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How a ‘mediocre’ English poem gave a global push to Buddhism

Jairam Ramesh’s new book chronicles the fortunes of Sir Edwin Arnold and his poem, ‘The Light Of Asia’, a retelling of the life of the Buddha 

The Buddha in Bodh Gaya, Bihar.
The Buddha in Bodh Gaya, Bihar. (Photograph Abhijeet Gourav on Unsplash)

Jairam Ramesh’s new book, almost 500 pages long, is about a long narrative poem in blank verse about the life of the Buddha, written by an English journalist, a Tory and an Orientalist called Edwin Arnold in 1879. If the prospect of a tome like this sounds dire, The Light Of Asia: The Poem That Defined The Buddha (Penguin Random House India) dispels any such thoughts. 

Meticulously researched and told with flair, the story of the poem combines a potted biography of its author as well as a vibrant portrait of the era referred to as the Victorian Age. The book ends with 21st century developments around this literary relic, whose afterlife in parts of the subcontinent is no less enduring than the poems of Lord Alfred Tennyson, who was Arnold’s contemporary and is still read by schoolchildren in India.

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The curious aspect of Arnold’s success is the sheer unexpectedness of it. By all estimates, he was a minor Victorian poet—repeatedly described as “mediocre” by scholars—and no great authority on Buddhism. Ramesh describes him as a “soft’ imperialist”, who held questionable views on the practice of suttee, among other things. But Arnold’s love for Indian culture, and for Asia in general, was palpable. A polyglot, he went on to translate the Bhagavad Gita as The Song Celestial, a favourite of M.K. Gandhi’s, and married a Japanese woman, nearly 20 years his junior; she was his third wife.

In a series of pithy chapters, Ramesh outlines the contours of Arnold’s colourful life as a writer, traveller, member of the press, and contender for the post of poet laureate. His enthusiasm for Buddhism propelled Sri Lankan Sinhala nationalist Anagarika Dharmapala to take up cudgels for the religion. A crucial outcome of it was the extended battle for the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya, which was occupied by a Hindu mahant and his followers, until Dharmapala placed a figurine of the Buddha inside it. Arguably one of the holiest shrines for Buddhists, it was under the bodhi tree there that the Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment.

The Light of Asia: The Poem that Defined The Buddha, By Jairam Ramesh, Penguin Random House India, 448 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>799
The Light of Asia: The Poem that Defined The Buddha, By Jairam Ramesh, Penguin Random House India, 448 pages, 799

Ramesh chronicles the spirited lobbying that followed, abetted by Arnold, who wrote extensively in the British press favouring the transfer of the plot to Buddhists. This culminated in a legal war, which took a violent turn. The analogy with the Babri Masjid is uncanny, especially as Arnold described Bodh Gaya as the “Mecca” for Buddhists. The dispute, which dragged on for years, was settled in 1953 by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, also a self-avowed fan of Arnold’s poem.

Arnold died in 1904 but his service to Buddhism was hailed in places as far away as Japan and the US, where his poem was reportedly the talk of barbershops. It inspired a range of people, from poet T.S. Eliot to Bengali dramaturge Girish Chandra Ghosh, and was translated into several subcontinental languages—no mean feat for a poem of not much literary merit.

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