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Friday, September 17, 2021

How Jairam Ramesh outlines the significance of ‘The Light of Asia’

In his new book, politician Ramesh presents a profound and deeply immersive biography of Edwin Arnold’s influential book on the life of the Buddha

Written by Tansen Sen |
Updated: August 29, 2021 9:17:43 am
Shakyamuni BuddhaWhat the buddha taught: An 18th century Thangka painting of Shakyamuni Buddha (Source: wikimedia commons)

Jairam Ramesh is a well-known author of books on Indian politics, politicians, and international affairs. Although The Light of Asia significantly deviates from his previous writings thematically, it preserves Ramesh’s hallmark embrace of archival research and his zeal for storytelling. The story he tells this time is not about a person or event but concerns the global life of a fascinating book by the 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 publication is a biography of this immensely influential book.

Published in July 1879, Arnold’s narrative of the life of the Buddha is “an epic poem written in blank verse,” that is, “poetry written with regular metrical but unrhymed lines.” Intricately knitting together the various phases of the Buddha’s life – his conception, his worldly experiences at his father’s palace, the “four sights” that led him to renounce familial attachments and the luxuries of palace life, the sensual temptations crafted by Mara as he meditated in forest, the attaining of enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, his teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, and the final cessation of his life – Arnold’s biography quickly became popular among Indian and foreign intellectuals, Nobel laureates, and politicians, including both Mahatma Gandhi and Winston Churchill among its admirers. It was translated into several Indian and European languages, performed in theatres, and made into films. For those unfamiliar with Arnold’s work, I recommend the beautifully illustrated 1885 edition published by JR Osgood & Co. in Boston, which is freely available online.

The Light of Asia book cover The Light of Asia: The Poem that Defined the Buddha by Jairam Ramesh, Penguin Random House, 448 pages; Rs 799

Ramesh’s objective is not to analyse the Buddha’s biography, nor is it to explore the literary merit of Arnold’s “blank verse.” His task is rather to enlighten us about Arnold and the history and the various entanglements of The Light of Asia. The result is a captivating study of a man who called himself “one who loved India and the Indian peoples” and his most famous work, as well as the impact the two had on a slew of renowned individuals across the world and on one of the most important sites of Buddhist pilgrimage. Ramesh’s book is a delightful read, being exceptionally educational and remarkably impressive in respect of its research and investigative work.

Ramesh’s The Light of Asia is divided into four sections. The first section covers three phases of Edwin Arnold’s life prior to 1879; the second is an entwined history of Arnold and his The Light of Asia as the two journeyed around the globe; the third deals with the afterlife of The Light of Asia after Arnold’s death; and the short final section narrates the “curious” cases of Arnold’s translation of a “verse-saying” of a Kashmiri saint and princess named Lallesvari, and the “discovery” of Arnold’s grandchildren, their connections to the Indian subcontinent, and the fact that they had embraced different religions. Ramesh’s book ends with “A Final Word,” in which he underscores the “enduring appeal” of The Light of Asia and the remarkable life and contributions of its author, who, according to Ramesh, “was a man of his times, firmly anchored in late Victorian society, a quintessential British imperialist but deeply in love with other cultures, most notably India and, towards the end of his kaleidoscopic life, Japanese as well.”

A student of the classics at Oxford University, Arnold’s love for India started in late 1857, when he accepted the position of Principal of Poona College (now the Deccan College). During his two-year stay at Poona, Arnold learnt Sanskrit, started translating Indic texts, and championed the cause of education and literacy, including women’s education. After his tenure in Poona, he spent over a decade and half (1860-76) 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. In late 1875, his rendition of the Gitagovinda appeared as The Indian Songs of Songs. With the latter publication, Ramesh notes, “Arnold made a name for himself in England and India as well.” Indeed, two years later, Queen Victoria conferred the prestigious Order of the Star of India upon him.

The publication of The Light of Asia firmly established Arnold as one of the leading scholars of India and Indian religions. Ramesh outlines in invigorating detail the significance of this work beyond the fame it brought to its author. He does this by demonstrating the impact the poem had on various people and organisations in India and abroad, the multiple translations that were published down to the 21st century, and the reason “it occupies an important place in the historiography of modern Buddhism.” Regarding the latter, Ramesh explains the influence Arnold and his The Light of Asia had on the members of the Theosophical Society, especially Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, who lauded the book for doing “more for Buddhism than any other agency,” and Anagarika Dharmapala, who played an important role in asserting Buddhist claims over the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya then under the control of a group of Shaivites. Arnold himself, Ramesh shows, was deeply involved in advocating the preservation of the Temple as a Buddhist site under Buddhist control.

Given the details provided by Ramesh, the wish list for additional material is a short one. Ramesh could have examined Olcott’s comment about the significance of The Light of Asia to the Buddhist revival movements across Asia in more detail, going beyond just the issue 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 pertinent because one of the figures Ramesh discusses in the context of the Mahabodhi Temple is Okakura Kakuzo, who famously wrote that “Asia was One” and who was instrumental in popularising the idea of pan-Asianism. Was Okakura influenced by The Light of Asia, especially Arnold’s Preface, where the poet describes Buddhism as the “great faith of Asia” and claims that the Buddha’s “spiritual dominions” extended “from Nepaul and Ceylon over the whole Eastern Peninsula to China, Japan, Thibet, Central Asia, Siberia, and even Swedish Lapland”? The late-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

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