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Fiction

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Let’s face it, I have trouble spelling Siddhartha… a double d? single d? or a double T? Yet this book intrigues me enough to read it. Here’s why. 

Siddhartha is a novel by Hermann Hesse that deals with the spiritual journey of a boy known as Siddhartha from the Indian Subcontinent during the time of the Buddha.

Siddhartha grows up with his friend Govinda in a small village in India. They are taught to believe in ancient Hindu teachings by Siddhartha’s father, yet the young man becomes restless and decides to go out and explore the world to find answers to his questions. Siddhartha feels that “his worthy father and his other teachers, the wise Brahmins, had already passed on to him the bulk and best of their wisdom, that they had already poured the sum total of their knowledge into his waiting vessel; and the vessel was not full, his intellect was not satisfied, his soul was not at peace, his heart was not still.” This acknowledgement of the limitations which led him to leave his the comfort of his home and went in search of enlightenment. At this point I have a strange feeling of reading about Gautama’s (the buddha’s) life story rather than the one created by Hesse, I got to pinch myself to make sure I’m reading the right book!! LOL 😀

The ancient Hindu teachings seem silly to him, and according to Siddhartha, they offer inadequate explanations of the ways of the world. Govinda leaves the village with him for different reasons; he admires Siddhartha’s intelligence and hopes that he shall become successful by staying with Siddhartha, as his “shadow,” following him wherever he goes. They both lead lives as wandering Samanas, self-exiles of society living in self-denial. They suppress all bodily desires by fasting, breathing control, and living in poverty; only the natural world is embraced as truth, and meditation is practiced regularly.

After three years, Siddhartha grows weary of this life, too, and decides to accompany Govinda to visit the Buddha in Savathi. Govinda becomes a disciple of Buddha while Siddhartha continues his journey alone. Now this surprises me, as his name would led you to think he is going to be a disciple of Buddha but Hesse has been quipped as saying in a lecture about Siddhartha, Hesse claimed “Buddha’s way to salvation has often been criticized and doubted, because it is thought to be wholly grounded in cognition. True, but it’s not just intellectual cognition, not just learning and knowing, but spiritual experience that can be earned only through strict discipline in a selfless life.” (Wikipedia)

Now this is where the story get interesting, Siddhartha hopes to understand the world for himself since all teachings have failed to accomplish this, including the ancient beliefs of the Hindus and this new religion of Buddha. However, Siddhartha wishes to have the enlightenment that Buddha has attained by listening to the voice of his Self instead of denying it. To conquer his Self in his own way, which I totally buy it. In this case, I do buy the theory of having a spiritual experience rather than cognition. In my own opinion, religion is indoctrination, more often than not, a group think; but spiritual experience is personal. Religion is the same (within the same sect), spiritual experience is not.

As you would have expected with the lure of the beauty of a women and wealth as a merchant, Siddhartha lost his way of Samana and became unhappy.

The story follows Siddhartha as he struggles to make sense of his life, follows and rejects various spiritualist practices, embraces materialism and sexual indulgence, and moves toward epiphany and enlightenment.

The new Penguin classic is 120 pages (which contains Coelho’s introduction I think, more about Coelho soon), and Hesse’s 6 story collection I loan from the library is only about 70 pages, translated by Hilda Rosner. I am at awe at Hesse being a German, was able to write a subject about Oriental spiritualism and mysticism and Buddhist philosophy so eloquently! Don’t get me wrong it is not an insult but an utmost respect for someone who is not born of the culture to write a story as beautiful as soul searching and uplifting as Siddhartha.

I am also amazed for the fact that Hesse wrote this 80 years ago. This is heralded as a fine piece of literature, but it would be regarded as a self-help volume for these trouble days. It’s likely that the person he was seeking to help was himself.

It is plainly written account, no flowery prose. The novel reads like a fable, and at the same time avoid excessive philosophising. The book even made me feel relaxed and optimistic; and as I closed the book I felt something lifted from my heavy burden (strange but true). It is strange, even stranger if I say that the book offers some form of therapeutic relief from my worries and peace of mind. I would imagine myself reading this book again on my quiet time, using my highlighter extensively to reflect deeply on it (that means I have to go out and buy my own copy!)

