After the era in which the Lord Buddha was alive, it is during the reign of Ashoka the Great in India that the first reports of the mission to spread Buddhism were recorded. History stipulates that King Ashoka after embracing Buddhism sent missionaries to neighbouring states such as Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Pakistan to introduce and spread Buddhism.
Even at a time when Buddhism was fading away from the land of the Buddha, it was thanks to this dharma mission of Emperor Ashoka that it did not disappear from the world. As such, it is indisputable that Emperor Ashoka’s work for the perpetuation of Buddhism is a priceless service.
It is noteworthy that during the 19th century, there was a revival of Buddhism throughout the world without the involvement of India or Indians. Among the non-Indian nationals who immensely contributed to the revival of Buddhism around the world, British national Edwin Arnold holds a prominent place. Sir Edwin Arnold, who was not even a Buddhist until his death, historically showcased the value of Buddhism to the world with his poem called LIGHT OF ASIA. Despite being a teacher, journalist and poet, it is owing to this poetic work that the name of Edwin Arnold has remained unforgettable and eminent.
The first edition of LIGHT OF ASIA was published in London in July 1879. It is a narrative of the life and message of the Buddha. It quickly became a huge sensation and has continued to resonate powerfully across the world over the last century and a half. The poem captivated an Indian monk who remains an iconic personality-Swami Vivekananda. At about the same time, it deeply moved a young man in Colombo who has become famous in history as Anagarika Dharmapala. It caught the attention of an aspiring Indian lawyer in London in 1889. This man later became immortal as Mahatma Gandhi. A few years hence it impacted a teenager in Allahabad who would, in 1947, become the first Prime Minister of India-Jawaharlal Nehru. Two copies of the book adorned the bookshelves of B.R. Ambedkar, the prime architect of the Indian constitution.
At the same time, India’s former Union Minister Jayram Ramesh has written a “biography” of this poem. His “The Light of Asia: The Poem That Defined the Buddha” investigates the times in which it was written and tracks every translation, adaptation, and dissertation dealing with the author and the poem.
“The Light of Asia; the epic poem that defined the Buddha” is a work of deep scholarship based on extensive research and serves as a biography of both the epic poem and its author Sir Edwin Arnold. Jayaram Jayram Ramesh is a member of the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of the Indian Parliament representing the State of Karnataka.
The poem has been translated into over 30 languages, including Sinhala, and inspired movements for social equality, incarnating itself in music, dance, drama, art and cinema.
The Sinhala Translation was done by Niluka Kadurugamuwa, an officer of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service, who presently serves as Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner in New Delhi. He won the State Literary Award for the best translation of a novel into Sinhala in 2018, 2019, and 2022. Budusiritha Lowata Genagiya Maha Kavyaya; Asiyawe Alokaya is Kadurugamuwa’s eighth translation.
The importance of Niluka’s translation is not only because it offers the reader the opportunity to read Jayaram Ramesh’s precious work in Sinhala, but also because it has helped expand the Sri Lankan literary field by introducing a new literary genre. Biographies of exceptional people in any field in the past or living in the present are not new to the Sinhala reader, but it cannot be said that a biography of a book has been found in Sinhala literature before. There are commentaries on ancient Sri Lankan literary works such as commentary, commentary, tippani, etc., as well as reviews on ancient and modern books, but there is no doubt that a biography of a particular book is a new experience for the Sinhala reader. In this context, Niluka Kadurugamuwa and the publishers, Pathfinder Institute deserve kudos for translating this work of Jayaram Ramesh into Sinhala.
Nevertheless, Jayaram Ramesh’s book is not a commentary or review of Sir Edwin Arnold’s LIGHT OF ASIA, but the background associated with that book. Jayaram Ramesh tells us the story of LIGHT OF ASIA, explaining his other creative works with reference to the author’s personal information. Further, Jayaram Ramesh has articulated how Sir Edwin Arnold got access to write LIGHT OF ASIA, what kind of factors motivate him to write such a work, and what his sources are, apart from the challenges he had to face in writing this book. On top of that, what is fascinating is how Jayaram Ramesh narrates the situation of the post-publication of LIGHT OF ASIA.
At the same time, it is fitting to note that Arnold’s work had an impact on the world, as it outlines how Arnold personally dedicated himself to giving Buddhism its rightful place in the world.
“From then on, this is a biography of a book. Published in the guise of a magnificent epic, the book played a major role in shaping people’s views of the Buddha’s life around the world. It was a craze for years after its publication…”
“The publication of this book was a crucial milestone in the work of rediscovering Lord Buddha at the age of nineteen. It occupies an important place in writing the history of modern Buddhism.”
