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On Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Updated on August 23, 2011

The Book Cover


Regarding Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha

Begun in 1919, Hermann Hesse completed and published Siddhartha in 1922. The novel, which was originally written in German then translated and published as an English edition in 1951, became influential in the United States during the 1960s. Hesse incorporates his own life into this novel, giving it an autobiographical component. This and other areas of the book will be covered in the following analysis of the book. Siddhartha will be broken down, and specific details will be dissected. Finally, the novel will be reviewed in its entirety.

Hesse was born in 1877 to Johannes and Marie Hesse, strict Pietistic-Lutherans. Hermann rebelled from the Pietistic ideology that man is evil and from constant strict disciplinary action forced upon him by his father, much like Siddhartha in this novel. Siddhartha is son to a strict Brahmin priest whom is constantly performing absolutions. In this way, Hermann Hesse incorporates his own life into this novel, giving it an autobiographical component.

In addition to the autobiographical themes, the novel also has historical aspects. Siddhartha’s childhood is very similar to that of the real Buddha; both were born into privileged lives which both chose to abandon in favor of chasing enlightenment. Both eventually reach nirvana while meditating under trees, Siddhartha’s taking place under a mango tree whereas Buddha’s enlightenment occurs while meditating beneath a Bodhi tree. They both achieve enlightenment, only after first fathering a child. Hesse drew strongly from the real Buddha while creating the character of Siddhartha.

The novel Siddhartha takes place over the lifetime of Siddhartha Gotama, which is a span of about 80 years. Time is difficult to follow in this book because between chapters the story will jump multiple years and some chapters focus on only a day or two within these multiple year spans. This long span gives the book many themes. At the beginning of the book Siddhartha behaves in a childish and boy-like way. He abandons traditional teaching methods and decides to find happiness his own way. His inexperience however makes him realize how childish he was. He wants to try to be taught a life of happiness, so he joins a group of three ascetics. After three years he comes to one realization, that asceticism is merely a kind of escapism. The same disappointment that made Siddhartha want to abandon his life as a future Brahmin priest made him abandon his life as an ascetic, neither could provide knowledge through experience; none had experienced nirvana first hand. Gotama Buddha arrives in the book at this point; he is the perfect example of what Siddhartha seeks.

Upon meeting Gotama Buddha however, Siddhartha still believes that each individual must find his own way to salvation. He rejects the doctrine of salvation claiming that it is neither shown nor proven. Gotama is able to sympathize with Siddhartha Govinda but leaves him with just a smile, which sticks with Siddhartha. This smile represents self-realization for Siddhartha and appears later in the novel. Govinda, who has been with Siddhartha throughout his journey thus far, stays with Gotama Buddha to learn from him, leaving Siddhartha to pursue his enlightenment on his own at this point. The man who has been his shadow for his entire life has left him, signifying a large change in his life.

The chapter ‘Awakening’, signals the end of the first half of Siddhartha’s journey and the beginning of the second half. Siddhartha feels extremely low and lonely in this point of his life because he feels he is too far on his journey to return home and he has just parted ways with his childhood friend Govinda. Siddhartha is able to realize that these changes in his life are important; they signify his change from the boyish part of his life to a more mature manhood. His loneliness worsens and turns into depression; he tries to escape from himself but realizes that in his attempt to escape from himself he has avoided learning about himself. His search for Atman left him totally lost. Siddhartha feels the next step in his journey is to discover the secret of himself. He enters into a world a purely materialistic world depresses him when he realizes he is alone, however, he also realizes he has never known himself better in his entire life. He resolves to never walk backwards again in his life.

Hesse stresses that even though Siddhartha is at the lowest point in his life, he has made significant progress and is well on his way to realizing whom he truly is and how he can achieve enlightenment. At this point, Siddhartha meets the ferryman and is first introduced to the river that will eventually help him achieve enlightenment. The night Siddhartha spend in the hut can be interpreted as a womb because at this point he is reborn and united with the river, a symbol of life and of a new beginning. Siddhartha learns from the dream that the river will be able to teach him and give him the experience that will help him achieve salvation. The river is a symbolic boundary in Siddhartha’s life between a sensual world that he currently lives in and the spiritual one he seeks.

