UBC Faculty Research and Publications

Translating the Buddha: Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia and Its Indian Publics Ober, Douglas


In this article, I examine the popular Victorian poem The Light of Asia (1879) and its reception and adaptation in late nineteenth and early twentieth century colonial India. Authored by the popular writer, Sir Edwin Arnold, The Light of Asia is typically regarded as one of the foundational texts of modern Buddhism in the western world. Yet significantly less has been said about its influence in Asia and especially in India, where it has as an equally rich and varied history. While most scholarship has focused on its connections to the Sinhalese Buddhist leader Anagarika Dharmapala and his popular campaigns to ‘liberate’ the MahaBodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, the singular focus on Dharmapala has obscured the poem’s much more expansive and enduring impact on a wide array of colonial Indian publics, regardless of caste, region, religion, ethnicity or language. The article explores the early history of its numerous adaptations, dramatizations, and translations in various regional languages. In providing an analysis of the poem’s Indian publics, the article shows how regional, political, and cultural idioms formed in multilingual contexts enable different readings and how literary and performative cultures interacted with colonial conceptions of religion, nation, and caste.

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CC BY 4.0