Jayaram Ramesh points out that the world situation in relation to the hegemonic religion at that time caused the Light of Asia to gain wide popularity all over the world and the interest of the people of the world in Buddhism increased. And at a time when it was also under attack from the other side of the Atlantic.
To use the title of Thomas Hardy’s extraordinary poem, Arnold buried the Buddha in Jana Santhan in an era when the ‘death of God’ was taking place. In Asia, where the Buddha said that he was not a god, and that he looked for a ‘theology of humanity’ based on logic and self-discovery, free from greed and selfishness. The message of the light went forth with a great shout.”
LIGHT OF ASIA, irrespective of being a Dharma book, did not expand the monastic order as it did in the Ashoka period, nor has it been recorded anywhere in history that everyone who read the book embraced Buddhism. This happened to people who did not know anything about Buddhism, especially in their societies and fields. Influential people learn about Buddhism. The purpose behind Light of Asia is either to correct the misconceptions that were prevalent at that time about Buddhism and its contents and correct the misconceptions and opinions that were widespread at that time regarding Buddhism and its contents or to inspire many more people to investigate and study more about Buddhism. Jayaram Ramesh tells us in his book that by reading LIGHT OF ASIA, even if he is not a Buddhist, all those people were nourished to make their life religion more humanistic and meaningful.
According to the facts that the author has found by associating with sources from all over the world, the light of Asia has fallen even to the British royal family. British Prime Minister Vincent Churchill clearly not only read LIGHT OF ASIA but incorporated it into his life as he advised Shri Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, to read it.
In addition to politicians like Churchill, Jayaram Ramesh has revealed many unique names of people who have come out of the light of Asia in his book. Nobel prize-winning writers such as Rudyard Kipling, W. B. Yeats, Ivan Bunin, T. S. Eliot, Rabindranath Tagore, as well as writers such as Leo Tolstoy, D. H. Lawrence, Russian Dmitri Mendeleev, creator of the periodic table, He says that the light of Asia had fallen on many notables of that era like who established the Nobel Prize Alfred Nobel.
Moreover, it is clear from Jayaram Ramesh’s work that India rediscovered Buddhism in the 19th century through the light of Arnold’s Light of Asia. In fact, Ramesh is anxious to write such a book for that purpose. He says in his introduction: “I began the journey to understand how and why this book of poetry was written, and how and why its influence grew from country to country, especially on the subcontinent where Lord Buddha descended more than two and a half millennia year ago.”
Furthermore, several other salient issues revealed by Ramesh’s efforts can be identified when reading his work. Accordingly, the prominent one is the richness of Indian culture, which has been prioritized by Indian classical literature including oriental languages, and the interest shown by world-class scholars in it, as well as how the contemporary Indian society has been nourished by various cultures.
According to Jayaram, it was an easy task for Arnold because he had become an expert in Sanskrit and Marathi for two years as a headmaster of Poona College in India. Also, Arnold’s always using a new technique was a reason for his success in writing. Jayaram notes, quoting Arnold about the success of his writing. “In order to evaluate the essence of Asian thoughts, we must look at them from an Eastern point of view; otherwise, the miracles that made these stories sacred, and the philosophy embodied in them, could not have been created with such naturalness.”
Although Arnold is talking about the light of Asia, it shows how he looked at Asian civilization, especially Indian civilization. Isn’t he saying that he looked at it with an Indian eye and not with a British eye? There is no doubt that the oriental languages he learned may have helped him.
Before and after writing The Light of Asia, Arnold translated several ancient classical literary works of India into English and wrote several other works related to India. One of the most important books is the Bhagavad Gita, which is considered as a sacred book in India. Jayaram Ramesh shows very clearly in his book how to know and how it was evaluated by them. Thus, Jayaram’s work is like a reminder to the modern world about the rich Indian culture. If we think about it, Jayaram’s work is as important as Arnold’s Light of Asia.
Even Mahatma Gandhi, who was named as the father of the nation of India, read the Bhagavad Gita for the first time as a translation of Arnold. After reading his LIGHT OF ASIA, Gandhi said: “I read it more eagerly than the Bhagavad Gita. When I started reading it, I could not put the book down.”
