A spiritual journey: Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

Hesse began to write Siddhartha around 1920, and the first English translation of it was published in 1951. For Hesse, this was his confession of belief, wrought out of his rejection of his parents’ orthodox Christianity and of the one-sidedness of Europe’s intellectual cutlure, expressing his yearning for ” a culture of the spiritual function that our intellectual approach to life has not been able to provide” (quoted in the Translator’s Preface, Shambala publications 2000).

It is the story of a young Brahmin, living in India at the time of the Buddha, and his spiritual journey in search of enlightenment. In the first part of the book, he leaves behind his father and family and formal religion, then his devoted friend and companion seeker, Govinda, and even eschews following the path of the Buddha. His reason for this choice is his realisation that the Buddha teaches liberation from suffering, and that this supreme goal has been attained, not through following a teaching, but through his seeking truth on his own path, and that what he has attained can not be taught, it can only found on one’s own. So begins Siddhartha’s journey proper.

At this point in the story, Hesse found himself unable to continue, unable to write Siddhartha’s quest for his goal of enlightenment, because he himself felt dissociated from his own being. He became depressed, and it was not until 1922, after immersing himself in the study of Eastern religion, in particular Buddhism, and extended psychoanalysis with Carl Jung, that he was able to complete the novel.

The mythic story, after its English translation, had an enormous influence on American culture in the 1960s and 70s, and spread further afield. It was made into a film in 1972, but fell into oblivion, then was resurrected in 1996.  Siddhartha was one of the iconic books that I read in the 70s, along with many of my friends, when I was a psychiatric nurse — Castaneda and Hesse are the authors that have stayed with me, while many others are forgotten.

I’ve just re-read it and found it still stirs me, and speaks to my soul. I was a bit irritated by Siddhartha’s arrogance in the earlier part of his journey, but he becomes more human, becomes a lover, a successful merchant, a gambler, a man of the world, and loses his soul’s light. He has an awakening, when, like Buddha, he sits under a mango tree and fasts,  and reflects on what he has become, what he has lost.  His worldly self dies, and he sets out on the road again, wandering in the forest, until he comes back to the river, the same one he had crossed as a young man when he first set out on his journey. He remembers the sacred syllable, OM, and falls asleep. When he awakes he sees the world “as a new man”. He is befriended by the old ferryman Vasudeva, and lives with him, helping him to work the ferry and till the land. From Vasudeva he learns the art of listening, and from the river, he learns much, most of all that there is no time, that time is not real: “Nothing is, nothing will be; everything is, everything has its being and is present.”

Yet, suffering is not over for Siddhartha. This blissfully simple life is interrupted when his past returns, in the form of the courtesan Kamala, who had taught him the art of love and (unknown to him) borne him a son, after he left the city. She is travelling with her young son to pay homage to the dying Buddha. She is bitten by a snake, and dies, leaving the son in his care. Now, at last, Siddhartha learns his last and most painful lesson: love.  For his son is spoilt and resentful, and hates the spartan life the two old men live. Eventually he runs away, and Siddhartha, broken-hearted, yields once again to the song of the river, OM, perfection, and ceases to struggle and suffer. There is more, but although I’ve already revealed the best part of the story, I”ll leave you to discover it, if you are inclined to read it.

For me, the secret that Siddhartha discovers is profound; that others can teach us knowledge, but not wisdom, and that we cannot shield our children from samsara, suffering, and that they, like us, must find their own way. Wisdom, he learns from the river’s song, is a readiness of the soul to think the thought of unity, to breathe it. As he tells his friend Govinda, when they are reunited: “Seeking means having a goal, but finding means being free, open, having no goal.”



Filed under Herman Hesse's Siddharta

20 responses to “A spiritual journey: Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

  1. harmeet kaur

    thanks ,you have beautifully summed up the novel and the philosophy behind the novel i am a lecturer in english,i did a dissertation on the novel

  2. Thank you; your comment means a lot to me. Though you are the first person to have commented on this post, many have visited it; it continues to be one of the most read of my posts. I’m glad Siddartha and his spirit live for this generation.

  3. Ljiljana

    I read Siddhartha many years ago, I even quote few lines from this
    book to the people I meet, but after reading of your post I wanted to read it again.

  4. honey pott

    Wonderfully written! I have included you as a critic response to my essay

  5. I am a high school English teacher and have incorporated this book into my curriculum solely because I have also been deeply and profoundly impacted by it. I am cutting and pasting parts of your comments here in a handout for my class. Thank you for showing it’s relevance for modern times,

    • Thank you! I’m so glad to hear this. It’s interesting that this post, written ages ago in blog-time, is still my most visited one. So I’m glad to know that many high school students are reading it, and that my post helps show its relevance.

