Siddhartha, one of Hermann Hesse’s most famous literary works, is in many respects a prophetic work and it was conceived by the author as such. Like all prophetic books, it is simple and difficult at the same time, as if written by someone who sees and experiences the world for the first time and reveals these experiences to his readers for the first time. In fact Siddhartha learns to look at the world and himself with fresh eyes several times throughout the novel and this is certainly one of the key motives of this story.
Siddhartha was published in 1922, when Hesse was in this mid-forties and had already undergone several personal crises in his life. A sensitive man, Hesse felt, like many others writers and artists at the turn of the century, a sense of sickness with the life of the modern man and tried to find answers and certainties in ancient Oriental philosophy.
The “Orientalism” of Hermann Hesse
His grandparents had been in India, serving at a Protestant mission, and his mother had actually been born in India. But Hesse’s own interest with Buddhism and Oriental philosophy in general most likely originated with Arthur Schopenhauer, arguably the most popular philosopher at the time. Schopenhauer was the first great European thinker to introduce Buddhism to a large Western public, and integrated the theory of the liberation from suffering in his own philosophy.
Hesse sought redemption in a long trip to Asia in 1911, but the experience turned out to be disappointing. Yet his interest in Buddhism and Asia in general persisted and was going to accompany him for the rest of his life.
One does not need, however, a deep knowledge of Buddhism or Asia to read Siddhartha. The novel became arguably so popular because it could be read, easily understood and well received by a heterogeneous public. Like most people, at least in their youth, Siddhartha is someone who is trying to understand the true nature of himself – and of the world too. However, whether one should actively search for this truth or not is a complex question and the story of Siddhartha deals with this too.
Siddhartha and Buddha
Siddhartha is a book inspired by the story of Buddha, the founder of Buddhism who lived roughly 5 centuries before Christ, but the Siddhartha of Hermann Hesse is not the historical Buddha, Gautama Buddha. Siddhartha, however, was Buddha’s birth name and which he later renounced. The historical Buddha is rather Gotama in Hesse’s book, a very important teacher, but just one of the many teachers that Siddhartha encounters in his journey towards knowledge. The theme of teaching and to what extend knowledge can be transmitted through words and lessons is of the most important ones in Siddhartha.
Siddhartha can be classified as the classical book for young souls, absorbed by their restless explorations of the self and wary of any form of teaching and conventional wisdom. Yet as Siddhartha shows, the thirst for knowledge does not need to end with young age: and a young soul can beam from the eyes of a man with grey hair who has learned to look at the world and accept everything with a smile.
You can buy Siddhartha: An Indian Tale by Hermann Hesse here.