“Siddhartha” is a novel published in 1922 and written by the German writer Herman Hesse. The novel was originally written in German but then released in an English translation in 1951. “Siddhartha” was written after Hesse took a trip to India and became fascinated with the world of Eastern mysticism. It is a short lyrics story of a father-son relationship based on the early life of Gautama the Buddha.
Since its release, the book has garnered much critical acclaim and been adapted into two different films, the last of which was a surrealist take in 1971.
References to the book are still present in everyday culture as it has been referenced in many songs and TV shows as recently as 2014. It’s enduring message of peace and enlightenment still strike a chord with 21st-century culture. The novel is about the life long search for enlightenment by a man named Siddhartha. Siddhartha lives in ancient India, before the birth of Christ and during the life of the Gautama Buddha.
As a young man, Siddhartha leaves his father’s Brahmin monastery to seek self-discovery with a sect of priests called the Samanas. Soon learning that he does not wish to be a Samana, Siddhartha and his best friend Govinda travel to a nearby city to meet the Buddha, Gautama. Govinda decides to join the Buddha as a disciple but Siddhartha chooses not to. He travels, alone to a city, meeting a kind Ferryman on the way. On Siddhartha’s first day in the city he meets a beautiful courtesan named Kamala and the two begin a relationship. Siddhartha obtains a job from a merchant and over the years becomes a rich man. However, he becomes disillusioned with his life and feels that it is hedonistic. He soon leaves town with no warning and meets with the Ferryman again.
Siddhartha becomes a Ferryman himself until one day Kamala finds him by accident and informs him that the young boy that she has with her is his son. Kamala soon dies and Siddhartha takes to raising his son. But when the boy runs away back to the city, Siddhartha realizes that he must let the boy live his own life. He achieves enlightenment after realizing this and lives out the rest of his life as a wise sage.
The book begins six centuries before the birth of Christ in India during the life of Gautama the Buddha. Siddhartha is a young Brahmin, a caste in Hinduism that consists of priests and teachers. Siddhartha’s friends and family know that he is destined for great things because he has, at such a young age, mastered the ideas of his religion. Siddhartha’s father is a Brahmin and an important member of their community and everyone expects that Siddhartha will follow in his footsteps. However, Siddhartha is not so sure. He finds himself dissatisfied with the state of Hinduism in his town. He believes that his father and his peers have studied the wisdom of the religion extensively but does not feel that they have really achieved enlightenment. Siddhartha wonders if the mantras and rituals of the religion have become more of a tradition and a commonplace custom than a true worship and path to enlightenment.
Siddhartha’s dearest friend and confidant are a fellow young Brahmin named Govinda who is viewed as Siddhartha’s shadow and follower. Siddhartha worries that in order to become a true Brahmin by the standards of their town he would have to become something of a sheep following the herd and never dissenting. Though Siddhartha loves the community and his father he is unhappy with this prospect and cannot imagine himself living this way. Up until now, Siddhartha has always followed his father and the community with no questions, but he begins to wonder if there is something more.
After meditating on the subject for a long time, Siddhartha tells Govinda that he intends to join a group of traveling medicant priests who go from town to town and rely on donations from the people to survive. The priests, or Samanas, as they are called, believe that enlightenment can only be reached through rejecting the body and physical desire. Since Siddhartha has not found the enlightenment he has been searching for in his community he decides that the Samanas may have ideas that he would be more interested in.
Govinda does not like this news and becomes scared for his friend. Because the Samanas rely on donations to survive, they are often half-starved and half-clothed. Govinda also takes this as a sign that he must start taking his own steps into the world. Siddhartha tells his father of his intentions to join the Samanas and this angers his father who forbids Siddhartha from leaving. Siddhartha decides to take the tone of respectful defiance and stand, unmoving outside. His father becomes frustrated and walks away from him but glances out of a window periodically to see if he is still standing still. Siddhartha stands outside for one night and one day before his father returns and realizes that Siddhartha has gone into a deep meditative state. Although his body is still present, his mind is on another plain. Seeing this, Siddhartha’s father agrees to let his son join the Samanas, but reminds him that he is welcome back if he should not find enlightenment as he assumes he will.
As Siddhartha is leaving he is surprised by Govinda who has decided to join him. The two young men leave to find the Samanas. When they join the Samanas, Siddhartha and Govinda are to give up all of their worldly possessions and dedicate themselves wholly to meditation and fasting among other methods of achieving enlightenment. Because of this, the normal world becomes distant to Siddhartha. He begins to believe that everything outside of his meditation is an illusion and prone to decay only capable of leaving those who move through it in pain.
Siddhartha’s main quest with the Samanas it to become ” – empty of thirst, desire, dreams, pleasure and sorrow” and “to let the self die”. He attempts to reach this path of self-denial through physical pain. He endures pain until he can no longer feel it and when the pain is gone he is free from his self and can feel only peace. However, while he does manage to get to the point where he can look past pain he does not achieve peace.
