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A curious case of Sir Edwin Arnold and the Lall-Vakh translations in Kashmir: Read an excerpt from Jairam Ramesh’s book

Jairam Ramesh
  • The book “The Light of Asia: The Poem That Defined The Buddha” by economist and politician Jairam Ramesh unveils the myriad nuances of the poem ‘The Light of Asia’.

  • ‘The Light of Asia‘ is an epic poem by Sir Edwin Arnold that was first published in 1879. It is a narrative of the life and message of the Buddha.

  • The poem had a profound impact on Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore, and Swami Vivekananda. Weaving together literary, cultural, political and social history, Jairam Ramesh uncovers and narrates the fascinating story of this deeply consequential and compelling poem that has shaped our thinking of Buddha and his teachings.

  • Read an excerpt from the book “The Light of Asia: The Poem That Defined The Buddha” below.

In 2002, there appeared in New Delhi a slim thirty-five-page monograph with a long and forbidding title:

The sensational monograph published in New Delhi in 2002

I had never heard of it; neither would have most. Had it not come up in a search of ‘Sir Edwin Arnold’ in the catalogue of the British Library, I would have missed this story. It is difficult to believe but it is worth telling.

Lallesvari was a fourteenth-century saint and princess revered even today by Hindus and Muslims in the Kashmir Valley. Her verse-sayings are called Lalla-Vakhs, the earliest compilation of which has come down to us from the early part of the eighteenth century. In 1876, the German Indologist Georg Buhler had deposited his collection of the Lalla-Vakhs, gathered by him in Kashmir the previous year, at the Deccan College in Poona. This is important, for it provides a connection to Arnold. In 1920, George Grierson, a noted British administrator in India, published Lalla-Vakyavani, comprising the original sixty of the early eighteenth century plus an additional forty-nine he had himself discovered and had recorded.

In May 2002, Shiv Nath Hundoo was rummaging through the papers, books and other records of his father Suna Bhatta Shastri, a great Sanskrit scholar of Kashmir. Hundoo stumbled upon a manuscript, Lallesvari-Vakyani, a work by his elder brother Amar Nath Hundoo, who was a brilliant Sanskrit student and who had commenced this work in early 1934 and completed it in a year. Sadly, he died very young, in February 1938.

Now here is the sensational part. In his late brother’s manuscript, Shiv Nath Hundoo also found, in his own words:

Sir Edwin Arnold’s English translation, so far unpublished, of as many as 120 vakhs, of which the first sixty are those that have come down to us from Rajanaka Bhaskara [the early eighteenth-century collection] while the additional sixty vakhs appear to be those collected by Arnold from elsewhere.

Shiv Nath Hundoo also writes that the evidence points to Edwin Arnold having done the translations after receiving the knighthood [that is January 1888]. But he makes two errors of fact. He writes that Arnold must have been in Bombay in 1888–89 and later in Srinagar as well. In Bombay, Hundoo’s surmise is that Arnold would have been provided with access to the Buhler collection at Poona, and in Srinagar he believes Arnold left behind his translations, which his late brother had managed to obtain.

That there is an annotation in Amar Nath Hundoo’s manuscript saying ‘Sir Edwin Arnold’s translation’ is indisputable. What is also beyond doubt is that Arnold was in Poona for a few days in November 1885. But what is also incontrovertible is that Arnold himself makes no mention of these translations anywhere, nor does his biographer. This is indeed mysterious. How did Arnold access the Buhler collection?

I tracked down S.N. Pandita, who had written a brief note in this monograph at the request of Shiv Nath Hundoo. Pandita, who lives near New Delhi, had looked into Amar Nath Hundoo’s manuscript and confirmed that it contains the English translations by Sir Edwin Arnold, acknowledged in writing by Amar Nath Hundoo himself. There is one possibility. Could it be that Arnold had done the translations before he was knighted? Could he have done them during his visit to India in 1885–86? But then if indeed he had, why did he not write about them in India Revisited and how had Amar Nath Hundoo accessed Arnold’s translations in Srinagar in the mid-1930s?

One of the most famous detectives ever was created by a man who was an early admirer of the Theosophical Movement and who would definitely have read The Light of Asia when it first came out. ‘Arnold and the Lallesvari-vakyani’ is a fit case for Sherlock Holmes. The Buddha makes his presence felt in many of Conan Doyle’s stories.

Excerpted with permission from The Light of Asia: The Poem That Defined The Buddha, Jairam Ramesh, Penguin Viking. Read more about the book here and buy it here.


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