Interpreter of Hinduism to the West? Sir Edwin Arnold’s (Re)Presentations of Hindu Texts and their Reception


  • Catherine Anne Robinson Bath Spa University Author



Bhagavad-Gītā, Edwin Arnold, orientalism, translation, Upaniṣads, Victorian literature


Brooks Wright's 1957 biography of Sir Edwin Arnold (1832-1904) was entitled Interpreter of Buddhism to the West. This reflects the fact that Arnold's best known work is The Light of Asia, telling the life story of the Buddha. His role in disseminating Buddhist ideas (or ideas about Buddhism), both through the extraordinary success of The Light of Asia and through other activities, both journalistic and campaigning, that acquired prominence because of his high public profile, has led commentators to consider his legacy first and foremost in relation to Buddhism. However, Arnold played a similar part in respect of Hinduism. Concentrating on Indian Idylls, containing episodes from the Mahabharata; The Indian Song of Songs, a version of the Gitagovinda; and The Song Celestial, a version of the Bhagavad-Gita, together with treatments of upanisadic literature in The Secret of Death and Lotus and Jewel, this article has three main sections. First, there is an overview of the Victorian era in order to identify evidence of interest in, and enthusiasm for, the East, particularly India and Hinduism. Second, there is a more detailed discussion of knowledge of Hinduism in various fora, including the academic, located in the context of the primacy accorded to scripture in a textual model of religion. Third, there is an examination of the nature and purpose of translation, because it was primarily as a translator, albeit avowedly in a poetic and popular style, that Arnold conceptualized, or at least articulated, his own purpose and agenda. While it is notoriously difficult to assess the impact of any author or publication, it is concluded that Arnold's contribution to the 'Easternization' of the West encompassed Hinduism as well as Buddhism.

Author Biography

  • Catherine Anne Robinson, Bath Spa University

    Catherine Robinson works in the Humanities Department at Bath Spa University where she lectures mainly on Hinduism and Sikhism. She is particularly interested in the modern era and the cross-cultural role and representation of Indian religions. This is her second article on the importance of Edwin Arnold for Western understanding of Indian religions.


Arnold, Edwin. 1861. The Book of Good Counsels: From the Sanskrit of the 'Hitopadesa'. London: Smith Elder.

-- 1875. The Indian Song of Songs from the Sanskrit of the Gita Govinda of Jayadeva with other Oriental Poems. London: Trubner.

-- 1883. Indian Idylls from the Sanskrit of the Mahabharata. London: Trubner.

-- 1885a. The Secret of Death [from the Sanskrit] with some Collected Poems. London: Trubner.

-- 1885b. The Song Celestial or Bhagavad-Gita (from the Mahabharata) Being a Discourse between Arjuna, Prince of India, and the Supreme Being under the Form of Krishna. Boston: Roberts Brothers.

-- 1891. India Revisited. 2nd edn. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner.

-- 1896a. East and West: Being Papers Reprinted from the 'Daily Telegraph' and Other Sources. London, New York and Bombay: Longmans, Green.

-- 1896b. The Chaurapanchasika. Translated and illustrated by Sir Edwin Arnold. London: Kegan Paul.

-- 1899. Lotus and Jewel Containing 'In an Indian Temple', 'A Casket of Gems', 'A Queen's Revenge'. With Other Poems. Boston: Little, Brown.

-- 1903. The Light of Asia or the Great Renunciation (Mahabhinishkramana) Being The Life and Teaching of Gautama, Prince of India and Founder of Buddhism (As Told in Verse by an Indian Buddhist), vii-xi. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner.

Bassnett, Susan, and Andre Lefevere (eds.). 1990. Translation, History and Culture. New York: Pinter Publishers.

Birmingham Daily Post. 1885. [WWW] [Review of] The Song Celestial. (accessed 1 April 2011).

Burger, Maya. 2010. 'Encountering Translation: Translational Historiography in the Connected History of India and Europe.' In Burger and Pozza (eds.) 2010: 25-45.

Burger, Maya, and Nicola Pozza. 2010. 'Editor's Introduction.' In Burger and Pozza (eds.) 2010: 9-22.

Burger, Maya, and Nicola Pozza (eds.). 2010. India in Translation through Hindi Literature: A Plurality of Voices. Bern: Peter Lang.

Callewaert, Winand, and Shilanand Hemraj. 1982. Bhagavadgitanuvada: A Study in Transcultural Translation. New Delhi: Satya Bharati.

Clausen, Christopher. 1976. 'Sir Edwin Arnold's The Light of Asia and its Reception.' Literature East and West 17: 174-91.

Cohn, Bernard S. 1985. 'The Command of Language and the Language of Command.' In Ranajit Guha (ed.), Subaltern Studies IV: Writings on South Asian History and Society, 276-329. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Crosby, Kate. 2005. 'What Does Not Get Translated in Buddhist Studies and the Impact on Teaching.' In Long (ed.) 2005: 41-53.

Davies, John. 1889. Hindu Philosophy. The Bhagavad Gita or The Sacred Lay: A Sanskrit Philosophical Poem. Translated, with Notes. 2nd edn. London: Trubner.

Dodson, Michael S. 2005. 'Translating Science, Translating Empire: The Power of Language in Colonial North India.' Comparative Studies in Society and History 47 (4): 809-35.

Dowson, John. 1888. A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion, Geography, History and Literature. London: Trubner.

Easthope, Antony. 1983. Poetry as Discourse. London and New York: Methuen.

Edgerton, Franklin. 1925. The Bhagavad-Gita or Song of the Blessed One. Chicago: Open Court.

