Embarking on Transcendence: Reflections on Sir Edwin Arnold’s The Light Of Asia

Arnold has put his poem into the mouth of an imaginary Buddhist devotee 'because, to appreciate the spirit of Asiatic thoughts, they should be regarded from the Oriental point of view; and neither miracles which consecrate this record, nor the philosophy which it embodies could have been otherwise so naturally reproduced

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English poet, writer and journalist Sir Edwin Arnold (1833-1904). (Photo by London Stereoscopic Company/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Here endeth what I write

Who love the Master for his love of us.

A little knowing, little have I told

Touching the Teacher and the Ways of Peace

Forty-five rains thereafter showed he those

In many lands and many tongues, and gave

Our Asia Light, that still is beautiful,

Conquering the world with spirit of strong grace:

All which is written in the holy Books,

And where he passed, and what proud Emperors

Carved his sweet words upon the rocks and caves:

And how – in fulness of the times – it fell

The Buddha died, the great Tathagato,

Even as a man ‘mongst men, fulfilling all:

And how a thousand thousand lakhs since then

Have trod the Path which leads whither he went:

Unto NIRVANA , where the Silence lives.












Edwin Arnold belonged to the group of Western intellectuals living at different times of the British Raj, who represented for us Sri Lankan islanders and Indian sub-continentals the mellowed humane face of British colonialism. They rendered yeoman service to both nations by stimulating historical and cultural awareness about themselves, which contributed to their eventual achievement of independence from foreign rule. German philologist, orientalist and great Buddhist scholar Frederick Max Muller (1823-1900), former American military officer, journalist, lawyer and theosophist Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907), British Pali and Oriental scholar T.W. Rhys Davids (1843-1922), German orientalist and historian  Wilhelm Geiger (1856-1943), German educationist Marie Museus Higgins (1855-1926), and a number of other noble men and women similarly inspired by a selfless love of humanity  were of particular importance to us Sri Lankans.

Edwin Arnold, who was of the same age as Olcott, was born at Gravesend, Gravesham, Kent, England on June 10, 1832. As an undergraduate of Oxford University, he won the Newdigate prize for poetry in 1852. Having earned an MA, he left Oxford to become a school teacher at King Edwards School, Birmingham. Then, Arnold went to India in 1856 as Principal of Deccan College at Poona (Pune, today). While working in India, he learned Sanskrit. Having lived a constantly active life of just over seventy years as poet, scholar, author, educator, and  journalist, he died on  March 24, 1904, in London England. Though he remained loyal to the British Empire throughout his life, he was free from the entrenched patronising or worse attitude of the average colonialist of the time towards the native imperial subjects including the Ceylonese (Sri Lankans) and treated them as equals.

The poem about ‘the life and teaching of Gautama’ (Buddha) ‘The Light of Asia or The Great Renunciation (Mahabhinishkramana)’ that Arnold composed was first published in July 1879. In his Preface to the book, he wrote that it …”is inspired by an abiding desire to aid in the better mutual knowledge of East and West. The time may come, I hope, when this book and my “Indian Song of Songs”, and “Indian Idylls”, will preserve the memory of one who loved India and the Indian peoples.” The “Indian Song of Songs” is the English translation of the 12th century CE Sanskrit poet Jayadeva’s epic poem “Gita Govinda”. Though supercharged with eroticism and replete with sensuous imagery, it is religious in terms of its central theme of Bhakti-yoga of Hinduism. (‘Bhakti-yoga/pure devotional service to Lord Krishna as the highest and most expedient means for attaining pure love for Krishna, which is the highest end of spiritual existence’ in Hinduism, as Swami Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada explains in his 1984 English interpretation of the Hindu sacred text the Gita: ‘Bhagavad-gita As It Is’.) Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda describes the amorous relationship between Krishna in the form of young Govinda and the beautiful cowherdess Radha. Krishna is the eighth incarnation of Vishnu (the Preserver and the Protector of the universe in the Hindu religion), so Govinda is another name for Vishnu. Hindus venerate Buddha as the ninth avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu. Arnold did his translation of the Gita Govinda in 1875, that is, four years before he wrote and published The Light of Asia. He also translated the “Bhagavad-Gita” as “The Song Celestial” (1885), which he dedicated to India at the opening, having written it, as he claimed, “For England, O our India! as dear to me as She!”

