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 of American-East Asian Relations – Brill
Published: Feb 13, 2019