Volume 2 Page 130
“THE LIGHT OF ASIA”*
AS TOLD IN VERSE BY AN INDIAN BUDDHIST.
[The Theosophist, Vol. I, No. 1, October, 1879, pp. 20-25]
A timely work in poetical form, and one whose subject—perfect though the outward clothing be—is sure to provoke discussion and bitter criticisms, has just made its appearance. It is inscribed to “The Sovereign, Grand Master and Companions of the Most Exalted Order of the Star of India,” and the author, Mr. Edwin Arnold, C.S.I., late
* The Light of Asia: or the Great Renunciation (Mahâbhinishkramana). Being the Life and Teachings of Gautamas Prince of India and Founder of Buddhism. As told in verse by an Indian Buddhist. By Edwin Arnold, M.A., K.C.I.E., C.S.I. Formerly Principal of the Deccan College, Poona, and Fellow of the University of Bombay. London: Trübner & Co., 1879.
[A small portion of the Manuscript of this article in the Adyar Archives is signed by H.P.B.’s initials, thus identifying her as its author.—Compiler.]
Principal of the Deccan College at Poona, having passed some years in India, has evidently studied his theme con amore. In his Preface he expresses the hope that the present work and his “Indian Song of Songs will preserve the memory of one who loved India and the Indian peoples.” The hope is well grounded, for if any Western poet has earned the right to grateful remembrance by Asiatic nations and is destined to live in their memory, it is the author of the Light of Asia.
The novelty, and, from a Christian standpoint, the distastefulness of the mode of treatment of the subject seems to have already taken one reviewer’s breath away. Describing the volume as “gorgeous in yellow and gold” he thinks the book “chiefly valuable as . . . coming from one who during a long residence in India imbued his mind with Buddhistic philosophy.” This, he adds, “is no criticism of a religion supposed to be false, but the sympathetic presentment of a religion so much of which is true as from the mouth of a votary [sic].” By many, Mr. Arnold’s “imaginary Buddhist votary” of the Preface, is identified with the author himself; who now—to quote again his critic—“comes out in his true colours.” We are glad of it; it is a rare compliment to pay to any writer of this generation, whose peremptory instincts lead but too many to sail under any colours but their own. For our part, we regard the poem as a really remarkable specimen of literary talent, replete with philosophical thought and religious feeling—just the book, in short, we needed in our period of Science of Religion—and the general toppling of ancient gods.
The Miltonic verse of the poem is rich, simple, yet powerful, without any of those metaphysical innuendoes at the expense of clear meaning which the subject might seem to beg, and which is so much favored by some of our modern English poets. There is a singular beauty and a force in the whole narrative, that hardly characterizes other recent poems—Mr. Browning’s idyl, the Pheidippides, for one, which in its uncouth hero—the Arcadian goat-god, offers
such a sad contrast to the gentle Hindu Saviour. Jar as it may on Christian ears, the theme chosen by Mr. Arnold is one of the grandest possible. It is as worthy of his pen, as the poet has showed himself worthy of the subject. There is a unity of Oriental colouring in the descriptive portion of the work, a truthfulness of motive evinced in the masterly handling of Buddha’s character, which are as precious as unique; inasmuch as they present this character for the first time in the history of Western literature, in the totality of its unadulterated beauty. The moral grandeur of the hero, that Prince of royal blood, who might have been the “Lord of Lords,” yet
“. . . . . . let the rich world slip
Out if his grasp, to hold a beggar’s bowl,”
and the development of his philosophy, the fruit of years of solitary meditation and struggle with the mortal “Self,” are exquisitely portrayed. Toward the end the poem culminates in a triumphant cry of all nature; a universal hymn at the sight of the World-liberating soul
“The Scripture of the Saviour of the World,
Lord Buddha—Prince Siddhârtha styled on earth—
In Earth and Heavens and Hells Incomparable,
All-honoured, Wisest, Best, most Pitiful;
The Teacher of Nirvana and the Law.”*
Whatever the subsequent fate of all the world’s religions and their founders, the name of Gautama Buddha, or Sâkya Muni,† can never be forgotten; it must always live in the
* [This, however, is the opening of Book the First in the poem.—Compiler.]
