The Light of Asia, a Victorian epic poem | Sunday Observer

The Light of Asia, a Victorian epic poem

7 November, 2021

“The Light of Asia” is an epic poem, written by Sir Edwin Arnold. It initially appeared in the summer of 1879. Critics say that it swept the publishing world with an unexpected force. Sir Arnold was a British writer. His Victorian epic poem enjoyed an unprecedented sale; in the United States alone, it had more than a hundred editions; an estimated one half million to one million copies were sold.It was even outselling, by some accounts, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

It is reported that by the 1920s, The Light of Asia came up in the form of an opera and even as a major feature film in 1925. As noted by some critics, albeit the English edition of The Light of Asiar emained the de facto reading, influencing the likes of T S Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, Andrew Carnegie and Herman Melville among others, it was absolutely not long before that Sir Arnold’s The Light of Asia started speaking in the other European tongues.


By 1910, The Light of Asia had been translated into Swedish, French, Russian and German. As noted by researchers, The Light of Asia captivated Swami Vivekananda- an iconic Indian personality. At about the same time, it is said that the book moved a young wealthy man in Colombo who became well known as Anagarika Dharmapala.

The book grabbed the attention of an aspiring Indian lawyer in London in the 1889. This man became popular by the name of Mahatma Gandhi. The book had a strong impact on Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. The Light of Asia is a narrative of the life and the message of the Buddha. Arnold in every way was a quintessential Victorian. He was also an outstanding polyglot. Geek, French, Japanese, Sanskrit and Marathi are a few languages in which he was conversant. For well over a four decade, Arnold had been a leading writer for the Daily Telegraph. Even the disciplines such as industry and science were not immune to the reach of The Light of Asia. It impressed C V Raman, India’s first Nobel Laureate in Physics; Dimitri Mendeleev, the Russian chemist who invented the periodic table was also not an exception.

Sir Arnold’s The Light of Asia is said to have a tremendous influence on at least 11 leading literary personalities from around the world among whom there are five personalities who were Nobel Laureates: Rudyard Kipling in 1907, Rabindranath Tagore in 1913, WBYeats in 1923, Ivan Bunin in 1933 and T S Eliot in 1947. The other six are: Herman Melville, Leo Tolstoy,

Prized possession

Lafcadio Hearn, D H Lawrence, John Massfield and Jose Luis Borges. Some critics say that Herbert Kitchener who was a controversial figure served in the English military while simultaneously being regarded as a hero of his time used to carry The Light of Asia wherever he visited. The book was also available in the library of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish entrepreneur who established and endowed the prestigious Nobel Prize.

In 1925, a team, comprising Germans and Indians took the book as their basis for one of the first silent films in India which reported a fair success.In 1945, the content ofthe Light of Asia was figured in The Picture of Dorian Gray, a Hollywood classic. During the past five decades, The Light of Asia has persistently evoked the academic interest of the scholars, while being the subject of doctoral dissertations and scholarly publications, particularly in countries such as Germany, Canada, the USA and the Great Britain.

The Light of Asia by Sir Edwin Arnold is a unique work in Buddhist literature. It is the only original poem written in English on the life of the Buddha in the history of Buddhism. Adding his appreciation on Sir Arnold’s The Light of Asia, the late veteran journalist Edwin Ariyadasa had stated, “In its diction and rhythm, Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia, resonates with echoes of the Organ roll of Milton’s Music. It is quite evident that Edwin Arnold was profoundly impressed by the poetic quality by John Milton’s great religious epics.” Critics say that all the other literary works of Sir Edwin Arnold are overshadowed by his reputation as the author ofThe Light of Asia.