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J. Jeffrey Franklin. The Lotus and the Lion: Buddhism and the British Empire

Patrick Brantlinger
p. 536-538
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J. Jeffrey Franklin. The Lotus and the Lion: Buddhism and the British Empire. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008. P. xii + 273. ISBN: 0801447305 — EAN: 9780801447303. £ 19.50.

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1J. Jeffrey Franklin has written a thoroughly researched and fascinating account of the influence of Buddhism mainly on British culture, roughly from 1820 into the early 1900s. There were a wide range of responses from evangelical denunciations to acceptance of Buddhism as superior to the theistic orthodoxies of the world. Franklin, himself a Buddhist, considers his study a contribution to comparative religion as well as literary history, and he both analyses and uses as sources studies of Buddhism back into the 1800s, such as those of Max Müller and T. W. Rhys Davids. Eugène Burnouf’s 1844 Introduction à l’histoire du bouddhisme indien marks the point when “Buddhology emerge[d] in Britain as the primary occupation of the newly forming field of comparative religion”. From then on, Buddhism was not just an object of scholarly interest, but attained a central place in “the popular discourse” of the Victorian and modern eras (12).

2For many Victorians, Christ and Buddha were comparable figures of ethical enlightenment, and Buddhism seemed to offer answers to many of the issues posed by evolutionary theory. Moreover, as Davids asserted in 1881, Buddhism “proclaimed a salvation which each man could gain for himself, and by himself, in this world, during this life, without any the least reference to God or to gods, either great or small” (qtd. in Franklin 58). After the introduction, the opening chapter examines Richard Phillips’s The Story of Gautama Buddha and His Creed (1871) and Sir Edwin Arnold’s bestselling The Light of Asia (1879). Franklin seeks to explain why Arnold’s poem was so much more successful and influential than Phillips’s “epic.” A key factor was Arnold’s greater sympathy towards Buddhism; Phillips considered it a Machiavellian attempt to answer the major questions that only Christianity answered. Arnold also paid much more attention to the women in Siddhartha’s life than did either Phillips or, for that matter, the original sources of the story.

3The Buddhist idea of dharma, karma, and reincarnation provided analogies for aspects of Darwinism as well as consolation for those who sought it, even though these relied on misinterpretations of the original concept (30–40). In Evolution and Ethics (1893), Thomas Henry Huxley found “the origins of evolutionary theory in ‘the early philosophies of Hindostan’” (36). Buddhism provided him with ideas about how ethics could counteract evolutionary processes. Although the concept of nirvana struck most Western commentators as nihilistic, it too could seem consolatory, providing the ultimate escape from desire, evil and nature’s apparently careless destructiveness.

4Franklin is especially informative when he turns to “late-Victorian hybrid religions” (50–80) including Spiritualism, Theosophy and many others. Buddhism itself, as adapted to Western desires was inevitably a “syncretic” religion. His analysis of Theosophy is particularly detailed and nuanced, at once sympathetic and critical. He notes that in Isis Unveiled (1877) and her other writings, Mme. Blavatsky produced a persuasive semblance of historical scholarship that traced all religions back to an ancient, universal “wisdom” faith, untrammeled by orthodoxies and theological claptrap. Like nineteenth-century comparative religion itself, “Theosophy was built upon an evolutionary model of spiritual development” (71). As also in Theosophist, A. P. Sinnett’s Esoteric Buddhism (1883), progressive spiritual development and “the law” of Darwinian evolution were identical (71).

5Franklin is insightful as well in dealing with Buddhist elements, particularly versions of reincarnation, in the romances of Marie Corelli and H. Rider Haggard. His major literary focus, however, is Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, to which he devotes an entire chapter. It certainly makes sense to take Buddhism in Kim seriously. Of all the religions stressed in that novel, Hinduism, Islam, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and the occultism of Lurgan Sahib, Buddhism is given the fullest and most sympathetic treatment. For most of the novel, Kim is the Teshoo Lama’s chela or disciple, and at the novel’s end he seems determined to continue in that role. Kim insists that he has learned wisdom from the lama, though whether that means he has become a thoroughgoing Buddhist is unclear. Buddhism is not dependent on any sort of orthodoxy, but on ethics and practice. In any event, while it seems reasonable to read Kim in a Buddhist manner, as does Franklin, Kipling was probably never a thoroughgoing Buddhist himself, even while writing Kim. Franklin is aware that Kipling was not a believer in any religious orthodoxy, which is no doubt one reason why Buddhism appealed to him.

6Kipling was, however, a firm believer in imperialism and “the white man’s burden,” views incompatible with Buddhism. Perhaps Kipling allowed Buddhism a place alongside imperialism in Kim because he also believed the latter was not a question of a false ideology or even of power politics, but also primarily of ethical practice. It is true that Kipling holds the two competing influences on Kim’s identity, the imperialist Game and the Buddhist Way, in suspension, but while that may seem to be a Buddhist (non) answer to Kim’s persistent question, “Who is Kim?” it is also a way for Kipling to keep his ideal boy in indefinitely prolonged adolescence, like many other boy-heroes in imperialist adventure fiction. Although Franklin does not mention this, the Lama and Kim, Kipling’s version of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, both seem childlike and that may be how Kipling viewed Buddhism as well, as a childlike belief that was, however, preferable to all other religions.

7In the final chapter, Franklin turns to the various conceptions of nirvana in Western philosophy, from Schopenhauer to Sartre. These mostly boil down to versions of nihilism or Sartre’s “nothingness,” which Franklin insists is a mistaken interpretation of the Buddhist meaning of nirvana. It is instead, he argues, a “selfless ecological unit” or “the connectedness of one’s self with all other selves in an unavoidably mutually interdependent process of becoming” (185). Perhaps so. I do not know enough about Buddhism to question his interpretation of nirvana. But Franklin’s treatment of Buddhism especially in Victorian and modernist British literature is both thorough and illuminating. Among humanities scholars, Franklin has definitely acquired merit.

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Patrick Brantlinger, « J. Jeffrey Franklin. The Lotus and the Lion: Buddhism and the British Empire »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 71 Printemps | 2010, 536-538.

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Patrick Brantlinger, « J. Jeffrey Franklin. The Lotus and the Lion: Buddhism and the British Empire »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 71 Printemps | 2010, mis en ligne le 07 octobre 2016, consulté le 30 novembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Patrick Brantlinger

Indiana University

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