After staying with the Samanas for a while, Siddhartha expresses his concern to Govinda that he does not feel he is reaching enlightenment. Govinda assures him that while they have gotten closer, it may not feel like it at first and that they still have much to learn. Siddhartha becomes anger and compares the Samana’s lifestyle to that of and alcoholic, saying that meditation and fasting are only a series of temporary moments of relief from the pain of existence. He announces that no one can really learn anything from the doctrines that they follow. Siddhartha tells Govinda: “There is, my friend, only a knowledge that is everywhere, that is Ataman, that is in me and you and every creature, and I am beginning to to believe that this knowledge has no worse enemy than the man of knowledge, than learning”.
Siddhartha decides that he does not feel that the Samanas have anything to teach him and that he should leave soon. But before he can, he and Govinda begin to hear rumors about a great man named Gautama, The Buddha who, having attained enlightenment himself, now chooses to spend his life teaching other’s the ways of peace. Govinda immediately begins trying to convince Siddhartha to travel with him to seek out Gautama. Siddhartha is surprised by his friends sudden and uncharacteristic eagerness but is eventually worn down and agrees to join him in the search, although he doubts that anything new will be learned form the man.
Siddhartha and Govinda leave the Samanas and are scolded for their lack of effort. However, before they leave, Siddhartha hypnotizes the master of the Samanas in an effort to show that he has already mastered their ways. Siddhartha and Govinda being to ask around and soon discover that Gautama is staying in a town called Jetavana.
Once they reach Jetavana, Siddhartha recognizes Gautama immediately by his bearing and his manner of speech although the man is not wearing the traditional monks dress. Siddhartha and Govinda listen to a sermon from Gautama and Govinda decides on the spot that he wishes to become one of the great man’s disciples. Siddhartha thinks this is commendable but admits that he does not wish to join. Govinda asks him why and Siddhartha says that although he did not find any fault with Gautama’s teachings, he still does not wish to join his disciples. Govinda is disappointed, but pledges to the disciples by himself anyway and the next day he bids his long time friend goodbye.
Siddhartha decides to leave the town but before he can he bumps into Gautama himself in the woods and asks him about his teachings. Gautama’s teachings revolve around the unity of all living things and the chain of cause and effect. Siddhartha enjoys this idea but finds that Gautama’s idea of salvation negates his idea of cause and effect. If the ultimate goal is salvation by a god then there is no effect and the whole chain is broken. Gautama tells him that the goal of his teachings is a salvation from suffering and nothing else. Siddhartha becomes worried that he has offended the man and insists that he views him as very holy. However, he still maintains doubt that merely teaching these traditions will provide the listener with Nirvana. Siddhartha decides that he must take his own path before he becomes so self-destructive that he claims to have Nirvana without earning it.
Siddhartha realizes that he no longer wishes to have a teacher in the ways of enlightenment. He understands now that in seeking his true self he has only succeeded in running from it. He decides that rather than annihilating the self through pain and teachings, he will learn from it and be his own pupil. Siddhartha feels himself begin to come back to the real world after this and see it in a totally different way. Where he used to view the world as painful for it’s subjects, he now sees the value that was hidden in how he perceives the world with his senses.
Siddhartha begins to realize that he is not a Brahmin or a Samana and that he is not meant to be a disciple of Gautama. This consciousness of his own solitude is frightening to Siddhartha but also exciting. He realizes that he can go anywhere he wants and that he does not have to go home to his father or back to the Samanas. He feels as though he is more attached to his real self than ever and strides quickly and confidentially out of the city, “no longer looking backward”.
At the beginning of part two, Siddhartha spends a night in a Ferryman’s hut. Overnight he has vivid, wonderful dreams about tasting all of the worlds pleasures. The next morning the Ferryman takes him across the river and kindly lets him off from paying when Siddhartha realizes that he has no money.
In a nearby village, Siddhartha meets a woman and almost gets the point of having sexual relations with her before his inner voice tells him to stop. Siddhartha obeys and leaves the woman.
In the next town, Siddhartha sees another beautiful woman being carried on a chair by her servants. He vows that he will meet her and learns from people in town that she is a courtesan who is named Kamala. Siddhartha meets the woman and asks her to teach him about the art of love. Kamala insists that she will only do this if he manages to make himself more presentable and obtains some money so that he can buy her gifts. Wondering where he might acquire these things, Siddhartha asks Kamala and she, in turn, asks him what skills he has. He answers that his only skills are waiting, thinking and fasting. Kamala gives him a kiss and tells him to see the merchant Kamaswami for a job.