  6. Karl Mead

    “Identify one short except from the book that speaks directly or indirectly to the authors primary purpose or unspoken thesis.” I cannot seem to answer this even though I really liked the book and your connection to how we should let our children find their own way.

    • Without re-reading the book, I think that the author’s thesis is the search for wisdom, not through western science and orthodox religion (including orthodox eastern religion), but through immersion in life. Siddartha’s journey takes him from a rather detached form of spirituality to immersion in humanity — commerce, gambling, sensual love — and disillusionment with these, to immersion in nature — the forest, the river — and reconnection with human love and loss.

      I think you need to search in the text for passages that distill the wisdom he finds. For me, enlightenment is not detachment from our material, fleshed lives, it is acceptance and refinement of our humanity that ultimately frees the spirit. Siddhartha expresses this for me.

      • Karl Mead

        Thank you, I will be looking back in the text for passages that show the wisdom that he found and was looking for all along. He does find out a lot of things just by doing them. (immersion in life) Thanks for your well written work and much needed answer to my question.

      • My pleasure to help others to understand and enjoy this wonderful book. Yes, I agree, it’s about immersion (and the river symbolises immersion and flow, constant change with the essence remaining the same). The river is perhaps the most powerful symbol in the book, and the forest is important to. Often a writer’s message is conveyed more by symbols than direct expression.

  7. Amy

    What is the overall theme of this novel?

  8. Swami O.

    Hello Christina.

    When you write the following:

    “At this point in the story, Hesse found himself unable to continue, unable to write Siddhartha’s quest for his goal of enlightenment, because he himself felt dissociated from his own being. He became depressed, and it was not until 1922, after immersing himself in the study of Eastern religion, in particular Buddhism, and extended psychoanalysis with Carl Jung, that he was able to complete the novel.” …

    I am interested to know your sources for this biographical snippet. It strikes me that it may not be entirely accurate, as I doubt Hesse (or anyone) could write ANY part of Siddhartha without at least a deep preliminary understanding of its themes coming from inner experience. Perhaps it was more that his “second edit” of it deepened the novel into what we now read!

    Over my 60 years, I too have travelled (perhaps 66% of) Siddhartha’s journey — having been a householder, parent, wandering renunciate, forest and riverside dweller, and now a social resident again. Like Hesse, I too have got stuck in my (very similar) autobiographical novel about this process. Perhaps my latter years will complete the process of self-actualisation and thus the book!

    On a rather cynical note, I find it extremely interesting that so many people profess to “love” the novel, but fail to actualise any real commitment to a life of true spiritual seeking and/or finding. They find it “inspirational”, “meaningful”, “moving”, etc. Lots of warm fuzzies reading on the lounge and then karma, karma, karma all the day long!

    Having had a relationship with a spiritual master for some decades (and then going beyond that phase via his instruction to leave the nest), I am of the opinion that a guide/guru/teacher/teachings are in fact good and necessary things for SOME part of the journey. True, they cannot take you through the door, but they can certainly lead you to it. The Buddha said the same about his own teachings and practices.

    I am also rather cynical of the enormous growth in Buddhist adherents in the West nowadays. It seems like so much a “cake and eat it” religion. Lots of intellectual reading; lots of pretty icons, symbols, ritual; a bit of comfy meditation practice; a laughing Dalai Lama as a far off pontiff; some basic good-life morals; yet all without a kick-arse teacher reminding you everyday that you might be deluding yourself into enlightenment. In the Tibetan monasteries, the Zen Dojos and other lineage ashrams it sure ain’t like that.

    J.J. Krishnamurti was a major influence in the West during Hesse’s time, teaching “find your own way, have no teachers” — so it is not surprising that Hesse’s Theosophical involvement also gave him that slant.

    Yet many other wise ones, have said that a teacher and a lineage is the middle phase. First is eclecticism, shopping around, finding a basal community you feel is home; then a dedicated focus on those teachings at the foot of a master; and then graduation from the “school” to go and find one’s own self-awakening. This has been the custom for millennia in the East. It rather annoys me that modern Westerners think they can better re-invent the wheel than the ancient wise ones themselves! A stumbling, self taught, teacher-rejecting, spiritual novice can spend a lot of time going round and round in circles and up side tangents in ego self-justification by rejecting “all teachings”.

    Did YOU, for instance, fully teach yourself to write, or did you do courses, learn from master writers (directly and/or indirectly)? Did you not learn the basic rules of how to write (primary, secondary, tertiary) to one day go off and “break them” in exploration of your creative uniqueness?

