Hermann Hesse’s  Siddhartha – I
Posted on December 18th, 2015

By Rohana R. Wasala Courtesy The Island

The German-born Nobel Prize-winning Swiss novelist, poet and essayist Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) is well known to most Sri Lankan readers of English literature as the author of the classic novel Siddhartha (originally written in the German language, but later made available in English translation). American Independent  film maker Conrad Rooks with cinematographer Sven Nykvist turned the Siddhartha story into a widescreen film in 1972, starring Indian actors Sashi Kapoor and Simi Garewal in the lead roles. The film came on DVD on December 2, 2002. Today, anyone interested can watch it on the You Tube. The novel was originally published in America in 1922 and 1951. The first English translation  was by Hilda Rosner in 1951. A French version was also published. A number of other translators have produced new versions since then in other languages including Sanskrit.  I am here focusing on Rosner’s 1951 English translation, on which the 1972 film is based.

In this first part of my essay meant for the general reader, I am going to set before them a synopsis of the short novel (only 152 pages) with a minimum of additional explanation, reserving fuller commentary for the second. The whole essay will embody an independent personal response to the novel. I will consider my purpose achieved if, after reading this essay, interested readers who haven’t still read this classic, feel like doing so and enjoy its original verbal artistry; the delight they will thus experience is bound to be far greater than anything they may experience by reading my account of the book.

Siddhartha is the well beloved son of an erudite Brahman. He is young, handsome, and intelligent. He masters all the traditional knowledge imparted to him by his father. Everyone in the community is happy with him, but he himself is not happy about his knowledge. So he persuades his father to grant him permission to join a group of Samanas (ascetics) who pass through their town. Siddhartha’s friend Govinda joins him. Having spent three years with the Samanas and having learnt everything they know, Siddhartha is still not satisfied. The two friends hear rumours about the illustrious Gotama, the Buddha, who is reputed to have brought the sorrows of the world to an end and stopped the cycle of rebirth. Though Siddhartha decides not to look for new teachers, Govinda suggests that they go and listen to Gotama.  They take leave of the Samanas despite their disapproval and go to see the Buddha. Govinda stays with the Buddha after listening to him, but Siddhartha doesn’t, because he cannot accept his teachings. He tells the Buddha that though his teaching has explained with perfect clarity the eternal unity of the world linked together by cause and effect, he sees a flaw in the Buddha’s teaching; the flaw is his doctrine of rising above the world, of salvation”. The Buddha’s answer is that what he teaches is not my  opinion, and its goal is not to explain the world to those who are thirsty for knowledge. Its goal is quite different; its goal is salvation from suffering”. The Buddha emphasizes: That is what Gotama teaches, nothing else”. Siddhartha tells him: O Illustrious One …. Not for a moment did I doubt that you were the Buddha, that you have reached the highest goal which so many thousands of Brahmins and Brahmins’ sons are striving to reach. You have done so by your own seeking, in your own way, through thought, through meditation, through knowledge, through enlightenment. You have learned nothing through teachings, and so I think, O Illustrious One, that nobody finds salvation through teachings…”. The Buddha responds: You are clever, O Samana. …. You know how to speak cleverly, my friend. Be on your guard against too much cleverness”.  Leaving the Buddha, Siddhartha thinks:  The Buddha has robbed me…… He has robbed me, yet he has given me something of greater value. He has robbed me of my friend, who believed in me and who now believes in him. He was my shadow. But he has given to me Siddhartha, myself.”

After leaving the Buddha, Siddhartha reflects that though he learned much from teachers, they could not teach him about the Self, the character and the nature of which he wished to learn… He wanted to rid himself of the Self, to conquer it, but could only deceive it…. hide from it. He thinks that he remained alien, unknown to himself due to one thing: he was afraid of himself, he was fleeing from himself. …. He was seeking Brahman, Atman, Life, the Divine, the Absolute. But by doing so he lost himself on the way. That seems to be the ‘awakening ’ Siddhartha achieves towards the end of Part I of the novel. The impression that Hermann Hesse gives us is that Siddhartha seemingly agrees with the pantheistic Hindu idea that God is in everything and everything is God. Siddhartha decides that he is no longer an ascetic, nor a priest, nor a Brahmin – only Siddhartha, the awakened.

It took nearly thirty years for Part II to appear. It starts with the ‘awakened’ Siddhartha looking at the world with fresh, unclouded eyes, like those of a child. Now he is not seeking anything. He finds that the world is diverse and beautiful. He remembers what he told the Buddha: it is that the Buddha’s wisdom was not teachable, that it was inexpressible and incommunicable. He had experienced this in an hour of enlightenment.

Siddhartha reaches a river, makes friends with the ferryman there. He stays the night in the latter’s hut. The ferryman, a kind of natural philosopher in the form of an illiterate villager, tells him that he has often listened to the river, gazed at it, and learned something from it. He takes Siddhartha across the river for free, when the poor Samana confesses that he has nothing to give him as his fee. The ferryman says that he doesn’t expect any payment from him, but that he will give it to him some other time. Siddhartha proceeds to the village where he sees children playing. But they run away timidly when they see the strange Samana approaching. Just outside the big town he wants to enter, he sees a beautiful young woman being carried in an ornamented sedan chair by four men, accompanied by a train of men and women servants. This is Kamala the courtesan. Siddhartha, still dressed in the rags that he could just afford as a Samana, approaches this woman, and asks her to teach him the art of love. She introduces the handsome young man to Kamaswamy, a rich businessman, one of her patrons. Siddhartha becomes a partner of this businessman. He becomes rich, using his education and powers of thought, and starts living a profligate life. But he lives a life of the world without belonging to it, being always a Samana at heart.  As time passes, Siddhartha becomes disillusioned with that kind of life. Completely fed up, he leaves that life of luxury one night. When Siddhartha thus gives up everything and everyone in his life, Kamala finds herself pregnant with his child.


