

Exoteric instruction is about making Romans out of barbarians. To be sure, instead of ‘Rome’ we can also use some other metaphor for any of the great world cultures: Indic, Sinitic, or whatever. All of the great world cultures are important; each has something to contribute to the total civilization of humanity. All those cultures need to be preserved by transforming the invading barbarian hordes of each new generation around the world into Romans or Kurukshetrans or Confucians, according to the land of their nurture. More than that, the barbarians need to know, not just about their own culture, but also about Rome, Kurukshetra, the land of Lu, and all the great cultures. For humanity is one, and the diverse great cultures are the many facets of its diamond unity.

Exoteric instruction, although fundamentally important for the future of humanity, is not. however, enough. Esoteric education is also vitally necessary. It needs a different metaphor. We are all rough stones that need to become perfect ashlars so that we can assume our proper place in the Temple of Humanity. We are base metalic lead that needs to be transformed into incorruptible gold by an alchemical process of sublimation. Such change cannot be imposed from without. Such change is not a matter of instruction by building something into students (‘instruct’ is from Latin, meaning ‘to build in’). It is rather a matter of true education or of leading students out of the darkness of ignorance into the light of true knowledge (‘educate’ is from Latin, meaning ‘to lead forth’).

Esoteric education is the aim of all the great world teachers: the Buddha, Christ, Zoroaster, Shankarachara, Confucius, Plato, and the rest. Esoteric education opens our minds to what we already knew, but did not know that we knew. It switches on an interior light. It makes it possible for us to hear the Voice of the Silence. It reveals to us, not just the knowledge of time, but the wisdom of eternity. It sets our feet upon a Path that leads, not outward, but inward to the very heart of Being.

Annie Besant, born on 1 October, 160 years ago, was one of the world’s great teachers—an accomplished instructor and a master educator. Throughout her life, she advanced the cause of learning, both exoteric and esoteric.

As a young woman, Besant worked in the National Secular Society and the Fabian Society to free her fellow Britons from the stifling chains of narrow-minded bigotry and economic exploitation. She collaborated with Charles Bradlaugh on the radical newspaper The National Reformer. She worked to instruct women in matters of personal health, safety, and rights, including her ground-breaking organization of the exploited ‘match girls’, who worked under appallingly dangerous conditions for disgracefully low pay. The union they formed under Annie Besant’s inspiration engaged in a successful strike that produced more humane working conditions and improved compensation for those women. It also showed their fellow Englishwomen and Englishmen that they could learn to better their state in life by their own endeavors.

In 1889, Besant was elected to membership on the London School Board by a decisive majority of the vote. In that role, she worked for radical reforms in the schooling of children, introducing free meals for poor and undernourished pupils and medical examinations for all elementary students. Besant knew that the mind cannot be instructed if the body is weak or ill. Her view of the human constitution was always a holistic one. The whole human being must be tended to if any human being is to thrive, just as all human beings must be cared for if our species is to progress.

In that same year, 1889, Besant’s concept of holism was vastly expanded. She read H. P. Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine because she had been invited to write a review of it for the Pall Mall Gazette. That review led to Besant’s meeting Blavatsky and opened a new era in her life. Her emphasis changed from an exclusive focus on exoteric instruction to a combination of it with esoteric education. Besant never abandoned the exoteric, but she enlarged her concerns to include the esoteric. She realized the importance of both outer instruction and inner education for the development of a whole human being. Under the inspiration she drew from her contact with Blavatsky and her discovery of the Ancient Wisdom of Theosophy, Annie Besant became, not just an effective instructor, but a true educator.

After H. P. .H.HBlavatsky’s death in 1891, Annie Besant succeeded her as the spiritual leader of the Theosophical Society and the primary esoteric educator for Theosophists in her time. She first traveled to India in 1893, and thereafter that land became a major focus for her work, social, instructional, and educational. For example, in 1898, she founded the Central Hindu College in Varanasi, where students received both secular instruction and spiritual education. In 1904, she founded the Central Hindu College Girls’ School. Besant supported improved education for all women:

India, she insisted, could never become great again unless women and men walked side by side and hand in hand, just as a bird could not fly high with one wing broken before it starts upon its flight. . . . She also spoke out against the seclusion of women, arguing that this shutting up of women is unworthy of civilization. Indian men do not deserve to be free politically, until they give freedom socially to Indian women. (Nancy Fix Anderson, ‘Bridging Cross-cultural Feminisms: Annie Besant and Women’s Rights in England and India, 1874-1933,’ Women’s History Review 3 [1994]: 574).

At the same time, Annie Besant continued her involvement with political matters in India. By 1914, she was editing the politically focused newspaper New India. In 1916, she established the Indian Home Rule League. She had earlier become a prominent member of the Indian National Congress, founded in 1885 by another Theosophist, Allan Octavian Hume. In 1917, Besant became the first woman and the first non-Indian to serve as president of that organization. Eight years later, in 1925, she was succeeded in the office by Sarojini Naidu, a poet called “The Nightingale of India” and the first Indian woman to serve as president of the Congress.

Sarojini Naidu admired both Mohandas Gandhi and Annie Besant. The Welsh Cardiff Lodge’s Web site ( reports this eminent Indian artist and activist as having said of Annie Besant, ‘Had it not been for her and her enthusiasm, one could not have seen Mr. Gandhi leading the cause of Indian freedom today. It was Mrs. Besant who laid the foundation of modern India—Dr. Besant was a combination of Parvati, Lakshmi and Saraswati.’ That is high praise indeed by one daughter of India for another, the one native and the other adopted.

Beyond all Annie Besant’s social activism and exoteric instructional work, she was an esoteric educator. And her great achievement in that role is attested, among other ways, by the Theosophical books she published or that were compiled from her inspiring talks. It would be unfeasible to attempt a full or even extensive listing here of her writings. But a sample of her publications, of varying lengths and perhaps familiarity, will suggest the range and depth of her writings: 

In addition to her impressive literary output, Annie Besant was actively engaged in other forms of instruction and education. She had succeeded Blavatsky as Outer Head of the Esoteric School, a position of primary importance for esoteric education. She was initiated into Co-Freemasonry in Paris, and reformed its practice in keeping with traditional Masonic respect for spiritual values. In 1908, a year after she succeeded Henry Steel Olcott as president of the Theosophical Society, she founded the Theosophical Order of Service, with a mission that was both active and educational. When the Liberal Catholic Church was formed, she gave it her respectful support. Annie Besant aided the cause of learning and service in a wide variety of forms, because different forms are needed by different people.

Exoteric instruction and esoteric education are both essential to a well-rounded and fully developed mind. Annie Besant devoted her life to both. What can one say of a woman as open-minded, innovative, influential, productive, and talented as Annie Besant? Indeed, she had the strength and energy of Pārvatī, the grace and creativity of Lakshmī, and the learning and harmony of Sarasvatī. She was the three great energies united in one.