As a 19-year-old young man who read the light of Asia from England, Jayaram says that his future vision of life was illuminated by the light of Asia, quoting Mr. Gandhi. Gandhi wrote that “this time has been a time when my young mind has tried to integrate the teachings of the Gita, the light of Asia and the Sermon on the Mount” and “the idea of abandoning the highest form of religion in the wild” is hard on my heart.
Like Mahatma Gandhi, the number of eminent Indians who have seen the light of Asia is very large. Among them, Swami Vivekananda is as prominent a figure as Gandhi. As mentioned above, the great poet Rabindranath Tagore, Sri Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, CV Raman, the first Indian to win the Nobel Prize for Physics, and Dr. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, are names that should be specially mentioned. Among these few people, Dr. Ambedkar is a name that should be emphasized. He embraced Buddhism along with hundreds of thousands of people against the caste oppression, but there is no doubt that the light of Asia guided him for that.
Meanwhile, Jayaram Ramesh has reserved a significant space in his work regarding the efforts made to reclaim the birthplace of Buddha by Edwin Arnold. Although the most famous fighter in the battle to save Bodhgaya is Sri Lankan Anagarika Dharmapala, he takes inspiration from Arnold. Although there is no doubt about Dharmapala’s role in the battle to save Bodhgaya, Ramesh reveals that Arnold engaged in this battle in a different way from Dharmapala’s. Ramesh has noted that when there was any victory in this battle in May 1896, Dharmapala thanked Arnold for it. “The work you started in 1886 has been completed in 1896 and the glory belongs to you. My work was that of a trumpeter…” Dharmapala does not hesitate to give Arnold the credit of the battle to save Bodhgaya, but as Jayaram Ramesh reveals in his book, the true story of this battle. The founder, Arnold, was inspired by Sri Sumangala Thero of Weligama, Sri Lanka. Jayaram has stated that Arnold has written that when he went to Sri Lanka, “the place where Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and the place where he passed away should not be in the hands of anyone but Buddhists”.
Also, it is a question whether the Buddhists in Sri Lanka today, let alone the monks, know that the founder of the battle to save Bodh Gaya was Weligama Sumangala Thero.
According to his idea and request, Arnold started the fight to save Buddha Gaya and presented petitions to the British Empire for it. But the battle was finally won in 1953 after more than six decades. Both Arnold and Dharmapala, who fought on two fronts at that time, were not alive. Arnold’s effort in this regard is not second to the service he did for Buddhism by writing Light of Asia. It is thanks to their efforts that it has become the heritage of everyone in the world and has become a symbol of a noble human being.
Jayaram’s description of the battle to save Bodhgaya is not only to understand the intensity of that battle but also provides evidence to get a good assessment of the acceptance of Buddhism in India and the world at that time. That is better explained by the fact that it took more than six decades until 1953 to fully win the battle started by Arnold in 1886.
Jayaram Ramesh writes the story of the light of Asia not just with a passionate devotion to it but on a logical basis. He presents the facts that the light of Asia has been criticized as much as it has been celebrated. As it should be in that era, the light of Asia was attacked by missionaries. Some thought that Arnold had an evil plan to make Christ look inferior in comparison to Christianity. Another was of the opinion that The Light of Asia should be declared inappropriate as a work of literature or as a commentary on the Buddha’s doctrine and life. Some took the assessment of the Light of Asia as an opportunity to further confirm their biased opinion of Buddhism and the Buddha. One such critic opined that the Buddha was a purely negative preacher who looked weak when judged alongside Hindu thought and philosophy.
Arnold answers these criticisms not with words but with actions. After 12 years, the poet who ascended to Buddhist tradition wrote a work called THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD based on the life of Christ. Jayaram Ramesh suggests that Arnold may have composed The Light of the World in response to his critics’ accusations that he had become a Buddhist. Jayaram also suggests that he might have thought for a while that his love of India might have made him unfit to become the Royal Poet Laureate of Britain after Lord Tennyson’s death. It cannot be a coincidence that the book about Christ is called “Light of the World” when the book about Lord Buddha is “Light of Asia”. Arnold may have tried to say that no matter how popular Buddhism is, Christ is the light for the world, not him.
In any case, Jayaram shows with illustrations that Arnold has damaged the reputation and trust earned by composing the light of Asia.
Arnold’s most severe criticism for composing the Light of the World came from the absolute idealists who, when the Enlightenment appeared in Asia, welcomed it with great enthusiasm and did much to propagate it. The criticism of Helena Blavetsky, the co-founder of the company, was very harsh.