At this point Siddhartha develops his relationship with Kamala and meets Kamaswami. Kamaswami is the representation of the worldly realm, his name actually meaning master of lustful love and desire. Siddhartha realizes that he is different from these people, but this troubles him. His spiritual past has only partially enlightened him but he has yet to find peace. Kamala is attracted to Siddhartha because she feels that only the two of them share this spiritual detachment from these unintellectual individuals. Approximately twenty years pass and Siddhartha continues his life in the city waiting for the next step in his enlightenment. This opportunity comes when he is reunited with Govinda. Siddhartha leaves the reunion with a restored sense of innocence and childlike bliss. He is newly awakened at this point in his life, a very symbolic and important part in Siddhartha’s life. Siddhartha spends more time with the ferryman until another important event occurs in his life.

An unforeseen disturbance in Siddhartha’s life occurs when he meets his son and discovers that his soon is entirely unenlightened and at the point in his life that Siddhartha was when he left his father. Despite his best efforts to reestablish the lost father-son relationship he abandoned at the beginning of the novel, his son rebels and chooses to take his own path, exactly as Siddhartha did when he was young. Once Siddhartha is able to accept that his son will deal with samsara as he did, he experiences the pain of love. Still suffering from this pain, Siddhartha spends time with the river, which speaks to him. His perfect listening of the river heals his pain and he realizes this once he sees Vasudeva’s smile. Siddhartha realizes that for one to achieve nirvana one must achieve it on a subconscious level. The conscious pursuit of fulfillment makes it impossible. He tells Govinda that wisdom cannot be imparted from one man to another. No truth can be full comprehended when spoken and words remove half of the truth. Siddhartha leaves Govinda with a kiss on the forehead. The kiss makes Govinda experience what Siddhartha did when he listened to the river.

One can infer from this novel that Hesse believes that enlightenment cannot be achieved through practice but rather through experience. Siddhartha believed that one should live his life in pursuit of his own path; Hesse shared this belief. His own path can take many different turns as Siddhartha’s path did. Siddhartha even experienced bouts of sin in his life but these were all necessary to achieve ultimate salvation.

The many stages that Siddhartha experiences throughout his life were each equally important, as they were different. He began as a child, believing that on his own he would be able to achieve nirvana. He passed through a stage of asceticism, which did not make him happy; he moved to the extreme opposite of asceticism, attempting to gain knowledge of himself and happiness through a materialistic life. Again, he was unable to find happiness. He ultimately was able to understand that rather than to seek nirvana he needed to just look for whatever may come his way. A seeker, he says, is incapable of finding anything because he is too concerned with finding that which he is seeking. A finder however, is capable of gathering all of life. Once one becomes a finder, the path to nirvana becomes clear.

Born and raised as a Catholic, they way which Siddhartha achieves enlightenment contradicts the way I was taught to live my life. A set path is predetermined for us; although we have free will to make our own decisions, we are ultimately seeking to be righteous and make the journey to heaven. However, as Catholics we are also accepting of all other faiths and religious denominations, which lead me to believe that even though the path Siddhartha follows in his book does not match my own religious experience, it is just as correct as my own. Extremist religious can contradict this thought process, claiming that any religious experience other than their own is incorrect and sinful. As a generic example, an extremist Islamic would most likely to believe this novel to be incorrect, only for the reason that it is not their own belief.

All media, if left open to different interpretation and not viewed biasedly, is good. Viewing a different viewpoint than your own is important, and understanding lifestyles different than your own is an important part of discovering which lifestyle is the one that is right for you. This book adds to my life experience and although I do not believe it is necessary for me to take immediate action to follow up on it, I do believe it will happen at some point in my life journey.


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    • tsarnaudova profile image

      Tsvetana Kodjabasheva 6 years ago from Sofia, Bulgaria

      Siddhartha is book of great importance in my life. I find Hermann Hesse to be one of the most inteligent and deep authors in world literature. I am very glad to see others sharing my thoughts.

      Other books by Hesse, no less important, are Demian and The Step Wolf - I don't know the exact spelling of both titles because I read them in Bulgarian.

      Voted up.