With the establishment of British colonial rule in the nineteenth century, India was subject to a major transformation and challenge to the nation’s fundamental core beliefs. Prior to the dominance of the British, India was held by oral social and religious conventions and hierarchies. With the influx of the enlightenment, along with the introduction of print media and Western education, there was a shift from these oral traditions and conventions to a focus on the textual. Thus a need for a political body, to represent and question the forming of this Indian society, emerged and the Indian National Congress (INC) was born in 1857. A struggle for freedom was soon ushered in, as the repressive policies of the British Raj aroused intense opposition. Two key contributors in this freedom struggle were Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856 – 1920) and Annie Besant (1847 – 1933). Although they had different beginnings, in opposing countries, there are surprising similarities and influences that led their lives to converge in the fight for Indian freedom. Although they differed with their religious and social beliefs, their need for an independent India united them and often saw them working together for the good of the greater cause. Annie Besant was born to a middle-class family of Irish origin in London in 1847. A few years after her father died a friend of the family helped her mother by taking the young Annie Besant into her care for education. From the personal account of Besant, what ensued was a joyful childhood with her education accenting the religious side of her character, which was to influence her later career path. In 1866, at the age of nineteen, she unwisely married the clergyman Mr. Frank Besant. Although deeply unhappy in her marriage, as her impulsive independent nature clashed with her husband’s traditional views, they had two children. However, in 1873 their marriage ended and Besant, completely rejecting Christianity, joined the National Secular Society, preaching free thought with her basis in Atheism.
During this period she met Mr Charles Bradlaugh, who offered her a job editing the weekly National Reformer, and began writing on such topics as trade unions, national education, women’s rights and birth control, developing her already profound writing skills and often getting herself into trouble with the law. She also discovered her love of oratory debate and looked readily to find sources in which she could practise her oratory skills, in lectures and debates, being a public advocate for free thought. During this time she gained valuable experience in organising trade union protests under the Fabian Society and involving herself whole heartedly in the Socialist League, where she was able to find a small place in politics.
Her most notable victory was her involvement in the London matchgirls strike in 1888. It was the first time anyone had successfully challenged the match manufactures. She stirred such a commotion that ‘the whole country rang with the struggle.’ These experiences in politics, fighting for the betterment of mankind, became strong sources of inspiration that helped her later in her life in the fight for freedom in India.
Although an Atheis, her striving for spiritual knowledge still persisted and in 1889 Besant became a member of the Theosophy society. Against discrimination of all kinds with the goal to serve humanity, Theosophy appealed to her as she longed ‘for sacrifice to something felt as greater than the self’. As it was based on ancient religious philosophies of esocentric Buddhism and Hinduism, revolving around Karma and reincarnation, with nirvana as the ultimate goal, Theosophy was to become the most important influence for Annie Besant in the struggle to free India. It was as a member of Theosophical Society that she arrived in India in 1893.
Before delving into Besant’s most illustrious years in India, I feel it wise to stop and inspect Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s...