In the form of a narrative poem, the book endeavors to describe the life and time of Prince Gautama Siddhartha, who after attaining enlightenment became The Buddha, The Awakened One. The book presents his life, character, and philosophy, in a series of verses. It is a free adaptation of the Lalitavistara.
A few decades before the book's publication, very little was known outside Asia about the Buddha and Buddhism, the religion which he founded, and which had existed for about twenty-five centuries. Arnold's book was one of the first successful attempts to popularize Buddhism for a Western readership.
The book has been highly acclaimed from the time it was first published, and has been the subject of several reviews. It has been translated into several languages, including Hindi (by Acharya Ram Chandra Shukla).
A film adaptation of the poem directed by Franz Osten and Himansu Rai was made in 1928, titled, Prem Sanyas (The Light of Asia in English). Dudley Buck used the book as the basis for an oratorio, The Light of Asia, first performed in 1887.
The first six chapters deal with the early part of his life — his birth as Siddhartha, prince of Kapilavastu; his gaining first-hand knowledge of the sufferings of mankind; his resorting to meditation; and his ultimate transformation as the ‘Enlightened One' after long years of meditation. The subsequent chapters speak of the Buddha's travels and the important elements of the message he spread are discussed — for instance, that suffering is a built-in aspect of existence; that craving for sensuality and identity is the root of suffering; and that suffering can be ended. How to get free from suffering? It calls for right understanding; right thought; right speech; right action; right livelihood; right effort; right mindfulness; and right concentration. Throughout his peregrinations, mostly in eastern India, Gautama Buddha was joined by thousands of disciples and admirers from all walks of life.
- Sutin, L.: All is Change: The Two-Thousand Year Journey of Buddhism to the West, Little, Brown and Company, 2006. See pages 141 to 143.
- Harvey, P.: An Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge University Press, 1990. See page 303.
- Prem Sanyas at the Internet Movie Database
- Orr, N. Lee (2008). Dudley Buck, p. 98. University of Illinois Press
- The Light of Asia at Project Gutenberg
- Bengali Drama Based on The Light of Asia