When Kamaswami learns that Siddhartha can at least read and write he offers him a job. Siddhartha lives with the merchant in his house and begins to learn about business by day and visit Kamala to learn about love by night. He believes that the value and meaning of life lie in the time with Kamala and not in his work with Kamaswami. Siddhartha begins to become somewhat of a successful merchant but the work interests him little and he mostly lives for his time with Kamala. He realizes that there is something that separates him from Kamaswami, although he does like the man. Siddhartha feels that it is his time living as a Samana that has done this and that it has affected all of his relationships with other people. He feels that he has a distance from his emotions that other people do not and feels that this indicates that his true self is not really there for his daily activities. He feels that his self only really comes out when he is with Kamala and admits that she knows him better than anyone else in his life ever has. With her he regularly discusses the Buddha and enlightenment.
The longer Siddhartha spends in the town, the farther he gets from what he feels is his mission in life. His inner voice begins to get drowned out and he can hardly hear it. Siddhartha wonders if he is still a Samana at heart and if his frequent discussions of Buddha indicate this. Eventually, Siddhartha begins to make more and more money and the “soul sickness of the rich” washes over him. He begins to gamble often, initially enjoying it because he feels that it is something of a protest against being rich but the excitement of winning soon overtakes him and he bets on higher and higher stakes until he is addicted.
One night Siddhartha notices that Kamala is starting to age and this sets off his own deep-seated fear of mortality. He tries to forget this by dancing and drinking wine all night but it only makes him sick and more desperate. Later that night, Siddhartha dreams that Kamala’s pet songbird has died and he had to throw the corpse into the street. Siddhartha takes this as a sign that he has discarded everything valuable that existed in himself and begins to once again reflect on his life. He discovers that he is very tired of his current hedonistic life style and of all of his possessions. With no explanation, he leaves town, taking nothing with him.
Kamala is not surprised by his departure but is still saddened. She releases her songbird and closes up her house to visitors. Soon after this, she learns that she is pregnant with Siddhartha’s child. Siddhartha returns to the river that he crossed to consider his life. He wonders if he should commit suicide but before he can he hears a great ‘Om’ coming from his inner voice. Siddhartha realizes that he should not commit suicide but still feels as though his life has been wretched and falls asleep on the bank of the river under the stars.
The next morning he wakes to a man standing over him and realizes that it is his old friend, Govinda. Govinda does not recognize Siddhartha initially because the other man is dressed like a rich man. When he does, the two friends chat about their lives for a while before Govinda must return to the Buddha. After he leaves, Siddhartha sits by the river, feeling that although he almost killed himself, experiencing that depth of despair was good for him. He must let all of his identities die so that he may find his ultimate true self.
Soon, the Ferryman that brought Siddhartha across the river years earlier returns and Siddhartha tells him all about the amazing life he has been leading. The Ferryman, Vasuveda, asks Siddhartha if he would like to live with him. Siddhartha agrees and enjoys living by the river and learning it’s wisdom for years in peace.
Many years later, Siddhartha hears that Gautama is dying. Nearby, Kamala hears the same news and decides to travel with her son to be with the Buddha as he dies. As they are traveling through the forest, Kamala is bitten by a snake and cries for help. Vesuveda runs to her aid and brings her back to his hut. Siddhartha recognizes her immediately and Kamala introduces him to his son. She realizes that Siddhartha has finally found the peace he was seeking and soon dies. Siddhartha keeps his young son with him although the boy refuses to accept that Siddhartha is his father and act appropriately. Siddhartha loves his son more than he has ever loved anything and refuses when Vesuveda suggests that he send the boy back into town so that he may be happy living in his mother’s old house.Siddhartha does not want his son to fall victim to the town in the same way he did years earlier.
Siddhartha does not want his son to fall victim to the town in the same way he did years earlier. However, soon the boy runs away. Siddhartha follows him but realizes that he cannot prevent his son from living the life he wants to live and sadly returns to Vesuveda’s house. The pain of losing his son is almost too much to bear for Siddhartha. He eventually sets off one day to find the boy but is stopped by what he thinks is the sound of the river laughing at him. He sees an image of his own father, whom he had left many years earlier, in the river and turns back to the house.
Upon hearing this story, Vesuveda brings Siddhartha back to the river and instructs him to listen again. Siddhartha hears the laughing again but realizes that it is, in fact, joyful and also hears the sound of a deep ‘Om’. This sound makes Siddhartha’s pain fade away. He realizes that he has, at long last found enlightenment and peace. Vasuveda soon dies and Siddhartha realizes that this means that his friend has joined the unity of all creatures. Siddhartha remains as a Ferryman and comes to be known as a sage to the surrounding area. Many years later, Govinda visits him in search of his sage wisdom. Govinda tells Siddhartha that he has still not found the enlightenment that he was looking for and Siddhartha tells him that he is putting too much effort into the search.