This digression about Jayadeva is because I believe that Arnold’s experience with the Gita Govinda had a strong bearing on the literary quality of his own English epic poem The Light of Asia. I happened to read both The Light of Asia and the Sinhala version of the Gita Govinda entitled ‘Govingu Geeya’ done by Sinhala scholar Arisen Ahubudu about the same time during my adolescent years. At the time I didn’t know that Arnold had translated the Sanskrit poem into English (as ‘The Indian Song of Songs’) before he crafted the English poem about the life and philosophy of the Buddha. Ahubudu provided each Sanskrit stanza in Sinhala transliteration with the Sinhala interpretation following it. Jayadeva’s poem is rich in sensuous imagery; his frequent use of alliteration and assonance enhances its enchanting musicality. Through his rarely matched mastery of the Sinhala language Ahubudu produces an authentic translation of the original Sanskrit text. That Arnold’s familiarity with Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda influenced his composition of The Light of Asia, was something I was able to discern as a mature reader of the English poem years later. (As I write this, I have open before me a copy of The Light of Asia locally published in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) by the M.D. Gunasena & Co. Ltd, Colombo in 1954, which my father bought for me in Kandy for two rupees in 1962. It is the very copy that I read at 15+) that I am using here now after sixty-one years!

It carries an introductory essay under the title ‘The Buddha and His Teaching’ written by Dr G.P. Malalasekera of the University of Peradeniya. But it says nothing about the story of Buddha’s life except that he ‘was a human being who found supreme Enlightenment…’.  I noticed its lopsidedness as an introduction to the book even at that young age. Obviously, the professor had not written it for The Light of Asia, but the publishers must have added it to make the publication seem more appealing and more accessible to the local reader.  The whole essay is about Buddha’s teaching according to the Theravada tradition. This was what we were taught at school for the Buddhism subject in the Sinhala medium. As we were learning English as a second language then, it was a big thing for me to be able to read Dr Malalasekera’s learned  writing about Buddhism and understand it just as much as Arnold’s poem. However, the phrase ‘The Buddha and his teaching’ well describes the subject of Arnold’s The Light of Asia, which is mentioned in different words in several places in the text, including the final passage of the poem quoted at the opening of this essay: ‘Touching the Teacher and the Ways of Peace’; he lived and died ‘Even as a man ‘mongst men’. Arnold says as much of the Buddha’s life as of his teaching, as truthfully as he managed to understand it, shifting through the inevitable hyperbole that traditionally embellishes the historical narration of his life story, and the deliberate mystification that distorts the meaning of his profound doctrinal concepts.

The same edition contains Arnold’s own original Preface to his poem, which starts: ‘In the following Poem I have sought, by the medium of an imaginary Buddhist votary, to depict the life and character and indicate the philosophy of that noble hero and reformer, Prince Gautama of India, the founder of Buddhism.’ According to him, though little or nothing was known in Europe of ‘this great faith of Asia’ it had existed during twenty-four centuries, and at his time, surpassed in the number of its followers and the area of its prevalence, any other form of creed. Though Buddhism had for the most part had disappeared from India, the land of its birth, ‘the mark of Gautama’s sublime teaching is stamped ineffaceably upon modern Brahmanism, and the most characteristic habits and convictions of the Hindus are clearly due to the benign influence of Buddha’s precepts’. 

‘More than a third of mankind… owe their moral and religious ideas to this illustrious prince; whose personality, though imperfectly revealed in the existing sources of information, cannot but appear the highest, gentlest, holiest, and most beneficent, with one exception, in the history of Thought….’ (I could infer who Arnold meant by this exception, but I thought that in his heart of hearts, he would have avoided that reservation, for his assertion sounded like nothing more than a concession to the dominant Christian sensitivities of his society.) Arnold quite rightly points out that though Gautama has been accorded superhuman status, he disapproved of ritual and ‘declared himself, even when on the threshold of Nirvana, to be only what all other men might become – the love and gratitude of Asia, disobeying his mandate, have given him fervent worship’. (The phrase ‘on the threshold of Nirvana’ means, in more mundane words, ‘on his deathbed’; ‘on the threshold of Parinirvana’ is the usual way to put it. To put what Arnold hints at here differently: Siddhartha Gautama did not preach a religious system of ritual worship.) But  ‘Forests of flowers are daily laid upon his stainless shrines, and countless millions of lips daily repeat the formula ‘I take refuge in the Buddha!’ Arnold observes with quiet adoration for the Sage whose memory still induces feelings of such pious devotion in the hearts of his followers.  

Arnold stresses the historicity of the Buddha: ‘The Buddha of this poem – if, as need not be doubted, he really existed – was born on the borders of Nepaul about 620 B.C., and died about 543 B.C. at Kusinagara in Oudh.’ (These place names respectively are: Nepal, Kushinagar and Awadh or Avadh, today.) About the timeless relevance of Buddha’s teaching, he says: ‘… this venerable religion … has in it the eternity of a universal hope, the immortality of a boundless love, an indestructible element of faith in final good, and the proudest assertion ever made of human freedom.’ 

