Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha – II
Posted on December 20th, 2015

By Rohana R. Wasala Courtesy The Island

I heard about the novel Siddhartha and its author Hermann Hesse for the first time when it appeared in film version in 1972. Watching the film prompted me to read the book. It is claimed that the book enjoyed the highest global popularity it ever achieved during the period 1960 to 1975. The simplicity and the lyricism that characterize  Hesse’s original German (adequately preserved in Rosner’s English translation) have delighted generations of readers despite the arcane quality of its thematic preoccupation. Though Siddhartha had such a long history in its making (Part One was published in 1922, and Part Two in 1951) it came to such prominence in the world of books only in the 1960’s.

Hesse meant his novel for a Western readership. However, it is doubtful whether  they had any familiarity with common religious beliefs and philosophical concepts of ancient Indians to understand the story with adequate empathy with the characters that populate the specific fictional world conjured up by the author. The usual uninformed Western reaction to Indian ascetics (‘Samanas’ in the novel) is to insultingly call them hippies. Of course, part of the appeal of the novel is its very esotericism. For us it is different. Given our general acquaintance with Buddhist and other Indian religious traditions, we are equipped to do a better job of deconstructing Hesse’s literary masterpiece.  While watching the film again on the You Tube, at least forty years after I first saw it, as preparation for this essay,  I realized that, strangely, the scene that had been indelibly etched in my memory was that of the ten or eleven year old wayward son of Siddhartha pushing his way through the jungle trying to run away from his  father, whereas the more alluring scene of Siddhartha kneeling before a naked Kamala  had almost totally been forgotten. This may be because the boy’s action had impressed me as more central to the meaning of the novel than the erotic scene.

The title of the novel ‘Siddhartha’ is of special interest, for that was the name of the Buddha before his attainment of Buddhahood or Enlightenment: Prince Siddhartha Gautama of the kshastriya (warrior) caste. (Incidentally, the second name here is spelt ‘Gotama’ in the novel.) Hardly any new reader of the novel among them would imagine that the Siddhartha of the story is anyone other than the Buddha-to-be Siddhartha Gautama. But he is not; it is a different person, a Brahmin’s son.  In fact, the Buddha Gautama appears only once in the story. That is when Siddhartha and his friend Govinda call on him at the Jetavana grove monastery in the town of Savathi, built by the Buddha’s great benefactor Anathapindika. It is then that Siddhartha has a short conversation with the Illustrious One. However, the Buddha is invoked in many pages of the book as a shining beacon of spiritual enlightenment. It is also true that the essential stages of Siddhartha’s  progress towards enlightenment or wisdom  are roughly similar to those of the Buddha’s. Thus,  Hesse seems to imply a close identity between the two.

The common Sanskrit name ‘Siddhartha’ is composed of two parts, Siddha and artha. The word ‘siddha’ has the meaning of ‘achieved or fulfilled’; the word ‘artha’ may be explained as ‘meaning or purpose’. So, Siddhartha means ‘the one who has achieved the purpose of his life’. In fact, we were taught this at school long ago in our Buddhism lessons. In the context of the novel, the name is appropriate for the protagonist Siddhartha, the Brahmin’s son, for he is shown to have achieved his goal of Buddha-like enlightenment at the very end of the novel, though without overtly having followed the way that the Buddha demonstrated to his disciples. The novel embodies the story of the Brahmin Siddhartha’s meandering but ultimately successful spiritual journey of self-discovery unaided by any teacher or teaching.

It also reflects Hermann Hesse’s own long struggle to achieve what he seemed to think was his personal spiritual health, for, as he once complained, he had been ‘sick with life’. Like all his other novels, Siddhartha bears the imprint of his religious (or rather, psychological/spiritual) crisis that characterized his personality.  In this respect, Siddhartha is particularly interesting, for it may be interpreted as an allegorical rendering of the author’s own relentless pursuit of spirituality. The fact that the completion of this short novel in two parts took so long can be cited in support of this biographical argument.

Hesse was born in the town of Calw (pronounced ‘kalf ) in Germany in 1877. His father and mother  were Protestant Christian missionaries who had served in India. Even at a very young age,  Hesse was willful and difficult to control as his mother once wrote to his father (who had been serving away from home at the time). Though  his parents expected him to  study for the ministry, he inwardly rebelled against the idea. The young Hesse suffered from a severe personal crisis that led him to flee from the Maulbroom seminary in 1892. He was entrusted to a famous theologian and faith healer for help.  The attempted cure by the faith healer failed, and the 15 year old Hesse tried to take his own life, as the disillusioned Siddhartha does in the novel.

