Book Review: Jairam Ramesh's ‘The Light of Asia: The poem that defined the Buddha’ re-illumines Edwin Arnold’s epic poem

Print edition : September 24, 2021

‘The Light of Asia: The Poem that Defined the Buddha’ By Jairam Ramesh (Penguin, 2021)

Maha Bodhi temple, Bodhgaya, which marks the location where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment and which has historically remained a site of contestation between the Buddhists and Hindus. Photo: The Hindu

A brilliant resurrection of Sir Edwin Arnold’s 19th century poem on the life and teachings of the Buddha, which is sure to create more awareness about Buddhism in the country of its birth.

I first came across Sir Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia in 1976 while preparing for the civil service examinations. A section in the syllabus was dedicated to Gandhian thought; from here, I gathered that this book had had a profound influence on the Father of the Nation. I must confess that I did not go beyond that slight curiosity until 45 years later, when I read Jairam Ramesh’s The Light of Asia: The poem that defined the Buddha. On completing it, I was left amazed by the profound impact this single tome has had in spreading the story of the Buddha and his teachings across the world.

The Light of Asia was seminal because until its publication in the late 19th century, no one in the West knew about the Buddha. Jairam Ramesh’s book captures this brilliantly. I can foresee the book leading not only to a resurrection of Arnold’s chef-d’oeuvre but also creating more awareness about Buddhism in the country of its birth.

This is a “book within a book”, in which the primary story is about The Light of Asia, first published in 1879. It also covers the fascinating life story of Arnold the oriental scholar, poet, linguist, adventurer and Pax Britannica man. Finally, it tells the story of Buddhism through the ages in various forms and how it totally disappeared from India.

The Light of Asia is itself a translation of the Lalitavistara, meaning “the play in full”, a Sanskrit Mahayana Buddhist Sutra on the Buddha’s life and his teachings. Translating intricate thoughts is not an easy task, more so when it is in verseform. Arnold manages to it do so well even though he was not recognised as one amongst the top poets of his time.

A similar effort that I am aware of is “84,000: Translating the words of the Buddha”, a project helmed by Dzongsar Khentse Rinpoche. As part of this project, the Lalitavistara has already been translated into English in 2013 and the rest of the 108-volume Kangyur [Words of the Buddha] is under way. A group of international scholars are working on it, yet it is not definite whether their version will be able to capture the real meaning of what the Buddha had said. Different people see the elephant differently, depending upon their past experiences and perceptions. My respect for Arnold only grows when I realise the amount of confidence and effort it needed to undertake this work single-handedly.

Jairam Ramesh’s writing is full of rich information, mined diligently from literature across the world, including the latest doctoral theses by researchers. This outstanding work proves that he is an academic first, an inkling I had while setting up the Indira Gandhi Centre for Sustainable Development at the Somerville College in Oxford in 2013, where I found that he was respected as a scholar and a researcher in his own right. He is indeed an academic disguised as a politician, although it is generally the other way round!

The historical Buddha

Personally, the book evokes the same feeling of wonder and disbelief I had while reading Ten Thousand Miles without a Cloud by Sun Shuyun or The Buddha and the Sahibs by Charles Allen, which Jairam Ramesh also refers to. The story of the historical Buddha would have been forgotten had it not been for Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang), who diligently recorded his travels in India in the 7th century.

On the basis of his records, British archaeologists in the 19th century such as Sir Williams Jones, James Princip and Alexander Cunningham worked to link Buddha as a living person to Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and Khushinara where his birth, enlightenment, first sermon and death respectively took place.

Jairam Ramesh’s book deftly highlights the fact that if the 19th-century rediscovery of the historical Buddha was done by archaeologists, it was The Light of Asia that actually led to the awareness and spread of Buddhism across the world from Japan to the United States. The poem has since been translated into 13 European and 14 South Asian languages. Similarly, Arnold’s other poem, “Song Celestial”, published in 1885, introduced to the West the Bhagavad Gita, which until then was an unknown chapter in the Mahabharata, and made it world-famous.

