The Light of Asia

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The Light of Asia, subtitled The Great Renunciation is a book (1879) by Sir Edwin Arnold, which presents Gautama Buddha's life, character, and philosophy, in a series of verses. It was one of the first successful attempts to popularize Buddhism for a Western readership.

The Scripture of the Saviour of the World... Lord Buddha—Prince Siddartha styled on earth...In Earth and Heavens and Hells Incomparable. All-honoured, Wisest, Best, most Pitiful..The Teacher of Nirvana and the Law...Then came he to be born again for men.
Maya the Queen... Dreamed a strange dream; dreamed that a star from heaven... Splendid, six-rayed, in colour rosy-pearl... Shot through the void and, shining into her... Entered her womb upon the right. Awaked, Bliss beyond mortal mother's filled her breast,



(Full text online multiple formats)

Book The First

  • The Scripture of the Saviour of the World,
Lord Buddha—Prince Siddartha styled on earth
In Earth and Heavens and Hells Incomparable,
All-honoured, Wisest, Best, most Pitiful;
The Teacher of Nirvana and the Law.
Then came he to be born again for men.
  • Below the highest sphere four Regents sit
Who rule our world, and under them are zones
Nearer, but high, where saintliest spirits dead
Wait thrice ten thousand years, then live again;
And on Lord Buddha, waiting in that sky,
Came for our sakes the five sure signs of birth
So that the Devas knew the signs, and said
"Buddha will go again to help the World."
"Yea!" spake He, "now I go to help the World.
  • That night the wife of King Suddhodana,
Maya the Queen, asleep beside her Lord,
Dreamed a strange dream; dreamed that a star from heaven--
Splendid, six-rayed, in colour rosy-pearl,
Whereof the token was an Elephant
Six-tusked and whiter than Vahuka's milk--
Shot through the void and, shining into her,
Entered her womb upon the right. Awaked,
Bliss beyond mortal mother's filled her breast,
  • The strong hills shook; the waves
Sank lulled; all flowers that blow by day came forth
As 't were high noon; down to the farthest hells
Passed the Queen's joy, as when warm sunshine thrills
Wood-glooms to gold, and into all the deeps
A tender whisper pierced.
  • "The dead that are to live, the live who die,
Uprise, and hear, and hope! Buddha is come!"
...and the world's heart throbbed, and a wind blew
With unknown freshness over lands and seas.
  • The Queen shall bear a boy, a holy child
Of wondrous wisdom, profiting all flesh,
Who shall deliver men from ignorance,
Or rule the world, if he will deign to rule.
  • With coral shields: the Angel of the North,
Environed by his Yakshas, all in gold,
On yellow horses, bearing shields of gold.
These, with their pomp invisible, came down
And took the poles, in caste and outward garb
Like bearers, yet most mighty gods; and gods
Walked free with men that day, though men knew not
For Heaven was filled with gladness for Earth's sake,
Knowing Lord Buddha thus was come again.
  • The King gave order that his town should keep
High festival; therefore the ways were swept,
Rose-odours sprinkled in the street, the trees
Were hung with lamps and flags, while merry crowds
Gaped on the sword-players and posturers,
The jugglers, charmers, swingers, rope-walkers,
The nautch-girls in their spangled skirts and bells
That chime light laughter round their restless feet;
The masquers wrapped in skins of bear and deer.
The tiger-tamers, wrestlers, quail-fighters,
Beaters of drum and twanglers of the wire,
Who made the people happy by command.
  • 'Mongst the strangers came
A grey-haired saint, Asita, one whose ears,
Long closed to earthly things, caught heavenly sounds,
And heard at prayer beneath his peepul-tree
The Devas singing songs at Buddha's birth.
Wondrous in lore he was by age and fasts;
Him, drawing nigh, seeming so reverend,
The King saluted, and Queen Maya made
To lay her babe before such holy feet;
  • ...Thou wilt preach the Law and save all flesh
Who learn the Law, though I shall never hear,
Dying too soon, who lately longed to die;
Howbeit I have seen Thee. Know, O King!
This is that Blossom on our human tree
Which opens once in many myriad years--
But opened, fills the world with Wisdom's scent
And Love's dropped honey; from thy royal root
  • Dear to all gods and men for this great birth,
Henceforth art grown too sacred for more woe,
And life is woe, therefore in seven days
Painless thou shalt attain the close of pain."
  • "Who is the wisest man, great sirs," he asked,
"To teach my Prince that which a Prince should know?"
Whereto gave answer each with instant voice
"King! Viswamitra is the wisest one,
The farthest-seen in Scriptures, and the best
In learning, and the manual arts, and all."
"Thus Viswamitra came and heard commands;
  • And, on a day found fortunate, the Prince
Took up his slate of ox-red sandal-wood,
All-beautified by gems around the rim,
And sprinkled smooth with dust of emery,
These took he, and his writing-stick, and stood
With eyes bent down before the Sage, who said,
"Child, write this Scripture, speaking slow the verse
L'Gayatri' named, which only High-born hear:--
"Om, tatsaviturvarenyam
Bhargo devasya dhimahi
Dhiyo yo na prachodayat."
  • "Acharya, I write," ...replied
The Prince

Book The Second

  • Now, when our Lord was come to eighteen years,
The King commanded that there should be built
Three stately houses, one of hewn square beams
With cedar lining, warm for winter days;
One of veined marbles, cool for summer heat;
And one of burned bricks, with blue tiles bedecked,
Pleasant at seed-time, when the champaks bud—
Subha, Suramma, Ramma, were their names.
  • Delicious gardens round about them bloomed,
Streams wandered wild and musky thickets stretched,
With many a bright pavilion and fair lawn
In midst of which Siddartha strayed at will,
Some new delight provided every hour;
And happy hours he knew, for life was rich,
With youthful blood at quickest; yet still came
The shadows of his meditation back,
As the lake's silver dulls with driving clouds.
  • Which the King marking, called his Ministers:
"Bethink ye, sirs I how the old Rishi spake,"
He said, "and what my dream-readers foretold.
This boy, more dear to me than mine heart's blood,
Shall be of universal dominance,
Trampling the neck of all his enemies,
A King of kings—and this is in my heart;—
Or he shall tread the sad and lowly path
Of self-denial and of pious pains,
Gaining who knows what good, when all is lost
Worth keeping; and to this his wistful eyes
Do still incline amid my palaces.

Quotes about

  • 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.
    • Stirring the Victorian Imagination, By Wendell Piez, Tricycle Magazine, (Winter 1993)
  • Arnold’s great project was a blank verse poem based loosely on the Lalitavistara Sutra. It ran for forty-one thousand words and was composed in eight volumes and published in 1879 as the Light of Asia: the Great Renunciation. The Light of Asia was an instant success and would capture the English speaking imagination. It would be reprinted numerous times in England and the United States. The best estimate I could find was sixty editions in England and another eighty in the US. The Light has also been translated into many languages, including Hindi. But, most importantly, it is generally credited as the first book to bring the life and teachings of Gautama Siddhartha broadly to the attention of the English speaking public.

See also

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