What Arnold next says in his original Preface has a message of vital importance to those who are concerned about the survival of the Buddha Sasana in Sri Lanka: ‘The extravaganzas which disfigure the record and practice of Buddhism are to be referred to that inevitable degradation which priesthoods always inflict upon great ideas committed to their charge. The power and sublimity of Gautama’s original doctrines should be estimated by their influence, not by their interpreters; nor by that innocent but lazy and ceremonious church which has arisen on the foundations of the Buddhistic Brotherhood or “Sangha”.’  Incidentally, it would be timely to consider whether or not ‘innocent but lazy and ceremonious’ is a good description of the present day Buddhist church  (= the clerical officialdom/the Mahanayake, Anunatake, Adhikarana Sangha Nayake, ……system) in Sri Lanka. 

Arnold has put his poem into the mouth of an imaginary Buddhist devotee ‘because, to appreciate the spirit of Asiatic thoughts, they should be regarded from the Oriental point of view; and neither miracles which consecrate this record, nor the philosophy which it embodies could have been otherwise so naturally reproduced. The doctrine of Transmigration, for instance – startling to modern minds – was established and thoroughly accepted by the Hindus of Buddha’s time…..’ (Arnold is here referring to the then prevalent Western attitude to the idea of reincarnation or rebirth, which Hindus of the pre-Christian Buddha’s time took for granted, as Hindus and Buddhists still do.) He confesses that his exposition of the Buddha’s ancient doctrine is necessarily incomplete, since, in conformity with rules of poetic art, he has to pass by many philosophically most important matters developed over Gautama’s long ministry. But he would consider his purpose achieved, if he succeeded in communicating ‘any just conception ……of the lofty character of this noble prince, and of the general purport of his doctrines…’

Edwin Arnold’s purpose in composing the epic The Light of Asia, then, was to give readers an unbiased idea about  the exalted personality of prince Siddhartha and the general substance of his teaching. But he was not addressing this task in a religious cultural vacuum. He had to take care not to step too hard on the religious toes of his contemporary Christian compatriots. Undaunted by that challenge, Arnold opens his monumental epic with the line

 ‘The Scripture of the Saviour of the World’, 

which was startling in its being used to mean the Buddha and his doctrine. It must have sounded very distasteful to the Christian readers of the West, because it was not about Christ, but about the little known Indian sage the Buddha. But then, it was a time of profound intellectual upheaval. The Age of Reason or the Enlightenment in Europe of well over one and a half centuries duration had preceded Charles Darwin’s revolutionary theory of biological evolution, that came to be known to the world through the publication of his epoch-making book ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection‘ (1859). By that time the Buddha was not totally unknown in the West. Ideas of ancient Eastern philosophers like Confucius of China and the Buddha of Bharat (India) as well as thoughts of their Western counterparts like Plato had influenced European thinkers of the time such as David Hume, Emmanuel Kant, and John Locke who figured in the enlightenment movement in Europe that came to be called the Age of Reason (1685-1815). The growing scientific ethos among the people undermined traditional religion and the fast spreading general scepticism regarding long held beliefs dealt a severe blow on theistic religion. Edwin Arnoldl’s senior contemporary Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), in his dramatic monologue ‘Dover Beach’ (1867), could only hear  the receding ‘Sea of Faith,’

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar

Retreating to the breath

Of the night-wind, down to the vast edges drear

And the naked shingles of the world.  

The bleak barren desolate scene (with the ‘naked shingles of the world’: picture the wet pebbles on the indifferent beach constantly washed by the weeping waves) is a very depressing image of the uncertainty, the despair and the sadness that descended on a world that was losing the emotionally stabilising power of traditional religious faith. But it was also a time of bold inquiry and burgeoning hope. Edwin Arnold must have been emboldened by the existing zeitgeist of his time to shock his potential readers thus, only to offer them another more rational source of refuge to explore.

 In terms of structure, The Light of Asia consists of eight cantos: Book the First, Book the Second, and so on up to Book the Eighth. The long epic poem employs the blank verse form, that is, lines of poetry without rhyme, that use a definite metre (a recurring pattern of rhythm) nevertheless. From the beginning to the end, the narrative is delivered in iambic pentameter lines (i.e., each line is made up  of five metrical feet, each foot here being an iamb, that is, a foot consisting of a short syllable followed by a long syllable.Take any line from the poem, you can scan it into five iambic feet. But of course, occasionally, there are functional variations of the metre (as explained below). The opening line of Book the First (hence, of the whole poem) is ‘The Scripture of the Saviour of the World’, which can be scanned thus: The Scrip/ture of/the Sa/viour of/the World; the resulting stress pattern highlights the important words: Scripture, Saviour, World. The blank verse form more closely imitates the rhythm of natural speech than rhymed verse does, and, additionally, it makes for easy narrative continuity. 

