The Light of Asia
or, the Great Renunciation
A famous poem in English describing the Life of the Buddha, based mainly on Sanskrit sources (with an embedded reading of the text).
THE LIFE AND TEACHING OF GAUTAMA
PRINCE OF INDIA AND FOUNDER OF BUDDHISM
(as told in verse by an Indian Buddhist)
SIR EDWIN ARNOLD
M.A., K.C.I.E., C.S.I.
This volume is dutifully inscribed to
The Sovereign Grand-Master, and Companions
The Most Exalted Order of the Star of India
A New Edition
With a Gloss on Rare Words
and Explanatory Notes
(This Edition, August 2008)
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In preparing this work for publication I was faced with the problem of the original's transliteration scheme. I thought at one time to update it to the standard scheme now adopted by ISO and Unicode, but the fact is the transliteration Arnold adopted is so non-standard and inconsistent it is hard to correct it without damaging the metre employed in the poem. After some thought therefore I decided to reproduce the poem as it was published, and beg the reader's indulgence.
The edition published here is based on the new edition that was first published by Arnold in 1892 (I believe) and reproduced by The Theosophical Publishing House at Adyar, Madrad, India in 1974. I have also compared the edition published by Ven. Sārada in Singapore (1996); and the Gutenburg e-text published at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/8920, and noted whatever variants I saw, though this has been done less systematically than is usual on this website as none of the editions seem to be authoritative.
As some of the language used by Arnold is poetic or archaic I have added glosses on difficult words, and explanatory notes to try and make it more accessible, especially to those who have English as a second language. However, poetry is normally more difficult to understand that prose, and it may not be an easy read, though it is certainly a rewarding one. I have read the poem in and I am making it available from the Audio page. This might help people who find the poem a little difficult to understand as in the audio files it is possible to show how the sentences are phrased, divided, and where the emphasis should be, etc.
The source for the poem was never stated by Arnold, but it appears to be based on Mahāyāna sources, like the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit Abhiniṣkramaṇasutta (now lost), which was translated by Samuel Beal from the Chinese under the title The Romantic Legends Of Sakya Buddha; and also the Sanskrit Lalitavistara (The Extensive Play). A lot of it however agrees with the Pāḷi sources and with Mahāvastu, the outline of the story being, of course, a common inheritance.
One major difference that does show through though is the idea that it is the Buddha who is born again on Earth. In the Mahāyāna texts referred to the Buddha is seen as eternally existent taking form only in order to teach the world once more; whereas in the early sources it is the Bodhisatta who is born after much struggle in saṁsāra, and he is only known as the Buddha after the Awakening.
Occasionally it seems that Arnold did not quite undertsand the Teaching, which is perhaps not surprising given the time he wrote, so in this edition I have included corrective notes and pointed out these problems when they arise. They mainly appear in the last chapter where there is a section on the Teaching.
last updated: August 2008