After being expelled from school, he worked in bookshops, as was usual with fledgling German authors at that time. His first novel Peter Camenzind  (1904), which Austrian psychologist and physician Sigmund Freud himself praised as one of his favourite readings,  narrates the story of a young writer who leaves his native village in the Swiss mountains in order to be initiated into the wider world. The wider world was the late 19th and early 20th century Europe where the intelligentsia had been roused by two fairly contemporaneous, but disparate  developments : the advent of psychoanalysis pioneered by Sigmund Freud and the devastating World War I. All the great economic powers of the contemporary world were enmeshed in the latter Euro-centred military conflagration.  Investigations into the hidden sources of human behaviour under Freudian psychology (involving such notions as id, ego, and superego as parts of the human mind) threw into crisis people’s hitherto-held  self-conceptions; the psychologists’ findings undermined the implicit trust of ordinary men and women in the power of human reason alone in matters of the intellect and morality. The id and instinct emerged as even more important. Political conflicts between powerful nations led to World War I (1914-1918). It turned out to be the most destructive war in human history up to that time. The estimated number of casualties was 38 million (over 17 million dead, and 20 million wounded). The unprecedented scale of the destructiveness of that war was due to the lethal efficiency of the modern weaponry used, whose invention was a monument to the scientific and technological sophistication of the human race, which, in its turn, was thanks to the triumph of human reason. The perceptive awareness of this paradox led intellectuals of the time including Hesse to pay more attention to the importance of understanding the wellsprings of the psychological and moral behavior  of individuals for the betterment of society.

Since scholars with a psychological or spiritual bent failed to find anything satisfactory in this regard in the traditional theistic religious heritage of Europe, they turned to the East. The Dharmic religions of the East (such as Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism) set great store by the power of the human mind. Students of English literature of this period, for example, are familiar with the works of authors (poets, novelists, dramatists, etc) who drew upon the philosophical and religious traditions of the East for the exploration of themes connected with this new trend of ‘inner search’ involving self-discovery  and self-improvement: Joseph Conrad, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Edwin Arnold, etc., among many others can be mentioned as some casual examples. The pacifism of Dharmic religions had a special appeal for European thinkers who had begun to question the validity of such concepts as righteous anger” that crusaders of all kinds used to wage war on peaceful nations who held different political views or professed different religions. Hesse was an author who subscribed to pacifist ideals. This is the reason why he dedicated the first part of the book to French dramatist, novelist, and essayist  Romain Rolland (1866-1944), who himself had been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1915 “as a tribute to the lofty idealism of his literary production and to the sympathy and love of truth with which he has described different types of human beings”.

Rolland wrote: “The true Vedantic spirit does not start out with a system of preconceived ideas. It possesses absolute liberty and unrivalled courage among religions with regard to the facts to be observed and the diverse hypotheses it has laid down for their coordination. Never having been hampered by a priestly order, each man has been entirely free to search wherever he pleased for the spiritual explanation of the spectacle of the universe.” Here,  Rolland remarks on the freedom of inquiry that Dharmic religions (led by Hinduism) allow the individual searcher in their lonesome struggle for the spiritual explanation of the spectacle of the universe.” In my opinion, this freedom of individual questioning and investigation is what Hesse demonstrates through Siddhartha in the novel.

Siddhartha is not a treatise on Buddhism. It is a work of fiction. The omniscient narrator is also a creation of the author. But what the individual reader may infer from the story could be identical with or at least similar to the author’s own interpretation of the state of enlightenment that is the ultimate spiritual achievement that one can attain in Buddhism.  Characters as well as their ideas and motives are the products of a creative writer’s imagination. The novel presents Siddhartha’s final state of transcendent peace as the same as that achieved by any successful disciple of the Buddha. But we know that Siddhartha says he does not accept the teachings of the Buddha while not denying that he is the Perfect One. Having praised the Buddha for proving the unity of the world through his doctrine of cause and effect, Siddhartha tells him that he thinks that nobody finds salvation through teachings”. Knowledge can be taught, but not wisdom, says Siddhartha.

I venture to propose here my personal thesis that, in the final analysis,  what Hesse depicts as a realized goal in this story of Siddhartha the Brahmin’s son is not a pure Buddhist ideal, but an amalgam of Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian ideals (which, at a deep level, seem to be conceived as identical with each other). Though he owed much to the influences of Hindu and Buddhist philosophies, Hesse stated: Christianity, one not preached, but lived, was the strongest  of the powers that shaped and moulded me”.  His must have been a thoroughly ‘Indianized’ Christianity.  In a conversation with Miguel Serrano, Hesse said about belief in God: “You should let yourself be carried away, like the clouds in the sky. You shouldn’t resist. God exists in your destiny just as much as he does in these mountains and in that lake. It is very difficult to understand this, because man is moving further and further away from Nature, and also from himself.” Although, apparently, Hesse is here talking about his Christian religious belief, his words also evoke Hindu pantheistic ideas. This imputation of an element of mysticism to Buddhism, I feel, is due to Hesse’s own religious heterogeneity.

Earlier in this essay I described the thematic preoccupation of the novel as arcane. It may sound arcane to most of us who feel tempted to associate spirituality with mysticism. But today the subject of spirituality is neither arcane nor archaic, for our interest in human spirituality remains as strong as ever, and spirituality is a subject that has begun to be studied scientifically as an aspect of psychology (something similar to the Buddhist attitude which is entirely free from mysticism) . Celebrated Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho’s phenomenally popular O Alquimista or The Alchemist (1988), which propelled him to world fame has remarkable affinity with Hesse’s Siddhartha in terms of its subject.  (The Alchemist has been translated into 80 languages and had sold 210 million copies worldwide by June 2015 according to the Wikipedia.) Reminiscent of Siddhartha’s wanderings, Santiago the young shepherd, the protagonist in The Alchemist finds the treasure he seeks, not where he was led to look for it by dreams, far from home braving daunting obstacles, but right where he started.


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