A Soul Searcher’s Handbook: Hesse’s Siddhartha
Searching for the meaning of life and love seems to be a popular theme of philosophical novels. And, Hesse’s Siddhartha (1922) is no different from these. Winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1946, Hermann Hesse is an explicitly holistic and dialectical writer who repeatedly in his novels depicts the struggle for self-awareness in the lives of his characters. Through them he reaffirms the values of love, beauty, and integrity in the face of a world increasingly dominated by acquisitive and competitive norms. As a dialectician he conceived of self-discovery as ‘wholeness’ arrived at through a process of necessary struggle, identifying the positive in the negative and constantly questioning conventional notions of progress and achievement (Ziolkowski, 1973).
Hesse’s work became increasingly popular after the World War II. His literature gave young readers a means of tranquility after a time of such confusion. It opened up a new world for them, as they could explore themselves and make sense of the chaos around them.
In Hesse’s Siddhartha, the theme of soul-searching and Dhamma, even when set against the backdrop of Buddhism, can be read by people of all races. What is more intriguing is that, a Westerner, Hesse being a German, wrote this novel about Eastern philosophy. It is a novel about self-exploration and the coming together of mind, body, and spirit.
Hesse’s emphasis is upon an historical figure of Siddhartha, a questing and questioning protagonist. He is in many ways the fictional counterpart to the Buddha himself, who, according to scholars, was Sakyamani Gautama, born in India in the sixth century B.C. Like Gautama, Siddhartha is a member of the Indian elite, a Brahmin born to luxury and power. Hesse writes that the “handsome Brahmin’s son” was expected to become a “great learned man, a priest, a prince among Brahmins.” “Love stirred in the hearts of the young Brahmins’ daughters when Siddhartha,” writes Hesse, “walked through the streets of the town, with his lofty brow, his king-like eyes and his slim figure” (p. 3 – 4). Inevitably, Siddhartha, like Gautama, becomes disillusioned with his privileged existence. Both men discover that an existence framed by temporal realities is meaningless. After encountering a group of Samanas, which is described as “lean jackals in the world of men” around whom “hovered an atmosphere of still passion, of devastating service, of unpitying self-denial” (p. 9), Siddhartha makes the fateful decision to leave his father’s palace and to join them. While his commitment to the Samana’s life of self-denial is genuine and deep, Siddhartha remains dissatisfied. He does not discover in ascetism the much sought after release from samsara, or the cyclical nature of existence. In these particulars, Hesse remains faithful to the fragmented history in which Gautama, the Buddha, is enshrouded.
In Siddhartha, after crossing a river on a ferry, he meets and falls in love with Kamala, a famous courtesan. With her help, Siddhartha becomes wealthy and is able to afford anything he wants, including Kamala herself. After a while, however, he realizes that this life of indulgence is just as pointless as a life of denial, that both luxury and asceticism are extremes that clutter rather than clear the path to spiritual illumination. He decides, therefore, to turn his back on the world of samsara and illusion. Unaware that Kamala is now pregnant with his child, Siddhartha flees the city and returns to the river where, in despair, he almost commits suicide. But at the last moment, something from his old self stirs inside him, and he realizes that suicide is an evasion, not an answer.
After twelve years have passed, Kamala comes to the river with her son in search of Buddha. She dies from a snake bite, and Siddhartha begins to care for the boy. He loves his son desperately, but the boy longs to get away from the two old boatmen and return to life in the city. Eventually he escapes, and as Siddhartha realizes how deeply he loves his son, he also realizes that loving him means letting him go. Soon thereafter, Vasudeva dies, and Siddhartha takes his place. Govinda appears one day and is struck by the change that has come over Siddhartha, for it is clear to him that Siddhartha, like Buddha, has at last achieved absolute peace and harmony.
While the teachings or doctrine are important, individual effort is more important in attaining moksha, or release from samsara. In his artful reconstruction of aspects of the life of the Buddha, Hesse illustrates one of the fundamental ideologies of Buddhism. And in the process, he avoids the censure of the purists who would doubtless find the freedom of the artist in the domain of history problematic, and he invests his novel with the dramatic tension and conflict so essential to its sense of unity and coherence.
In addition, to avoid the probing of ardent Buddhists, a significant variation upon the life of the real Gautama is emphasized in the novel. While Siddhartha’s life corresponds in many ways to the life of this historic figure, Hesse’s protagonist is not, it seems, the Buddha. Doubtless anticipating the injunctions and denunciations from the Buddhists, Hesse creates the character of Gotama, who is called “the Illustrious, the Buddha” (p. 120). While Siddhartha recognizes that Gotama is a holy man, for never had he “esteemed a man so much, never had he loved a man so much,” he does not, like his friend and companion Govinda, become a disciple of Gotama, whose name and divine attributes recall Gautama. While respectfully acknowledging the patently enlightened state of the “Illustrious One,” Siddhartha apprehends the flaw in the otherwise flawless teachings of Gotama. The teachings do not contain, so the Brahmin’s son asserts in conversation with Gotama, “the secret of what the Illustrious One himself experienced” at the moment of enlightenment (p. 34).
The theme of male friendship is concretized also in the novel. With the deep friendship between Govinda and Siddhartha, and later between Siddhartha and Vasudeva, the ferryman reflects the value of manhood in world of the Samanas and their collective goal of asceticism and transcendence. While these male friendships are metaphors for the human capacity for self-development, these friendships also suggest the positive wisdom that exist among andro-centric communities and relationships
The experience of reading Siddhartha emulates the importance of discovering one’s self and attaining the meaning of life. However, the wisest of them take from Siddhartha what Hesse brought back from his trip, “a deep reverence for the spirit of the East.” Some people feel that they can profit greatly from an encounter with Oriental mysticism even though they realize that Western man can never hope to return to that state of primitive innocence necessary for total immersion. Also, know the rich cultural heritage of the East denotes an amount of world view that would create your concept of what society existed during the time of Buddha.
In the novel, we learned that in order for Buddha to teach about the world, he had to divide it into Sansara and Nirvana, illusion and truth, suffering and salvation. But the world itself is never one-sided. A deed is never wholly Sansara or wholly Nirvana, just as a man is never wholly a saint or a sinner. These absolutes persist because we are under the illusion that time is real. Time is not real. And if time is not real, then the dividing line between this world and eternity, between suffering and bliss, between good and evil, is also an illusion (Verma, 1988).
With the recent growing interest in Oriental religions, particularly Zen Buddhism, this book of Hermann Hesse will assist anyone to understand that no matter how much time has passed or how many millenniums have begun; human beings will still search for the true inner self and the path that leads to peace and happiness.
- Hesse, Hermann, Siddhartha. New York: Bantam, 1971.
- Verma, Kamal D. The Nature and Perception of Reality in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. South Asian Review, (July 1988): p. 1-10.
- Ziolkowski, Theodore, Hermann Hesse: A Collection of Critical Essays, New York: Bantam, (1973)