    Yes, we all have many teachers and pick up snippets of knowledge from here and there. But, to confront and eventually transcend the very subtle ego projection (not to be confused with the deeper real self …. Atman = Brahman of Siddhartha’s finding), a spiritual guide is a damn good objective point of learning. And well, according to your post above, Hesse used Jung to help sort himself out! Hesse’s fictional proclamation of Siddhartha’s self-enlightenment is therefore a little disingenuous — no?

    The other point that many assessors miss of Siddhartha’s journey (and which I think Hesse failed to clearly point out) was that Siddhartha’s three earlier life phases (learning, renunciation/asceticism, worldly immersion) were in fact absolutely necessary prerequisites to the eventual unfolding of his 4th stage realisation (the four ashrammas of life, as Hindus call it). Within each of those earlier stages he was taught by others. He was therefore gradually transformed through those teachings TO BE READY to attain the fourth. He could not have got to stage 4 without having passed through 1, 2 and 3! Life’s learnings and teachings from others are always accumulative, hence where we eventually get to is ALWAYS derivative of the what others have taught us! Siddhartha’s final realisations, and Hesse’s final proselytising about “finding your own way”, was NOT actually how it happened, and no-one, no-one, can rightfully claim in the beginning that they are going off to “find their own way”. This whole “moral of the story” is a false one — both in the writing and in the endless popular interpretations the book has been given.

    In these post-postmodern times, there is a common tendency (certainly more so in the West than the East) to “do it my own way”. (Thanks, Frank Sinatra, for that!). And let’s not forget that Hesse was snitching a whole Eastern cultural and spiritual perspective and then writing for Westerners. Indians certainly didn’t need Siddhartha — they had the Bhagavad Gita! So, what we find is that his theme of “self-teaching” may only be a subtle exercise in self-projection upon his intended audience! Yes the book’s underlying theme is wise and ultimately true. But, like all writings, will the readers actually “GET IT”?!?!? My belief is that they will only get it to a point which suits them, suits their ego limitations. If you don’t like teachers, you’ll have none. If you respect the wisdom of elders, you will find some. That is the West’s dichotomy which the Eastern aspirants do not have.

    What I now observe are so many self-deluded, self-appointed “wise ones”; ungrounded spiritual anarchists and spiritual butterflies with no grounding in fundamentals (such as the noble paths); lots of wise warm fuzzy websites and blogs and books professing enlightenment and all for a dollar and self aggrandisement.

    I am a spiritual realist. Symbols are grand, but they ain’t real life. I believe that people are only as wise and enlightened and “cooked” as the whole of their life and their being truly exemplifies — just as Siddhartha recognised in the Buddha, in Vasudeva and finally in himself.

    Spiritual pretence is a massive modern disease. Egoistic spirituality is now a popular neurosis. On top of the truly wonderful inspiration and writing the story provides, unfortunately, Hesse’s theme and book have contributed to an undermining of the time-proven systems of (so-called) “seeking” and “finding” and greatly helped to reinforce the West’s Judeo-Christian-capitalist-materialist predispositions to self-delusion.

    Anyway, enough of my ramblings! Peace to you!

    Swami O. Saraswati.

    (Born and bred an Australian; crossed over into a yoga and meditation brotherhood for many years; returned to embrace the dominant culture (but with a whole new perspective of non-detachment to it); thus understanding what actually does work, what pretends to work, and what doesn’t).

    • Hello Swami

      I am humbled by your deep response to my blog. I confess I am a dilettante in the lore of Buddhism and Enlightenment. I have my own, very personal path, and I don’t profess to know the deeper secrets of the path of awakening. I have never been a follower. Re your question about Hesse’s crisis when he was writing Siddhartha, I can’t verify the truth of it; I took this statement from the introduction to the volume I read of Siddartha; however, I have since lost the book, and can’t tell you who the editor was. All I can suggest is that Hesse may have previsioned the spiritual journey without fully understanding it, and had to make his own retreat before he could finish the vision. And I agree that Siddharta has to go through the stages of the journey, the losses and humiliations, the pain, to attain realisation. It seems very simple to me, and resonates with my own life. The roles I have played, the losses and renunciations I have suffered, have led me to this present state of imperfect awareness. I hope, by the time that I die, that I will have reached a state of peace.

      Thank you so much for sharing your ‘ramblings’!

  9. Esmeralda

    I had to read Siddhartha for a school paper and i quite enjoyed the book, however I didn’t really understand where the ideas and inspiration came from writing such a successful yet different book. It was interesting to read how the author’s real life obstacles affected his writing and how it has effected other people. In my opinion, I found this book to be very peaceful and relaxing to read, and maybe that’s why I enjoyed it so much. Thank you for the lovely blogpost.

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