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.