Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
Translated by Hilda Rosner
It’s not often that a book ticks two boxes, but this re-read of a book I haven’t returned to for about 30 years manages to! Nobel prize winner Hermann Hesse was an author I read extensively in my younger years and I encountered his Knulp back in 2013. I was spurred on to return to “Siddhartha” by picking up a lovely Penguin Modern Classic on a swapping site (and Poppy has an interesting post about those here); so #NovellaNov and German Literature Month were the perfect prompts!
Hesse had a fascination with Indian and Buddhist philosophies, and in this book he draws on these to tell the story of Siddhartha; set in ancient India, the book tells of the young man’s odyssey through life, searching for spiritual enlightenment. Siddhartha is born of a good family but shuns the path set out for him and instead sets off on his own. Joined by his best friend Govinda, he initially joins the Samanas, a group of wandering ascetics who fast and beg for their living, renouncing all personal possessions.
He saw people living in a childish or animal-like way, which he both loved and despised. He saw them toiling, saw them suffer and grow grey about things that to him did not seem worth the price – for money, small pleasures and trivial honours. He saw them scold and hurt each other; he saw them lament over pains at which the Samana laughs, and suffer at deprivations which the Samana does not feel.
The travelling Samanas encounter Guatama, a great Buddha, and Govinda joins his order, but Siddhartha travels on. Crossing a river he experiences a transformation and moves on to take a new role, throwing himself into worldly, city life and spending time with the great courtesan Kamala. Becoming rich, this satisfies him for a while until he realises that this life is hollow. Returning to the river he considers self-destruction; but re-encountering the kind Ferryman who took him across initially, Siddhartha stays with him, embracing the simple spiritual life and listening to what the river has to tell him…
The world was beautiful when looked at in this way – without any seeking, so simple, so childlike. The moon and the stars were beautiful, the brook, the shore, the forest and rock, the goat and the golden beetle, the flower and butterfly were beautiful. It was beautiful and pleasant to go through the world like that, so childlike, so awakened, so concerned with the immediate, without any distrust.
Siddhartha’s tale of spiritual self-discovery is beautifully written and though it might not be obviously so, very relevant today. The sections where he’s living a life of luxury in the city, making money and becoming a man of stature, resonate with the modern world where gadgets and gizmos are all-consuming, but distract from moral worth and mental and philosophical exercise. Siddhartha tries all the extremes, from extreme poverty and extreme wealth until he finds a middle way, a simplicity that humans need but which is so often missing from their over-complicated existence.
Both of my recent readings of Hesse have revealed an author who cares about how we humans exist on this planet, and how we should spend our time during our short stay here. “Siddhartha” is an elegant discussion of the best way to live our lives and it’s made me really keen to revisit the rest of Hesse’s work.