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Why Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha appeals even 100 years later

Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, published in 1922, still appeals to drifting youth, NBA players and pop stars alike. Here's why

Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha, became a key text to transport the message of Eastern spirituality to the war-weary West, and an evergreen favourite for generations of the young and the malcontent
Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha, became a key text to transport the message of Eastern spirituality to the war-weary West, and an evergreen favourite for generations of the young and the malcontent (Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash)

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In 1922, as Europe and America were picking themselves up from the rubble of the Great War, the literary muses decided to bestow their bounty on a generation of readers living during the high noon of modernism.

In February that year, on 2.2.22 to be precise, Irish writer James Joyce’s iconic novel Ulysses was published by Shakespeare and Company, the famous Parisian book store owned by Sylvia Beach. It became the shining centre of a constellation that would glow ever brighter as the year wore on.

Within a span of 12 months, T.S. Eliot published The Waste Land, which changed the landscape of Anglo-American poetry forever. Like Joyce, Virginia Woolf pushed the boundaries of narrative by bringing the “stream of consciousness” style into her novel, Jacob’s Room. And as Joyce began to grapple with the raging controversy generated by his magnum opus, Jack Kerouac, the future star among the Beat writers, was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, across the Atlantic. In another part of America, F. Scott Fitzgerald created a stir with his second novel, The Beautiful And The Damned, where he painted the portrait of a marriage gone horribly wrong.

A century later, as tributes to Ulysses and Kerouac (almost always to On The Road, his youthful novel of travel and self-discovery) continue to pour in, the rest of the landmarks seem to have been erased. One that should particularly interest Indian readers is German writer Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha, published in 1922 after several years of toil and trouble. Translated into English as early as 1925, it became a key text to transport the message of Eastern spirituality to the war-weary West, and an evergreen favourite for generations of the young and the malcontent.

A portrait of Herman Hesse
A portrait of Herman Hesse (Wikimedia Commons)

Hesse (1877-1962) started writing this short novel in 1918, ostensibly with the aim of expounding the tenets of Buddhism in the West, even though his grasp of the doctrinal aspects of the religion was sketchy. Hesse’s grandfather, a missionary who spent years in India, was fluent in several Indian languages. But when it came to writing his novel, Hesse’s interest in Hinduism, Taoism, and psychoanalysis (he was analysed by none other than Carl Jung) came together to inform his vision of the life and times of the Buddha. This hodgepodge of influences, along with a strong undercurrent of adventure, shaped a storyline that appealed to “the restless drifter, the alienated youth and the political anarchist alike”, as critic Paul W. Morris wrote.

Although Siddhartha is a moniker for the Buddha, Hesse gave the name to his protagonist, a Brahmin’s son living in Kapilavastu, in ancient Nepal, during the time of Prince Gotama. As the story opens, Gotama has renounced his royal existence to become a mendicant preacher. He is joined by a growing tribe of followers in his nomadic journey as he spreads his teachings after attaining enlightenment.

As the Buddha’s influence begins to resonate far and wide, in another part of the kingdom, young Siddhartha is getting disillusioned with the precepts of his Brahminical education, handed down by his father. Instead of choosing the predictable career of a corrupt and greedy priest, exploiting the fruits of inherited privilege, he wants to strike out on his own. Defying the patriarchal control of the system into which he is born, Siddhartha leaves home with his closest friend Govinda and joins the shramanas, a group of wandering ascetics who live in the forests.

Siddhartha immerses himself in a life of austerity, becoming a master at meditative techniques, until one day he is stung by the vanity of performing such spiritual acrobatics. The mastery exhibited by the shramanas is yet another expression of egotistical fulfilment, Siddhartha realises, rather than a genuine quest for enlightenment and self-abnegation. Soon after, Siddhartha and Govinda meet the Buddha. Moved by the compassionate teachings of the Exalted One, Govinda resolves to follow his path and become his disciple.

Always the rebel, Siddhartha decides to strike out on his own. He tells the Buddha that the Buddha’s “treasure and secret was not the teaching but rather the ineffable and unteachable thing that he had experienced at the moment of his enlightenment—it was this, this very thing, that he (Siddhartha) was now setting forth to experience” (in Sherab Chödzin Kohn’s translation). Siddhartha then sets out on an adventure that sees him win the love of a beautiful courtesan, earn a fortune, lose all his wealth, until he is left with the three qualities he cherishes most—his ability to wait, think, and fast. Hesse draws on the quest motif long established in Western literary history—from the Arthurian romances of the Middle Ages to Voltaire’s Candide to Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, and the bildungsroman, a genre of storytelling that traced the life and education of a hero, especially popular among European writers since Goethe.

In his twilight years, Siddhartha reinvents himself as an apprentice to a simple ferryman, who worships the river he lives by as his most profound teacher. And it is on the bank of this river that Siddhartha attains enlightenment. As the story comes to an end, the Buddha has attained nirvana. His disciple Govinda is bereft but left richer by the legacy bequeathed by his guru. And yet, it is only during his final meeting with his old friend Siddhartha that he glimpses the essence of the wisdom he had pursued all his life.

A cover of one of the many editions of Hermann Hesse's classic, Siddhartha
A cover of one of the many editions of Hermann Hesse's classic, Siddhartha

Hesse composed Siddhartha during an especially turbulent phase of his life. Shortly after beginning work on the book in 1918, he completed the first part, which he dedicated to French writer Romain Rolland. But soon Hesse fell into a prolonged period of depression, an affliction he struggled with throughout his life. Struggling to carry the work to its conclusion, he decided to set it aside at the risk of knowing, much to his despair, that he may never be able to complete it: “… because I would have to depict a next phase of development that I have not yet fully experienced myself.”

Hesse’s catharsis ultimately came from psychoanalysis as well as his faith in the spiritual tradition he was depicting in Siddhartha. But most of all, it was lived experience that steered him to finish his long-pending project. Hesse’s unique synthesis of Eastern mysticism and Western thought gave his work an enduring popularity, especially through the rebellious 1960s and 1970s, when waves of avant-gardism in art and culture, political unrest, and anti-war sentiment swept through Europe and America.

Half a century after it was published, Siddhartha was reincarnated for the screen by director Conrad Rooks, with Shashi Kapoor in the title role and Simi Garewal as the simmering hot courtesan Kamala. While it created a stir with its steamy eroticism, it wasn’t an artistic success. Yet the novel continued to enjoy wide acclaim among readers, translated into several languages, and recommended by some unlikely personas.

In 2001, for instance, Phil Jackson, the LA Lakers coach, gifted a copy of the book to basketball player Shaquille O’Neal, hoping Hesse’s philosophical message would help the sports star stay focused and grounded in the present. Shawn Green, another NBA player, also sang praises of the novel, as did English singer Harry Styles, former member of the band One Direction.

One hundred years later, Siddhartha continues to be in print around the world, even though it may not enjoy the myth, grandeur and prestige of a classic like Ulysses or On The Road. On the contrary, the longevity of Hesse’s slighter novel remains something of a curiosity.

Read through the lens of 2022, with the weight of more than a century of literary experimentation on our consciousness, Siddhartha may seem like an unfashionable fable, told in florid, at times archaic, prose that is better suited to youthful enthusiasts than mature adults with taste. But perhaps the vulnerability of its hero, his path to wisdom through follies and foibles that remains ever so relatable to youngsters a century later, explains the secret behind its persistence.

With its simple yet powerful message of defiance—against patriarchy, material ambition and organised religion—Siddhartha retains a near-allegorical pull over those misfits among us who dream of living outside the 21st century hive mind.

Somak Ghoshal is a Delhi-based writer.

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