Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha. Eine indische Dichtung (1274 words)

James M. Skidmore (University of Waterloo)
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Siddhartha is a Sanskrit word meaning “the one who has accomplished his goal”. The eponymous protagonist of Siddhartha (1922) eventually achieves his goal, and Hesse’s novel is essentially the story of Siddhartha’s voyage of self-discovery. As with Hesse’s other important novels of the 1920s, Demian and Der Steppenwolf, Siddhartha is a tale about the quest for enlightenment, about finding one’s way in a world that marginalizes the more serious-minded.

Hesse wrote Siddhartha between 1919 and 1922. Set in India, the novel reveals the author’s interest in and familiarity with the subcontinent and its religious and cultural practices. Hesse’s grandfather had been a missionary in India, and his father had spent time as a missionary in southeastern Asia as well. Hesse himself had traveled to Ceylon (today: Sri Lanka), Singapore, and Sumatra in 1911 to visit places where his family had served as missionaries. The trip disappointed him: he felt alienated from the cultures he visited, and did not achieve the inspiration he had hoped for when he embarked on the journey.

Siddhartha is the story of a Brahmin’s son who seeks enlightenment. Although he lives in a peaceful village and wants for nothing, Siddhartha is actually an unhappy lad. Noticing that his own father has not reached this state of harmony, and that therefore the rituals performed in the village appear to be empty and meaningless, he wonders whether there is not another path to enlightenment. At this point a band of wandering ascetics, the Samanas, pass by, and Siddhartha, against his father’s wishes, decides with his friend Govinda to join these impoverished and starving truth-seekers. Siddhartha’s hopes for contentment among the Samanas are soon dashed, however. The physical hardships prove easy to bear (his training as a Brahmin’s son has seen to that), and Siddhartha is able to renounce all physical pleasures in his pursuit of negating the self entirely. Govinda is quite happy with the changes they have been able to undertake in their lives, but Siddhartha remains sceptical. Abstinence and asceticism have yet to provide the Samanas with enlightenment, and so Siddhartha’s disappointment grows until one day he hears about Gautama (or Gotama) Buddha, a holy man who has achieved Nirvana, that state of complete enlightenment. Govinda and Siddhartha join Gautama and his followers and learn the ways of Buddhism. But Siddhartha is still unhappy, convinced of an inherent contradiction between Gautama’s teaching of the unity of all things and the notion that the material world must be rejected. Siddhartha leaves Govinda behind and resolves to embrace the physical. He meets a ferryman who brings him across a river to a city. There he falls in love with Kamala, a courtesan, and in order to fit into her world learns the merchant trade in the employ of Kamaswami. The years pass, and Siddhartha becomes a successful businessman who has also learned the ways of love from Kamala, yet he remains curiously detached from his existence. In his disillusionment he dreams that Kamala’s beautiful songbird has died in its cage, and so resolves to move on without telling Kamala or Kamaswami.

At one point Siddhartha thinks about drowning himself in the river, but instead decides to seek out Vasudeva, the ferryman from many years ago, to learn about his contented existence. Vasudeva takes Siddhartha in as an apprentice ferryman and explains that all he has learned about enlightenment comes from the river. Siddhartha contemplates the river and gains as sense of enlightenment and unity he has never known. This state of fulfilment is threatened, however, when Kamala and her son pass by on the way to visit Gautama. Kamala is bitten by a snake and dies, and before she passes she tells Siddhartha that the boy is his son. Siddhartha wants the boy to remain with him and learn from the river, but the boy wants only to return to the city and the life of wealth to which he has grown accustomed. He steals Vasudeva’s and Siddhartha’s money and flees. Siddhartha realizes that chasing him is futile and returns to listen to the river. Vasudeva retires to the forest, entrusting the ferry to Siddhartha, who gains renown as a holy man. At the end of the novel Govinda comes to this ferryman seeking the enlightenment he has yet to find with the Buddhists. Realizing that words cannot explain the totality of enlightenment, Siddhartha asks Govinda to kiss him on the forehead. By doing so, Govinda finally experiences the unity that he has sought his entire life.

Siddhartha’s journey is a journey between opposites. In the first part of the book he seeks the spiritual at the expense of the physical, whereas in the second part this polarity is reversed: the physical takes precedence, and the spiritual is repressed. In both instances, however, Siddhartha remains dissatisfied. Neither path proves fulfilling over the long term. In neither world does he experience lasting contentment even though he is successful in both worlds. With the Samanas he masters hunger and physical deprivation, learns to accept loneliness, and achieves spiritual awakening, but he remains dissatisfied. At the opposite end of the spectrum, in the world of Kamala, he becomes successful as well, gaining great wealth, many friends and acquaintances, and a bounty of sensual pleasures. But he leaves it all behind when his dissatisfaction dawns on him. It is only at the river, the physical border that is the point of contact between the two worlds, that Siddhartha finds the peace he has sought so earnestly.

Siddhartha shares many similarities with Emil Sinclair, the protagonist of Hesse’s earlier novel Demian. Both must contend with a world of opposites. For Sinclair, it is a world of light versus a world of dark, whereas for Siddhartha it is the spiritual versus the physical. Neither world is false, but separately neither world can provide fulfillment. The protagonist must find a way of uniting these separate spheres of human existence in order to achieve the harmony that is so absent in their lives. Both rely, at first, on mentors and guides to put them on the proper path to harmony, and in both novels the protagonists always move on when they have learned all they can from their teachers. Only when Sinclair and Siddhartha are able to exist without their teachers and strike out on their own do they achieve the enlightenment for which they long. In Siddhartha’s case the death of Vasudeva functions much like the death of Sinclair’s friend Demian: it leaves him alone but ready to find his own path. Enlightenment cannot be explained or taught, it must be acquired, and each person must acquire it in his or her own fashion after passing through periods of doubt and uncertainty.

Siddhartha is a novel that has sold in the millions of copies in dozens of languages. Hesse himself did not view the novel as an apology for Buddhism, but rather as a more ecumenical effort to establish a common understanding of the importance of unity and harmony for human existence regardless of cultural background. Though the novel has Buddha as a character, this should not be taken to mean that the novel is advocating Buddha’s superiority over an individual’s search for truth. Siddhartha turns away from Buddha, not out of dislike for the man, but out of the realization that Gautama has reached Nirvana in his own way, and Siddhartha must find it on his own as well. Relying on others to find enlightenment will eventually result in a rejection of that enlightenment, as Siddhartha’s own story clearly demonstrates.

Citation: Skidmore, James M.. "Siddhartha. Eine indische Dichtung". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 12 February 2008 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=11490, accessed 09 December 2022.]

11490 Siddhartha. Eine indische Dichtung 3 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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