I first read this 1922 German novel by Herman Hesse as a college student in the 1960’s when it enjoyed a period of popularity in the U.S. among those participating in or interested in the 60’s counter culture. When I recently returned to it, all I could remember was the image of a Buddha-like man contemplating a river. Turns out that memory captures the final resting place of Siddhartha’s spiritual journey.
One way to read the novel is as a rejection of Western culture, especially Christianity, and an embrace of the Eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. Hesse had been raised by his missionary parents in strict Christian piety. He showed his rebellious character early when he ran away from the Evangelical Theological Seminary, where he was enrolled. Ironically, his love for Indian culture and Buddhist philosophy had been learned through his parents, who had been missionaries to India. Hesse’s life could be seen as a continual spiritual conflict between his Christian and Buddhist roots.
Siddhartha’s spiritual journey could be viewed as Hesse’s own wish-fulfillment for ultimate enlightenment and peace. The novel takes place in India during the lifetime of Gautama Buddha between the 5th and 7th centuries B.C.E. Just as Hesse had rebelled against the Christianity of his missionary parents, so young Siddhartha rebels against the Hinduism of his Brahmin father and leaves home to seek enlightenment. Siddhartha meets the Buddha but refuses to become a disciple, choosing to learn from his own experience rather than the teaching of a religious leader.
He goes to the city and begins to live a worldly life, pursuing wealth and pleasure. After sating himself with materialism, he leaves his lover, who is pregnant with their son, contemplates suicide, and then returns to a life of asceticism at the river under the tutelage of a wise ferryman.
Reunited with his son after the mother’s death, Siddhartha experiences the cycle of youthful rebellion as a father, just as earlier he had experienced it as a son. From the wise ferryman he learns to let go of trying to find his runaway son, listen to the sound of the river, and accept the natural cycle of life. In the end Siddhartha attains the wisdom and enlightenment he had sought from the beginning.
Siddhartha could thus be viewed as a projection of Hesse’s own rejection of his parents’ Christianity, his own spiritual journey, and his own yearning for enlightenment. As such, it spoke to the 60’s generation of young Americans rebelling against the “establishment” and the Vietnam War, seeking enlightenment on their own, and exploring Eastern ways of religion and culture.
Another way to read the novel is as a modern re-enactment of the ancient hero myth, in which a spiritual seeker leaves home, undergoes his or her trial and suffering, confronts the reality of death, and is reborn into spiritual attainment, whether it be as wise one, as prophet, or as deity.
Either way, certain universal truths of the human story are affirmed: the quest for independence and authenticity, the inevitability of suffering and death, the possibility of redemption and spiritual fulfillment.
Also, either way, certain ironic contradictions, perhaps irresolvable, make themselves felt. Siddhartha rejects the teaching of religious leaders and insists on learning on his own. Yet he readily accepts the teaching of a courtesan, who instructs him in the ways of love and desire. Likewise, he submits to the teaching of the ferryman, who instructs him in the wisdom to be learned by listening to the sound of the river. One way of resolving this contradiction is to distinguish between learning from established and recognized authorities and learning from those at the margins of society, with the latter having more to teach than the former.
A related contradiction is that between Siddhartha’s chosen path of independence and his ultimate dependence on others as he travels his road to wisdom. His professed individualism is belied by his experience of learning from relationships with others. Again, perhaps this contradiction can be resolved if we note that Siddhartha learns for himself independently the lesson of humility that he can learn from others.
Or, perhaps these contradictions are irresolvable.
In any case, Siddhartha’s ultimate source of wisdom is the sound of the river: nature, not society.
While working on this blog post, I came across a symposium on teaching the novel (http://www.aasianst.org/EAA/Siddhartha.htm), in which is debated the value of using the novel to introduce Western students to Eastern religions vs. the claim that the novel offers a misleading and distorted representation of Buddhism. I concluded that while Siddhartha is an excellent study of one man’s spiritual quest, one would do well not to rely on it for an authentic understanding of Indian culture and Buddhist philosophy. For such understanding, one would do better to study the texts of Eastern religions rather than the writing of a German novelist struggling with his Christian identity.