Siddhartha – An Indian Tale

Hermann Hesse was a German poet, novelist, and painter. He was born in the small town of Calw on the edge of the Black Forest in Germany, in 1877. Both his mother and father had served at the Basel Mission in India, and his mother was actually born in a mission like it in 1847. His father, Johannes Hesse was the son of a doctor, with a strong Baltic German heritage. The household was an odd mix of scholarly achievement and extreme religious ardor, due to his father’s tales from Estonia that painted a sunny, cheerful picture of life and religion very different from their reality.

From very early on, Hesse was fiercely independent, strong, and intelligent beyond his years. His maternal grandfather, Hermann Gundert, was a Pietist Missionary and Indologist, and young Hermann devoured the books in his collection. Hesse’s early life consisted of transfers from school to school, due to his precociousness and “bad behavior” which lasted until around 1895, during which time Hermann had developed some bad habits: smoking, drinking, running up excessive debts, and even contemplated suicide a number of times.

Hesse’s books don’t have strong plots, but instead are in the most part autobiographical in nature and they revolve around “Weltanschauung”, or a philosophy of life. Hesse frequently used the plots of his stories to present his thoughts, and his near constant struggle to understand life and the great problems in it. Most of this works, most notably Siddhartha, seem to be seeking a message from his “God” as to how he should live. Hesse himself called his novels “biographies of the soul.”

Hesse conceived the idea for Siddhartha in 1911, following a long visit to India looking for the fulfillment that he thought Oriental philosophies could give him. Siddhartha is an exceptionally intelligent Brahman, which is the highest caste in the Hindu religion. Siddhartha feels hollow, despite what seems to be a good life existing around him. He sets off on his journey of self-discovery. This journey to “find himself” leads him through several different types of lives: a period of asceticism and self-denial, though he eventually turns his back on these paths as he realizes they disrupt life by denying a part of it, the physical body. After this realization, Siddhartha decides to pursue physical pleasures and material success. After becoming a great lover and businessman, he eventually realizes that these pleasures too are superficial and don’t satisfy his deeper spiritual side.

A meeting with Buddha leaves him intellectually stimulated, but not spiritually affected, and Siddhartha continues along his own journey. Even meeting the Buddha could not convince him that salvation comes from suffering. Siddhartha even reminds Buddha of his own journey to enlightenment, pointing out that nobody finds salvation through someone else’s teaching, and that communicating enlightenment cannot be done through mere words. Because we know of the struggles Hesse has survived during the period just before writing this piece, we know that he is laying himself bare for our review, so that we might decide what these ultimate meanings are on our own.

Disillusioned that so many varied paths had failed, Siddhartha nonetheless doesn’t stop looking for the true meaning of life and his existence. Ultimately, Siddhartha finds his peace by the river. While repeatedly crossing the river and relentless soul searching, he finally reaches his own “hour of enlightenment.” In this third phase, Siddhartha finally is able to reconcile the physical and spiritual parts of himself by becoming closer to nature and simple work as a ferryman. His search for identity and truth, or the “inward journey” that Hesse referred to consistently as a recurring theme in all his work, is very much reflective of the introspective nature of Hesse’s writing.

Academically unsound though the historical and spiritual stories in Siddhartha may be, they are most often viewed in light of Hesse’s confession that Siddhartha’s pilgrimage mirrored his own. Each of the stages in Hesse’s evolution of consciousness is spelled out in Siddhartha. Many critics even today maintain that this book was Hesse’s statement of “liberation from Brahmanisn, Buddhism, and Hinduism.”

To Siddhartha, the river symbolized the teacher he had been missing up to that point. Vasudeva, who was the ferryman, teaches Siddhartha what he had learned about the river and finding peace within oneself. “The river knows everything; one can learn everything from it” Siddhartha took this to heart and soon began to learn from the river. He learns that there is in reality no such thing as time, and begins to see his life as the river and what it teaches him. “Siddhartha the young boy, Siddhartha the mature man, Siddhartha the old man were only separated by shadows, not through reality.” This teaches him that all things in his life will remain a part of him- knowledge and memories remain with him always.

