[Editor’s Note: Part of an occasional series about yoga and its origins.]
In 1909, noted Theosophist (and alleged pedophile) Charles Webster Leadbeater discovered the teenager Krishnamurti on the banks of the Adyar River in a wealthy Madras suburb. Convinced that here was the future “world teacher”—a vehicle for the messiah, in Theosophist lore—Leadbeater’s colleague Annie Besant became Krishnamurti’s guardian. Theosophy is a form of esoteric thought that seeks to understand human-divine connections through a mystical synthesis between ideas of Eastern and Western spiritualism. Besant became head of the Theosophical Society in Madras, British India and created the Order of the Star of the East (1911-1927) to prepare the world for Krishnamurti’s future teachings. During the same period, she co-founded the Indian Home Rule League (1916-1920), which advocated for Indian self-rule and status as a British Dominion. Part of her platform included national education programs to uncover a notion of pre-modern Indian, Hindu civilization beloved of the Theosophists, and to prepare Indian peoples for some form of self-government within what was then an informal British Commonwealth arrangement.
These two aspects—quasi-religious spiritualism and political activism—link together in Besant’s political philosophy, her attachment to India, and her instigation of and support for the Indian Home Rule movement. By extension, her political philosophy informed a certain strand of Indian anti-colonial nationalism—of spiritualism without explicit religious identification or categorization. This ideology relied on a Western-defined vision of pre-modern Indian virtue that had, in this view, been “contaminated” by colonialism. It used perceptions of Indian spiritualism as moral justifications for self-rule. Besant, a British expat, argued that Indians were uniquely moral—uniquely positioned to rule themselves in a more moral fashion than the colonial authorities—because of India’s historical past, rather than despite it. Her form of spiritual nationalism grew out of an invented, Western vision of Indian spiritualism, itself a product of the colonial encounter in India, which then turned around and attacked the colonial state. Western spiritualism—or more appropriately, a Western reading of Indian spiritualism—was part of the nation-building brew of Indian nationalism.
Annie Besant was a political powerhouse in British Madras; she broadcast her outsider status among both Indians and British. Anne Taylor’s 1992 biography describes Indians’ response to Besant’s contrived appearance: “A lovable, loving, attractive white lady … white from head to foot with white hair, white clothes, white stockings, and shoes.” She supposedly wore white as visible mourning for British misrule of India. Raj officials were unsure whether Besant, a “busy sheep dog,” was uniting various Indian political factions, or whether they, “playing on her vanity and feelings, were using her.” Besant played on this ambiguity, at various times assuring colonial authorities that she was only interested in religion and education, while she continued with her political activism. As much as this distinction had disingenuous elements, it also showed how Besant could rhetorically dissolve her equation of spiritualism with nationalism in order to shield one from the other.
Besant’s political-spiritual legacy is inconclusive: Krishnamurti eventually decided he did not want to be a guru, dumped the theosophists, and disbanded the Order of the Star of the East. With much less drama, the Indian Home Rule League merged with the Congress Party, and Besant’s vision of pre-modern Indian virtue was subsumed into Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement. Her use of spiritualism as a tool of political legitimization differed from religion as a political identity marker or category. The ideal of national spiritualism, for all its sentimentalism regarding an invention of India’s pre-modern past, rested on a notion of shared community and social obligation. In Besant’s words, “all lives are rooted in the One Life, interdependent.” She sought a model for a nation-state that would not be Western, whatever her imagined notions of the East.
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For further reading on the topic, see: Annie Besant’s. The Future of Indian Politics (1922); C.A. Bayly’s. “India, the Bhagavad Gita and the World” (2010); Mark Bevir’s “Theosophy, Cultural Nationalism, and Home Rule” (2011); and Anne Taylor’s Annie Besant: A Biography (1992).