Book review | The light of Asia: the poem that defined the Buddha


This Western appreciation of Eastern thought (often a mere curiosity) is taken for granted in our time, it is difficult for us to recognize the contemporary value of Edwin Arnold’s work. Asian light when he wrote it. The end of the 19th century, when it was published, was a time when Eastern thought in general was systematically denigrated by the power structure of the West. The emblematic expression of this perspective was that the collective wisdom of “the whole of the indigenous literature of India and Arabia”, the two great regions of occupation by the maritime powers of Britain, France and the West, did not could compete “with a single shelf from a good European library.” Meanwhile, the orthodoxy of Buddhism was distrusted by many academics and questioned by practitioners of other Indian religions. (More on that later.)

Arguably this modern phase of unschooled perspective began to wane with the 1879 publications of Arnold’s Poetic Interpretation of Buddhism and, coincidentally, the publication in the same year of the first volume of Sacred Books of the East, a series of translations edited by the great philologist and “orientalist”, Max Mueller. This decline in prejudice is more likely to have started with Asian light. It was less abstruse than annotated translations and heavy philosophical commentaries on primary sources, both preceded by anonymous work and followed by silent study for decades before the full significance of these treasures was revealed. Arnold’s intuitive understanding of Siddhartha Gautama’s teachings, meanwhile, quickly ignited the popular imagination. Soon his vision of Buddhism was celebrated in Europe and North America.

Jairam Ramesh, The Light of Asia: the poem that defined the Buddha, is a bibliography of Arnold’s new and palpable understanding of a complex philosophy and a worthy contribution to modern Buddhist studies. The poem reintroduced Buddhism to late modern British India, and its English translation was in turn translated into as many as twelve Indian languages. Ramesh’s research gives rise to an interesting reflection: Could the study of these translations and their comments provide some insight into the much needed intellectual debate on the convergence of “nation” and “state” in ideology? twinning of the “nation-state” in South Asia, which was rapidly affecting the soon-to-become post-colonial world order? Ramesh’s fleeting reference to Judith Snodgrass’s essay linking Arnold’s poetic interpretation to Meiji Japan opens the door to this tantalizing speculation. And if valid, it could provide us with clues as to how consciousness of the millennial idea of ​​the nation may have combined with the centuries-old Westphalian idea of ​​the state, to create the ideology of nation states in the late modern East, including South Asia. .

Buddhism has of course been unveiled in South Indian Asia. While its importance here has diminished over the two and a half millennia of its history, its message has migrated to create syntheses with many civilizations in South Himalayan Asia, Southeast Asia, the great Eurasian landmass and beyond. While Ramesh’s project does not aim to include explorations of the history of these unique migrations and blooms, it does offer us another way to approach Buddhism, so to speak. As a bonus, his biblio-biography also offers us, between the lines, a fascinating biography of its author. This by-product reveals that Arnold leaned for a universalist, rather than academic or theological understanding of Buddhism. Ramesh shows us this in a revealing quote from Arnold’s pen when he was 21 in Oxford:

Not by a portal, or a single path
God’s holy messages to men are known

With these vignettes and others, we gain valuable insight into an intellectual predisposition that originated with Arnold and allowed him to intuitively grasp the core of one of the world’s most important traditions. This dimension of Arnold’s work comes in four facets of Ramesh’s ambitious vision.

The first of these is what one might call academic minutiae which are far from irrelevant and often intriguing enough that other researchers can pursue them. Ramesh sprinkles the book with them, ranging from startling discoveries about Arnold’s descendants in today’s India, side gossip about historical figures that lighten the mood and, in at least one case, an intriguing claim. which could turn into a university thesis.

Ramesh managed to track down nine of Arnold’s great-grandchildren. Five live in India with ‘syncretic [Muslim-Christian] names ”and the other four live in Australia, having migrated from India, as Christians. There is also some intriguing gossip: citing the contributions of Frenchman Barthelemy St. Hilaire, one of the earliest contributors to Western understanding of Buddhism, we are told he would be “the son of Napoleon I.” [1769 1821]», A nugget that makes you wary of skipping even the footnotes of this dense book!

