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