A new light on the poet Edwin Arnold


When he is not immersed in his politics, Jairam Ramesh delves into the archives to find a nugget of something sparkling. He’s almost gotten into the habit of writing biographies of people who deserve recognition, but don’t have it (like PN Haskar, Indira Gandhi’s aide and advisor) or people whose lives should be recognized. also be seen from another angle (like Indira Gandhi as a naturalist, and Krishna Menon).

The fourth biography, of an Englishman who lived a century and a half ago, whose name most Indians would not have heard even though his work, drawn from India, had a profound impact on the rulers Indians, including Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Ambedkar. A poet named Sir Edwin Arnold.

Buddhism left India several centuries ago and has been so forgotten that most Indians have only an eloquent knowledge of religion and even of Buddha himself. We learn from Jairam Ramesh The light of Asia: the poem that defined the Buddha, that a Westerner had to speak to the Indians about one of their own deep intellectuals, but forgotten. The Light of Asia is the name of Sir Edwin’s poetic work, published in England in 1879, on Buddha and which has become (as Ramesh tells us) a sort of literary sensation in the West. It was shot in Hollywood. It was staged on Broadway, New York. His name appeared in correspondence between Winston Churchill and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Translation wave

But even this is only for beginners. The Light of Asia seems to have sparked a wave of translations into Indian languages, inspiring opinion leaders, thinkers and writers. For example, we learn from Jairam Ramesh that Rabindranath Tagore carried a copy of the book in his pocket and his brother, Abhindranath Tagore, a painter, who was sufficiently inspired by the book to paint “Buddha and Sujatha”, a masterpiece. artwork. At least one other Nobel laureate was greeted by The light of Asia – Rudyard Kipling. Nalapat Narayana Menon translated it into Malayalam, the famous Hindi poet, Ramachandra Shukla, translated it into Hindi and Kalki Krishnamurthy also became an ardent fan of Sir Edwin.

But who was Sir Edwin Arnold really and why was he interested in India and Buddha? Well, he was what Jairam Ramesh calls “the land nobility” who apparently came to India for a job. Landed here in Poona, he hastened to learn Sanskrit, for the languages ​​seem to have held him in slavery – he was a polyglot, mastering Greek, Latin, Arabic, Turkish, French, German, Japanese (his third wife, who survived him by six decades, was Japanese), Hebrew, Persian, Sanskrit and Marathi. Although he wrote a eulogy to Jesus Christ, called The light of the worldSir Edwin was not a blind follower of the faith and despising others – he translated the Bhagavatha Gita, calling it “The Heavenly Song”, which Mahatma Gandhi seemed to like very much. According to Ramesh, “Gandhi and Arnold were both active in the Vegetarian Society in London and the two seemed to have taken a liking to each other. “

Jairam Ramesh’s book is packed with detail, often going into branch stories (like about Sir Edwin’s son Channing Arnold and interesting anecdotes from the making of the Indo-German adventure film, titled The Light of Asia in English. , Die Leuchte Asiensin German and Prem Sanyas in Hindi. (An anecdote tells how, after a great search for the right actor for Gopa (or Yashodhara), the wife of Gautama Buddha, and they got by chance Renee Smith, 13 years old.)

At the beginning of the book, Ramesh notes with regret that there has so far been “only one serious biographer” of Sir Edwin, in 1957. “So I set out to shed new light on who was Sir Edwin Arnold. He did well.

The light of Asia: the poem that defined the Buddha

  • By Jairam Ramesh
  • Random Penguin House India
  • Pages: 448
  • Price: 506

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