I’d like to share with you a number of my favourite quotes from the book.

‘When someone is seeking,’ said Siddhartha, ‘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 as 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. You, O worth one, are perhaps indeed a seeker, for in striving towards your goal, you do not see many things that are under your nose.’

Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.

The world, Govinda, is not imperfect or slowly evolving along a long path to perfection. No, it is perfect at every moment; very sin already carries grace within it, all small children are potential old men, all sucklings have death within them, all dying people – eternal life. During deep meditation it is possible to dispel time, to see simultaneously all the past, present and future, and then everything is good, everything is perfect, everything is Brahman. Therefore, it seems to me that every that exists is good – death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly. Everything is necessary, every thing needs only my agreement, my assent, my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me.

And here Hesse contrasts what Siddhartha believes versus what Govinda (Buddhist teaching) believes:

It seems to me, Govinda, that love is the most important thing in the world. It may be important to great thinkers to examine the world , to explain and despise it. But I think it is only important to love the world, not to despise it, not for us to hate each other, but to be able to regard the world and ourselves and all beings with love, admiration and respect.’

‘I understand that’ said Govinda, ‘but that is just what the Illustrious One called illusion. He preached benevolence, forbearance, sympathy a, patience -but not love, he forbade us to bind ourselves to earthly love.’

You must be thinking this is just too new age brainwashing, nonetheless….

Rating: 5/5

I highly recommend this book for a few reasons.

If you are crazy about Coelho’s The Alchemist (which I don’t), you may like this, although this will beat The Alchemist hands down and it is travesty to be compared to The Alchemist as Siddhartha definitely got more depth.

The novel scores full mark because I actually feel my worries lifted and be a little optimistic after reading it (especially the enlightenment at the end) and therefore this novel should take a permanent spot on my shelf for lifetime reference.

I might read another of Hesse’s novel in the future, which would you recommend? Have you read any of his novels? What do you think? I will be most interested to know. 😉

This novel is also a must-read for anyone who is intrigued by Oriental spirituality. Those who would like to search for the Truth within would enjoy reading this book. You can download the German e-book from this link and the English translation from this one. Audio recording of the English translation on this link.

For plot and chapter summary, including study guide please read Bookrags. For Characters, Hinduism and Buddhism glossary and Quotations please click I have uploaded (may contain spoilers) this file., for your benefit.

I am reading this for World Religion Challenge on Hindusim and also the final book for Classics Reading Challenge. Many thanks to J.T. Oldfield of Bibliofreak blog for hosting the World Religion Challenge, or else I wouldn’t go looking for a Hinduism / Buddhism theme book on my own accord! 

Hardback. Publisher: Collins 1980, originally published 1950; Length: 8o pages; Setting: India. Source: Library. Finished reading at:  18 July 2010

About the writer:

Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877 – August 9, 1962) was a German-born Swiss poet, novelist, and painter. In 1946, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. His best-known works include Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Glass Bead Game (also known as Magister Ludi), each of which explores an individual’s search for authenticity, self-knowledge and spirituality. Both of Hesse’s parents served in India at a mission under the auspices of the Basel Mission, a Protestant Christian missionary society. Hesse’s mother, Marie Gundert, was born at such a mission in India in 1842.

The book, Hesse’s ninth novel, was written in German, in a simple yet powerful and lyrical style. It was first published in 1922, after Hesse had spent some time in India in the 1910s. It was published in the U.S. in 1951 and became influential during the 1960s. Hesse dedicated Siddhartha to Romain Rolland, “my dear friend”.

The word Siddhartha is made up of two words in the Sanskrit language, siddha (achieved) + artha (meaning or wealth). The two words together mean “he who has found meaning (of existence)” or “he who has attained his goals”. The Buddha’s name, before his renunciation, was Prince Siddhartha Gautama. In this book, the Buddha is referred to as “Gotama”.

The reason the second half of the book took so long to write was that Hesse “had not experienced that transcendental state of unity to which Siddhartha aspires. In an attempt to do so, Hesse lived as a virtual semi-recluse and became totally immersed in the sacred teachings of both Hindu and Buddhist scriptures. His intention was to attain to that ‘completeness’ which, in the novel, is the Buddha’s badge of distinction.