Edgerton, Franklin (trans.). 1944. The Bhagavad Gita: Translated and Interpreted. 2 vols. Harvard Oriental Series 38 and 39. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Eliot, Simon. 2011a. [WWW] Images of the Victorian Book: Production--Introduction. (accessed 11 February 2011).

-- 2011b. Images of the Victorian Book: Publishing--Introduction. (accessed 11 February 2011).

Figueira, Dorothy Matilda. 1991. Translating the Orient: The Reception of Sakuntala in Nineteenth Century Europe. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Franklin, J. Jeffrey. 2005. 'The Life of the Buddha in Victorian England.' English Literary History 72: 941-74.

Gandhi, Mohandas Karamchand. 1982. An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Trans. Mahadev Desai. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Graham, Colin. 1998. Ideologies of Epic: Nation, Empire and Victorian Epic Poetry. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.

Hardwick, Lorna. 2000. Translating Words, Translating Cultures. London: Duckworth.

Hastings, Warren. 1785. '[Letter to] Nathaniel Smith.' In Charles Wilkins (trans.), The Bhagvat Geeta or Dialogues of Kreeshna and Arjoon; In Eighteen Lectures; With Notes, 5-16. London: C. Nourse.

Hatton, Joseph. 1998. Journalistic London: Being a Series of Sketches of Famous Pens and Papers of the Day. Chapters in the History of British Journalism, 5. Reprint of 1882 edn. London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press.

Houghton, Walter. 1957. The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Howsam, Leslie. 1998. A Kegan Paul--A Victorian Imprint: Publishers, Books and Cultural History. London: Kegan Paul International; Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Johnson, W. J. 2005. 'Making Sanskritic or Making Strange? How Should We Translate Classical Hindu Texts?' In Long (ed.) 2005: 65-74.

Kapoor, Jagdish. 1983. Bhagavad-Gita: An International Bibliography of 1785-1979 Imprints. New York and London: Garland.

Larson, Gerald J. 1981. 'Review: The Song Celestial: Two Centuries of the "Bhagavad Gita" in English.' Philosophy East and West 31 (4): 513-41.

Leeds Mercury. 1885. [WWW] [Review of] The Song Celestial. 25 July, p. 5, col. 3. (accessed 11 February 2011).

Lefevere, Andre.1990. 'Translation: Its Genealogy in the West.' In Bassnett and Lefevere (eds.) 1990: 14-28.

Lefevere, Andre, and Susan Bassnett. 1990. 'Introduction: Proust's Grandmother and the Thousand and One Nights. The "Cultural Turn" in Translation Studies.' In Bassnett and Lefevere (eds.) 1990: 1-13.

Long, Lynne (ed.). 2005. Translation and Religion: Holy Untranslatable. Clevedon, Buffalo and Toronto: Multilingual Matters.

Majeed, Javed. 2006. 'Gandhi, "Truth" and Translatability.' Modern Asian Studies 40 (2): 303-32.

Nemec, John. 2009. 'Translation and the Study of Indian Religions.' Journal of the American Academy of Religion 77 (4): 757-88.

Niranjana, Tejaswini. 1992. Siting Translation: History, Post-structuralism, and the Colonial Context. Berkeley, Los Angeles and Oxford: University of California Press.

Oxford English Dictionary. 2010. [WWW] Translation. (accessed 1 March 2011).

Passi, Alessandro. 1996. 'Nanda Revisited. Stanzas from the IV Canto of Saundarananda.' In Enrica Garzilli (ed.), Translating, Translations, Translators from India to the West, 87-104. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Oriental Series.

Phelan, J. P. 2004-2011. [WWW] Arnold, Sir Edwin (1832-1904), Poet and Journalist. (accessed 18 March 2011).

Robinson, Catherine. 2009. '"O Our India!": Towards a Reassessment of Sir Edwin Arnold.' Religions of South Asia 3 (2): 203-19.

Robinson, Douglas. 1996. Translation and Taboo. Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. 1992. 'From "On the Different Methods of Translating".' Trans. Wal-trand Bartscht. In Rainer Schulte, and John Biguenet (eds.), Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida, 36-54. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Sharpe, Eric J. 1985. The Universal Gita: Western Images of the BhagavadGita. London: Duckworth.

Sinha, Mishka. 2010. 'Corrigibility, Allegory, Universality: A History of the Gita's Transnational Reception, 1785-1945.' Modern Intellectual History 7 (2): 297-317.

Soni, Madan. 2010. 'Before the Translation.' In Burger and Pozza (eds.) 2010: 65-75.

Stark, Ulrike. 2010. 'Translation, Book History, and the Afterlife of a Text.' In Burger and Pozza (eds.) 2010: 155-80.

Steiner, George. 1998. After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. 3rd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stray, Christopher. 1998. Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities and Society in England, 1830-1960. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Swanson, Paul L., and James W. Helsig. 2005. 'Reflections on Translating Philosophical and Religious Texts.' Revista de Estudos da Religiao 4: 115-36.

The Times. 1904. [WWW] Death of Sir Edwin Arnold. March 25, Issue 37351, p. 8, col. A.!xrn_2_0_CS134409849&hst_1?sw_aep=bsuc (accessed 18 March 2011).

The Woman at Home: Annie S. Swan's Magazine. Undated. 'Sir Edwin Arnold at Home': 208. 19th Century UK Periodicals, Gale Cengage Learning (accessed 18 August 2011).

Waghorne, Joanne Punzo. 1994. The Raja's Magic Clothes: Re-Visioning Kingship and Divinity in England's India. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Wright, Brooks. 1957. Interpreter of Buddhism to the West. New York: Bookman Associates






How to Cite

Robinson, C. A. (2019). Interpreter of Hinduism to the West? Sir Edwin Arnold’s (Re)Presentations of Hindu Texts and their Reception. Religions of South Asia, 8(2), 217-236.