'Siddhartha' by Hermann Hesse (1922)

Siddhartha - Hermann Hesse, Hilda Rosner, Paulo Coelho

Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha (London: Penguin Classics, 2008), 121pp. Translated by Hilda Rosner.


Told with remarkable clarity and refreshing brevity, Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha is a fantastic book for providing oneself with an environment in which to ponder deep spiritual questions. It tells the story of the eponymous Siddhartha, a restless and thoughtful young man who embarks on a spiritual quest of self-discovery. Despite being only 121 pages long, Hesse manages to tell the story of Siddhartha's whole life, from restless youth to contented, enlightened old age.

Indeed, it is because of this brevity that Siddhartha is a better spiritual treatise than it is a novel. As a novel, a story in which to become engrossed, it is practically non-existent. Aside from Siddhartha's spiritual fulfilment which serves as the plot line, there is no character development. We do not know why Vasudeva embarked upon or continued his own spiritual quest, why Siddhartha and Kamala developed a relationship of such intensity, or why Govinda possesses such loyalty, or a spiritual restlessness that mirrors Siddhartha's. There is also little description of the world which Siddhartha experiences (except perhaps the river which is so important to the final part of the story), and indeed little narrative.

However, when taken as a spiritual treatise, Siddhartha is exceptional. There is a persistent theme that one cannot attain spiritual harmony through established teachings and doctrines, and certainly not organised religion. As early as page 4, the young Siddhartha is contemptuous of the Brahmin (Hindu priests) and rejects becoming one "like ten thousand others of [his] kind"; he rejects being a "good stupid sheep amongst a large herd". He becomes obsessed with transcending the body and mind to become one with the Self (Atman), "the eternal which each person carried within him" but few realised (pg. 5), which will connect him to Brahman (with an 'a'), which is the unchanging, divine oneness of the universe. From then on, Siddhartha is a chronicle of the titular character's spiritual journey. Riffing on a phrase found on page 73, there is Siddhartha the Brahmin, Siddhartha the Samana (a sort of spiritual pilgrim), Siddhartha the materialistic rich man, Siddhartha the child, Siddhartha the father and, finally, Siddhartha the ferryman. Siddhartha's spiritual beliefs change throughout this time, but there is a clear progression and maturation of his philosophy so that, by the end, his thoughts seem a logical summation of all that he has learned and experienced.

That phrase - 'learned and experienced' - is crucial to whether the reader enjoys and appreciates this book. Whilst Siddhartha's spiritual philosophy is refined over time, the themes of learning and experience are a constant foundation. As mentioned above, there is the conviction expressed by Siddhartha that established teachings and doctrines, even those of the venerable Buddha, cannot in themselves bring spiritual enlightenment. They may set one on the right path (it is Siddhartha's time as a Samana that opens up the world to him) but cannot in themselves bring an achievement. Siddhartha samples various spiritual philosophies and teachings but every time his thirst is quenched, he feels new thirst, and although these paths take him away from the Self, "in the end they always led back to it" (pg. 13). Somewhat unusually for a writer, someone who makes a living based upon his utilisation and manipulation of words, Hesse argues that words cannot communicate spiritual truth. In Siddhartha's meeting with the Buddha, he tells the 'Illustrious One' that he cannot become his follower because "... nobody finds salvation through teachings. To nobody, O Illustrious One, can you communicate in words and teachings, what happened to you in the hour of your enlightenment." (pg. 28). In contrast to the teachings of the Western monotheistic religions, there are no set of rules, teachings or commandments that one must follow in order to be considered a holy man in the same way that one must follow the holy texts and gospels to be a good Christian, Jew or Muslim.

Hesse, through Siddhartha, tells us that one's own life experiences dictate our progression, not the teachings of others ("I will learn from myself, be my own pupil. I will learn from myself the secret of Siddhartha." (pg. 31)). After Siddhartha has succumbed to the materialistic life of a merchant, he acknowledges that he needed to experience it himself in order to reject it. He had been taught in his youth that shallow materialism was not good, but the teaching, the rule, was not enough. Now he had experienced it, and overcome it, he now knew the lesson "not only with my intellect, but with my eyes, with my heart, with my stomach." (pg. 77). We cannot always decide what experiences we may have, but we can be more receptive to them, and more willing to learn from them, and indeed, increase our chances of attaining more valuable experiences through conscious and thoughtful choice (Siddhartha, after all, chooses to embark on a journey of self-discovery, to leave home and pursue the path of the Samana). Many are unwilling to be receptive to new ideas and experiences; there is a neat example where Vasudeva notes how the ferry across the river which serves as a great spiritual inspiration to Siddhartha has "taken thousands of people across and to all of them my river has been nothing but a hindrance on their journey." (pg. 83). To them, the river is an inconvenient obstacle to their ordinary daily lives. In contrast, through his introspective thoughtfulness and receptiveness, Siddhartha seems able to see the spiritual lessons in earthly events (see pages 53-54 for an example of how a trip to a village becomes a lesson on the benefits of karma). More than anything, it is Hesse's advocacy of individualistic, non-conformist, discriminating spiritual thinking that is the most rewarding and life-affirming lesson from Siddhartha.

Although the spiritual conclusions reached by Siddhartha at the end were not entirely convincing to me, they were told with such clarity and assertiveness that, though they may not harmonise completely with one's own thoughts, they are rewarding for the reader merely to ponder and digest them. Indeed, through the final dialogue between Siddhartha and Govinda, Hesse seems to acknowledge this and implies at the end that he knows many people will not be wholly accepting of his findings. As people are at different stages of their journeys, and have different experiences to draw from, they may not find Siddhartha's professed enlightenment convincing, just as Govinda could not completely accept them from Siddhartha himself ("... yet it also pleases me and seems right that what is of value and wisdom to one man seems nonsense to another", Siddhartha mischievously muses on page 112). As with page 28 mentioned above (when Siddhartha told the Buddha he could not communicate the sensation of his enlightenment to others), one must experience it for oneself before they can truly understand it. It is through his own experiences that Siddhartha comes to find enlightenment and contentment. Realising that all the things in the world are connected in spiritual harmony, Siddhartha claims that "love is the most important thing in the world" (pg. 113); not necessarily love for another human being, but compassionate understanding and affection for all things. As he tells Govinda, "everything needs only... my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me." (pg. 111). Time and suffering, life and death, are all relative; whereas one may feel pain in this moment, one may feel happiness in another, or in another life. Like the river, these moments are ever-flowing and exist alongside one another: "... every sin already carries grace within it, all small children are potential old men, all sucklings have death within them, all dying people - eternal life." (pp110-11). Whereas the simple message that 'all you need is love' may seem like a cop-out, when it comes at the end of this small but seismic book, it is a revelation. After a restless journey, Siddhartha no longer needs to compare the world to "some kind of desired imaginary world, some imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and be glad to belong to it." (pg. 111). Contentment and affection for the world, after a difficult journey: that is as life-affirming as any message can be.