International Journal of Hindu Studies

, Volume 7, Issue 1, pp 99-115

First online:

Theosophy and the origins of the Indian National Congress

  • Mark BevirAffiliated withUC Berkeley

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No doubt the Western conceptualization of the East generally served to subjugate the Indians to their colonial rulers, but it also provided a set of beliefs to which disgruntled Western occultists and radicals, and also Western-educated Indians, could appeal in order to defend the dignity and worth of Indian religion and society. No doubt the founding theosophists had no intention of promoting political radicalism on the subcontinent, but the discourse they helped to establish provided others with an instrument they could use for political ends. Indeed, the formation of the Indian National Congress shows how Western-educated Indians were able to join with Hume to promote their political ends using the particular advantages that involvement in the Theosophical Society had given them. The founders of the Indian National Congress relied on the contacts and commitments generated within the Society; they relied on a capacity for, and a belief in, cooperation, both at an all-India level and also between Indian nationalists and liberal Britons; and they relied on a background discourse that emphasized the strength and claims of India, its heritage and religion.

Although we have focused on the origins of the Indian National Congress, the process we have uncovered continued to operate for much of the nationalist era. Annie Besant, like Hume and Sinnett, used theosophy to resolve the Victorian crisis of faith after she had spent some time investigating spiritualist phenomena, and her theosophy combined with her radicalism to take her into the nationalist movement, where she became the only Western woman ever to be elected as president of the Indian National Congress (Taylor 1992). Gandhi (1948), like Malabari, Rao, and Sen, used theosophy to help restore his pride in his native culture to support his vision of ancient India as a vital, rational, and moral society. British occultists such as Besant and Western-educated Indians such as Gandhi turned to theosophy for different reasons, but once they had done so, they shared practices and intellectual commitments that helped sustain the nationalist movement.