Madras saw a fair number of sensational cases in the 20th century. Some of them were the Alavandhar Murder Case, Lakshmikantham Murder Case, The Karunguzhi Parcel Case etc. My post today is an article I wrote for Madras Musings on an high profile case that happened in the second decade of the 20th century- 1913 to be precise. The case was fought between Annie Besant, the famous Theosophist and G.Narayaniah, the father of the famous philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurthy over the custodianship of Jiddu Krishnamurthy and his brother Nityananda.
ANNIE BESANT AND THE ALCYONE CASE
One of the city’s most sensational events in the early 20th century was the battle for the custodianship of the famous philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurthy(also known as The Alcyone) and his brother Nityananda (also known as The Mizar) fought between their father, G.Narayaniah on one side and Annie Besant, the leader of The Theosophical Society on the other. This article gives an overview of the case and also of a book that was published in this connection.
Jiddu Krishnamurthy was born on the 4th of May 1895 at Madanapalle, where his father Narayaniah was a Tahsildar and Taluk magistrate. When Krishnamurthy was 18 months of age, Narayaniah was transferred to Cuddappah, a malaria ridden district where Krishnamurthy suffered from fever at regular intervals, an event that was to recur at frequent intervals. As a young boy, Krishnamurthy was not particularly fond of book study but displayed a mechanical turn of mind. He was religious though and often accompanied his mother to the temples. Narayaniah was transferred from place to place and after a stint at Vayalapad and Jammalmadagu was transferred back to Cuddapah where he remained till 1906. His wife passed away in 1905. In 1907, Narayaniah again took up service at Madanapalle from where he retired the same year on a small pension. It was in the sylvan surroundings of the hillock in Madanapalle that Krishnamurthy spent a lot of time observing nature and its wonderful creations.
In December 1907, Narayaniah who had been a Theosophist since 1882 wrote to Annie Besant after attending a convention at Benaras, offering his services to the Society at its headquarters in Adyar. Mrs.Besant initially refused to admit him stating that the 4 boys of Narayaniah would create a ruckus in the compound and that a lot of expense would be incurred in sending them to school in far away Mylapore. Narayaniah was however insistent and said that he would arrange for them to be sent to school. Annie Besant replied that there was no requirement of his service then. It was a year later in 1908 when the need for an assistant to the corresponding Secretary in the Esoteric Section arose that Annie Besant called Narayaniah who came and joined the Society on 23rd of January 1909. Joining him were his family that included his brother in law and a large number of dependants. Krishnamurthy and Nityananda went to the P.S.High School in Mylapore whereas their elder brother, Shivaram attended the Presidency College.
In February 1909, Col. William Leadbeater, the renowned Theosophist teacher saw Krishnamurthy and Nityananda for the first time and took them to the sea to teach them to swim and also later helped them with their lessons. He was drawn by the appearance of Krishnamurthy in whom he saw the Master the Society had been waiting for. One day, he seated Krishnamurthy on a sofa in his room and placing his hand on his head, began describing Krishnamurthy’s previous births. He proceeded to give an account of the past 30 lives of “Alcyone”, (as Krishnamurthy came to be known) which were published in the Theosophist magazine over a period of time. The interest of Leadbeter in the boys increased. When he once heard that the boys had been caned in their school, he persuaded Narayaniah to remove them from the school saying that their astral bodies had been very much disturbed and asked him to put them under him instead. Narayaniah initially refused and later with the consent of Annie Besant, put the boys under the care of Mr.Leadbeter, Mr.Clarke and others. Annie Besant, on learning of Leadbeter’s views on Krishnamurthy wanted the boys to be placed in her custody so that they could be brought up in a manner conducive to their development. Narayaniah acquiesced after an initial refusal and on March 6th, 1910, he executed a letter in favour of Annie Besant authorising her to be the guardian of the boys. Annie Besant undertook to offer the best possible education and send them to an English University at her expense.
On January 11th and 12th 1910, Mrs.Besant initiated Krishnamurthy into the folds of Theosophy. In April that year, Narayaniah had a serious quarrel with Mr.Leadbeter and wanted to leave Adyar with his sons. He was however persuaded by Sir S.Subramania Iyer, the Vice President of the Society to stay on till the return of Mrs.Besant, who had been away on tour. She returned later that month and on subsequent tours to places like Benaras, Delhi and Amritsar took the boys with her. The boys also accompanied her to Europe and were joined by Mr.Arundale, who was then the principal of the Central Hindu College and who had taken 6 months leave of absence to act as their tutor.
