As this beautifully written, deeply absorbing and revelatory account suggests, three things have characterised the exchange over the centuries between Asia and the West: trade, religion and, in its darkest days, “smashing things up and burning them”.
This was particularly true for Spanish Franciscans and Dominicans evangelising in 17th century China, who made the mistake of destroying ancestor tablets, either ignorant of, or indifferent to, the fact that the Chinese believed that the tablets were inhabited by the spirits of deceased ancestors.
Killing off the spirit of somebody’s grandfather is not the best way to make friends. But, remarkably, for the most part Jesuit missionaries found the Chinese peaceful, noting their humility, chastity and industry.
The French essayist Montaigne, reading the accounts of the Spanish bishop and explorer Juan González de Mendoza of his travels in China, concluded that here was “a kingdom whose government and arts, without dealings with and knowledge of ours, surpass our examples in many branches of excellence, and whose history teaches me how much ampler and more varied the world is than either the ancients or we ourselves understand.” The 17th century German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz speculated that in matters of thought, ethics and filial piety, China had so much going for it they might send missionaries to Europe.
This sense of a tilting away from the Western-centric view of the world, and the dawning understanding that the East had more to offer than riches, plunder and trade, is one of the most fascinating things in this book. The Light of Asia is, thankfully, less a critique of colonialism than a judicious, far-reaching exploration of how the discovery of Eastern beliefs, customs and mores helped to shape Western ideas as much as Western advancements were in turn been taken up in the East.
Christopher Harding’s book makes an elegant and entertaining progress from the Ancient Greeks to the “raga rock” of the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood and the Rolling Stones’ Paint it Black. Along the way, it takes in Marco Polo, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the Duke of Dorset’s mistress, who, in a period in the 18th century when Chinese art and artefacts became fashionable, trumped everybody by adopting a Chinese boy, Wang-Y-Tong.
But what really interests Harding is the intersection of philosophical and religious ideas of East and West. A running theme is the conflict between what was perceived as the dynamism of the Judeo-Christian tradition and the “passivity” of Asian religious thought. As understanding of Buddhist and Vedic ideas deepened, that supposed passivity came to be seen as an antidote to the cultural crises of the 20th century. The last third of the book concentrates on three people who did much to promote this idea through the syncretism of Eastern and Western thought.
The daughter of a Protestant clergyman, Erna Hoch was a Swiss psychiatrist who ran one of the India’s first mental health clinics, and who described the meeting of the god Krishna and the warrior Arjuna on the eve of battle in the Bhagavad Gita – a cornerstone of Vedic teaching – as an encounter “between a compassionate therapist and his distressed client”.
The English maverick Alan Watts was a key figure in popularising Zen Buddhism in America and Europe through his broadcasts and books (Van Morrison wrote a song about him, Alan Watts Blues), and along with Allen Ginsberg, became a sort of paterfamilias to the hippie movement.
For all his brilliance as a philosopher and teacher, Watts was a terrible husband and father, drank like a fish, and died suddenly aged 58. His wife theorised that while attempting to reach a state of samadhi – absorption with the Absolute – Watts had left his body without knowing how to come back.
Then there was Bede Griffiths, the Benedictine monk, who found in India “a sense of worship for all the beauty in life which we [in the West] have driven out of it”. Though still a Christian, Griffiths adopted the saffron robes of the Indian holy man, and established an ashram, Shantivanam, which drew hundreds of Western seekers each year.
This did not please everyone. Hindu nationalists who regarded religious pluralism as a cultural and political threat attacked Griffths as “a spiritual colonialist”, while Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (before becoming Pope) suggested meditation risked providing “a gateway for Satan to enter the mind”. But that horse had long since bolted.
For millions in the West, meditation, yoga and an abiding enthusiasm for Eastern philosophy have become a way of life. If Asia got trains, antibiotics and iPhones, the West got an opportunity to find peace of mind. Both, it seems, have done quite well out of the deal.
Mick Brown’s latest book is The Nirvana Express: How the Search for Enlightenment Went West. The Light of Asia: A History of Western Fascination with the East is published by Allen Lane at £30. To order your copy for £25 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books