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“‘Very Beautiful Heathenism’: The Light of Asia in Gilded Age America”

“‘Very Beautiful Heathenism’: The Light of Asia in Gilded Age America” British journalist Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia (1879), a book-length, blank-verse poem about the life of Siddhārtha Gautama, triggered an extensive American fascination with Buddhism. Arnold’s sympathetic portrayal of the Buddha enjoyed great popularity in Britain but attracted even more admirers in the United States, where Americans bought dozens of editions. The poem’s popularity, however, also provoked a backlash. While it attracted many Gilded Age Americans, it repelled others who attacked Arnold as a “paganizer.” His success in the United States dismayed Protestant missionaries in East Asia (especially China and Japan) and clergy at home just as they were laboring to spread Christianity abroad. The recognition that “heathenism” was tempting their compatriots came as a shock. The claim that Buddhism offered enlightenment disturbed missionaries and clergy, who attacked it as “a light that does not illumine.” Arnold’s poem triggered a vigorous public discussion of the merits of Buddhism and Christianity. This debate made manifest the spiritual confidence of some Gilded Age Americans and the spiritual uncertainties that beset others regarding the relationships among Buddhism, Christianity, salvation, and civilization. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Journal of American-East Asian Relations Brill

“‘Very Beautiful Heathenism’: The Light of Asia in Gilded Age America”

Journal of American-East Asian Relations , Volume 26 (1): 30 – Feb 13, 2019

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Publisher
Brill
Copyright
Copyright © Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands
ISSN
1058-3947
eISSN
1876-5610
DOI
10.1163/18765610-02601004
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

British journalist Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia (1879), a book-length, blank-verse poem about the life of Siddhārtha Gautama, triggered an extensive American fascination with Buddhism. Arnold’s sympathetic portrayal of the Buddha enjoyed great popularity in Britain but attracted even more admirers in the United States, where Americans bought dozens of editions. The poem’s popularity, however, also provoked a backlash. While it attracted many Gilded Age Americans, it repelled others who attacked Arnold as a “paganizer.” His success in the United States dismayed Protestant missionaries in East Asia (especially China and Japan) and clergy at home just as they were laboring to spread Christianity abroad. The recognition that “heathenism” was tempting their compatriots came as a shock. The claim that Buddhism offered enlightenment disturbed missionaries and clergy, who attacked it as “a light that does not illumine.” Arnold’s poem triggered a vigorous public discussion of the merits of Buddhism and Christianity. This debate made manifest the spiritual confidence of some Gilded Age Americans and the spiritual uncertainties that beset others regarding the relationships among Buddhism, Christianity, salvation, and civilization.

Journal

Journal of American-East Asian RelationsBrill

Published: Feb 13, 2019

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