“The Light of Asia: The Poem That Defined the Buddha” by Jairam Ramesh

Edwin Arnold (via Wikimedia Commons) Edwin Arnold (via Wikimedia Commons)

Victorian poets such as Matthew Arnold and Alfred Tennyson are celebrated for having survived the test of time, as literary historians would put it. But it is someone else, an “Oriental” poet from England and a popularizer of Buddhism in the West, in Asia, and even on the Indian subcontinent who has been translated into 13 European and 22 Asian languages.

This poet is Sir Edwin Arnold and the poem he is most known for is The Light of Asia, an epic romantic work about the life and the message of the Buddha. Published in 1879, it went on to influence leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, BR Ambedkar, as well as authors such as Rabindranath Tagore, TS Eliot, DH Lawrence, Rudyard Kipling, and famous, influential leaders and scientists. Arnold wrote a good many other poems too in addition to The Light of Asia, but it was this work that made him an international celebrity and which, in several ways, revived the neglected story of the Buddha for the modern world; works written prior to it were more or less scholarly pieces not meant for the general public.

India’s former Union Minister Jairam Ramesh has written a “biography” of this poem. His The Light of Asia: The Poem That Defined the Buddha investigates the times in which it was written, and tracks every translation, adaptation, and dissertation dealing with the author and the poem. It also points out countless references to the poem in global politicians’ correspondences with each other, even in unnoticeable scenes in movies, and in school children’s syllabi and guidebooks to document the cultural phenomenon it has come to be.

The close-to-universal appeal of the text has shaped popular contemporary imagination of Buddhism and the Buddha.

The Light of Asia: The Poem that Defined The Buddha, Jairam Ramesh (India Viking, May 2021)
The Light of Asia: The Poem that Defined The Buddha,
Jairam Ramesh (India Viking, May 2021)

Born in 1832 in Gravesend near London and educated at King’s College and Oxford University, Arnold had his first brush with Buddhism through poetry contests held in the college. He came to India for a couple of years to take charge of the principalship of the prestigious Poona College in 1857, the year of the Indian Mutiny. It was there that he was exposed to the classical texts of Hinduism and Buddhism, translating some of them.

Thanks to the rising interest in “the Orient” (as it was then) and the publication of numerous works in Indology such as Samuel Beal’s The Romantic Legend of Sakya Buddha, Buddhism was in the air. While working as a journalist back in Britain for The Daily Telegraph, Arnold stayed in touch with Indian culture and translated the classics such as The Hitopadesa and Gitagovinda. The Light of Asia was soon to follow.

When it did, it became something of a cult text: it received glowing reviews everywhere and found an astonishingly  wide audience eager to buy copies in all formats—illustrated as well as special Christmas gift editions. It was hailed as “‘an Idyll of the King’ with Gautama instead of Arthur for its hero and Nirvana instead of the Christian ideal and the Holy Grail as its aim,” and for bringing the style of John Keats and Alfred Tennyson to the themes of karma and nirvana. Here’s an example:


Ye are not bound! the Soul of Things is sweet,
          The Heart of Being is celestial rest;
     Stronger than woe is will: that which was Good
          Doth pass to Better—Best.
I, Buddh, who wept with all my brothers tears,
          Whose heart was broken by a whole world’s woe,
          Laugh and am glad, for there is Liberty
     Ho! ye who suffer! know
     Ye suffer from yourselves. None else compels
          None other holds you that ye live and die


The narration of Buddha’s life and doctrine in simple terms would enthrall the world. Ramesh provides the context:


The Light of Asia came at a time when organized religion was in retreat in Victorian society and was under attack across the Atlantic as well. It came exactly ten years after the word ‘agnostic’ was first coined. To use the title of Thomas Hardy’s extraordinary poem, Arnold placed Buddha in the public consciousness at a time when ‘God’s Funeral’ was taking place.


The success of the poem would upset those who had worked on Buddhism for several years but couldn’t get into the limelight. It would also make a lot of people insecure. Ramesh quotes several attacks on the poem and the poet by such people, one of whom says that “the dulcet and eloquent strains” of the poem would fool “uninformed and unsuspecting people” “into conclusions detrimental to Christianity.” Another quote from the archive says:


There has entered the general mind, an unconfessed, a half conscious, but a most shrewdly penetrative, misgiving that, perhaps, after all, Christianity has not of right quite the exclusive claim that it was previously supposed to possess, upon the attention and reverence of mankind.


His engagement with Buddhism was not limited to the authoring of the poem: it would also involve launching a huge movement to recognize a sacred Buddhist site. As Arnold became, or came to be seen as, a sort of “insider” in Buddhist affairs of his time, he launched a campaign for the handing over the Bodh Gaya temple in modern-day Bihar in India, where the Buddha attained Enlightenment, to the Buddhists. He compared it with such other sacred sites as Mecca and Jerusalem and campaigned heavily for it to be wrested from the control of the Hindus whom he saw as desecrating the sacred Buddhist site with Hindu rituals. The temple was transferred to the leading Buddhist body only in 1953—after seven decades of struggle by the Buddhist leaders all over the world.


In the process of recording the impact of the poem and its legacy, Ramesh also deals with an intriguing episode in the life of the text—that of the discovery of the Buddhist heritage site in Jharkhand, India. The researchers involved had followed an excerpt from the poem:


Thou wouldst see where dawned the Light at last,
North-westwards from the “Thousand Gardens” go,
By Gunga’s Valley till they steps be set
On the green hills where those twin streamlets spring,
Nilanjana and Mohana! Follow them,
Winding beneath broad-leaved mahua trees,
‘Mid thickets of the sansar and the bir,
Till on the plain the shining sisters meet
In Phalgu’s bed, flowing by rocky banks
To Gaya and the red Barabar Hills
Hard by that river spreads a thorny waste,
Urawelaya named in ancient days …


and found Buddhist ruins near Hazaribagh, the “Thousand Gardens” mentioned in the excerpt.


Such revelations about a seemingly forgotten 19th century poem unsettle a lot of deeply held beliefs about literary merit and canonicity in literary histories. Where does a text’s value lie: in popular appeal and its influence on statesmen and scientists or in the literary merit as articulated by literary critics? Ramesh makes a case for the former:


The enduring fascination that Mahatma Gandhi had for his translation of the Bhagwad Gita is sufficient for Sir Edwin Arnold to occupy a distinctive niche in not only Indian but also world history. If you add to this prodigious influence The Light of Asia had, then it would be fair to say he was. A poet who helped interpret not one but two faiths – an achievement that is quite extraordinary by any yardstick … The Light of Asia did not involve painstaking academic investigation. But clearly it met a demand, fed a hunger, filled a need and fulfilled an aspiration. It had something for everybody. It appealed to the Christian non-missionary world because of the close parallels in it between the lives of the Buddha and of Christ. It made Buddhists feel proud because it portrayed the founder of their faith in a glorious manner … Upper-caste Hindus in India did not see it as a potent threat because of the extensive use of Brahmanical themes in the poem.


This close-to-universal appeal of the text has shaped popular contemporary imagination of Buddhism and the Buddha. Ramesh’s biography of the text does a commendable job of tracing the origins of that appeal.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.