THE LIGHT OF ASIA
( the Great Renunciation of the Life
and teachings of Buddha)
Prince of India and Founder of Buddhism
(as told in verse by an Indian Buddhist).
Sir Edwin Arnold
This uplifting poem has always been one
for our favourites, so it's lovely to see this new and well-bound edition.
Though written more than a hundred years ago, it still retains the power
to move us in a way that no prose rendering of the life of the Buddha can.
Its vivid, jewelled language makes us see the eagle wheeling in the sky,
the snake beneath the rock,the moonlight shining on the floor while all in
the palace sleep. The spreading branches of the Tree of Wisdom...And we
cannot but admire the courage, determination and self-sacrifice of the
Indian price who, out of compassion, left his palace to find a remedy for
the sufferings of the world.
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.
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; and the spiritual dominions of this ancient teacher extend, at the present time,
from Nepaul and Ceylon over the whole Eastern Peninsula to China, Japan, Thibet, Central
Asia, Siberia, and even Swedish Lapland. India itself might fairly be included in this
magnificent empire of belief, for though the profession of Buddhism has for the most part
passed away from 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, therefore, 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. Discordant in frequent particulars, and sorely overlaid by
corruptions, inventions, and misconceptions, the Buddhistical books yet agree in the one
point of recording nothing -- no single act or word -- which mars the perfect purity and
tenderness of this Indian teacher, who united the truest princely qualities with the
intellect of a sage and the passionate devotion of a martyr. Even M. Barthelemy St.
Hilaire, totally misjudging, as he does, many points of Buddhism, is well cited by
Professor Max Muller as saying of Prince Siddartha, "Sa vie n'a point de tache. Son
constant heroisme egale sa conviction ; et si la theorie qu'il preconise est fausse, les
exemples personnels qu'il donne sont irreprochables. Il est le modele acheve de toutes les
vertus qu'il preche; son abnegation, sa charite, son inalterable douceur ne se dementent
point un seul instant. . . . Il prepare silencieusement sa doctrine par six annees de
retraite et de meditation; il la propage par la seule puissance de la parole et de la
persuasion pendant plus d'un demi-siecle, et quand il meurt entre les bras de ses
disciples, c'est avec la serenite d'un sage qui a pratique le bien toute sa vie, et qui
est assure d'avoir trouve le vrai." To Gautama has consequently been given this
stupendous conquest of humanity; and -- though he discountenanced 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.
Forests of flowers are daily laid upon his stainless shrines, and countless millions of
lips daily repeat the formula, "I take refuge in 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. In point of age, therefore, most other creeds are youthful compared
with this venerable religion, which 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. The extravagances which disfigure the
record and practice of Buddhism are to be referred to that inevitable degradation which
priesthoods always inflict upon great idea 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."
I have put my poem into a Buddhist's mouth, because, to appreciate the
spirit of Asiatic thoughts, they should be regarded from the Oriental point of view; and
neither the 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; that period when Jerusalem was being taken by Nebuchadnezzar,
when Nineveh was falling to the Medes, and Marseilles was founded by the Phocaeans. The
exposition here offered of so antique a system is of necessity incomplete, and -- in
obedience to the laws of poetic art -- passes rapidly by many matters philosophically most
important, as well as over the long ministry of Gautama. But my purpose has been obtained
if any just conception be here conveyed of the lofty character of this noble prince, and
of the general purport of his doctrines. As to these there has arisen prodigious
controversy among the erudite, who will be aware that I have taken the imperfect
Buddhistic citations much as they stand in Spence Hardy's work, and have also modified
more than one passage in the received narratives. The views, however, here indicated of
"Nirvana," "Dharma," "Karma," and the other chief features
of Buddhism, are at least the fruits of considerable study, and also of a firm conviction
that a third of mankind would never have been brought to believe in blank abstractions, or
in Nothingness as the issue and crown of Being.
Finally, in reverence to the illustrious Promulgator of this
"Light of Asia," and in homage to the many eminent scholars who have devoted
noble labors to his memory, for which both repose and ability are wanting to me, I beg
that the shortcomings of my too-hurried study may be forgiven. It has been composed in the
brief intervals of days without leisure, but 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" will preserve the memory of one who loved India
and the Indian peoples.
EDWIN ARNOLD, C.S.I.
London, July, 1879.
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Update : 01-05-2002