Congress leader Jairam Ramesh is a member of upper house of Indian Parliament. The thinking politician is more about class than keeping a base with the masses.
He is the author of several brilliant books including P. N. Haksar and Indira Gandhi: Intertwined lives which is in a must read category. But his latest book is truly offbeat as it debates the book of a long poem on Buddha.
Jairam is bringing alive the story behind the The Light of Asia: The Poem That Defined the Buddha and how British poet Sir Edwin Arnold’s book, published in 1879 created sensation and influenced great leaders, then.
As Dalai Lama puts it, “what Sir Edwin’s poems showed was that the message of the Buddha is timeless, eternal and relevant.”
Jairam revives that magic in his new book. Excerpts of the conversation.
What is that inspiring story that moved you to write about the poem on Buddha written by someone who was born in Kent, Britain in 1832 and was the total supporter of the Empire who colonised India?
Well The Light of Asia, Sir Edwin Arnold’s epic poem on the life of the Buddha, first published in 1879, became profoundly consequential across the world both in its original English version and also in its numerous translations.
It helped shape our thinking on the life of the Buddha, on who Buddha was, how he became the Buddha and what his teachings were. The poem had extraordinary literary, cultural, political and social impacts and a huge influence on a very large number of eminent personalities and public figures in different countries.
The poem is a crucial milestone in Buddhist historiography and in India’s own rediscovery of its ancient Buddhist heritage. The Light of Asia, for instance, has determined the nature of the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya where Siddhartha became the Enlightened One.
Let me also say that while Sir Edwin was a Victorian imperialist, he was also a great populariser of India’s civilizational legacy. He also translated the Hitopadesha, Gitagovinda and the Mahabharata, among other ancient Sanskrit texts.
And my book ends with the discovery of his great grandchildren in Bhopal with wonderfully syncretic names like Mohammed Michael Arnold and Farzana Arnold Siddiqui!
Is Buddha that emerges from Light of Asia’s long poem through the eyes of Sir Edwin Arnold any different from the civilizational understanding of what Buddha stands for the Indians?
That understanding itself has been based partly on The Light of Asia. Indians like Vivekananda, Tagore, Gandhi, Nehru, C.V. Raman and many others drew inspiration from it. Of course two great Indians — Dharmanand Kosambi and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar — had a different perspective on why Siddhartha sought enlightenment and why he chose the path of renunciation, which I have discussed in my book.
But both were keen students of the poem. I might add here that the poem provided the ammunition for a number of social revolutionaries battling caste orthodoxy first in south India and later in other parts of India. The poem have a completely different interpretation to the concept of nirvana that had till then been seen in a nihilistic, passive sense.
Why are you saying that Buddhism contained, “seeds of its own decline in its womb?” Why it did not get a popular support?
Incidentally, I said that in one of my interviews. My book is a biography of the poem and embedded in it is the biography of the poet who was a remarkable polyglot who translated Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, Turkish and Japanese works in the late nineteenth century.
His 1885 translation of the Bhagavad Gita, for instance, became an abiding favourite of Mahatma Gandhi. I am neither a Buddhist nor a scholar of Buddhist history. So your question is not the subject matter of my book. Why Buddhism declined in India is a very complex question.
Buddha got appropriated by the Brahmins as an avatar of Vishnu by the 8th century CE perhaps because it was seen as a great threat. Buddhism was already in decline when Islam came to India. By the 12th century, it had all but disappeared.
How relevant is Light of Asia in the India of 2021?
The poem became a sensation and has endured for well over almost a century and a half because it focuses on the humanity of the Buddha and not his divinity. India is a divinity-surplus, humanity-deficit country. To that extent the poem has continued relevance.
The system of personal ethics and morality that Buddha spoke about is relevant. Moreover, Siddhartha became the Buddha by not following a Buddha. His message was one of be your own lamp, be your own guide.
Talking about the current situation in the Congress party how do you see the way ahead after the defeats in Assam, West Bengal and Kerala?
I don’t quite see why you move away from The Light of Asia so suddenly to current day politics. Yes, of course, the Congress faces challenges and the defeats in Assam and Kerala were particularly shocking — even though in terms of vote-share the difference between the winner and loser is very, very small.
The complete wipe-out in West Bengal was also quite humiliating. The fact that the well-funded BJP juggernaut was halted and rolled back by Mamata Banerjee was great news but we should have not drawn a blank.
What are the differences you see in Prime Minister Narendra Modi of 2014 and Modi in 2021?
I see little difference. He continues to be ruthless and remorseless, a prisoner of his own megalomania and hubris. Nothing has changed both in the substance and style of governance. Self-promotion and self-glorification remains the be all and end all of whatever he does.
He is a man of such transparent insincerity that nice-sounding words like cooperative federalism, for example, have simply no meaning. In fact, he has wrecked all institutions of cooperative federalism and indeed of democracy itself.