Freedman also points out how Siddhartha described Hesse’s interior dialectic: “All of the contrasting poles of his life were sharply etched: the restless departures and the search for stillness at home; the diversity of experience and the harmony of a unifying spirit; the security of religious dogma and the anxiety of freedom.”

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About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.

Discussion

23 thoughts on “Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

  1. Great review of a very good book I have read two or three times-his Steppen Wolf is a a great novel and would say it is near must read given your first encounter with Hesse went so well-after that you can consider is magnum opus, The Glass Bead Game-it has been many years since I have read these books but they stand out well in my mind to this day

    Posted by Mel u | July 19, 2010, 9:34 pm
  2. Very nice review! I read others but don’t remember them well, but I think all of his books are about seeking self enlightenment in one way or another. And they certainly do make an impression. He was very popular when I was in college and everybody was into that sort of thing. (needless to say, you had to read the books with candles and incense going…)

    Posted by rhapsodyinbooks | July 19, 2010, 10:38 pm
    • @Mel, Steppen Wolf it is then and then The Glass Bead Game. I think this translation version is really good, I have to read the others to find out.

      @Jill, You always make me laughing…. candles and incense.. hmm.. I’ll try that! 😉

      Posted by JoV | July 20, 2010, 7:00 am
  3. I’m not into “spiritual” books, but this sounds good. Also it’s very thin! I haven’t read Hermann Hesse, but after this post I think I should.

    ps: The World Religion challenge is another one I intended to join but didn’t at the end. (I even had the post partly written, but it stayed as draft. O well.)

    Posted by mee | July 19, 2010, 11:31 pm
    • @Mee, do try Siddhartha. I downloaded a chapter of the audio, especially the last chapter and intend to listen to it. I like to keep World Religion Challenge as a perpetual challenge myself, except I need to look harder on books about Judaism, and I wasn’t that interested in Hinduism, with the belief of many many Gods. But the challenge is a stretch, so it’s good to stretch oneself once in awhile.

      Posted by JoV | July 20, 2010, 7:04 am
  4. I’ve always been nervous about this one, but it sounds like I’d really enjoy it. Marvelous review! 🙂

    Posted by Eva | July 20, 2010, 9:11 am
  5. OK. You’ve persuaded me! I’ve been wanting to read some Hesse for a while, but didn’t know where to start. It sounds as though this could be a good choice 🙂

    Posted by Jackie (Farm Lane Books) | July 20, 2010, 4:16 pm
  6. Glad you enjoyed it so much. I really like Hesse´s works, and Siddhartha, even though I´m really not into this esoteric stuff 🙂 You should try his Glass Bead Game, I loved that one.

    Posted by Bina | July 22, 2010, 12:01 pm
  7. Wonderful review! ‘Siddhartha’ is one of my alltime favourite books and Hermann Hesse is one of my alltime favourite authors 🙂 I loved Hesse’s ‘Narcissus and Goldmund’ too – I think it is as good as ‘Siddhartha’. If you get a chance, do try reading it. I have ‘The Glass Bead Game’ on my ‘TBR’ list.

    Posted by Vishy | August 2, 2010, 6:26 pm
    • I am dying to read Hesse’s other books! I need to buy ‘The Glass Bead Game’ because my library doesn’t stock it. I do want to read a few of his books and add him onto my alltime favourite list too! 😉

      Posted by JoV | August 4, 2010, 4:25 pm
  8. My name happens to be the same as the name of this novel by herman hesse 🙂
    ITs an amazing book & a great review indeed !

    Posted by sid | March 24, 2011, 5:22 am
  9. great review…I am reading this book now…almost half way though..and def beats Coelho’s Alchemist!!

    Posted by Elias | November 21, 2012, 5:16 pm
  10. In 2009 my wife of forty years suffered a brain aneurysm that took her off the planet in four weeks. As she lay dying I read to her. My son suggested siddhartha as it was her favorite. As I read to her this book allowed me to understand the woman I had been in love with for all those years. That action was to me the most enlightening activity of my life. I am so grateful to Hesse and my son for allowing me to connect with Mary at so deep a level for the first and final time.

    Posted by George | May 20, 2016, 6:43 am

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Mockingjay
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City


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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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