Few deserve more than Sir Edwin Arnold the Laurel as the most accomplished, but most neglected, mathematician of the Victorian era. An educator, author, poet and journalist – editor-in-chief of The daily telegraph 1873-1888 – Arnold spoke 19 languages, including Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit, and Persian, and wrote books on education and a two-volume history of Lord Dalhousie, the Viceroy of the India, as well as memories of his travels in America, India and Japan.
But the achievement for which Arnold is most notable is perhaps the most unlikely. In 1879 he wrote The Light of Asia, an epic poem on the life of the Buddha, the first English poem on the subject. In an era of growing interest in Asian religions, the book fascinated Victorian society, selling over a million copies.
Arnold – who is the subject of an entertaining new biography, The Light of Asia: The Poem that Defined the Buddha, by Indian author and politician Jairam Ramesh – developed an interest in Asian religions while serving as director of ‘a college in Poona (now Pune) in India. Back in England, he wrote the epic while working as editor of The Telegraph, between scribbled chronicles on everything from red roses to the Prussian-Danish War. Queen Victoria was so in love with the book that she recommended Arnold to succeed Tennyson as Poet Laureate; but political machinations resulted in Alfred Austin getting the job.
Gandhi, who met Arnold when he was a young lawyer studying in London, wrote that the book helped form the basis of his belief in renunciation as “the highest form of life.” The King of Siam initiated Arnold as an officer of the Order of the White Elephant, and in what was then Ceylon, he received the yellow robe and beggar’s bowl from a Buddhist monk – the first, and so far as can only be determined, editor of a Fleet Street newspaper is awarded this honor.
Composed of some 5,300 lines of verse and told through the voice of a narrator described as “an imaginary Buddhist practitioner”, the poem tells the story of Gautama Buddha, from his birth into a royal family to his attainment of Buddhahood, meditating in the shade of the Bodhi tree in what is now known as Bodh Gaya. Arnold’s pithy language, his lush descriptions of the Indian landscape, and his depiction of the Buddha as a figure of impeccable virtue struck a chord with an audience enamored with high romantic poetry. One could almost imagine his descriptions of the enlightenment of the Buddha in the form of a series of paintings by those pre-Raphaelite archaic romantics, John Everett Millais and Holman Hunt.