Sir Edwin Arnold, author of the unique Light of Asia, has endeavoured to conciliate Christendom by a scheme which surpasses even the great power of the priests of the Muses. We can only sincerely regret that Sir Edwin Arnold has gone so far out of his way to destroy his own honorable history, and to have made both East and West red with shame by such a pitiful trial…”
Ramesh points out that although Arnold did not stop writing the light of Asia and took steps to introduce Indian culture to the world, doubts about his love for India also exist in the 21st century.
As we all know, the Bhagavad Gita is considered the defining text of Hinduism. We have mentioned that even Mahatma Gandhi read it for the first time as a translation of Arnold. Also, that translation was praised by Mr. Gandhi. However, Gandhi’s grandson Ramachanchandra Gandhi is of the opinion that Arnold did not give proper value to that translation.
“Obviously, the divine song (The Song Celestial) for India’s ‘Father of the Nation’ was a special one. But the philosophical grandson of Gandhi, Ramachandra Gandhi, had a different idea about the name that Arnold had given to his translation. According to him, when naming it, Arnold thought of the Bhagavad Gita as ‘Devamaya’. From the (divine) state ‘dropped down to the (celestial) state.’ If ‘divine’ was used, it would be higher than ‘holiness’ (as in the Holy Bible) and ‘celestial’ would be one of the lower constellations. This is somewhat similar to the difference between sainthood (saint…) and sanctification (blessed…). “Jayaram further says that Arnold was under attack from Christian circles at the time of the publication of the Bhagavad Gita. Six years later he wrote the Light of the World in praise of Christ.
In this way, several other controversial points that show the contradictions between Arnold’s creations and use were brought to our attention in Jayaram’s work. Jayaram’s observation is that no matter how much Arnold was fascinated by Indian culture, he never spoke or wrote anything about winning India’s independence.
He was an undisputed supporter of the Empire and contributed to its further maintenance. He dedicates his book The Light of Asia to Queen Victoria and the leader of “ The most exalted star of India organization and its members. According to Jayaram Ramesh, The most exalted star of India organization is an organization that was established after the Great Revolt of 1861 primarily to grant honour title to the Indian subjects for their loyalty to the empire. It was headed by the Viceroy of India, of which Arnold was also a member.
His views were in line with the view held by British imperialism that it was their responsibility to civilize other nations of the world such as Indians. Jayaram refers to Arnold’s 1892 article titled “Britain’s Duty and Responsibility in India” for the North American Review as a long eulogy of Britain’s achievements in India. Ramesh says that it was also a story about what they are doing to bring an ancient and ancient civilization to the modern age. The most important thing is that Arnold said that British occupation of India was an accident and not any evil plan of the British.
In addition, Jayaram has pointed out how the British rulers who were working to introduce reforms for self-rule were also criticized by Arnold, who did not say anything about the attempt of self-rule for India. Moreover, Arnold sees the emergence of Indian freedom fighters as a fault of English education and blames himself for contributing to it.
After serving as Vice-Principal of Poona College in India and returning to Britain in 1860, Arnold wrote to his successor: “We shall have done our duty if the day comes when India can stand alone without being nursed any longer; and if she again succumbs to Hindu supremacy and tradition, or merges helplessly with the infamous mass of Russian rule, then, whatever our efforts, we shall do our duty. Unfulfilled; but responsible for extinguishing the light of civilization.”
British Prime Minister Churchill, who sent a letter to Prime Minister Nehru on February 12, 1955, told him to learn from Asia in order to defeat communism. “I hope you will think of the phrase “The Light of Asia.” You will be able to do something that no other human being can do in leading the whole of Asia, at least in the realm of thought, with the freedom and dignity of the individual as the ideal rather than the drill book of the Communist Party. I see that.”
British Prime Minister Churchill can understand the use of Light in Asia as a tool against the spread of communism, but how do we understand how the author of Light in Asia thinks about communism? On the one hand, how can one expect more from someone who thinks that he has the responsibility of civilizing the people of countries like India, which are strongly pro-imperial? But because of this, even though he taught the world about Buddhism and made great efforts to give the Buddhists the right to the place where Buddha was born, it is inevitable that he did not understand the essence of Buddhism well.
Despite all these doubts and controversial facts, none of them can suppress the historical role played by the light of Asia. Regardless of Arnold’s personal socio-political views and practices, the impact of Light on Asia cannot be denied. According to Jayaram Ramesh, “Though its author was not a great scholar, he managed to do a task in poetry that could not be accomplished by any academic work. At least until the first quarter of the twentieth century its influence on the Western world was acknowledged and written about.”
