“Frequently mentioned, seldom studied, Hermann Hesse is a familiar nonperson to intellectual historians and specialists in Weimar culture. While literary scholars cultivate a mushrooming critical literature about him and counter-culturists co-opt him as a spiritual guide, historians mostly seemed content to allude casually to the supposedly symptomatic quality and psychoanalytic orientation of his novels.”
- Robert Galbreath, Hermann Hesse and the Politics of Detachment
Siddhartha is Nobel Prize-winning author Hermann Hesse's most widely read novel. Set in the sixth century BC, in India, it recounts the spiritual quest of a Brahmin boy – how he questioned traditional teachings and customs, experienced the ways of the world, found answers and refuge in Nature, and in the process discovered love, compassion, and the unity of all life. Ralph Freedman in Hermann Hesse - Pilgrim of Crisis reports Hesse’s comment in a letter: "[m]y Siddhartha does not, in the end, learn true wisdom from any teacher, but from a river that roars in a funny way and from a kindly old fool who always smiles and is secretly a saint."
A tiny pellet of a novel, Siddhartha packs the punch of a boulder. Rendered in a simple descriptive style, it seems on the surface like a fable, but is actually a highly erudite piece of literature. It is intriguing that 120 pages can contain profound personal experiences, captivating themes and analogies, cross-cultural nuances, religious philosophy, and the power to captivate and enlighten.
Siddhartha is a book that grows on you and grows with you – it means different things to different people and its import and impact changes with the age of the reader. The whole novel is composed methodically to depict the four stages of Siddhartha’s life based on the four ashrams as advocated in the Hindu way of life. Paul Edwards observes:
“In Hinduism, the high caste Hindu’s life is divided into four periods; first, he is a pupil or student, second, a householder and family man, third, he begins to relinquish his family ties, to be become a vanaprastha, (literally “forest dweller”) finally he becomes a sannyasin, devoting himself entirely to the spiritual quest.”
Another interesting observation with regard to the chapter schema is made on this website – that the novel is divided into two parts, the first part with four chapters and the second with eight. This structure mirrors the teachings of Buddhism— the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The first part of the book was dedicated to Romain Rolland (1866-1944), a French playwright and essayist and the second part to Hesse’s cousin, William Gundert.
For young westerners in the 1960s and 1970s, the book was part of the counter culture (or hippie) movement, providing insight into Eastern philosophy. As observed in The Gale Encyclopedia of Biography, “The novels of the German author Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) are lyrical and confessional and are primarily concerned with the relationship between the contemplative, God-seeking individual, often an artist, and his fellow humans.” It is this “confessional” aspect of the novel that has interested many critics, and researchers. In his article, Herman Hesse, Siddhartha, Johannes Malthaner pointed out that many key points in Siddhartha reflect significant events in the life of Herman Hesse. The introduction to the novel underlines the biographical nature of the novel:
The novel's vitality and connection to reality are due to its genuine sources in Hesse's own life… The struggles of Siddhartha against his priestly father, and those of his own son against him, reflect Hesse's defiance of authority as a child. Siddhartha's conclusion that teachings are useless reflects Hesse's interrupted schooling and his pride in his self-education. Siddhartha's self-doubts and attempt at suicide have real echoes in Hesse's life. Even small details are relevant: the raft Siddhartha builds with Vasudeva may very well refer to Hesse's rides on loggers' rafts when a boy in Calw.
While the influence of Oriental philosophy, impressions from a tour of India (1919), and the readings of Eastern religious literature, such as the Dhammapadas, the Vedas, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the Upanishads, are all reflected in the novel, the impact of psychoanalytic material and use of mythical and biblical motifs is also evident. Hesse participated in psychoanalysis sessions between 1912 and 1919 under Dr. Joseph Bernhard Lang and Dr. Carl Gustav Jung, and the introspective impact is seen in novels like Siddhartha and Steppenwolf, with themes of chaotic polarities and self-quest.
Siddhartha is an endearing novel because it blends the most significant teachings of Vedanta Hinduism and Buddhism, as they apply to the common man. Hesse emphasizes the importance of wisdom acquired by making mistakes, by gaining experience, fulfilling the duties of the householder, rejecting dogmas and materialism, and finding harmony with Nature.
“Hesse is of the view that if you want to experience the truth, then the truth must be within the framework of your body.” - S. B. Bhambar, Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha – A Dualist Spiritual Journey.
A similar message is echoed in the Editorial Review on Amazon.com of Sherab Chodzin Kohn’s translation of the Siddhartha:
“His final epiphany challenges both the Buddhist and the Hindu ideals of enlightenment. Neither a practitioner nor a devotee, neither meditating nor reciting, Siddhartha comes to blend in with the world, resonating with the rhythms of nature, bending the reader's ear down to hear answers from the river.”
Siddhartha as a creative work has the power to become a timeless novel. It is an interesting study of Eastern philosophies that also provides insight into the mental turmoil, intellectual pursuit and spiritual cravings of one of the most talented writers of the early 20th century. However, this work is now considered passé by many critics who feel it over-simplifies the deeper messages of the two great Eastern religions – Hinduism and Buddhism.
It was probably this simplicity of voice that attracted the original European readers. As observed in the online forum, The Open Critic, “If there is value at all in Hesse’s, Siddhartha, it’s in the reminder that there is another way. Perhaps it's in the challenge to the presumption that the pursuit of anything; be it happiness, wealth or knowledge, will bring us what we desire most. Wanting and yearning may yield only more wanting and yearning.”
As a reader, there were instances when I found the language to be inadequate, the description lax in some places, repetitive in other instances, and the words not worthy of the depth of emotion of the protagonist’s anguish. The English translation has probably not done justice to the lyrical intonation of the original German work. But the novel doesn’t depend on vocabulary because it is built of a momentous web of symbols, motifs and universal themes.
From the choice of name of the main characters, to metaphorical usage of the courtesan and the merchant, the rare song bird in a cage, pomade and spices, the coconut tree, the ferryman, and the river, Siddhartha effortlessly harnesses significant themes like traditional paths versus self-sought spiritual enlightenment, the teacher and the taught, the wisdom of indirection, the futility of the material world, the bonds of attachment and self-awakening.
The river is an omniscient observer at the most significant junctions of Siddhartha’s life − from scholar to ascetic, to pleasure-seeker, to ferryman, to father, and eventually to an enlightened person − all in one endless cycle of losing and loving. The river is a mirror and a conduit, a friend, philosopher and guide, and it conveys the primary motif of unity in polarities through both sound and vision. The river banks represent the polarities and the perennial river is the union of the polarities, resounding with the sound of Om, the cosmic vibration.
Siddhartha is not a treatise on religion or philosophy but a poetic interpretation of Indian spirituality seen through the eyes of a westerner, as suggested by the subtitle of the novel in German, “Eine indische Dichtung,” an Indian poetic work. Siddhartha is ultimately a therapeutic attempt by Hesse to exorcise the demons of his personal spiritual tumult, especially in the context of his missionary upbringing. The exposition of the novel is thus poetic, personal and poignant. The reader cannot but applaud Hesse’s positive intent and affirmative vision of the inherent “Buddha-nature” of all human beings, who can embrace all life with love and compassion.
A poem by S. Wolf Britain written in honor of Hermann Hesse.