After Peter Camenzind was published in 1904, Hermann Hesse maintained a great following, and with each subsequent publication his popularity rose dramatically. German readers liked his poetry and stories about traditional ways in the old country, and he was well entrenched in the libraries of most households by the time of the First World War in 1914. As Hesse began writing disparaging works about nationalism and the military, his reputation quickly became one of a traitor and draft dodger, even though he had volunteered for military service. (He was deemed physically unable for combat and was sent to care for the injured.) This public debate was raging when several much deeper calamities came upon Hesse- his father’s death in March, 1916, the serious illness of his son Martin, and the corresponding schizophrenia of his wife. Forced to leave military service, he also began receiving psychotherapy, which began a long He was forced to leave his military service and begin receiving psychotherapy. This began for Hesse a long fixation with psychoanalysis, and he would eventually come to know Carl Jung personally, and it is said that Jung spurred him to new creative heights.

During a three-week period in September and October 1917, Hesse penned his novel Demian, which was published after the armistice in 1919 under the pseudonym Emil Sinclair. After the war, with the chaos and social and political upheaval, his reputation turned back to the point where self-knowledge and self-realization presented in Demian, which was published in 1919 resounded with German youth. Hesse became their idol and Demian their bible. By this time, Hesse’s marriage had shattered following his wife’s psychosis and recovery. Their house was divided, and Hesse settled alone in the small town of Montagnola and lived in four unheated little rooms in a castle-type building, the Casa Camuzzi.

Alone with his solitude, he explored further writing projects, painted, and published Klingsor’s Last Summer in 1920. Finally, after many years of being immersed in Indian culture and Buddhist philosophy that he’d developed at an early age, he published Siddhartha in 1922. Even Hesse’s characterization of Siddhartha’s evolving ideology make a lot more sense when viewed through the light of Carl Jung’s psychology of the unconscious. Jung’s psychology insisted on also “acknowledging the dark side” of human nature and allowing for its manifestations along your life path. Sex, gambling, and greed possessed Siddhartha for a while but still never completely fulfilled him.

A new dimension that we find in the novel Siddhartha is his smile. Siddhartha is a similar story as that which was written in Demian: the search for self through all the stages of despair, alienation, guilt, and on to the experience of fulfilling the whole. In this new story, Hesse insists upon using love as the creator of this fulfillment, and he regards this component as “natural growth and development” out of earlier beliefs. In his essay “My Faith”, which he wrote in 1931, he clarified “that my Siddhartha puts not cognition, but love in first place: that it disdains dogma and makes the experience of unity the central point….”

Hesse’s works are challenging and unlike almost any other works of Western writers, and he’s had periods of great fame, and also periods of scorn and neglect. Upon his receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, a great flurry of translations of his works was begun, including a 1951 English translation of Siddhartha. His books did not get much attention in the English-speaking world until the political and social upheaval in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Because he excelled in depicting personal crisis’s and private agonies, and this type of literature also seems to be remarkably popular during dark periods in culture, which also accounts for Hesse’s large-scale adoration in Germany during both devastating wars.


Several American publishers have recently had translations of Hesse’s work commissioned, including Siddhartha, which previously were not possible due to copyright restrictions. In addition to the following newer translations, many publishers are still selling the original 1951 translation done by Hilda Rosner and being sold in reprint editions.

Newer translations include:

• Modern Library, translated by Susan Bernofsky, with a foreword by Tom Robbins, translator’s preface (2006). An elegant translation, true to the original writing.

• Penguin, a translation by Joachim Neugroschel, introduction by Ralph Freedman, translator’s note (2002). This version is very short and concise, and critics argue it does not do the story justice.

• Barnes & Noble, a translation by Rika Lesser, introduction by Robert A. Thurman (2007). Part of the Barnes & Noble Classics series, which offers quality works at affordable prices

• Shambhala Classics, a translation by Sherab Ch√∂dzin Kohn, introduction by Paul W. Morris, translator’s preface (1998). A good translation with relevant quotes by Hesse.

• The Gutenberg Project, translated by Gunther Olesch, Anke Dreher, Stefan Langer, Amy Coulter, and Semyon Chaichenets. Available for online reading and in eBook formats. (2001)

This is widely viewed as the most literal and accurate translation of Siddhartha.