Review: The Light of Asia; The Poem That Defined Buddha

Jairam Ramesh’s new book, which charts the journey of Edwin Arnold’s poem, is a significant addition to the study of the revival of Buddhism in the twentieth century
Sleeping Buddha statue, Ajanta caves. (Shutterstock)
Sleeping Buddha statue, Ajanta caves. (Shutterstock)
Updated on Jul 09, 2021 05:52 PM IST
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By Ashutosh Bhardwaj
448 pp; Penguin
448 pp; Penguin

Ever since I read Orhan Pamuk’s The Red Haired Woman, I have been searching for a book that did what these lines describe: “the greatest happiness in life was to marry the girl you’d spent your youth reading books with in the passionate pursuit of a shared ideal”. Jairam Ramesh’s new book The Light of Asia: The Poem That Defined Buddha showed me that Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia (1879), perhaps the most influential poem on an Indian icon by a British author, managed to do just that.

Ramesh tells us that while the epic poem on Gautam Buddha inspired a range of personalities, it also led to a romance between Louise Whitefield and Andrew Carnegie in 1880 that culminated in marriage seven years later. Though Carnegie, who became ‘the world’s richest man in 1901’, was in his forties and not exactly in his ‘youth’ when he began courting the much younger Whitefield, the poem remained the nucleus of their love.

This is among the many delightful anecdotes Ramesh recounts about the poem which soon after its publication revived the focus on the Buddha both in the West and the East. It influenced Leo Tolstoy as well as his compatriot Dmitri Mendeleev, the inventor of the periodic table of elements. Vivekananda carried a copy with him to Chicago in 1893. It was among the works Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi recommended; Jawaharlal Nehru frequently referred to its verses in his writings over several decades. The great physicist CV Raman was greatly influenced by three books, two were on science and one was The Light of Asia. Dharmanand Kosambi became a Buddhist monk after reading the poem in 1899, and went on to become the first modern Indian scholar of Pali. Sanskrit scholar PV Kane mentioned it in his monumental work History of Dharmashastra.

Notably, for several centuries Buddhism posed perhaps the greatest philosophical challenge to Hinduism. Gautam Buddha received wisdom in Gaya but chose to travel over 250 km to deliver his first sermon at Kashi’s doorstep in Sarnath. That the Buddha was eventually assimilated as the ninth avatar of Vishnu and that the Constitution under Article 25 included Buddhism within the Hindu fold, a Constitution that was drafted under the watch of a great scholar who abandoned Hinduism and embraced Buddhism, are remarkable comments on Indian civilization.

But what accounted for its enormous impact in the West where it influenced a range of writers including Georges Luis Borges, TS Eliot and James Joyce? Besides its literary merit, there were some historical forces at play. It was published in the late nineteenth century when organised Christianity was facing questions. Here was a book about a personage who predated Christ by several centuries, preached and demonstrated love and compassion, and led to the birth of a major religion that, without making a stringent demand on rituals, had a sound philosophical base in terms of metaphysics and epistemology.

Not surprisingly, soon after its publication, American missionaries believed it was “detrimental to Christianity”. “Although Arnold had not discredited Christ in any way,” writes Ramesh, the missionaries thought that “the Englishman had a diabolical design to bring disrepute to Christianity”.

Jairam Ramesh charts the poem’s magnificent journey as it reached different shores, came to be translated into over 30 languages, became a topic of extensive research and courted criticisms. In between, he also illuminates the life of its author. His painstaking research has included even Arnold’s great grandchildren. Here’s a gem among the anecdotes that Ramesh has unearthed from the archives. Kisari Mohan Ganguli, the first person to translate the Mahabharata in its entirety into English, was in need of money. Arnold wrote to Arthur Balfour, the First Lord of the Treasury in the British Cabinet, and sought help for his friend. When Balfour refused, Arnold approached another friend, Viceroy Lord Curzon, who granted Ganguli a yearly pension of 600. Thus, the Englishman mostly remembered for the infamous division of Bengal division along communal lines came to support the first translator of the Mahabharata.

Author Jairam Ramesh (Pradeep Gaur/Mint)
Author Jairam Ramesh (Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

An extensive body of research exists on the spark that led Arnold to write this poem. Ramesh points at yet another possibility. Four decades after his death, Julian Arnold revealed that his father wrote it “to unwind” and “uncurl his brain” after he was consumed by his editorials on global politics and ongoing wars. That a journalist took to literary writing as a detox is certainly believable.

A work of such scholarship as Ramesh’s is perhaps not possible without love for both the text as well its subject, Gautam Buddha. Even as it engages in various debates about Buddhism since the late nineteenth century, this book is also a significant addition to the study of the revival of the religion in the last one. The many references to the poem in Indian politics and culture offer an insightful commentary into specific eras.

Here’s my favourite: a 1958 exchange between Education Minister Abul Kalam Azad, Prime Minister Nehru and Vice-President S Radhakrishnan that was prompted by the Hindi poet Mahadevi Verma seeking financial assistance for the publication of her translation of Ashvaghosha’s Buddhacarita and the Rig Veda.

While Azad believed that the “State patronage of publication of works whose primary significance is religion should be avoided as far as possible,” Radhakrishnan noted that “Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia is based on this (Ashvaghosha’s) work and it is treated as a work of literature and not a text of Buddhist religion.” Nehru went a step ahead and argued that “books like the Buddha Charita or the Rg Veda are classics of ancient India and can hardly be considered just as religious books”. Nearly eight decades after it was published, The Light of Asia figured in an immersive exchange between three of the most erudite Indians of their age. Jairam Ramesh worthy ode to a literary work of great value will help a new generation to discover and appreciate it afresh.

Ashutosh Bhardwaj is an independent journalist and writer. His recent book, The Death Script, traces the Naxal insurgency.

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Monday, October 25, 2021