When he is not deep in his politics, Jairam Ramesh dives into the archives to come up with a nugget of something sparkling. He has almost made it a habit of writing biographies of people who deserve recognition, but haven’t got it (such as PN Haskar, Indira Gandhi’s aide and advisor) or people whose lives ought to be also seen from another angle (such as 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 Indian leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Ambedkar. A poet called Sir Edwin Arnold.  

Buddhism left India several centuries ago and was forgotten to the point that most Indians have only but a nodding acquaintance with the religion and even of Buddha himself. We learn from Jairam Ramesh’s  The Light of Asia: The Poem that defined The Buddha , that it indeed required a Westerner to tell Indians of one of their own profound, but forgotten intellectuals. The Light of Asia is the name of the poetic work of Sir Edwin, published in England in 1879, on Buddha and became (as Ramesh tells us) some sort of a literary sensation in the West. It got filmed in Hollywood. It got staged in Broadway, New York. Its name figured in the correspondence between Winston Churchill and Jawaharlal Nehru.  

Wave of translation 

But even that is only for the starters. The Light of Asia seems to have touched off a wave of translation into Indian languages, inspiring thought 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 inspired enough by the book to paint ‘Buddha and Sujatha’, a masterpiece. At least one other Nobel Laureate was taken in by  The Light of Asia  — Rudyard Kipling. Nalapat Narayana Menon translated it into Malayalam, the noted Hindi poet, Ramachandra Shukla, translated it into Hindi and Kalki Krishnamurthy became an ardent fan of Sir Edwin as well. 

But who really was Sir Edwin Arnold and why was he interested in India and Buddha? Well, he was what Jairam Ramesh calls “landed gentry”, who came to India apparently for a job. Landing here, in Poona, he lost no time in learning Sanskrit, because languages seem to have held him in thrall — he was a polyglot, conversant in Greek, Latin, Arabic, Turkish, French, German, Japanese (his third wife, who outlived him by six decades, was Japanese), Hebrew, Persian, Sanskrit and Marathi. Although he wrote a panegyric to Jesus Christ, called  The Light of the World , Sir Edwin was no blind follower of the faith and scornful of others — he translated Bhagavatha Gita, calling it ‘The Song Celestial’, which Mahatma Gandhi seemed to like very much. Says Ramesh, “Gandhi and Arnold were both active in London’s Vegetarian Society and the two seemed to have grown fond of each other.”  

Jairam Ramesh’s book is pulsating with details, often getting into branch stories (such as about Sir Edwin’s son, Channing Arnold and interesting anecdotes from the making of the Indo-German venture film, called The Light of Asia in English,  Die Leuchte Asiens  in German and Prem Sanyas in Hindi. (One anecdote is about how, after a big search for the right actor for Gopa (or Yashodhara), Gautama Buddha’s wife, and they got the 13-year-old Renee Smith sheerly by accident.)  

Early in the book, Ramesh ruefully notes that there has so far been “only one serious biographer’ of Sir Edwin, way back in 1957. “I therefore, set out to throw fresh light on who Sir Edwin Arnold was.” He did succeed well.  

The Light of Asia: The Poem that defined The Buddha
  • By Jairam Ramesh
  • Penguin Random House India
  • Pages: 448
  • Price: ₹506

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