The book also brings home the power of poetry over prose. With his poetic rendition of the life and teachings of the Buddha, Arnold achieved what the scholars of the Royal Asiatic Society and the archaeologists could not. Interestingly, in Tibet in the 8th century, it was Guru Padmasambhava the tantric and poet who spread Buddhism, rather than Santarakshita the scholar who had spent several years in Tibet before him trying to achieve the same.

Until I read Jairam Ramesh’s book, I did not realise the extent of influence The Light of Asia had on the leaders of the nation’s freedom struggle, be it Mahatma Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Jawaharlal Nehru or B.R. Ambedkar. The Theosophical Society, founded by Madame Helena Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott, also had ardent admirers of the book and has also published several editions of the book from time to time. Others who were influenced by The Light of Asia include Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, eminent literary personalities such as Rudyard Kipling, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot and Leo Tolstoy, as well as scientists like C.V. Raman and Dmitri Mendeleev, not to forget Andrew Carnegie, the richest man of his time.

In the context of understanding the nature of Buddhism today in India, it would not have been too much of a digression if some space had been dedicated to the historic linkage of Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism to the Nalanda tradition of India, about which the Dalai Lama never fails to remind both his own people as well as Indians. This would have been apt as the foreword of the book itself has been written by the Dalai Lama.

Buddhism was introduced in Tibet in the 8th century thanks to Santarakshita, the renowned Indian scholar from Nalanda University in Bihar, who also established Tibet’s first monastery, Samye Gonpa, in the 8th century. Over time, many monasteries were established throughout the country and a rigorous system of cultivating intellectual mastery of philosophy, logic, psychology—inner and outer sciences—was developed based on what they learnt from the Nalanda masters.

Few of us are aware that although we lost many of our valuable Pali and Sanskrit texts in Nalanda to the wanton destruction caused by the forces of Bakhtiyar Khilji in 1202, many were taken to safety in Tibet where they were preserved and translated into Tibetan. It has now come full circle as these texts are back in India after more than a thousand years, thanks to the Dalai Lama who set up mirror institutions of Tibet’s famed monastic universities of Gaden, Drepung, Sera, Tashi Lhunpo, Namgyal, Rato, Gyuto and Gyume in Tibetan refugee communities established in Mundgod and Bylakuppe in Karnataka. It is in our interest to unlock the rich wisdom and knowledge of our ancient past by translating those texts back into Indian languages.

Unfortunately, apart from the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Varanasi, no serious work is being undertaken in this vital area. The Nalanda University, initiated by the Ministry of External Affairs, has only the name in common with this great tradition. Nothing makes one guiltier than a visit to the State Museum at Patna where a treasure trove of Tibetan texts and artefacts, brought from Tibet by the writer Rahul Sankrityayan under challenging circumstances in the 1930s, lie gathering dust and in utter neglect.

Mahabodhi temple

An aspect which has been well highlighted by the author is about the issue of the control of the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya which was with the Hindu mahants. It was the dogged persistence of Arnold, who was one of the first to raise the issue with his fellow Englishmen in power, that eventually culminated in the mahants’ partial sharing of responsibilities with Buddhists in 1954. Angarika Dharampala, a Bikkhu from Sri Lanka whose statue is prominently seen at Sarnath, also had a major role to play. As a child, I was a silent witness to several heated discussions in our house on this issue as my grandfather was a member of the Mahabodhi Society as well as the President of Himalayan Buddhist Society which caters to the Himalayan regions of Ladakh, Lahaul Spiti, Pangi, Zanskar and Rupshu. This is an ongoing matter and one hopes that in the years to come, the control of the Mahabodhi temple will be passed on completely to the Buddhists. If matters can be resolved as in the case of Ayodhya temple, one has all the reasons to hope that in the case of Mahabodhi temple, too, the innate sense of human goodness will eventually prevail, paving the way for a permanent resolution of the issue.

Lastly, the book takes us to the important point of Hinduism–Buddhism interface and its effect on each other. Though Hinduism eventually managed to assimilate Buddhism into its fold by tactfully recognising Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu, Hinduism, too, was not the same again as many of the doctrines of Buddhism like ahimsa, vegetarianism, emphasis on inner realisation, ethical living and equality of all human beings became an integral part of Indian society which are cherished even today.

Ashok Thakur is former Secretary, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, and a Buddhist from Lahaul Spiti, Himachal Pradesh.

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