† He belonged to the family of the Sâkyas, who were descendants of Ikshvâku and formed one of the numerous branches of the Solar dynasty; the race which entered India about 2,300 years B.C. “according to the epic poems of India. Muni means a saint or ascetic, hence—Sâkyamuni.”
hearts of millions of votaries. His touching history—that of a daily and hourly self-abnegation during a period of nearly eighty years, has found favor with everyone who has studied his history. When one searches the world’s records for the purest, the highest ideal of a religious reformer, he seeks no further after reading this Buddha’s life. In wisdom, zeal, humility, purity of life and thought; in ardor for the good of mankind; in provocation to good deeds, to toleration, charity and gentleness, Buddha excels other men as the Himâlayas excel other peaks in height. Alone among the founders of religions, he had no word of malediction nor even reproach for those who differed with his views. His doctrines are the embodiment of universal love. Not only our philologists—cold anatomists of time-honoured creeds who scientifically dissect the victims of their critical analysis—but even those who are prepossessed against his faith, have ever found but words of praise for Gautama. Nothing can be higher or purer than his social and moral code. “That moral code,” says Max Müller, “taken by itself is one of the most perfect which the world has ever known.”* In his work Le Bouddha et sa religion (p. 5) Barthélemy Saint-Hilaire reaches the climax of reverential praise. He does not “hesitate to say” that “among the founders of religions there is no figure more pure or more touching than that of Buddha. His life has not a stain upon it. His constant heroism equals his convictions . . . He is the perfect model of all the virtues he preaches; his abnegation and charity, his inalterable gentleness, never forsake him for an instant . . .” And, when his end approaches, it is in the arms of his disciples that he dies, “with the serenity of a sage who practiced good during his whole life, and who is sure to have found—the truth.” So true is it, that even the early Roman Catholic saint-makers, with a flippant unconcern for detection by posterity characteristic of the early periods of Christianity, claimed him as one of their converts, and, under the
* “Buddhism,” in Chips from a German Workshop, Vol. I, p. 217.
pseudonym of St. Josaphat, registered him in their Golden Legend and Martyrology as an orthodox, beatified Catholic saint. At this very day, there stands at Palermo, a church dedicated to Buddha under the name of Divo Josaphat.* It is to the discovery of the Buddhist canon, and the Sacred Historical Books of Ceylon—partially translated from the ancient Pâli by the Hon. J. Turnour; and especially to the able translation of Lalitavistara by the learned Babu Râjendrâlala Mitra—that we owe nearly all we know of the true life of this wonderful being, so aptly named by our present author, “The Light of Asia.” And now, poetry wreathes his grave with asphodels.
Mr. Arnold, as he tells us himself in the Preface, has taken his citations from Spence Hardy’s work, and has also modified more than one passage in the received narrative. He has sought, he says, “to depict the life and character and indicate the philosophy of that noble hero and reformer, Prince Gautama of India,” and reminds his readers that a generation ago “little or nothing was known in Europe of this great faith of Asia, which had nevertheless existed during twenty-four centuries, and at this day surpasses, in the number of its followers and the area of its prevalence, any other form of creed. Four hundred and seventy millions of our race live and die in the tenets of Gautama . . .” whose “sublime teaching is stamped ineffaceably upon modern Brahmanism . . . More than a third of mankind, therefore, owe their moral and religious ideas to this illustrious prince; whose personality . . . cannot but appear the highest, gentlest, holiest, and most beneficent . . . in the history of Thought . . . no single act or word . . . mars
* See Speculum historiale, by Vincent de Beauvais, XIIIth century. Max Müller affirms the story of this transformation of the great founder of Buddhism into one of the numberless Popish Saints. (See Contemporary Review, July, 1870, p. 588.) Colonel Yule tells us (Book of Ser Marco Polo, 1875, Vol. II, p. 308) that this story of Barlaam and Josaphat is recognized by Baronius and is to be! found at p. 348 of “The Roman Martyrology set forth by command of Pope Gregory XIII, and revised by the authority of Pope Urban VIII, translated out of Latin into English by G.K. of the Society of Jesus . . .”
the perfect purity and tenderness of this Indian teacher . . .” We will now explain some of the sacred legends as we proceed to quote them.
[Here follows a lengthy summary of the poem interspersed with quoted passages.]