Jairam Ramesh is a well-known author of books on Indian politics, politicians and international affairs. Although The Light of Asia departs considerably from his previous writings thematically, it preserves Ramesh’s signature embrace for archival research and his zeal for storytelling. The story he tells this time is not about a person or an event, but about the world life of a fascinating book by 19th century English polyglot Edwin Arnold (1834-1904), titled The Light of Asia or The Great Renunciation (Mahabhinishkramana) Being the life and teaching of Gautama: prince of India and founder of Buddhism. Ramesh’s latest post is a biography of this immensely influential book.
Published in July 1879, Arnold’s account of the life of the Buddha is “an epic poem written in blank verse”, that is, “a poem written with regular meter lines but without rhyme.” Complexly sorting out the different phases of the Buddha’s life – his conception, his worldly experiences in his father’s palace, the “four views” that led him to renounce family attachments and the luxury of palace life, the sensual temptations conceived by Mara as he meditated in the forest, the attainment of enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, his teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, and the final cessation of his life – the Arnold’s biography quickly became popular among Indian and foreign intellectuals, Nobel laureates and politicians, including both Mahatma Gandhi and Winston Churchill among his admirers. It has been translated into several Indian and European languages, performed in theaters and adapted for cinema. For those unfamiliar with Arnold’s work, I recommend the beautifully illustrated 1885 edition published by JR Osgood & Co. in Boston, which is available for free online.
Ramesh’s goal is not to analyze the biography of the Buddha, nor to explore the literary merit of Arnold’s “blank verse”. Rather, its task is to shed light on Arnold and the history and various entanglements of The Light of Asia. The result is a captivating study of a man who called himself “the one who loved India and the Indian peoples” and his most famous work, as well as the impact that the two had on a large number of individuals. renowned throughout the world and on one of the most important sites of the Buddhist pilgrimage. Ramesh’s book is a delightful read, being exceptionally educational and remarkably impressive in terms of his research and investigation work.
Ramesh’s Light of Asia is divided into four sections. The first section covers three phases of Edwin Arnold’s life before 1879; the second is an entwined story of Arnold and his book The Light of Asia as the two traveled around the globe; the third deals with the afterlife of The Light of Asia after Arnold’s death; and the short final section recounts the “curious” cases of Arnold’s translation of a “verse” from a Kashmiri saint and princess named Lallesvari, and the “discovery” of Arnold’s grandchildren, their ties with the Indian subcontinent, and the fact that they had embraced different religions. Ramesh’s book ends with “A Final Word,” in which he underlines the “enduring appeal” of The Light of Asia and the life and remarkable contributions of its author, who Ramesh said “was a male. of his time, firmly anchored in late Victorian society, a British imperialist par excellence but deeply in love with other cultures, especially India and, towards the end of his kaleidoscopic life, the Japanese as well.
A student of Classics at the University of Oxford, Arnold’s love of India began at the end of 1857, when he accepted the post of Principal of Poona College (now Deccan College). During his two-year stay in Poona, Arnold learned Sanskrit, began translating Indian texts, and championed the cause of education and literacy, including women’s education. After his tenure at Poona, he spent more than a decade and a half (1860-1876) in London as a writer, journalist and poet. During this time he published a translation of the Hitopadesa and wrote a two-volume work on Lord Dalhousie’s reign in India. At the end of 1875, his interpretation of Gitagovinda appeared under the title The Indian Songs of Songs. With this latest publication, notes Ramesh, “Arnold also made a name for himself in England and India.” Indeed, two years later, Queen Victoria awarded him the prestigious Order of the Star of India.
The publication of The Light of Asia firmly established Arnold as one of the leading scholars of India and Indian religions. Ramesh describes in vivid detail the significance of this work beyond the fame it brought to its author. He does this by demonstrating the impact the poem has had on various people and organizations in India and abroad, the multiple translations that have been published up to the 21st century, and the reason why “it occupies such an important place. in the historiography of modern Buddhism ”. Regarding the latter, Ramesh explains the influence that Arnold and his book The Light of Asia had on members of the Theosophical Society, in particular Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, who praised the book for doing “more for Buddhism. than any other agency ”, and Anagarika Dharmapala, who played an important role in asserting Buddhist claims on the Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gaya then under the control of a group of Shaivites. Arnold himself, Ramesh shows, was deeply involved in the defense of the temple as a Buddhist site under Buddhist control.
Considering the details provided by Ramesh, the wishlist for additional gear is short. Ramesh could have examined in more detail Olcott’s commentary on the importance of The Light of Asia for Buddhist revival movements across Asia, going beyond the mere question of the Mahabodhi temple. Equally important is the need to explain the use of the term “Asia” in the title of Arnold’s book. This is relevant because one of the figures Ramesh discusses in the context of the Mahabodhi Temple is Okakura Kakuzo, who wrote that “Asia was one” and who helped popularize the idea of Pan-Asianism. Was Okakura influenced by The Light of Asia, in particular Arnold’s Preface, where the poet describes Buddhism as the “great faith of Asia” and asserts that the “spiritual realms” of the Buddha extended “from Nepal and Ceylon to the entire eastern peninsula as far as China, Japan, Tibet, Central Asia, Siberia and even Swedish Lapland”? The end of the 19th century was a critical period for the emergence of an Asian consciousness in India, Japan and China. Did the Light of Asia help trigger it?
Tansen Sen is Director of the Center for Global Asia and Professor of History, New York University, Shanghai