Of academic interest is Ramesh’s discovery of a manuscript of an English translation of the maxims in verse of Lalleshvari, or Lal Ded, the famous poet-sage woman of Kashmir. Ramesh’s detective is however skeptical about this discovery: “It’s hard to believe but possible” he dares; for, he explains, neither Arnold nor his biographer makes any mention of such a translation. Then, with a nod to the still controversial Kashmir, Ramesh tells us that the story is “a worthy case of Sherlock Holmes” in whose adventures the Buddha, say the non-connoisseur, makes many appearances.

The second intriguing facet explored in The poem that defined the Buddha, is a panoramic view of the impact of Buddhism in modern Europe, North America and, not least, India itself. The book is in many ways an in-depth investigation of the impact of the traveling South Asian scholar of the 6th century BCE on the late modern world. It demonstrates how various personalities were influenced by the book: Andrew Carnegie, otherwise a ruthless businessman, counted the manuscript of Arnold’s poem among his most precious possessions; he introduced Buddhism to the young Western-educated Gandhi and Winston Churchill, the shameless imperialist, recommended it to Nehru at least twice in the mid-1950s. Among Buddhist practitioners, too, the book was admired for its empathetic understanding of the faith, which has led it to be translated into Japanese, Thai, Khmer and all South Indian languages ​​except Kannada. In the latter case, as to make up for the omission, Asian light inspired the publication of a dramatic interpretation of Gautama Buddha’s life in Kannada, a role that was first played by a Muslim, Mohammad Peer, in the early 1930s.

By far the most uplifting dimension of Ramesh’s study is the intellectual and spiritual mood of Arnold’s poem. He speaks of the native intellectual pursuit of Arnold mentioned above with the recognition of the entelechy (or potentiality come true) which is the goal of all religious praxis. In our modern world, we reject tradition too much or, worse, misinterpret it as nothing more than what we have inherited. TS The other category of critics was the skeptical college class who had worked diligently to figure it out. These early skeptics were Friedrich Max Mueller and Monier Monier-Williams with many more to follow in the following years. Treatment of this category of reactions with Ramesh is prudent and sensitive. However, the book would have benefited greatly from a longer analysis on his part, even at the risk of being an adventurous digression. Was the scholar taken aback by the believer in Arnold? Were they nervous about Arnold’s bold vision of the Forest even though they were working (often anonymously) in the Woods? For now, we must settle for evidence suggesting a spectrum of reactions ranging from ignorance to condescension to contempt.

By far the most serious challenge to Buddhism came from the charge against Buddhism accusing it of “heresy of annihilation” as something which the Buddha himself, according to Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, had dismissed as an “impossibility”. metaphysics ”. But the charge persisted for over a millennium, culminating in and extending to the charge that Buddhism is a heterodoxy within Hinduism. Unsurprisingly, Arnold has also been accused of falling prey to this “heresy” in his performance.

Citing the line of the poet Arnold of Light of Asia who describes nirvana as “The dewdrop slips into the shining sea,” Coomaraswamy includes Arnold’s understanding of nirvana as being “in almost identical terms the Brahmanic and Taoist traditions, and the Islamic and Christian traditions wherever, in fact, der Weg zum Selbst (which translates to ‘the path of the Self’ in English) has been researched. To substantiate his case, Coomaraswamy cites the same understanding of the ultimate human goal by, outside of the above-mentioned teaching, figures such as Plato, Plotinus, Jalaluddin Rumi, Meister Eckhart, Angelus Silesius, and others. Reason enough to give us a fair idea of ​​the depth and depth of Arnold’s understanding of Buddhism.

The Light of Asia: the poem that defined the Buddha is a fine work whose strength lies in its accessibility to lay readers despite the breadth of research that has been devoted to it and the density of information it provides to the reader. Indeed, Ramesh’s research covers much more than what is covered by this review, which has chosen to leave some things for individual discovery. Some may regard the strength of the book as also its “weakness”; but it is a hasty assessment. Its content must be extracted and the information it contains savored in small bites that will lead a person down unsuspected paths and, for young researchers, open avenues for new research.

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