By Hermann Hesse. Translated from German By Hilda Rosner
Publisher: BanTam Books, new york, 1971, c1951.
ISBN 0-553-20884-5 (PBK)
In 1922 a small novel with the ancient title Siddhartha appeared in European bookstores. Though its author, the German poet and novelist Hermann Hesse (1877–1962), later earned the Nobel Prize in Literature for the novel Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game), Siddhartha remains his most famous novel. In it Hesse draws on his childhood experiences as the son of missionaries in India to transport us to India in the time of Gautama Buddha.
The novel tells the story of a fictional Siddhartha, the son of a Brahmin priest, who, despite the fortunate circumstances into which he was born, leaves home to seek truth. Hesse aptly defines the protagonist’s role by the name he chooses for him: “Siddhartha”, composed of the roots siddh– to accomplish or to succeed – and artha– an object or aim. Siddhartha’s story becomes a parable of Everyman and Everywoman on the long-turning wheel of transmigration.
A central event in the story is Siddhartha’s encounter with the spiritual adept Gautama Buddha. For the same reasons that he had abandoned the religious doctrines of his forefathers, the Hindu Brahmins, Siddhartha declines to adopt the teachings even of a living saint, believing that enlightenment comes only from personal experience, from individual trial and error. On meeting the Buddha, Siddhartha acknowledges his perfection but still challenges him: “To nobody, O Illustrious One, can you communicate in words and teachings, what happened to you in the hour of your enlightenment.” The Buddha does not respond, but warns Siddhartha “to be on your guard against too much cleverness”.
Paradoxically, throughout the story, teachers impart their knowledge to Siddhartha. But as one teacher reflects:
Which father, which teacher, could prevent him from living his own life, from soiling himself with life, from loading himself with sin, from swallowing the bitter drink himself, from finding his own path? Do you think, my dear friend, that anybody is spared this path? But if you were to die ten times for him, you would not alter his destiny in the slightest.
Siddhartha explores various probable and improbable approaches to truth – asceticism, sensuality, a father’s love for his son – and experiences each to extremes. Ironically, he reaches old age and still has failed to achieve his objective. Almost twenty years after his encounter with the Buddha, after exhausting himself in asceticism and sensuality, he experiences a “terrible emptiness of the soul”. Drawn to a ferryman called Vasudeva, he becomes his apprentice.
Throughout the novel, water, particularly the river, appears as a power purifying the individual and revealing the mysteries of the universe. Siddhartha sits by the river, and Vasudeva encourages him to learn from it. “Above all, he learned from it how to listen, to listen with a still heart, with a waiting, open soul, without passion, without desire, without judgment, without opinions.”
Listening to the river, Siddhartha discovers that time is an illusion. Vasudeva agrees:
A bright smile spread over Vasudeva’s face. ‘Yes, Siddhartha,’ he said. ‘Is this what you mean? That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere, and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past, nor the shadow of the future.’
Still, when Siddhartha meets his young son for the first time, he loses himself in an over-fond, doting love. Once again, he goes to the extreme. This powerful, blind attachment, along with the excruciating pain it brings, teaches Siddhartha another lesson. The people he ferried across the river “no longer seemed alien to him as they once had”. Rather, he felt they were his brothers.
Their vanities, desires and trivialities no longer seemed absurd to him.… He saw life, vitality, the indestructible and Brahman in all their needs and desires. These people were worthy of love and admiration in their blind loyalty, their blind strength and tenacity.
Unable to overcome either his attachment or his painful, negative emotions, Siddhartha breaks down and tells Vasudeva of his condition. Motionless and serene, Vasudeva listens.
Disclosing his wound to this listener was like bathing it in the river, until it became cool and one with the river.… He felt that this motionless listener was absorbing his confession as a tree absorbs the rain, that this motionless man was the river itself, that he was God himself, that he was eternity itself.
Siddhartha comes to realize a key spiritual truth: that no matter how far the seeker travels on his way, the spiritual quest is not a journey. He says:
The sinner is not on the way to a Buddha-like state; he is not evolving, although our thinking cannot conceive things otherwise. No, the potential Buddha already exists in the sinner; his future is already there. The potential hidden Buddha must be recognized in him, in you, in everybody.
Siddhartha realizes that:
When someone is seeking.… it happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he is only thinking of the thing he is seeking, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal.
Ultimately, from the river and from Vasudeva, Siddhartha learns to let go – let go of desires, let go of quests, let go of himself.
From that hour Siddhartha ceased to fight against his destiny. There shone in his face the serenity of knowledge, of one who is no longer confronted with conflict of desires, who has found salvation, who is in harmony with the stream of events, with the stream of life, full of sympathy and compassion, surrendering himself to the stream, belonging to the unity of all things.
Since 1922 this book has become acknowledged as a classic of world spirituality. In India many view the book as an accurate portrayal of their spiritual aspirations: the Hermann Hesse Society of India has prepared a Sanskrit translation of Siddhartha and is dedicated to bringing out translations in all the Indian languages. The book is beloved in the West, with the classic Hilda Rosner translation from German into English a perennial favourite among spiritual seekers. Since the lapse of its German copyright, several new translations with excellent introductions have come out in English; for example, the translations by Joachim Neugroschel (Penguin, 1999), Sherab Chodzin Kohn (Shambhala, 2005), and Susan Bernofsky (Modern Library, 2006). Each version is wonderful, and it is probably a matter of the individual reader’s taste as to which of the available translations is the ‘best’.
The portrait created by Hesse in Siddhartha is sufficiently rich that it may be viewed from different perspectives depending on the reader’s angle of observation; no two readers will walk away from this book with quite the same impressions. This review has touched only a few of the rich strands running through the book. Among its spiritual lessons is the teaching repeated by mystics throughout the ages:
Wisdom is not communicable. The wisdom which a wise man tries to communicate always sounds foolish…. Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom.
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.