Book review | The Light of Asia: The poem that defined the Buddha 


That western appreciation of eastern thought (often mere curiosity) is taken for granted in our times makes it difficult for us to recognize the contemporary value of Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia when he wrote it. The late nineteenth century, when it was published, was a time when eastern thought in general was routinely disparaged by the power structure of the west. The iconic expression of this perspective was that the collective wisdom of “the whole of native literature of India and Arabia”, the two major regions of occupation by the British, French and other western maritime powers, could not compete “with a single shelf of a good European library.” Meanwhile, Buddhism’s orthodoxy was distrusted by many academics and doubted by practitioners of other Indic religions. (More on that later.)

Arguably, this modern phase of unschooled perspective began to wane with the 1879 publications of Arnold’s poetic interpretation of Buddhism and, coincidentally the publication that same year, of the first volume of Sacred Books of the East, a series of translations edited by the great philologist and “orientalist”, Max Mueller. This decline of prejudice is more likely to have begun with The Light of Asia. It was less abstruse than annotated translations of and ponderous philosophical commentary on primary sources, both were preceded by anonymous labor and followed by silent study for decades before the full meanings of these treasures came to light. Arnold’s intuitive grasp of Siddhartha Gautama’s teachings, meanwhile, quickly fired the popular imagination. Soon his vision of Buddhism was being feted in both Europe and North America.

Jairam Ramesh’s, The Light of Asia: the poem that defined the Buddha, is a biblio-biography of Arnold’s palpably fresh grasp of a complex philosophy and a worthy contribution to modern Buddhist studies. The poem re-introduced Buddhism to late modern British India and its English translation was in turn translated into no less than twelve Indian languages. Ramesh’s research gives rise to an interesting thought: could the study of these translations and the commentaries on them provide insights into the much-needed intellectual debate about the convergence of the “nation” and “state” into the twined ideology of the “nation-state” in South Asia, which was rapidly affecting the soon-to- become post-colonial world order? Ramesh’s fleeting reference to Judith Snodgrass’s essay linking Arnold’s poetic rendition to the Meiji Japan opens the door to this tantalizing speculation. And if valid, it could provide us with clues as to how consciousness of the millennia old idea of nationhood may have combined with the centuries-old Westphalian idea of statehood, to create the ideology of nation-states in late modern east, including South Asia.

Buddhism of course was unveiled in Indic South Asia. While its salience here has diminished over the two and a half millennia of its history, its message has migrated to create syntheses with many a civilization in Himalayan South Asia, in Southeast Asia, in the greater Eurasian landmass and beyond. While Ramesh’s project does not aim to include explorations of the history of these migrations and unique flowerings, it provides us with another way to ‘come at’, as it were, Buddhism. In the bargain, his biblio-biography also provides us, between the lines, with a fascinating biography of its author. This by-product reveals that Arnold leaned toward a universalist, rather than an academic or theological, grasp of Buddhism. Ramesh shows us this in a telling citation from Arnold’s pen as a twenty-one-year old at Oxford:

Not by one portal, or one path alone
God’s holy messages to men are known

With these and other vignettes we are afforded valuable insights into an intellectual predisposition that was native to Arnold and allowed him to intuitively grasp the core of one of the world’s most important traditions. This dimension of Arnold’s work is displayed in four facets of Ramesh’s ambitious vision.

The first of these is what might be called academic minutiae that are far from irrelevant and often intriguing enough for other scholars to pursue. Ramesh peppers the book with them, ranging from startling discoveries about Arnold’s descendants in present-day India, sidebar gossip about historical figures that lighten the mood and, in at least one instance, an intriguing claim that could blossom into scholarly thesis.

Ramesh has successfully tracked down nine of Arnold’s great grandchildren. Five live in India with “syncretic [Muslim-Christian] names” and the other four live in Australia, having migrated from India, as Christians. There is intriguing gossip too: in citing the inputs of the Frenchman Barthelemy St. Hilaire, an early contributor to the west’s understanding of Buddhism, we are told that he is “rumored to be “the son of Napoleon I [1769 1821]”, a nugget that makes you wary of skipping even the footnotes of this dense book!

