We first heard of Buddhism, it may almost be said, through the works of Brian Houghton Hodgson, and his explorations in the libraries of Nepal. Before him, there was emptiness, void; total ignorance of a religion which has never had an equal for widespread sway, and which has subjugated races among the wildest and most ignorant of the world; not less than it has won a place among peoples for ages in possession of a high traditional culture. Yet, even after the researches of that patriarch among Indian students, Buddhism won almost no popular interest in Western lands; and all the labours of the now numerous band of Pali scholars, with their steady output of texts, translations, and commentaries, has done almost nothing to make Buddhism a subject of popular knowledge. It was reserved for Sir Edwin Arnold, and the Light of Asia, to gain a popular hearing for what is certainly one of the most noteworthy works of the human mind, and to draw the eyes of the Western world to one of the sublimest and most heroic figures of historic times. And it is impossible to say that Sir Edwin’s success was not amply earned. It is true that his critics have ascribed to him rather a superficial and versatile talent than a true poetic gift; it is true that he has at times turned his ready pen to work which his admirers would rather have seen rejected; it is true that he has lent his skill to other faiths, as eloquently as to Buddhism; and, finally, it is true that he himself deliberately attempted to neutralise and undo the great success of his life, by writing, confessedly with a sectarian purpose, a later work, the Light of the World. But, in spite of all this, the Light of Asia remains the popular presentation of Buddha and Buddhism, as assuredly as it is the high-water mark of Sir Edwin Arnold’s achievement in verse; and, with no intention of disparaging this brilliant and versatile writer, it must be said that the chief element of its success is faithfulness to the character and ideals of the Indian Prince, rather than to any special poetical inspiration or high verse-weaving skill, that this unquestionable success was due.
This real fidelity to the original thought and feeling, not less than to the original tradition of Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha, is brought home very forcibly if we con1pare the Light of Asia with a very remarkable work recently added to the literature of Buddhism, by an editor whose wonderful refinement of knowledge seems to have checked, rather than aided, his work as a productive scholar. Professor Cowell, in publishing a text of Ashva Ghosha’s Buddha Charita, and, later, a translation of the same, has done a work the true importance of which he gives us no clue to in his very modest and very scholarly introduction. For, in the Buddha Charita, we have, to begin with, an almost contemporary work with which we may compare the Light of Asia, and ascertain how far this, the only presentation of Buddhism which the world in general has found itself able to accept, is a faithful and true rendering, in harmony with the incidents, colour, and spirit of the original. In making a series of comparisons, I shall assume that your readers are familiar with the Light of Asia, and shall, therefore, quote only from the old Sanskrit life, which is probably to be ascribed to a period some two milleniums ago, that is, about 500 years after the events it records.
Sir Edwin Arnold has very well and faithfully preserved the rich, Oriental colour of the original,—which is, if Professor Cowell be correct, the first model of that school whose greatest light was Kalidasa, and whose enamelled luxuriance the world has never seen equalled. But it seems to me, at the same time, that the original is deeper, more philosophical, and more elevated in tone than the modern adaptation. Take, for instance, the passage where are described the thoughts that led up to Buddha’s resolution to leave his kingdom in search of wisdom:—
“He beheld the fruitful earth, being ploughed, while the path of the share divided the soil like the waves of the sea; and he saw also how, when the grassy sods were cut and thrown aside by the plough, numberless lives of minute creatures were scattered and slain. Viewing this, he greatly grieved, as for the death of his own kin.
“Watching the men who were ploughing also, and seeing them parched and stained by the sun and the wind and the dust, and seeing the draught oxen galled by the burden of the yoke, he, noblest of men, was full of pity. Thereupon, dismounted from his horse’s back, he wandered slowly away, penetrated by grief, thinking on the birth and the passing away of the world. ‘Pitiful is it, indeed,’ he said, and sadness oppressed him. Desiring therefore loneliness, he sent back his friends and sat down in. a solitary place, at the root of a rose-apple tree heavily laden with luscious leaves; and he rested there on the earth, carpeted with grass and flowers, and enamelled as with precious stones.”
This passage shows at once the rich colour of Ashva Ghosha’s poem, and its deep, philosophic thought; for it would have been quite possible to make the motive of Siddhartha’s renunciation spring from some scene of melodrama, of repulsion from some signal spectacle of sorrow or of wrong: a tragic indictment against fate, such as Shakespeare has embodied in a splendid sonnet. But, with great wisdom, Ashva Ghosha has found his motive in a scene of quiet rural life, dull and uninteresting; the ploughing of the lowly husbandmen whose lives go down into the night, hardly more noted than “the numberless lives of minute creatures scattered and slain” by the shares of their own ploughs. The true philosopher needs no tragic or melodramatic event to impress on him the mystery of life, and the narrow bonds of limitation that hem in the destiny of man. Like a true lover of Nature, he finds the spiritual quality everywhere, on the simplest tuft of grass, or sandheap, or broken stone, and does not need to seek it in waterfalls, and mountains and storms. The philosopher sees the contrast between spirit and circumstance as much in the stoop of a ploughman or the laboured tread of his oxen, as in the passion of Othello or the wild tragedy of King Lear.
Another passage records an incident that Sir Edwin Arnold has omitted altogether: Siddhartha’s declaration of his intention to the King, his father:—
“’O Sovereign of the people, grant me this request! I would set forth a pilgrim, seeking for liberation; for certain is the dissolution of mankind here below.’ The King, hearing these words, shivered like a tree struck by an elephant. And clasping his sons hands like lotuses, he spoke to him, his voice choked with tears:—
‘Put away from thee, beloved, this mind of thine, for the time is not ripe for thee to enter on the pilgrimage of the law. In youth, when the mind is unstable, it is a fault to enter on the path. For the heart of a young man is infirm in keeping vows, and his appetite is eager for the things of sense. It is fitter for me to give my Kingdom up to thee, and seek the good law instead of thee. For it would be great lawlessness in thee to turn thy back on me. Therefore put thy vow aside, and return to thy household life. After thou hast lived the life of a man, thou wilt find truer delight in the forest life’.
Hearing this word of the King’s, the Prince made answer, in a voice modulated and low:—
‘If thou wilt become my surety in four things, O King, then will I not seek the forest, and renunciation: That this life of mine shall not wane to death; that sickness shall never steal upon my health; that old age shall not mar the glory of my youth; that misfortune shall not overtake my prosperity.’”
Here again we find the same profound note; it is not the special and striking tragedies of life, its melodramas and startling calamities, that have filled Siddhartha with a sense of its meanness, but rather the common way that all must tread, that all have trodden so long as to have accepted it as the inevitable. It is from this universal fate that the Rajput Prince set forth to seek for liberation.