Before he was Hermann Hesse, great writer, Hesse was struggling to bring up three sons with a wife suffering from schizophrenia. When it became too much to bear, she was put in an institution and the boys were fostered out to friends. Hesse moved into a large and enchanting house, Casa Camuzzi, near Lake Lugano in Switzerland, and found some peace. He meditated during the day and wrote during the evening, and was fond of walks and painting watercolors of the landscape. Siddartha, a novella set in India at the time when Buddha was alive, was written here.
Both Hesse's father and grandfather were Christian missionaries, but his grandfather also spoke nine Indian languages and was able to give Herman an appreciation of Eastern spiritual literature. When the author's rebellious and non-conformist nature is taken into account (he dropped out of school at 13, and was later a strident pacifist), it is not surprising that he would produce a book like Siddartha, a synthesis of Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist and Christian concepts that nevertheless ends up rejecting conventional religion in favor of a very personal and individual form of spirituality. But what is the story of Siddartha, and why has it captured spiritual imaginations for the last eighty years?
In strong echoes of his own life, Hesse introduces the character of Siddartha as the son of a high caste Brahmin scholar, immersed at an early age in the discussions and practices of the Hindu religion.
As the book begins, Siddartha is restless. He has grown up with so much knowledge, but there is something lacking: everyone talks of God and the great Unity of all that exists, but he wonders: who has actually experienced it? With the quest for purity characteristic of some young men, and against his father's wishes, Siddartha decides to go off and join the shramanas, the wandering holy men with their harsh existence. Joined by his friend Govinda, from now on Siddartha owns nothing but a loincloth, and fasts for weeks at a time. In this ascetic life he aims to shed all his desires and rid himself of his ego, and in this quest hunger, thirst, fatigue and pain are happily endured.
Meeting the Buddha
After three years the two friends begin hearing about a legendary figure by the name of Gotama, a buddha with a 'radiant countenance' who has attained nirvana and now suffers none of the usual pain of living. They journey to visit this Gotama, and Siddartha is taken by his perfect explanation of the universe as an unbroken and eternal chain of causes and their effects.
Yet Siddartha does not become a follower of Gotama, believing that liberation from suffering can happen not through teachers or teachings but only through taking one's own, direct path. Now alone, he has an epiphany. Whereas before he despised the physical world as maya (illusion) now he looks at the trees, the sun, the moon, the rivers, as if for the first time, without 'thinking' about them. He realizes that his relentless work towards finding inner wisdom has blinded him to the beauty of the world.
Coming down to earth
The story continues with Siddartha emerging from the forest and entering a city. He sees a beautiful woman being carried aloft by servants, with a mouth 'like a fig freshly broken open'. He feels the stirrings of love and attraction, but the woman, Kamala, finds it amusing that a bedraggled looking ascetic from the forest thinks he can befriend her, in her fine clothes and shiny hair. He wants to learn from her the ways of love, but when she asks him what he can do in return, all he can say is that he can 'think, fast, wait, and compose poetry'. She likes his poetry, but tells him he will have to have clothes and look good before things can go further.
Siddartha begins working as an assistant to a businessman, quickly learning the ways of the business and proving invaluable to his employer. He is a success because, unlike his boss, he is detached from his dealings, carrying them out without fear of loss or skewed by greed, able to live in the world of striving and suffering without being too much a part of it; to him, people worry and fight over things which are really of little consequence: money, pleasures, recognition. These are merely samsara, the game of life, rather than life itself. Having the mind of a shramana, these things do not move him.
Yet Siddartha begins to lose his detachment and is pulled more into the selfish concerns of normal human existence, of property and money and pride. He becomes fond of gambling and a drink, and realizes that he is becoming one of the 'child people' whom he once looked down upon. In fact, after a night of wine and dancing girls, he realizes he is worst than most.
Joining up the circle
What happens next can be left up to the reader, but Siddartha's conclusion from his experiences is this: "The only thing of importance to me is being able to love the world, without looking down on it, without hating it and myself - being able to regard it and myself and all beings with love, admiration and reverence."
It is the river which helps him to arrive at this. He listens to the 'thousandfold song of the river', which sounds like life in its unceasing movement towards goals, its strivings, sufferings and pleasures, yet which also moves as one. Existence, though it may seem a bewildering and fearful tumult of separate people, places, events and feelings, is like the river in that it is really all one current. And in its oneness it is perfect.
The message of Siddartha is that we should not try to withdraw from life to have a superior feeling of holiness, but to throw ourselves into things; as Joseph Campbell put it, always saying 'Yes' to our universe. Filled with events, thoughts and relationships, life often seems terribly fragmented, but from the perspective of the bank, it is one, smooth-flowing river of experience. If you can appreciate this unity, you become less wrapped up in yourself and identify with the larger flow of life. What Siddartha finds is that it is only when he gives up finding nirvana that a degree of enlightenment comes to him.
Though published in the 1920s, the first English translation of Siddartha did not appear until 1951, and it was only in 1960s America, with the explosion of interest in Eastern philosophy and religion, that it became an influential bestseller. As translator Sherab Chödzin Kohn notes, the work chimed perfectly with the free-spirited non-conformity of the times, but its theme of a life beyond materialism has remained attractive. The book's timelessness also comes from the simple prose, and Hesse's descriptions of the healing power of the river are quite beautiful.
50 Spiritual Classics, the book:
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Watkins Review, Summer 2005
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The first part of Siddartha was written easily, but was halted for over a year due to the author's depression. It was finished in May 1922 and published in October of that year, and was translated into a number of Asian languages.
In 1923 Hesse became a Swiss citizen. Throughout his life he was a pacifist and in wartime a conscientious objector. In 1946 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.The author died in 1962.