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.”