Friday, March 11, 2011

Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha

Hermann Hesse
Siddhartha, a novel

When I picked up Siddhartha, I expected to find a more or less fictionalized treatment of the life of Siddhartha Gautama, who is also known as the Buddha. While there have been many Buddhas before and after Siddhartha, he is considered to be the Supreme Buddha of our age. However, as I got further into the work, I realized that Hesse was not doing exactly what I had expected.

Hesse's Siddhartha was the son of a king. He was the son of a Brahmin, which is high-caste, but not a ruling family. Moreover there was no mention of any miraculous event attached to his birth. I then decided that Hesse was writing a version of Siddhartha's life that was stripped of any miraculous episodes.

I had to change my opinion one more time as Siddhartha part way into the novel meets Gautama Buddha in a grove. I then realized that Hesse was creating a fictional Siddhartha, one who was not the historical Siddhartha. By doing it this way, Hesse has far more freedom to play with the character, without giving offense to anyone, and at the same time, he also keeps the character of the Buddha in the reader's mind.

Throughout the novel, Hesse keeps the miraculous out of Siddhartha's life. At one point in his early life, he becomes dissatisfied with his life. He does not see that either his father or any of the other Brahmins has achieved enlightenment, in spite of their pious behavior and strict performances of various rites and rituals.

He leaves his family to become a Samana, a wandering ascetic, wearing only rags, living out in the open, and eating only what kind-hearted people give him. Again, he recognizes the same truths after three years of this life: neither he nor any of the other Samanas, even those who have been a Samana for decades, are any closer to enlightenment than they were when they began.

At the time, he decides to break free of this life, he meets Gotama Buddha. He listens to Gotama, but rejects his teachings. What Gotama teaches may be right for Gotama, but he must learn for himself the Way to enlightenment.

Siddhartha, in one sense, is right. Buddha's teachings are not for him, but not because they aren't the right way, but because Siddhartha is not ready for them. For after having rejected Buddha's teachings, Buddha says: "You are clever, O Samana . . . you know how to speak cleverly, my friend. Be on your guard against too much cleverness."

Siddhartha doesn't realize this, but he clearly expresses his unreadiness for Buddha's teachings as he watches the Buddha walk away. He says to himself: "I have never seen a man look and smile, sit and walk like that . . . I, also, would like to look and smile, sit and walk like that, so free, so worthy , so restrained, so candid, so childlike and mysterious. A man only looks and walks like that when he has conquered his Self. I also will conquer my Self." Conquering the Self is not the goal for him here; his goal is to look a certain way, to act a certain way--it is the surface appearances that he wishes to attain now.

Siddhartha then rejoins the world and enters business. He loses his spiritual way as he becomes wealthy, acquires a mistress, and fathers a son. However, many years later this too begins to pall and he again finds it necessary to leave. It is at this point that he again encounters the ferryman who had impressed him years ago and this time Siddhartha does not cross the river and go his way. He becomes the ferryman's assistant and learns to listen to the river.

Hesse's Siddhartha's closest equivalent in Christian literature would be Christian of Pilgrim's Progress, or so it seems to me. Both leave their homes and families, for the spiritual quest is a solitary one. However, one significant difference would be that Christian doesn't spend much time in Vanity Fair, whereas Siddhartha is trapped there for decades.

Overall Reaction: this is a novel of ideas, rather than of action. There is a pattern here: Siddhartha becomes dissatisfied, tries something new, is happy for awhile, then again becomes dissatisfied, and must move on. Hesse has made this a very ordinary life in that no miraculous events occur, nor does Siddhartha encounter any supernatural beings, benevolent or otherwise. The story is of life, suffering, joy, disillusionment, dissatisfaction, sins, and insight. It is a life that any dedicated spiritual searcher might live, with belief and hope as the only encouragement, for Hesse refuses to provide miracles.


  1. Hesse has done an excellent piece of work. This book guides you through siddartha's life and his tribulations. it is enriching because anyone can copmare with the life and emotions siddartha was feeling. it's enlightening and a truly beneficial read.

  2. Brasil,

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Yes, I agree. No miracles and no magic--just everyday, mundane life with its trials and troubles, and also its high points.

    I thought the ending was very good. Enlightenment is doing one's work and sitting quietly.