Having left the city far behind him, Siddhartha goes to enter the woods once again. He arrives at the river, and asks the same ferryman who had helped him once before to take him across. The ferryman, whose name is Vasudeva, obliges him. This time Siddhartha asks the ferryman to allow him to stay with him near the river as his assistant. Vasudeva agrees. The two of them exchange their life stories. Though Vasudeva hasn’t had the benefit of Siddhartha’s kind of book learning, he is a kind of sage. He has learned many lessons from the river. One of these is that there is no such thing as time. Everything is present, nor past, nor future exists. In time, rumour spreads that two wise men or magicians  live at the ferry.  Some curious people come to them and ask many questions, but get no answers. The two old men seem rather mute, odd, and stupid, but they are kind and friendly.  Time passes, and they are seemingly forgotten.

The Illustrious Buddha is rumoured to be dying. Crowds of people cross the river on their way to where the Buddha is in his death bed. Kamala and her ten or eleven year old son are among these pilgrims. Kamala is bitten by a snake, and she dies. But before she dies, she and Siddhartha recognize each other. Kamala has donated her pleasure garden to the disciples of the Buddha. She herself is an inspired follower of the Buddha. The son is made to stay with Siddhartha, his father. The boy proves to be a pampered mother’s boy. He is insubordinate to his father, and one day he escapes. Siddhartha follows him to the city, but seeing that the boy has chosen to be on his own, he returns to the forest alone.

The two old men continue to live by the river doing their ferrying job. Siddhartha no longer feels alien to the ordinary people such as soldiers, businessmen, and women, and other travelers they ferry across the river. He does not understand their thoughts and views, but shares their urges and desires. Vasudeva, at long last, finds that Siddhartha has learned the river’s lessons, and sees in his face the serenity of knowledge, of one who is no longer confronted with conflict of desires, who has found salvation, who is in harmony with the stream of events, full of sympathy and compassion, surrendering himself to the stream, belonging to the unity of all things”. Vasudeva gently touches his friend’s shoulder in his kind protective way, and says: I have waited for this hour, my friend. Now that it has arrived, let me go. I have been Vasudeva the ferryman, for a long time. Now it is over. Farewell hut, farewell river, farewell Siddhartha”. Vasudeva goes into the woods, into the unity of all things”. With great joy and gravity Siddhartha watches him go. He saw his steps full of peace, his face glowing, his form full of light”.

Siddhartha is left alone at the ferry.  Govinda passes some time in the pleasure garden that Kamala donated to the followers of the Buddha. He hears of a holy man at the ferry, which is only a day’s journey away. Govinda goes and meets the old man, but fails to recognize him as his friend from their childhood. But Siddhartha is able to make him out at once, and tells him all about his own life. Even after so many years of seeking as a disciple of the Buddha, Govinda has failed to find the truth. Siddhartha suggests that this may be due to too much seeking. He tells Govinda of what he has discovered: Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it”.

After a long conversation, Siddhartha falls silent, and looks at Govinda with his calm, peaceful smile. Govinda looks steadily in his face, with anxiety, with longing. Suffering, continual seeking were written in his look”. Siddhartha whispers in Govinda’s ear: Bend near to me. Come still nearer, quite close. Kiss me on the forehead, Govinda”. Though surprised, he is compelled to obey. As he kisses his friend’s forehead, something wonderful happens to him.

It was not Siddhartha’s face he saw, but a continuous stream of faces – hundreds, thousands, which all came, and disappeared and yet all seemed to be there at the same time…. naked bodies of men and women in the postures and transports of passionate love … corpses, heads of animals, boars, crocodiles, elephants…. he saw these numerous forms and faces in a thousand relationships to each other, loving, hating, and destroying each other, and become newly born…. Each one was mortal, a passionate, painful example of all that is transitory….And over them all there was continually something thin, unreal and yet existing, stretched across like a thin mask of water…. this mask was Siddhartha’s smiling face. … this smile of Siddhartha – was exactly the same as the calm, delicate impenetrable, perhaps gracious, perhaps mocking, wise, thousand-fold smile of Gotama, the Buddha, as he perceived it with awe a hundred times. It was in such a manner, Govinda knew, that the Perfect One smiled.”

Govinda sees that Siddhartha’s smile is exactly like that of the Buddha: Siddhartha … smiled peacefully and gently, perhaps very graciously, perhaps very mockingly, exactly as the Illustrious One had smiled.”  Overwhelmed by a feeling of great love, of the most humble veneration, Govinda bows low, tears trickling down his face, right down to the ground before Siddhartha, sitting motionless, whose smile reminded him of everything that he had ever loved in his life, of everything that had ever been of value and holy in his life.”

To be concluded in Part II

One Response to “Hermann Hesse’s  Siddhartha – I”

  1. Fran Diaz Says:


    Thank you for this write up.

    A small correction: Prince Siddhartha was from the royal warrior caste, the Kshathriya, and not from the Brahmin caste.

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