Of academic interest is Ramesh’s discovery of a manuscript of an English translation of the maxims in verse of Lalleshvari, or Lal Ded, the famous woman poet-sage of Kashmir. The detective in Ramesh, however, is skeptical about this find: “It is difficult to believe but possible” he ventures; because, he explains, neither Arnold nor his biographer make any mention of such a translation anywhere. Then, with a wink aimed at always-controversial Kashmir, Ramesh tells us that the story is “a fit case for Sherlock Holmes” in whose adventures the Buddha, non-connoisseurs are told, makes many an appearance.

The second intriguing facet explored in The Poem that defined the Buddha, is a panoramic view of the impact of Buddhism in modern Europe, North America and, not least, India itself. The book is in many ways a sweeping probe of the impact of the itinerant seeker of sixth century BCE South Asia in the late modern world. He demonstrates how diverse personalities were influenced by the book: Andrew Carnegie, otherwise a ruthless businessman, counted Arnold’s manuscript of the poem amongst his most prized possessions; it introduced the western-educated young Gandhi to Buddhism and Winston Churchill, the unapologetic imperialist, commended it to Nehru at least twice in the mid-1950s. Among practitioners of Buddhism too, the book was admired for its empathetic understanding of the faith, causing it to be translated into Japanese, Thai, Khmer and all South Indian languages, except Kannada. In the last case, as if to compensate for the omission, Light of Asia inspired the publication of a dramatic rendition of the life of Gautama Buddha in Kannada, a role that was first played by a Muslim, Mohammad Peer, in the early 1930s.

By far the most edifying dimension of Ramesh’s study is the intellectual and spiritual mood of Arnold’s poem. It speaks to the earlier mentioned Arnold’s native intellectual pursuit with the recognition of entelechy (or potentiality become actuality) that is the purpose of any religious praxis. In our modern world, we are much too dismissive of tradition or, worse, misinterpret it as being no more than what is inherited by us. T.S. The other strand of critics was the skeptical academic class who had been laboring diligently to understanding it. These early skeptics were Friedrich Max Mueller and Monier Monier-Williams with many more to follow in later years. Ramesh’s treatment of this category of reactions is careful and sensitive. However, the book would have benefited greatly from a lengthier analysis by him, even if at the risk of being an adventurous digression. Was the academic flummoxed by the believer in Arnold? Were they nervous about Arnold’s bold vision of the forest even as they were laboring (often in anonymity) in the woods? For now, we must rest satisfied with evidence that suggests a spectrum of reactions ranging from ignoring it to condescension to dismissiveness.

By far the most serious challenge to Buddhism came from the charge against Buddhism accusing it of “annihilation heresy” as something the Buddha himself, according to Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, had rejected as a “metaphysical impossibility”. But the charge has persisted for more than a millennium culminating in and being extended to the accusation of Buddhism being a heterodoxy within Hinduism. Not surprisingly Arnold too was charged with falling prey to this “heresy” in his interpretation.

Citing the poet Arnold’s line from Light of Asia that describing nirvana as “The dewdrop slips into the shining sea” Coomaraswamy includes Arnold’s understanding of nirvana as being “in almost identical words the Brahmanical and Taoist, and Islamic and Christian traditions wherever, in fact, der Weg zum Selbst (which translates, ‘the path to Self’ in English) has been sought.” To support his case, Coomaraswamy cites the same understanding of the ultimate human goal by, apart from the above-mentioned teaching, figures such as Plato, Plotinus, Jalaluddin Rumi, Meister Eckhart, Angelus Silesius and others. Reason enough to give us a fair idea of the depth and profundity of Arnold’s understanding of Buddhism.

The Light of Asia: the poem that defined the Buddha is a fine work, the strength of which is its accessibility to the lay reader despite the breadth of research that has gone into it and the density of the information it provides to the reader. Indeed, Ramesh’s research covers much more than is covered by this review, which has chosen to leave some things for individual discovery. Some may regard the book’s strength as also its “weakness”; but that is a hasty evaluation. It content needs to be mined and the information in it savored in small bites that will take a person down paths not thought of and, for young scholars, open avenues for further research.



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