Author: Hermann Hesse
Genre: Philosophy, Spirituality
Siddhartha is the 1922 novel written by Hermann Hesse, and is part of the series of short classic books I wanted to read in 2022.
The novel tells the story of the titular Siddhartha, taking place in the ancient Nepalese kingdom of Kapilavastu. Siddhartha is a young man among the Brahman’s and is well-educated but longs to find the deeper meaning of life and it’s mysteries. He along with his friend Govinda decides to leave the Brahmans’ and becomes an ascetic wandering beggar with the Samara’s. During this time the two of them deprive themselves of food and possessions and routinely meditate.
One day they hear about a wandering monk by the name of Gotama or the Buddha or Enlightened One, whose teachings have been spread far and wide. The two travel to meet him and they both recognise the elegance of his teachings. Govinda finds them so endearing he joins the Buddha, whereas Siddhartha feels it isn’t his true path so sets off alone.
One day he meets a ferryman who helps him cross the river for no charge, saying he will return one day. Venturing to city life, Siddhartha meets Kamala, the most beautiful woman he has ever seen who is also a courtesan. She is attracted to him but says she will only be with him if he can give her great wealth and puts him in touch with Kamaswami, a local merchant. For 20 years Siddhartha becomes a merchant salesman, eventually becoming Kamala’s lover. However he still realises he is unfulfilled and one day runs away from this life which slowly fills him with disgust.
He returns to the river and even contemplates suicide before falling into a deep meditative sleep but he is saved by the holy word, Om. The next morning, Siddhartha has a chance encounter with Govinda who is travelling but fails to recognise him initially. In that moment Siddhartha decides he has a deep connection to the river and wants to live there.
He returns to the crossing he made 20 years earlier and finds the same ferryman, named Vasudeva still provides a ferry service and asks to live with him. He agrees as his wife has long since died and the two live a calmer and simpler way of life. Some years later, this peace is disrupted when Kamala is travelling to meet the Buddha with her young son and is bitten by a venomous snake. She tells Siddhartha the boy is his son before passing away. Siddhartha then takes his son in and tries to teach him the ways of the river but he is very resistant until one day running away together.
Siddhartha initially grieves for his son but during a conversation with Vasudeva he listens to the river and realises time is an illusion and that everything he experiences is connected to the world around him in some way, such as the cyclical unity of nature. In this moment of enlightenment, Vasudeva tells him his work here is done and this leaves into the forest whilst Siddhartha begins to feel peace for letting his son go.
Towards the end of his life, Govinda learns about an enlightened ferryman and travels to meet Siddhartha, again failing to recognise him. When he realises who he is, he asks Siddhartha to recount his wisdom which he does, explaining that every statement of truth has an opposite that is also true and the language that people use confine the truth to one specific belief when the truth is much fuller than this. It is only by appreciating the full truth can people learn to love the world in its completeness, the good and the bad. Govinda is initially sceptical but when Siddhartha kisses him on the forehead goodbye, he experiences the same connection Siddhartha did with Vasudeva at the river.
In this moment Siddhartha experiences the full circle of life, he realises his father’s importance and love he has which ahs been passed onto the next generation with his son, who is very similar to Siddhartha at the beginning.
The main phrase that I would use to describe this novel is very deeply spiritual as the central plot of the novel is about one man’s quest to discover who he is and his place in the world but in doing so Hesse explores quite a lot of themes which resonate to day and I think many people can relate to certain parts of Siddhartha’s journey, even if it is isn’t for religious reasons.
In the opening chapters Siddhartha is a young man, arguably ambitious and thirsty for knowledge as he wants to find out the answers to the questions which no one before him has been able to do and in much of the early stages of the novel he seeks out these answers by finding various teachers – first his father, then the Samara’s and finally the Buddha. Along the way he doesn’t quite find the exact answers that he is seeking.
It is only in the second half of the book when he goes a little bit off the beaten path and experiences life and makes mistakes does his true spiritualty come through. I think that can be true for many young people and the role of education in society today where it is expected for youngsters to know and regurgitate what those before them have learnt in school and college, however it is only when out in the real world that young people really transform into who they are meant to be.
The novel obviously focusses quite a lot on religion, with the Buddha appearing in the novel as a character so was assumingly teaching Siddhartha Buddhist principles. What is interesting is though it does appear as though Siddhartha may disrespect the Buddha by rejecting his teachings, Hesse also shows the Buddhist ideology that one man cannot lead another to enlightenment is true as Siddhartha has to find his own path in order to do so.
In Siddhartha’s path towards healing, he also develops a close connection to nature with the river being a key symbol that brings him peace and helps him to make sense of the world which does demonstrate the healing power of nature for him. The book has an interesting moment where Siddhartha contemplates suicide which is a brief exploration of mental health and the river acts somewhat as his saviour by helping him to recover from this event.
In his moment of enlightenment, Siddhartha realises everything he ever did and will do has a direct consequence on something else with everything and everyone being connected, just like the river is connected to the sea, which in turn is evaporated into clouds which then falls again as rain.
Siddhartha later finds a deeper meaning for this when his son leaves him, realising it is part of the circle of life. Though that does sound a bit like the Lion King but Siddhartha recognises the similarities of the situation between him and his son that he had with his father and that his son will need to find his own path like he had to at the beginning.
One thing I will say is the book isn’t a page turner and I think some people won’t get into it. Also the very deep, spiritual subject matter could make it a book which could be like Marmite for some people – they will either love it and find it endearing or really hate it.
Personally I do lean more towards loving it as it is a very thought-provoking and at times even life-affirming read, as I have mentioned some of my thoughts on it above. If you have read this book I would love to know your thoughts in the comments down below.