Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

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Translated by Hilda Rosner

Reviewed by Harriet

Siddhartha had one single goal – to become empty, to become empty of thirst, desire, dreams, pleasure and sorrow – to let the Self die. No longer to be Self, to experience the peace of an emptied heart, to experience pure thought – that was his goal.

Herman Hesse was forty-five years old in 1922, the year he published Siddhartha: An Indian Novel.  Brought up in a strict Christian household, he’d been fascinated by Buddhist and Hindu philosophy since the 1890s, a fascination which finally found expression in this famous and much-loved novella. It was 1951 before it appeared in English, and by the 1960s it had become almost required reading for anyone who was taking an interest in what came to be thought of as spiritual development. I read it myself in my early twenties, and though the details had become vague, I remember being very inspired by it. So I was curious to see how it would strike me now.  Like many people, I suspect, I had misremembered that the novel was a retelling of the life of Buddha, whose birth name was in fact Siddhartha Gautama. But this is not so. The young protagonist does in fact meet the Buddha at one important point in his quest for ‘Truth’, but though he has much respect for him, he walks away rather than becoming a disciple. 

The reader first meets Siddhartha as a very young man, the son of a devout Brahmin. Through his father’s teachings he has learned the practise of meditation and has studied the Upanishads and other great classics of Indian philosophy. But he realises that though his father is a truly good man, much loved and admired, he has not reached the high level of spiritual attainment that his son now longs to achieve. So, after much persuasion, his father gives him permission to leave home and become a Samana, a wandering renunciate monk. His best friend Govinda, brought up in the same way, decides to go with him. So it is that after many months of self-denial and meditation, the two young men find their way to the abode of the ‘Illustrious One’, Gotama Buddha. They listen to his beautiful speech, which promises the end of suffering to those who follow his way. Govinda is immediately swept away and joins the crowds of pilgrims who are asking to be accepted into the community. But Siddhartha believes he will not attain his goal through teachings alone: each person must find the way for himself. 

Soon after he sets off on his solitary journey, Siddhartha finds himself in a state of great confusion. Everything is strange to him and he wonders what on earth he can now do with is life, having lost his friend and rejected all the teachings and practices he has learned in the past few years.  But everything changes when he meets the beautiful Kamala, a celebrated courtesan, and finds his way to her house in a nearby large town, where she promises to teach him the art of love if he becomes a wealthy man. And so, with her help, he does, progressively losing himself in the world of the senses and glorying in financial gain. But after a long time has passed in this way, he suddenly gets overtaken with a great sadness. He remembers the quest he had been on, and his one time thirst for truth:

How long was it now since he had…soared to any heights! How flat and desolate his path had been! How many long years had he spent without any lofty goal, without any thirst, without any exaltation, content with small pleasures and yet never really satisfied!

And so, realising he can no longer play that game, Siddhartha sets off again, resolved to spend the rest of his life by the great river he once crossed as a young man He becomes the assistant and disciple of the Vasudeva, the wise old ferryman, and, after many years, finally reaches the state of spiritual attainment he had desired from the beginning.

It seems that at the time of writing, Hesse himself was going through a feeling of ‘sickness with life’; he apparently ’lived as a virtual semi-recluse and became totally immersed in the sacred teachings of both Hindu and Buddhist scriptures. His intention was to attain to that “completeness” which, in the novel, is the Buddha’s badge of distinction’, according to one commentator.  In those days this must have been a most unusual path for a Westerner to undertake. Today, of course, we are all familiar with at least some of the concepts which the novel explores, and meditation, mindfulness and non-standard forms of spiritual search and development have entered the vocabulary of everyday life. Hesse’s novel has continued to attract readers over the decades, so this attractive little volume will be a welcome addition to the Pushkin Press Classics series, and has a helpful glossary of Sanskrit terms at the back.

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Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Herman Hesses, Siddhartha, trans. Hilda Rosner (Pushkin Classics, 2023). 978-1805330196, 160pp., paperback original.

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