1922

Siddartha
“Too much knowledge had held him back, too many sacred verses, too
many ritual rules, too much denial, too much doing and striving. He had been full of arrogance—always the smartest, always the most industrious, always a step ahead of everybody, always wise and spiritual, always the priest or sage. Into this priesthood, into this highmindedness, into this spirituality, his ego had crept.

“Most people, Kamala, are like fallen leaves that blow and whirl about
in the air, then dip and fall to earth. But others, only a few, are like stars, which move on a fixed course where no wind reaches them; they have their law and their course within them.

In a nutshell
Instead of striving for great spiritual heights, gain peace and power from the acceptance of life as it is.

In a similar vein
Ram Dass Be Here Now (p. 72) The Bhagavad-Gita (50SHC) The Dhammapada (50SHC)

118

CHAPTER 19

Hermann Hesse

B

efore he was Hermann Hesse, the great writer, Hesse was struggling to bring up three sons with a wife suffering from schizophrenia. When the illness became too much to bear, she was put into 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 Hermann 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 80 years?

The quest
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 119

HERMANN HESSE

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 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 our 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 to find 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 ascetic from the forest thinks he can befriend her, with 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 need 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 that are really of little consequence: money, pleasures, recognition. These are 120

50 SPIRITUAL CLASSICS

merely samsara, the game of life, rather than life itself. Since he has 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 drinking, and realizes that he is becoming one of the “child people” whom he once looked down on. In fact, after a night of wine and dancing girls, he realizes that he is worse than most.

Merchant to ferryman
In his misery, Siddartha flees into the forest, ready to die. Falling asleep by a river, he awakens to find his old friend Govinda, who provides a sounding board to reflect on his life and to find within himself the germ of the purer spirit he once was. It dawns on Siddartha that, being who he is, he had to go through the stage of lust and love of worldly things in order to see that they did not satisfy him. Only in disgust of what he had become could he be reborn, and not as the wandering ascetic he had been, but as someone who was part of the world but not seduced by it. He becomes a helper to a ferryman, learning how to use the oar to take people across the river, and living in a hut. It is a simple life, but the river speaks to him in a way that a teacher never could, and he finds peace. One day a woman and her small son are traveling to see the Buddha, who was said to be near the end of his life. The two are not far from the ferry crossing when the mother is bitten by a snake. Their cries are heard by the ferrymen, who comes to see what is happening. Siddartha quickly recognizes the woman; it is Kamala, his former love, and the boy is his son.

Joining up the circle
What happens next can be left up to the reader, but Siddartha learns the simple but powerful love a parent has for their child; he no longer looks down on those whose attachments run deep. He realizes that it has not been constant spiritual striving that has led him to a degree of peace and enlightenment, nor was it throwing himself into worldly pleasures and status. Offered in a conversation with his old companion Govinda, Siddartha’s conclusion is this: 121

HERMANN HESSE

“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 that helps him to arrive at this awareness. He listens to the “thousandfold song of the river,” which sounds like life in its unceasing movement toward 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.

Final comments
The message of Siddartha is that we should not try to withdraw from life to have a superior feeling of holiness, but throw ourselves into things. 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. The book also suggests that neither a hard existence of going without, nor one of sensuality and “things,” nor even a life of the mind and knowledge can result in the spiritual development we crave. What Siddartha finds is that it is only when he gives up finding nirvana that a degree of enlightenment comes to him. Though the book was published in German 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 freespirited 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. Siddartha was the fruit of Hesse’s own grueling spiritual journey (in Sanskrit the name means “he who has found the goal”), but thankfully you do not have to be such a tortured soul to make use of the insights he reveals in the book. 122

50 SPIRITUAL CLASSICS

Hermann Hesse
Born in 1877 in Calw, Germany, at 18 Hesse went to live in Basel, Switzerland, working as a bookseller. His early novels include Peter Camenzind (1904), Beneath the Wheel (1906), and Gertrud (1910). In 1911 he traveled to India, and in 1914 he published Rosshale. His first real literary success was Demian (1919). In the same year Hesse took up residence in Montagnola, in the Ticino region of Switzerland. There he wrote Klein and Wagner, Klingsor’s Last Summer, Siddartha, Steppenwolf (1927), Narcissus and Goldmund (1930), Journey to the East (1932), and The Glass Bead Game (1943). Hesse wrote the first part of Siddartha easily, but stopped for over a year due to depression. The book 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. He died in 1962.

123

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful