Mrs. ANNIE BESANT: A SOCIAL REFORMER
G. N. MURTY, M.A.
Mrs. Besant was born in 1847. Having lost her father at the age of five, she had to face many difficulties in her life. She was married to a clergyman, at the age of twenty, but very soon there grew up differences between her and her husband, and she was ultimately forced to leave her husband’s home when, she was hardly twenty-five. Events of her life changed for the better when she, in association with Mr. Bradlaugh, showed herself to be a great organiser, a writer and a great thinker. She came to India in 1893 as a member of the Theosophical Society. She studied the conditions of life in India and was deeply moved by certain social abuses. It was her deep conviction that India would not be bettered socially, economically and politically unless there was a revival of her ancient spiritual glory. She found, by a study of the history of this country, that the glory of India in the past lay in the spiritual atmosphere that prevailed then. The conception of the unity of spirit, in the midst of the diversity of castes, disparity of religions, and educational and economic inequalities, was the source of the fruitfulness of life in India in the past. She felt that, If unless this spiritual life was revived, there would be no revival of the glory of India and her salvation and along with it the salvation of the world.
Education of Youth: The future of a country, according to Mrs. Besant lies in the education of her youth-men and women. The youth have to be fostered with due attention to their spiritual moral culture. They must be taught at home, and outside home scientific basis of moral precepts, with a view to make them acquire an intelligent appreciation of the value of religion and morality. She observed, in the first instance, even among the cultured people of India, a cleavage between the English-knowing people and the pure Sanskrit scholars. She felt that this cleavage should be made up by means of the Sanskrit scholars learning English and English-knowing people learning enough of Sanskrit to help them to write and converse in Sanskrit. The gulf between northern and southern Indians should be made up by the universal learning of Hindi, already so widely spoken in India. It was Mrs. Besant that saw the need for the education of women as well, so that they might be competent to bear the responsibilities of wifehood and motherhood. Women should be learned and cultured enough to make their homes the centres of spirituality, embodying in themselves the tenderness and fidelity of Sita and Savitri, the intellectual grandeur of Gargi and the all sacrificing spirituality of Maitreyi. Woman, according to the Hindu ideal, is not the competitor of man in all forms of public employment. Exceptional cases have, of course, to be treated exceptionally. But the generality requires to be given sound literary knowledge with knowledge of science sufficient for running the home and the larger society under health, conditions. Besides, women need music, drawing, painting and sewing and embroidery work to enjoy life in all its fulness.
Elevation of the Depressed Classes: The next item of importance which attracted the attention of Mrs. Besant in the Indian social life was the existence of a mass of people known as the “depressed classes”. Like the “submerged tenth” in England, they formed in India nearly a sixth of the population. They formed a large class, ignorant, degraded, unclean in habits and language and always on the verge of starvation. This community was prolific but their children were ill-nourished and ill-kept and they were malformed and subject to diseases which often times proved fatal. They consisted of the original inhabitants, and hybrids of illegitimate offspring of the Aryans. They were looked upon with scorn and were considered as untouchables. After the advent of the British, and the spread of Christianity as the religion of the rulers, and during the rule of the Muslims before the coming of the English, they found social salvation by adopting Mohammedanism or Christianity, two alien forms of religion.
Mrs. Besant felt that the abuse to which a sixth of the population was subjected was one potent cause of the degradation and the loss of prestige of India. She felt the need to establish schools for them in order to foster in them habits of cleanliness, to make them intellectually enlightened, and to draw at the germinal powers of their souls. She did much to teach the principle that the educated upper classes were bound to raise them upto higher levels of physical, intellectual and moral excellence.
The Care of Children: The children of today, to whatever caste they belong, are the citizens of tomorrow. The king or whosoever takes the place of the king, stands in relation to them their guardian who should give them protection, safety and succour. A sorry feature of Indian social life is that the boys and girls of poor parents are sent into the streets to beg and support their lazy elders. Often times, destitute girls, unable to earn their living by honest effort, are driven to sell their souls and bodies. The primary duty of the society and their rulers is to take them out of the streets, and by pure love and adequate training, to equip them to earn their living by pure and honest means. It is not true religion merely to go to the temples and make offerings the deity in the temple. It is genuine religion to wipe away tears of the helpless and to make the world for them a happy place to live in. Mrs. Besant did all she could for the uplift such children.
The care of Animals: She was as much concerned about the animals as about the human beings. In India, in particular, the men and the animals are friendly. The cattle are the dumb followers of their owners. This harmony between the two orders of creation grows out of the religious feeling that there is one consciousness pervading life in all its manifestations. The bull that ploughs the field and the cow that yields the milk are treated in the Indian countryside as the parents of the village population. But, in the towns, many cruelties are inflicted on animals by way of forcing them to unnatural exertion. Mrs. Besant encouraged the efforts of the societies for the protection of cattle. Such societies prevented, by propaganda, the sale of cows and calves for food and the over-loading of carts drawn by animals. The modern features of cattle-shows and distribution of prizes to well-grown animals is the outcome of the humanitarian work of such people as Mrs. Besant.
Improvement of Indian Character: Mrs. Besant is a believer in the theory that “Character is destiny”. In the past, the glory of India rested on the character of the Aryans. Lofty spirituality, unbending rectitude, reverence to God and a feeling of hospitality to the guests were the fundamental traits of the Aryan character. Truth was the firm basis of their life and courage and fearlessness naturally followed. With such basic character and with their association with the English nation, India can build up again a glorious future. According to Mrs. Besant, the future of India rested on three factors, namely, religion, education and political relations with England and the rest of the world.
