LIKE EVERYTHING the British poet Edwin Arnold wrote, The Light of Asia was quickly written: a poem in eight books of about five hundred lines each, mostly in blank verse, composed over a period of several months when Arnold was busy with other concerns. Immediately upon its publication in the summer of 1879, the poem began to sell copies and win attention. It was a life of Siddhartha Gautama, told from the point of view of "an Indian Buddhist" (so read the title page) in high English style. The immediate sensation surrounding The Light of Asia was remarkable: for some time on both sides of the Atlantic, newspapers and dining rooms were charged with discussion about the Buddha, his teaching, and Arnold's presentation of Buddhism. The book's success was also sustained. By 1885 the authorized English version had gone through thirty editions. Pirated editions, which went for as little as three cents in the U.S., make a count of the book's circulation impossible, but it has been estimated at a million copies (not far short of Huckleberry Finn). After thirty years it had become one of the undisputed bestsellers of Victorian England and America, had been translated into a number of languages (German, Dutch, French, Czech, Italian, Swedish, Esperanto), and had inspired a stage version and even an opera.
Edwin Arnold was born in 1832 at Gravesend, a Thames port town near London. The man who was to become the first well-known popularizer of Buddhism in England and America grew up in an established English family. He attended school in London and then went to Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize, a sought-after poetry award, for an Orientalist prophecy called The Feast of Belshazzar. Benjamin Disraeli, a novelist soon to make his mark as a politician, acclaimed Arnold on the occasion and predicted he would have a brilliant future. From a young age, Arnold typified the hardworking, successful Victorian gentleman.
After working as a schoolmaster in Birmingham, the young Arnold went abroad to India, where he served as principal of a school at Poona. It is impossible to know how much Arnold learned about Indian civilization in his four years there while he managed the school and gave lectures on Western science and literature. But it does seem that Arnold's Western literary vision of an exotic Orient—an Orient of gold, gems, strange scents, and mysterious wisdom—was moderated and humanized by his experiences.
Arnold returned from India a confirmed internationalist, and became first a writer and then an editor at The Daily Telegraph in London. (The paper was the first penny daily and one of the most prominent public voices of the Empire.) Soon Arnold became known for his poetry and journalism as well as his essays and translations from French, Greek, and Sanskrit. But it was in 1879 that Arnold achieved real fame with the publication of The Light of Asia.
How did The Light of Asia achieve such popularity? Some of its success might be ascribed to Arnold's position at the center of the English literary world and simply to good timing. In 1879, East Asian affairs were claiming much attention and curiosity, and English and American readers were eager to hear about Buddhism. With its overtly moral, international interest, The Light of Asia occasioned debate over some of the most controversial and vexing issues of the day, questions about religion, cultural difference, morality, and dogma. To Arnold's readers the story of the Buddha was reassuring. New theories of geological time and evolution, and new modes of historical criticism, had shaken Christian orthodoxy. At the same time, since Western scholars had begun learning about Buddhism at the beginning of the century, the Buddha had come to be regarded as an exemplary moral figure. Popular curiosity about Buddhism was partly due to the challenge it posed to Christianity. Yet it was also an expression of the public's desire to see "Christian virtues" confirmed.
More simply, many considered The Light of Asia a splendid poem, "a work of great beauty" with "a story of intense interest, which never flags for a moment," according to Oliver Wendell Holmes. By half claiming to present an authentic teaching of the East, it stirred the inquisitive, self-confident Victorian imagination; but the poem was popular in part because it was so familiar. The reading public had long cultivated a taste for the exotic, and the lavish and picturesque Indian world of Arnold's poem was not very unlike what it knew from the same Orientalist romances Arnold had grown up with. The poem is extremely literary: it was not hard to note, among Arnold's epic lists and similes and long dialogues, echoes of Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, and others. Arnold also gave his subject a deliberate nobility—ancient Kapilavastu is sensual but not barbaric—and this, too, appealed to the Victorian reader. The Buddha is frankly portrayed as a saint or holy man. Episodes about Siddhartha even before his enlightenment echo biblical stories of good deeds or miracles. Arnold was able all at once to present the life of Siddhartha with great sympathy, to satisfy his readers' tastes, and to allay their anxieties.
Thus many Americans were first inspired to a favorable regard of the Buddha by the poem of an Englishman. If there was irony in this it may also be possible to view it as the operation of historical good fortune, a kind of impersonal skillful means. Despite their curiosity, English and American readers in 1879 were not ready to entertain seriously a doctrine that came in a garb so outlandish, to them, as that a living Buddhism would have worn. In Arnold's epic hero they were introduced to a Buddha they might have called their own.
Wendell Piez teaches English and works in the Special Collections and Archives of Rutgers University.