from The Theosophist Dec 1993

A Serious Dedication

By Hugh Shearman

The significantly creative coming together of a person and a scene is a recurrent theme of history. In these times we have become very sophisticated in our view of historical events and have become aware of large impersonal factors - climate, economics, traditional class structures , genetics and many more - but the impact of the individual remains a mystery that we have found ourselves unable wholly to rationalize and explain.

Many westerners have felt that to arrive in India is to experience an indefinable and yet deeply stirring sense of coming home. Colonel Olcott had felt it more than Annie Besant. From the time of her arrival there in 1893 she began to lay a trail of literary evidence of her temperamental affinity with India and of India's influence upon her. There are those many small books that came from her year by year, each in the form her year by year, each in the form of four lectures given initially at one of the Theosophical Society's annual conventions. The first, on The Building of the Kosmos, was based on her first set of Indian lectures delivered in 1893.

These small books have in them the ardour of a great discovery - one could almost say, of a love affair - as she deepened and enlarged her sympathetic understanding of Indian religion, philosophy and culture and gave an intellectually brilliant expression to what she found and felt about them.

Vital to her understanding of India, as of so much else, was that largeness of sympathy and intelligence which enabled her to see and know a unity behind every diversity. India, as she encountered it, contained even more diversity than it does today, when modern transport and communications have so greatly changed people's awareness of one another. India could not be grasped as one "thing". It contained all still contains deep disparities and incompatibilities, and yet for Annie Besant it was all fundamentally one.

To see unity in disunity places the individual at times in a position of some difficulty, for there is no language available for expressing what one sees. The rhetoric and the large generalizations which Annie Besant sometimes used were not in her case, as they sometimes are with other political speakers, an evasion of detail or a dodging of incompatibles. It was of her very nature to see the whole always underlying its confused and disparate components; but this was something virtually impossible to express without generalizing.

There is a further fact about the style and language in which she spoke and wrote that has to be remembered. In that earlier century she was a member of a new first generation of emancipated women, and there was no clear precedent to guide here in her choice of language to speak to the world. Characteristically she chose a bold and rhetorical style. Those who sometimes complain today about that style forget the social today about that style forget the social climate in which she had to make her way.

The heroic story of Annie Besant's work for India and the results she achieved there, has been told many times, and it exhibits her powerful intensity of character, her courage, tenacity and insight, her dedicated and apparently almost inexhaustible vitality. The benefit that accrued was mutual, for the traditional wisdom of India enlarged her view of life and her understanding of human nature even while she initiated change in India.

Olcott's view of India had involved, with his great tolerance and kindness, the sort of attitude that is summed up in those old words, "with all thy faults we love thee still". Often our sympathies and our effective helpfulness depend on a shared limitation with those we approach. Did Annie Besant share any limitation with India?

In the west today the great limitation that people have seemed to see in her was that she lacked a sense of humour, that she appeared to be incapable of laughing at herself. This was the complaint of Bernard Shaw who knew her well, and a number of subsequent biographers have also said or implied the same criticism. This impression about her has certainly caused quite a number of westerners to misunderstand or underestimate her.
Quite simply, her commitment to certain causes was so complete and uncompromising that she became wholly identified with them and so took herself as seriously as those causes of which she has become a part. Her seriousness was not small and personal.

A sense of humour at its best is a sense of proportion. While Annie Besant could be uncompromising she could also approach problems with a sense of proportion, acting realistically and with tact and moderation. One of her objectives for India was the liberation of Indian women, and she worked for this continually, but realistically and with tact and moderation. On meeting a dignified Indian elder who affably proceeded to introduce his sub-teenage child bride, Madame Blavatsky had lashed out in instant anger and contempt and told him that he was an old beast. Annie Besant, however, knew how to act with tact and restraint and not in an inappropriately combative spirit such as is liable to elicit frustrating and destructive resistance.

The approved and sometimes too much prized western sense of humour is often a device for dissociating oneself from responsibility. Annie Besant had no wish to dissociate herself from anything in the human condition. In this she was wholly serious. In the India that she discovered on her arrival there in 1893 there was little that was funny, little to laugh at, and much that was deeply tragic, just as she had found in London when she had come as a trade union organizer among the match-workers. She quickly developed a sympathetic affinity with the aspects of Indian life which most called for compassion and change.

Annie Besant's dedicated seriousness in many social and political causes was never the humourlessness of the fanatic. She saw that progress and solutions are not best pursued merely confrontationally. That was why, in spite of her deep regard for Gandhi, she could not go along with certain essentially militant and non co-operational strategies which he adopted.

As for the casually personal side of life, she could be relaxed and entertaining. With Major Graham Pole, who looked after some of her business affairs for her, she engaged in affectionate banter in which, as the writer has been told by the Major's sister in law, he would tell her that she was "a silly old woman" and she would respond with placed good humour.

One could exercise the imagination on various historical might-have beens which could have come about had Annie Besant directed her full mature life and energy to several other pursuits to which she had turned from time to time. But Theosophy and India were the two great causes that she chose to make her own. Today it is for Theosophists and Indians alike to try to be worthy of the honour she did them.


Dr Shearman, the author of several books like The Passionate Necessity, Modern Theosophy, etc..., is a veteran Theosophist and member of the TS's General Council.

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