In Book the First, we are given the usual fictionalised narrative of how the Buddha-to-be descended from heaven to be born in the world of humans. Arnold recounts such details as Maya’s dream, its interpretation, and before all that, the ‘five sure signs of birth’ (which, though not specified in the poem, are equivalent to what we are familiar with as the Pas Maha Belum/the Great Fivefold Observation {kaalaya, deepaya, deshaya, kulaya, maata/time, land, state, caste, mother}) that preceded the Bodhisattva’s descent to the earth from ‘that sky’ (or the Tusita heaven according to Theravada Buddhist literature). 

(Queen Maya)

Dreamed a strange dream; dreamed that a star from heaven –

Splendid, six-rayed, in colour rosy-pearl,

Whereof the token was an Elephant

Six-tusked, and white as milk of Kanadhuk –

Shot through the void; and shining into her, 

Entered her womb upon the right…….

Thus was Siddhartha (the Bodhisattva/Buddha-to-be) conceived in his earthly mother’s womb.  The birth takes place under a Palsa in the Palace-grounds in Kapilavastu (instead of under the shade between two Shala/Sal or cannonball trees on the way to Maya’s maternal home in Rajagriha/Rajgir, according to the story we know): 

The conscious tree bent down its bows to make

A bower about Queen Maya’s Majesty;

And Earth put forth a thousand sudden flowers

To spread a couch……………

The narration of these miraculous occurrences which were claimed to have accompanied the birth of Siddhartha (‘All-Prospering’) did not spoil my enjoyment of the story, which was already known to me with similarly fantastic details, despite my then growing scepticism towards religion. People of different faiths usually adopt a healthy ‘suspension of disbelief’ when confronted with such fanciful accounts of events connected with the lives of religious figures that they adore, mostly because they are rational enough to read them as literature (a fact that Arnold himself was aware of and wanted his readers to understand as well).

The Queen mother dies seven days after the prince’s birth because she was ‘grown too sacred for more woe – And life is woe…………’

When old enough to learn all that a warrior prince should learn (for the Gautamas belonged to the warrior/military caste, Kshatriya), Siddhartha is entrusted to the wisest teacher available: Vishvamitra. But struck by the extraordinary precocity of his ‘softly-mannered, modest, deferent, tender-hearted…..’ royal charge, the old teacher

Prostrated before the boy; “For thou”, he cried,

Art Teacher of thy teachers – thou, not I,

“Art Guru. Oh I worship thee, sweet Prince! 

The young prince also excelled in physical feats that formed a part of his training. He was a bold horseman and a skillful chariot driver. But he was so kindhearted that

Yet in mid-play the boy would oft-times pause,

Letting the deer pass free; would oft-times yield

His half-won race because his labouring steeds

Fetched painful breath; ……………………

One day while in play, Siddhartha’s cousin Devadatta shoots a swan with an arrow and the injured bird falls to the ground. Siddhartha picks it up, removes the dart, and applies a poultice of soothing herbs on the wound. Though Devadatta demands to have the bird that he has shot down, Siddhartha refuses to give it back. An unknown priest suddenly appears to mediate  between the two cousins, and he hands the bird to Siddhartha, saying that ‘the cherisher of life deserved the living bird, and not its slayer’. When the father king looks for the mysterious priest to reward him, he finds that he has disappeared:

And someone saw a hooded snake glide forth, –

The gods come oft-times thus! So our Lord Buddh

Began his works of mercy………………  

 It is in Book the Second that Arnold is seen giving full play to whatever he imbibed from his literary-aesthetic interaction with the Gita Govinda of Jayadeva, which Arnold seems to have used as a model for his own poetic masterpiece. The absolute devotion to the Buddha that Arnold expresses as an imaginary Buddhist votary in the capitalised last lines of the poem quoted in the epigraph to this essay indicates that his discovery of Buddhism was indeed a life changing experience.  