The first controversy involving Krishnamurthy took place in December 1910, when it was announced by Annie Besant that he had written a book called “At the Feet of the Master”. Writing in the January 1911 edition of the Theosophist, Annie Besant claimed that the book was a compilation of the teachings of Master K.H, a Theosophical Master given to Krishnamurthy. The book which saw brisk sales was however the topic of strong discussion outside the Theosophical circles. This was due to the fact that Krishnamurthy was known to be a dull boy at the Mylapore School and one who knew little English, thus raising doubts about the authenticity of the claim that it was written by him. Dr.M.C.Nanjunda Rao, the famous physician of Mylapore and a close friend of the late Col. Olcott wrote strong letters to The Hindu criticising the book.
Further turmoil followed when Krishnamurthy was appointed as the Head of a body called “THE ORDER OF THE STAR IN THE EAST”, which was founded in 1911. This body was formed to “prepare” the World for the arrival of the Master, Maithreya who, it was said would manifest in Krishnamurthy’s body. The Society was divided over the formation of this body and many members, especially of the German Section quit, disputing the claim that Krishnamurthy was the future Master. (This organisation was later disbanded by Krishnamurthy in 1929).
Krishnamurthy and Nityananda accompanied Mrs.Besant on a tour of England in 1911 and returned to Madras in September 1911. It was at the Annual Convention held in Benaras in December 1911 that Narayaniah spoke to Babu Bhagavan Das, the Secretary of the Indian Section of Theosophists about his sons and asked his help to separate them from Leadbeter, whom he felt was indulging in questionable activities with the boys and was an undesirable influence on them. He also spoke to Annie Besant and threatened her with action in case the boys were not separated from Leadbeter. Annie Besant refused to separate the boys from him. Matters came to a standstill until the middle of 1912, when in June 1912 Narayaniah wrote a letter to Annie Besant wherein he stated that he revoked was revoking the letter he had executed earlier giving her the custodianship of the 2 children. This act of Narayaniah was provoked by a letter written by Mrs.Besant in rebuttal of Narayaniah’s bunch of letters which contained allegations against Leadbeter. Mrs.Besant accused Narayaniah of unbecoming behaviour and refused to act on them. In reply, Narayaniah accused Mrs.Besant of parting training seriously detrimental to their progress and undermining their moral character by allowing them to move with “that disreputable character Mr.Leadbeter and his worthy disciples and satellites”. He gave Mrs.Besant time till August 31st 1912 to hand over the children to him at his residence at No.118, Big Street,Triplicane failing which he threatened to take legal steps. This was not complied with, leaving Narayaniah no option but to take recourse to legal action.
The case was filed by Narayaniah initially in October 1912 at the Chengulpet Court praying that the custody of his two children be restored to him. Representing him was the doyen of the legal profession, C.P.Ramaswamy Iyer while Annie Besant conducted her defence in person. Assisting C.P.Ramaswamy Iyer were M.Subbaroya Iyer (who later became an accomplished income tax lawyer and a renowned educationist as the co-founder of the Vidya Mandir school and the Vivekananda College) and N.Chadrasekhara Iyer. Needless to say, such a high profile case was the talk of the town with heavyweights such as The Hindu and Dr.M.C.Nanjunda Rao throwing their weight behind Narayaniah.
The case was transferred to the Madras High Court for the convenience of all the litigants. After long drawn arguments which saw the examination and cross examination of a lot of witnesses, Justice Bakewell delivered the judgement on the 15th of April 1913 wherein he ordered that the children be declared Wards of Court in order to protect their interests. Annie Besant was ordered to hand over the custody of Krishnamurthy and Nityananda to Narayaniah. However, Narayaniah was forced to bear the entire costs of the case which amounted to around Rs.6000, no doubt a princely sum in those days. Being a retired Tahsildar living on a small pension, he could not meet the costs all by himself.
A book titled “MRS.BESANT AND THE ALCYONE CASE” was published in 1913 with a view to help Narayaniah pay the costs. The publishers were Goodwin & Co., Mylapore. The author however chose to use a pseudonym “VERITAS”. Proof read by C.P.Ramaswamy Iyer, this book contained a vivid description of the case, complete with all the evidence presented and the cross examinations. A public appeal which was sent to The Hindu was also published as part of the preface. Mr. V.C.Rangaswami Iyengar, Secretary of the Madras Central Urban Bank Limited, Mylapore consented to act as the Treasurer. The signatories to the appeal included people of high standing like Dewan Bahadur P.Rajaratna Mudaliar,V.Masilamani Pillai, The Raja of Panagal Rama Rayangaroo.
An interesting fallout of this case was the formation of a lifelong friendship between Annie Besant and C.P.Ramaswamy Iyer.
Annie Besant was later successful in getting the verdict upturned at the Privy Council which upheld her right of custody of the children.