Religion: In religion India has more to teach than to learn from England. Hinduism is the religion of nearly seventy per cent of the population while the remaining thirty per cent consisted of the Muslims, the Christians, the Parsis, the Jains, the Sikhs etc. Hindu religion has always encouraged, to the fullest, the freedom of the intellect. Though it is strict in its adherence to its social polity, it is marvellously, broad in its ethical and philosophical outlook. This outlook is responsible for the existence, side by side, of so many creeds. After the advent of the British, Christian missionaries found a favourable atmosphere in India for the propagation of their faith. There was among the Indians the prevailing-consciousness that the Christian religion was the creed of the powerful British rulers. This consciousness along with the folly of Hinduism, in leaving a large mass of people with practically no religion at all, gave an opportunity to the Christian missionaries to carry on their propaganda. The helpless mass of the people who were left out of the pale of Hinduism, the depressed classes, found an easy refuge in Christianity which welcomed them into its fold. Having embraced the religion of the rulers, they gained prestige in society as they learnt from the Christians of England ways of decent living, though their intellectual and ethical life remained the same as before. Theosophy sought to counteract the danger of Christianity submerging Hinduism. It encouraged the study of the fundamentals of each religion which revealed that all creeds are basically the same. This revelation fostered in the minds of the Hindus not only a spirit of religious tolerance but also confirmed their faith in the strength of Hinduism.
English Education: Mrs. Besant insisted on the spread of education as a means of elevating the thought and conduct of the people of this country. It was creditable that the British rulers gave to India the advantage of education by establishing schools, colleges and universities. It was Lord Macaulay that laid the foundations of Indian Education. But the defect of this educational scheme was that it was unsympathetic. It never sought to understand the tradition of the people and make it the basis of education. The main fault of English education in India is that memory is encouraged to the exclusion of the reasoning faculty. The system of education involves too many examinations, the preparation for which means a lot of physical and mental strain. The Indian student is naturally studious. What he needs is the stimulation of his play instinct. To achieve this objective, greater emphasis is to be laid on physical training, and cramming should be given up in preference to the development of the faculty of reason. Another defect of the educational system is the high cost of education. The rich and the idle alone can take advantage of the educational institutions but the poor who are really industrious are shut out. The award of scholarships is no remedy as it helps only a few. An all round lowering of the cost of education is necessary to encourage the intellctuals who are poor so that they may be enlightened and be helpful to the State in the governance of the country. Mrs. Besant sensed the feeling among the people that the cost of education was kept purposely high to shut out the intellectuals. Therefore, was started, the Benaras Hindu College, which cut down the fees to the minimum, provided a high standard of instruction, which improved the faculty of reason, and encouraged physical activities so as to ensure all round development. Thus she demonstrated in the Benaras Hindu College what she meant by a sympathetic understanding of the problem of education in India. She also emphasised the importance of technical education for improving the country agriculturally and industrially.
Economics and Politics: She condemned courageously the economic policy of the British. They created famines artificially by exporting corn in the years of plenty and leaving the population of India to starvation in the years of drought. The policy of the rulers of India, before the advent of the British, was in perfect accord with the interests of the people. They took care to store grain during the seasons of plenty and thus provide against famine. The improved facilities for transport , combined with the economic policies of the British rulers, were responsible for the famines. She exposed the British Industrial policy as well. She pointed out how the British had suppressed the industries of India deliberately, their policy of importing cheap goods into the Indian Market. Indian cotton was exported to Lancashire for the manufacture of cloth. The cheap price given to the raw material impoverished Indian producer, while at the same time there was dearth of new material for the indigenous manufacturers. The British imported goods manufactured in their country and flooded the markets of India with them. The result was, the industries of the country suffered heavily. Thus she showed the defects of the British economic policy and demonstrated the need for the Indianization of the Government so that Indians could keep a firm control over the economics and politics of their country.
Finally, she exposed the lack of wisdom in accusing Theosophy as a revival of ancient superstitions. Religion is often associated with superstition as smoke is a necessary concomitant of fire. But to eliminate smoke we do not extinguish the fire. We drive out smoke by fanning the fire into a blaze. So also Theosophy is calculated to spread ‘knowledge which cuts away, scepticism on the one side, and superstition on the other, with the sword of wisdom. The increased understanding of all religions is the only way of dispelling the smoke of superstition. Theosophy gets to the root of religion in general and uproots superstition. So long as religion ruled the people of India, the people of India were virile, wealthy and well versed in arts and crafts. Lofty and creative intelligence gave to the country its literature and philosophy. Human thought rose to the height of grandeur and the human spirit was sublime. Might of religion and height of material prosperity went hand in hand. In the 18th century ‘the droppings of India’s soil fed distant nations.’ Her fall in spirituality resultd in her deterioration in the material sphere also. Spirituality was the source of originality and inspiration. Theosophy only seeks to revive the ancient spirituality of India with its creative intelligence. The fall of India came about in three steps: Decline of spirituality, decline of creative intelligence, and the consequent decline of material prosperity. Mrs. Besant sought to remount the ancient glory first by a revival of pure spirituality, then by a wisely chosen and well directed educational policy, and finally by the revival of her material prosperity, which depends on technical education leading to the improvement of agriculture and industries. The fundamental truth of Hindu religion is the realisation of the oneness of the spirit. Out of this realisation grows the wisdom that, in essence, all religions are identical in their fundamentals.
Conclusion: Thus it was the work done by Mrs. Besant with reference to all the problems connected with life in India that brought to the forefront, the glory of the country in the past, accounted for that glory, and showed the way to build up a New India, through a consciousness of the oneness of the spirit, and through an education and selfless effort in the direction of India’s political freedom and material prosperity. It was her conviction that the prosperity of the world lay in the revival of the spiritual glory of India and her leadership of the world, so as to ensure the establishment of the Kingdom of God on the earth.