A unique gem...
The Light of Asia is Edwin Arnold's ecstatic homage to the Buddha, delivered as an epic poem. The lines of Arnold's poem overflow with luminescent imagery, painting a vivid portrait of ancient India.
Edwin Arnold arrived in India in 1856, in a period when very little was known about the spiritual traditions of the East, let alone the teachings of the Buddha. It is clear that Arnold fell in love with the majestic culture of India, a love which led him to learn Pali and Sanskrit. The Light of Asia was written, in his own words, "in the brief intervals of days without leisure."
The Light of Asia truly stands alone. Arnold has let the story of the Buddha fill his heart, and his re-telling has its own particular charms and beauty. His portrait of the Buddha is one of perfect love, perfect compassion, and perfect wisdom--his Buddha is a world-redeemer. Even the stoical rocks are moved by his birth.
The Light of Asia invites us into Arnold's romance with a world still veiled in mystery. More than that, it invites us into the spirit of the Prince Gautama. Take the moment of Siddhartha's departure from his wife and child--for many, this moment could seem selfish or callous. In Arnold's rendition, it is a moment of infinite compassion, a moment where even perfect filial love and domestic bliss cannot conceal the truth of suffering. Arnold's Prince does not turn away from the highest worldly contentment in search of some yet-greater divine pleasure, but out of sympathy for the whole of humanity. If even love falls prey to death, we must seek out some greater gift for those we love. We must seek the deathless.
But if this were all Arnold's poem captured, we would still be left dangling. The Buddha's enlightenment is described by Arnold as rapture. As the Buddha awakens, the whole world rejoices. The trees begin to dance, the birds go into a frenzy, and across India men and women can feel it: something has happened. The unfulfilled has been fulfilled, the seeker has found the sought, the world has been infused by the beyond.
The Light of Asia is also relevant from a historical perspective. It captures something rare: an early treatment of Eastern philosophy by a Western scholar which is not merely respectful and well-learned, but a genuine soul communion. This reveals a high degree of courage, a courage which globalization demands of all of us.
The dance between East and West continues, and every day the lines become a bit more blurred. As we come into closer contact with new cultures and traditions, may we find inspiration in the enchantment and respect which Arnold felt so deeply for India. May we all find wisdom wherever it appears. May wisdom be the balm for the world's wounds, and the fire to kindle the hearts of all peace-seekers.
Reviewed by: Tom Corsus from SCVC.