The Krishnamurti Custody Case, 1912-1914

Leadbeater’s visit to Australia beginning in 1914 began successfully and with a minimum of controversy. However, when details judgment in the case relating to the custody of Krishnamurti and his brother, initiated by Mrs Besant, came to the attention of the Australian media, adverse publicity was inevitable. Even before Leadbeater’s arrival in Australia, some newspapers had published accounts of the evidence given in the case, including the allegations of sexual misconduct made against Leadbeater in 1906.


Truth (Sydney) 8 December 1912

A good summary of the relevant litigation is given in the The Hindu:

Narayaniah, a retired tehsildar and a member of the Theosophical Society, entrusted the custody of two of his sons, Krishnamurthi and Nityananda, to Annie Besant in March 1910. Annie Besant claimed that the elder son, Krishnamurthi, was likely to develop spiritual powers and become “a vehicle” for the manifestation of supernatural phenomena. After she took the boys to England, Narayaniah filed a suit in the District Court, Chengalpet, seeking custody of the minor sons.

The suit was withdrawn from the District Court and transferred to the High Court and tried by Justice Bakewell. Interestingly, both parties admitted that they were financed in the litigation by some third parties, which impelled the court to observe that some question other than the welfare of the children had influenced the litigation.

Narayaniah made allegations of immoral and improper conduct against Leadbeater, a prominent member of the Theosophical Society, with reference to the children. Annie Besant denied the allegations and claimed that the suit was politically motivated. She also made allegations against The Hindu, contending that a malignant campaign against her and the Society was carried on in the newspaper, at the instigation of Catherine Tingley and Nanjunda Rao. The Hindu filed an application to strike out certain portions of the written statement, which contained allegations against it.

By a judgment on April 15, 1913, Justice Bakewell declared the boys wards of the court and decreed the suit directing Annie Besant to hand over custody to the father. Deviating from the normal rule that litigation costs would always follow the event, Justice Bakewell directed the plaintiff, the successful party, to bear the costs, on the ground that several Commissions had to be appointed and witnesses examined at several places. The allegations of immoral conduct made against Leadbeater were rejected as unbelievable.

Annie Besant appealed, and Narayaniah filed cross-objections on the question of costs. A Division Bench dismissed the appeal and allowed Narayaniah’s cross-objections. However, the Privy Council reversed the decision, after the boys expressed a desire to continue their education in England.

Justice V. Ramasubramanian (Madras High Court) When Annie Besant came to court” The Hindu February 8, 2012 – available on-line at:  

Mr Justice Bakewell delivered his judgment on 15 April 1913. He found that Narayaniah had the right to change his mind and rescind the guardianship conferred on Mrs Besant, and ordered that she return Krishnamurti and Nityananda to their father on or before 26 May. The case attracted very considerable publicity in India, particularly in the pages of the The Hindu.

Leadbeater had been called to give evidence, and having sworn an oath “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”, immediately lied to the court:

Mr. Charles Leadbeter [sic], who went into the witness-box on the 4th of April, said, in reply to Mrs. Besant, that he was sixty-six years old, and he had entered the Theosophical Society, in London, in 1883, and previous to that time he had been a clergyman of the Church of England.  Quoted in “Veritas” Mrs. Besant and the Alcyone Case Mylapore, Madras [India]: Goodwin & Co., 1913:195

Leadbeater was not, of course, sixty-six years of age, but seven years younger.

Questions about the 1906 allegations having been raised, Leadbeater further gave sworn evidence that:

He had been a clergyman and a Sunday School Superintendent, and he had had a good deal to do at one time or another with the training of young boys. He was able to see thought-forms, and he had given certain advice to a few boys (here details were given concerning this advice that cannot be published). Some doctors condemned such advice and others were in favour of it. Witness had said that physical growth is frequently promoted by setting in motion all these currents. He had treated the matter as an absolutely physiological problem. His opinions had not changed on this subject, but, out of deference to the wishes of Mrs. Besant, he had not repeated the advice since 1906. Mr. Leadbeter [sic] then spoke of a certain operation that was to have been performed by Jews, and said that he had contrived to dispense with it by “indicative action” Witness here wrote on paper certain particulars and handed the paper to the Counsel for the plaintiff. Witness said he was not a doctor, but he had come to certain conclusions by common sense. He had given such advice to boys and to young men. He had copied this advice from an organization of the Church of England. Quoted in “Veritas” Mrs. Besant and the Alcyone Case Mylapore, Madras [India]: Goodwin & Co., 1913:198.

In his judgment, Justice Bakewell held that Leadbeater’s views regarding the sexual development of children made him an unsuitable person for them to associate with, and denounced him as a man holding “immoral ideas”.  He suggested that these ideas, “taken in conjunction with his professed power to detect the approach of impure thought forms renders him a highly dangerous associate for children”.

Mrs Besant announced her intention to appeal against the decision of Justice Bakewell, and a stay of execution was granted on the implementation of the decision. The first appeal went against her, the Court even more strongly affirming Narayaniah’s right to withdraw guardianship and permission.

The judgment of Justice Arnold White, Chief Justice, in the Madras High Court in Mrs. Annie Besant vs G. Narayaniah on 29 October, 1913, can be found on-line at:

Mrs Besant appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England which ordered a retrial. The Judicial Committee delivered its decision on May 25 1914, allowing the appeal and finding that the lower courts had failed to consider the interests and wishes of the boys, or the fact that, given that they were in England, no Indian court could order their return since such courts had no jurisdiction in England. The decision of the Privy Council – Mrs Annie Besant (Appeal No. 23 of 1913) v G. Narayaniah and J. Krishnamurti and J. Nityananda added by Order in Council (Madras) [1914] UKPC 48 (25 May 1914) – can be found on-line at:


The Besant Privy Council Appeal. Full Argument and Judgment “Law Weekly”, Madras, 1914 – provides the full 175 page transcript of the appeal to the Privy Council.


Editor of “Justice” The Evolution of Mrs Besant, Being the Life And Public Activities of Mrs Annie Besant, Secularist, Socialist, Theosophist and Politician, With Sidelights on the Inner Workings of the Theosophical Society and the Methods by Which Mr Leadbeater Arrived at the Threshold of Divinity The Editor of “Justice”, Madras, 1918 – available in digital form on-line at:


“Veritas” Mrs Besant and the Alcyone Case Goodwin & Co, Mylapore, 1913 – provides a very detailed report of the court proceedings in India, and reproduces almost all the documentary evidence presented by the Plaintiff, including that relating to the 1906 scandal, with copies of correspondence between Leadbeater and Besant. Available in digital form on-line at:

See also:

One thought on “The Krishnamurti Custody Case, 1912-1914

  1. Pingback: CWL Speaks: A Review (13): A charge of sodomy? | C.W. LEADBEATER

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s