However, even PhD theses have been written based on the Light of Asia, but we believe that nothing has been written about the Light of Asia like Jayaram Ramesh’s work. First, this is not a commentary or evaluation of Light of Asia. It will not be so. He conveys to us the story of the light of Asia. The author’s life character is also embedded in it. Jayaram says that he was interested in the man behind it as much as the poem, and the book and the author cannot be seen in isolation from each other. As we think, the success of Jayaram Ramesh’s work is that he does not abstract the work from the author.
Jayaram Ramesh constructs the story of the Light of Asia by constructing the two stories about the work and the author separately but parallel to each other. Sometimes there are contradictions between what the author says and what he does. Arguments arise. It directs the reader to different dimensions built through arguments or to a dimension that has not yet emerged from the light of Asia. Jayaram is careful to make sure that this dichotomy will increase the historical value of Asia’s light and not decrease its value. This technique that he has chosen to tell the story of light in Asia is a very reasonable method that can be used to record history.
A reader who is interested in reading Jayaram Ramesh’s story about the light of Asia may inevitably feel the desire to find out more about Indian society in general, including its education, ancient Indian literature, and religious background. Through this, the reader is encouraged to think about the light of Asia in other dimensions. In fact, there is no end to Jayaram’s work, it is only a beginning. He concludes his essay thus: “The life of the Buddha has become a permanent part of the mind of every Indian. We do not realize how much the popular imagination of those lives has been shaped by the light of Asia.” Isn’t the author saying that there is more to explore about the light in Asia?
This book by Jayaram is important to be read by every Sri Lankan, not only by every Sri Lankan Buddhist, whether they have not read the light of Asia, heard about it or not. Jayaram does not say that the light of Asia had a great impact on the Western world and India, but it had that much impact on Sri Lankan society. It may be because the majority of Sri Lanka were Buddhists, although the number of Buddhists in India was less than ten thousand when the light was shining in Asia. Also, despite the influence of the emperors and the expansion of the missionaries, the Buddhist order remained intact and a fight against the missionaries had started due to the order. The Light of Asia was translated into Sinhala in 1955 by Vinnie Vitharana as “Asiyany eliya “ ( Asia light ) and in 1959 by DJ Doluweera as “peradigu eliya(Eastern Light). This may be the reason why it has taken so long for the light of Asia, which has spread like madness all over the world, to be translated into Sinhala.
Jayaram mentions that since 1925, the Colombo Young Buddhist Association has been conducting an English speaking competition called Light of Asia and there is a non-profit foundation established in that name. Even so, none of these things seem to have inspired any interest in the Sri Lankan society or to think further about Buddhism or its essence. Because of this, it is doubtful how many Buddhists in this country know about Arnold or his Light of Asia. It is in that situation that Jayaram’s work is published in Sinhala.
On the other hand, Sri Lanka is considered to be the foremost of the few countries with ‘pure’ Buddhism or Theravada. More than seventy-five percent of the country’s people are Buddhists. But it is a difficult question to answer how many of these people have properly understood the teachings of the Buddha. Contradictions abound in Buddhists as well as in the Buddha Sasana. In fact, there is no mistake in saying that Sri Lankan society is currently in a position where a book like Light of Asia should be read from the beginning.
To find the correct Buddhism. Jayaram’s book is a good start for that. Even in the Victorian era, if we understand how popular Buddhism was in the world, why famous people who guided the world were so fascinated by Buddhism, we can understand where we are and what we are doing today.
Even if the essence of Buddhism is not found through the light of Asia, the Buddhists of this country who read Jayaram’s work will be able to understand how much hard work they have done to make Bodhgaya a treasure that they worship or see with great devotion. The most important thing that Buddhists in this country should get from reading is that Buddhism and the Buddha are heritage objects not only for Sri Lanka or Sinhala Buddhists but also for the entire world and the global human community.
Nonetheless, it is somewhat problematic whether the average reader in this country or the average devout Buddhist will be able to absorb the essence of Jayaram Ramesh’s work in the same way. Although Jayaram Ramesh’s work is a biography about a book, it is not just a story but a narrative with the characteristics of academic research. Therefore, learning its language is inevitable. We know that translating such a work into another language is a very challenging task. The translator can never go beyond and avoid the original work because his use of language is simultaneously limited.
In this context, the reader who is used to reading academic writings will not find it difficult to read such a book, but it is unlikely that the average reader will take so much effort to read this book. Thus, it is a question how much they will understand its content even if they read it with difficulty.