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Jairam Ramesh & contemporaniety of ‘The Light of Asia’

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By Sanjeev Chopra
In the deft hands of Jairam Ramesh, the life and the afterlife of the epic poem ‘The Light of Asia: The poem that defined the Buddha’, is likely to receive ample attention from all those interested in the person and the philosophy of the Buddha, the life of Sir Arnold, as well as his other works, besides Indologists, theosophists, rationalists and translators. He weaves such an interesting story around the author and the book, that even when he meanders to themes like vegetarianism and Jiddu Krishnamurthy, the narrative moves back to the core after a few passages.

By the time the Light of Asia (Light) was published in July 1879, Edwin Arnold was a celebrated newspaper editor and well known in the Oriental circuit. With a benediction to ‘Ah Blessed lord, Oh High deliverer/Forgive this feeble script, which doth Thee wrong /Measuring with little wit, Thy lofty love/Om Mani Padme Hum, the sunrise comes/ The dewdrop slips into the shining sea!, the unillustrated version in a modest octavo volume bound in yellow cloth published by Trubner and Company became a runaway success within the first few weeks. It received critical acclaim from the Daily Review (1 August, 1879) which described it as ‘an idyll of the King with Gautama instead of Arthur for its hero and Nirvana instead of the Christian ideal and the Holy Grail as its aim’ . The Pall Mall Gazette said ‘as a poem his work is more than respectable: as presenting a philosophical and religious condensation of Buddhism and a picture of its Founder, it deserves popularity’. Earlier, the Athenaeum while praising Arnold for elucidating the concept of Karma and Nirvana drew attention to the influence of John Keats and Alfred Tennyson on the structure and syntax of Light.

Three reviews appeared in India as well. The Times of India reprinted the review in the Pall Mall Gazette. The Pioneer, which was published from Allahabad called it ‘the greatest poem after Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s pilgrimage’. The best review came in the inaugural issue of Theosophist which said, ‘we regard this poem as a really remarkable specimen of literary talent, replete with philosophical thought and religious feeling. The Miltonic verse of the poem is rich, simple yet powerful’. In America, the Light was acknowledged by the Transcendental Club which included such names and writers like Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman.

The success of Light exalted Arnold to the status of an iconic writer on India and the Orient, and he followed it up with Indian Poetry, Indian Idyll, The Rajpoot Wife, as well as a book on the ninety-nine names of Allah (Pearls of Faith). Written as they were at a hurried pace, these did not leave a literary footprint but certainly made him rich and famous across Asia, with the Sultan of Turkey also conferring an honour on him in 1886. Earlier, in 1884, the publishers printed an illustrated version of Light and positioned it as an Xmas gift.

Inevitably, bouquets are followed by brickbats! What may interest readers of GP is that one of his harshest critics was the Presbyterian missionary, Samuel Henry Kellogg, who set up the Church in Landour which is now named after him. About Arnold, he wrote disparagingly ‘many who would have been repelled by any formal, drily, philosophical treatise upon Buddhism have been attracted to it by the undoubted charm of Mr Arnold’s verse. The issue of cheap editions of the poem, selling for a few cents, has helped in the same direction’. Kellogg’s polemical tract was called ‘The Light of Asia and the Light of the World’ in which he posited Jesus Christ as the Light of the World to the Buddha, whose ‘dimmer’ light was confined to Asia!

However, the popularity and appeal of Arnold’s Light continued: leading to a spate of translations – with the first one appearing in Dutch in 1881, followed by Bengali in 1885, German in 1887and 1889, Swedish in 1888 and Russian in 1890. This was the year when the Japanese translation appeared under the title Asia no Koukiby Nakaguara Taro. Within India, the book, along with his translation of the Bhagwad Geeta (The Song Celestial) became the standard reading for the educated elite as well as the ICS officers interested in delving deep into India’s philosophical tradition. Both Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda commended his contribution, though Vivekanand remarked that Arnold’s book ‘represents more of Vedantism than Buddhism’.

Translations in Malayalam, Tamil and Kannada were influenced by the Theosophists with their headquarters at Adyar in Madras and in the Hindi heartland. Acharya Ramachandra Shukla of the BHU presented the book as Buddha Charit, and was published by the Devanagari Pracharini Samiti. The question why the tract became so universally popular is answered by Ramesh towards the end of the book. The Light of Asia became the cultural phenomenon it did because it focussed on Buddha’s humanity, instead of his divinity. And if one may add – the bridge between!

(Sanjeev Chopra is a historian, public policy analyst
and the Festival Director of Valley of Words, an
International Literature and Arts festival based out of
Dehradun. He was a member of the IAS, and superannuated as the Director of the LBS
National Academy of Administration).