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From my Bookshelf

Akshara (अक्षर) is a Sanskrit word which means ‘imperishable, indestructible, fixed and immutable’. While it may lie in dormancy and hibernation for centuries, it   carries within it the potential of resurrection. While the original Akshara is immutable, the context is dynamic, and in the hands of its translators and transcreators – even after several centuries – it gets a new life and an afterlife as it is with this edition of Jairam Ramesh’s offering on the biography of ‘The Light of Asia: The Poem that defined the Buddha (Light)’.That the book had made an impact was known – just how varied, widespread and universal it became beyond the English-speaking world is what is brought out by Ramesh in this volume .

A good translation or transcreation (the term preferred by   P Lal of the Writers’ Workshop– is never literal – it is a   rainbow that links the sky to the horizon rather than a ‘functional pontoon’.  Edwin Arnold did just that.In Light, his free verse adaptation of the third century Lalita Vistara drawn from the Sarvastivada School of the Hinayana sect, but embellished with Mahayana ideas, the poem laid emphasis on Buddha’s humanity and his connect with his people. It was a powerful narration and inspired many a translator to get into the ‘spirit of the book’ with the poet Wang Jung (468-93 CE)writing ‘Songs of Religious Joy’ the first of the five versions of Lalita Vistara in Chinese. Extracts of this text were translated into Nepali and form part of the Nanadharma Mahayana Buddhism practised in this Himalayan kingdom.  The text influenced the artists, temple makers and sculptors of Borobudur from about 850 to 900 A.D. It is now accepted that the artists of Gandhara who chiselled the Buddhist monuments with the scenes from Buddha’s life were also acquainted Lalita Vistara- a book on Buddha’s humanity, instead of his divinity. And if one may add – the bridge between!

By the time the Light was published in July 1879, Edwin Arnold was a celebrated newspaper editor and well known in the ‘Oriental Circuit’. With a benediction ‘Ah Blessed lord, Oh High deliverer/ Forgive this feeble script, which doth Thee wrong/ Measuring with little wit,thy lofty love/ Om Mani Padme Hum, the sunrise comes!the unillustrated version in a modest octavo volume bound in yellow cloth published by Trubner and Company became a runaway success within the first few weeks. It received critical acclaim from the Daily Review (August 1, 1879) which described it as ‘an idyll of the King with Gautama instead of Arthur for its hero and Nirvana instead of the Christian ideal and the Holy Grail as its aim’. The Pall Mall Gazette said ‘as a poem his work is more than respectable: as presenting a philosophical and religious condensation of Buddhism and a picture of its Founder, it deserves popularity‘.  Earlier, the Athenaeum while praising Arnold for elucidating the concept of Karma and Nirvana drew attention to the influence of John Keats and Alfred Tennyson on the structure and syntax of Light.

Three reviews appeared in India as well. The Times of India reprinted the review in the Pall Mall Gazette. The Pioneer which was published from Allahabad called it ‘the greatest poem after Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s pilgrimage’. The best review came in the inaugural issue of Theosophist which said ‘we regard this poem as a really remarkable specimen of literary talent, replete with philosophical thought and religious feeling. The Miltonic verse of the poem is rich, simple yet powerful’.  In America, the Light was acknowledged by the Transcendental Club which included such names and writers like Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman.

The success of Light exalted Arnold to the status of an iconic writer on the India and the Orient, and he followed it up with Indian Poetry, Indian Idyll, The Rajpoot Wife, as well as a book on the ninety-nine names of Allah (Pearls of Faith). Written as they were, at a hurried pace, these did not leave a literary footprint, but certainly made him rich and famous across Asia, with the Sultan of Turkey also conferring an honour on him in 1886.  Earlier in 1884, the publishers printed an illustrated version of Light and positioned it as a X-Mas gift.

Inevitably, bouquets are followed by brickbats! One of his harshest critics was the Presbyterian missionary Samuel Henry Kellogg who set up the Church in Landour (Mussoorie) which is now named after him. About Arnold, he wrote disparagingly ‘many who would have been repelled by any formal, drily, philosophical treatise upon Buddhism have been attracted to it by the undoubted charm of MrArnold’ sverse. The issue of cheap editions of the poem, selling for a few cents has helped in the same direction’. Kellogg’s polemical tract was called ‘The Light of Asia and the Light of the World’ in which he posited Jesus Christ as the Light of the World against the Buddha,whose ‘dimmer’ light was confined to Asia!

However, the popularity and appeal of Arnold’s Light continued:  leading to a spate of translations – with the first one appearing in Dutch in 1881, followed by Bengali in 1885, German in 1887and 1889, Swedish in 1888 and Russian in 1890. This was the year when the Japanese translation appeared under the title Asia no Kouki by Nakaguara Taro. Within India, the book, along with his translation of the Bhagwad Geeta (TheSong Celestial) became the standard reading for the educated elite as well as the ICS officers interested in delving deep into India’s philosophical tradition. Both Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda   commended   his contribution, though Vivekanandre marked that Arnold’s book ‘represents more of Vedantism than Buddhism’. But the fact that the Swami had read and commented on the book meant that it found its way to public libraries as also educational institutions.

Translations in Malayalam, Tamil and Kannada (1914-1918) were influenced by the Theosophists with their headquarters at Adyar in Madras. Till Jiddu Krishna murthy refused to be the Prophet he was being groomed for by them, the Theosophists were quite influential in the social, intellectual and political circles as well. In the Hindi heartland, Acharya Ramachandra Shukla of the BHU presented the book as Buddha Charit in 1922 and was published by the Devanagari Pracharini Samiti. A year later, a Sindhi translation by Jetmal Parasram Gulrajani appeared.  A decade later, the Gujarati edition   was printed by Narsinrao Dietia where it received popular support from the mercantile class. Meanwhile, Gurbax Singh, a Military engineer with British Indian Army serving in Iraq came across this book in his army unit library and became completely immersed in it. His Panjabi translation ‘Asia da Chanan’ was an instant success- and five editions came out in rapid succession.  The book inspired many a musical and dramatic adaptations in several languages – from the German to the Tamil, and in the latter, translated passages also found their way to the textbooks!

In the deft hands of Jairam Ramesh ‘The Light of Asia: The poem that defined the Buddha’ has received ample attention from all those interested in the person and the philosophy of the Buddha, the life of  Sir Arnold, as well as his other works, besides, Indologists, the osophists, rationalists and translators. He weaves such an interesting story around the author and the book, that even when he meanders to themes as varied as the influence of this book on  Noble Laureates  Rabindranath Tagore, T S Eliot  and Sir CV Raman, to the Mahatma  and  vegetarianism ,  the  correspondence  between Winston Churchill  and Nehru , the Theosophists and  Jiddu Krishnamurthy, the narrative moves back to the ‘core’ with  the embellishments keeping  the reader gripped to the book and wondering – what next ?

This indeed is the hallmark of a great book!

Re-published from UdayIndia: https://udayindia.in/from-my-bookshelf-4/