While continuing my own narrative here, I consider this point an appropriate place to say  something again about the form of the epic poem we are having a glance at. Now, too rigid an adherence to a set metrical foot is boringly mechanical at times (See the second paragraph above). Poets avoid this by varying it according to the context (as Shakespeare did in his plays). For example, from Book the Second we have

 ‘But they/ who watched/ the Prince/ at prize/-giving 

Saw and/ heard all/ and told/ the care/ful King’ 

Here, the first line is a perfect iambic pentameter line. In the second line, however, the first two feet are trochees, not iambs; in a trochee, in contrast to an iamb, the stress or accent falls on the first syllable: Saw and/heard all/…. The context in the poem is where some courtiers, who have been attending on prince Siddhartha during a festival of royal beauties arranged by his father the  ‘careful’ (full of care, i.e., worried, anxious) king Suddhodana on the advice of his wisemen to distract his eighteen year old young son from a premature otherworldliness that they had observed in his demeanour, are reporting to the king a sudden brightening of the prince’s mood on seeing the beautiful princess Yashodhara. What the watchful guards saw and heard passing between the two (Siddhartha and Yashodhara) gladdened them: they had instantly fallen in love with each other. 

Whereas every one of the other maidens who came to receive gifts from the prince that day, even the fairest one among them,

….stood like a sacred antelope to touch

The gracious hand, then fled to join her mates

Trembling at favour, so divine he seemed,

So high and saint-like and above her world,

Yashodhara alone ‘Of heavenly mould’

Gazed full – folding her palms across her breasts –

On the boy’s gaze, her stately neck unbent.

“Is there a gift for me?” she asked, and smiled.

“The gifts are gone”, the Prince replied “yes take

This for amends, dear sister, of whose grace

Our happy city boasts”, therewith he loosed

The emerald necklet from his throat, and clasped

Its green beads round her dark and silk-soft waist;

And their eyes mixed, and from the look sprang love.

Those who stood nearest (the guards, no doubt) saw ‘the princely boy – Start, as the radiant girl approached….’ and they heard the sweet exchanges between the two instant lovers.

The brief break in the metre in the verse line that records this (‘Saw and/ heard all/ and told/ the care/ful King‘) highlights their (the guards’) sudden joy and excitement at being finally able to bear the long awaited news of their happy finding to the fond father, the king they serve with so much love and loyalty. 

This is a climactic moment of the whole scene (where the prince, set to choose his bride/his future queen consort, has just been rescued from his accustomed otherworldly melancholia). The king’s stratagem seems to be working. He wants his son to be a Chakravartin (lit. Turner of the Disc, a universal monarch) who will rule the world, not a holy man of wondrous wisdom. (As described in Book the First, these were the two alternative destinies that the dream-readers predicted for the baby conceived that night by Queen Maya. Ultimately, though,as we know, the king’s ambition for his son was not fulfilled. Siddhartha became Buddha instead of a Chackravartin.)

Long after Siddhartha attained Buddhahood, he is asked “why thus his heart – Took fire at first glance of the Sakya girl”, and he recalls an earlier life long gone by as

A hunter’s son, playing with forest girls

By Yamun’s springs, where Nandadevi stands,

Sate umpire while they raced beneath the firs


One with fir-apples; but who ran the last

Came first for him, and unto her the boy

Gave a tame fawn and his heart’s love beside.

This is just like a scene from Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda. Krishna/Govinda plays with Radha in a forest glade on the banks of the very same Yamuna. It is one of the swooning love scenes between  the resplendent Blue God Krishna (in the form of Govinda) and the radiantly fair human cowherdess Radha during their  heavenly trysts that Jayadeva enacts for us in his poem. While giving his account of the Siddhartha Yashodhara romance, Arnold is trying to infuse his poem with a touch of the divine magic of Jayadeva’s poetry. 

Father Suddhodana creates for his son ‘….. a pleasant prison-house – Where  love was gaoler and delights its bars’. The poet beautifully paints how the prince gradually grows tired of those delights. Around the end of Book the Fourth, Siddhartha has decided to renounce everything and embark on his lonely search for the Truth as a mendicant recluse. Channa, his charioteer, asks him:

Wilt thou ride hence and let the rich world slip

Out of thy grasp, to hold a beggar’s bowl?

Wilt thou go forth into the friendless waste

That has this Paradise of pleasures here?

The Prince made answer, “Unto this I came,

And not for thrones: the kingdom that I crave

Is more than many realms – and all things pass

To change and death………

The rest of the poem actualizes the ascetic Gautama’s painful exploration and his blissful ultimate discovery. Book the Seventh and Book the Eighth outline the doctrines of the Buddha as Edwin Arnold conceived of them in his essentially limited understanding of the Dhamma, which consisted of ‘the fruits of considerable study’ though.  

Rohana R. Wasala

Rohana R. Wasala is a freelance journalist and regular columnist for Sri Lanka Guardian, with a background in academia.

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