The men spend the night talking and the next day, Govinda asks Siddhartha for something to help him on his path. Siddhartha instructs his friend to kiss his forehead and when Govinda does this he sees visions of timelessness and unity. Govinda is so overwhelmed with joy that he falls to his knees.
Siddhartha – the main character of the book. When the story begins, Siddhartha is a young man who wishes to seek enlightenment through means other than the traditions that he has been taught by the Brahmins in his father’s monastery. Siddhartha’s name was a deliberate choice on the part of the author, Hermann Hesse for two reasons. One: because Siddhartha was actually the birth name of the Gautama Buddha before his reincarnation. And two: because in the Sanskrit language, the word sidda means “achieved” and artha means “what was searched for”. Therefore the two words together mean “he who has found the meaning of existence”.
Siddhartha is an excellent student of both the Brahmin and the Samana’s ways. This is demonstrated in his aptitude at such a young age for meditation and hypnosis. However, Siddhartha finds himself discontent with the teachings of both communities and feels that he cannot achieve enlightenment through either. Siddhartha endures many criticisms and refusals during his search for the correct teachings and in this way he stays true to himself even as he ponders what his self truly is.
In the end, he only achieves enlightenment by letting go of his son and his money and listening to his inner voice. By the end of the book his similarities with the Buddha continue as Siddhartha seems poised to begin taking on followers of his own.
Govinda – Siddhartha’s best friend. Govinda is often referred to as Siddhartha’s shadow or follower. Govinda does not question the doctrines of the groups that he follows to the same extent that Siddhartha does. He seems to only want to leave the Brahmins so that he can remain with Siddhartha. In this way, he does not choose his own path and stays loyal only to the suggestions of others. However, there is no reason to doubt Govinda’s conviction to belonging to his religion as there is to doubt Siddhartha’s.
Govinda takes on the life of the Samanas and, later the life of a disciple of the Buddha with no complaint and sees each life out until Siddhartha gives him something else to move on to. In the end, Govinda reasserts his devotion to Siddhartha by coming to him with the problem that he has not yet reached enlightenment. Govinda apprentices himself to his old friend almost immediately when he sees that Siddhartha has attained enlightenment. Govinda is primarily a follower, but Hesse does not seem to indict this trait in his character. In fact, Govinda is shown to be very loyal and trustworthy as well as committed to a cause almost to a fault.
In the end, Govinda does find enlightenment through his loyalty to his friend.
Vasudeva – the Ferryman who gives Siddhartha free passage across the river into the city. Vesudeva’s name, like Siddhartha’s was based on a real person and meant to be an homage to the religion that the book is about. Named for the Hindu god Krishna, who is himself an incarnation of Vishnu. Vasudeva is the most godlike of all of the characters in the book and acts with the most humility. Vasudeva leaves an impression on Siddhartha when he accepts an offer of friendship instead of money for the ferry ride. This impression lasts long enough that his house is the first place that Siddhartha travels too after forsaking his rich life style and leaving the city. Vesudeva has a quiet wisdom that moves Siddhartha and the younger man becomes something of a disciple to him the same way Govinda became a disciple of the Buddha.
However, Vesudeva does not impose on Siddhartha a lengthy string of traditions and philosophy. He merely tells him to listen to the river and learn from it. It is through this attention to the river that Siddhartha finds enlightenment. After Siddhartha discovers his true self, Vesudeva almost seems to take this as a sign that his work on this earth is done and soon dies. However, he has instilled in Siddhartha such a love for the river and for the wisdom it possesses that the other man remains as a Ferryman for the rest of his days.
Kamala – a courtesan in the city who begins to instruct Siddhartha in the ways of love. Although she is not just his lover, Kamala becomes a trusted confidant to Siddhartha and over the years that he lives in the city she is his only outlet for his wondering about self-discovery. Kamala instructs Siddhartha to make his way with a job in the city in order to help him, not realizing that it will cause him such a crisis of conscience.
After Siddhartha leaves, Kamala raises their son for many years on her own and dies suddenly from a snake bite that she receives on a pilgrimage to see the Gautama Buddha on his deathbed. When she sees Siddhartha one last time on her own deathbed, she realizes that he has attained peace and dies happily.
Hermann Hesse Biography
Hermann Hesse was a German-born Swiss novelist and poet. His work was popular with the younger readers after World War II who identified with the main theme of many of his novels: the trails of youth – and especially of creative artists – in search of self.
Hesse was born n July 2nd, 1877 in Calw, Germany. The son of a former missionary, he was enrolled in a seminary but soon left school. Thereafter he educated himself through reading. As a young man, he worked for a bookseller and did freelance journalism, which inspired his first novel ‘Peter Camenzind’ (1904), the story of a dissolute writer.
During World War I, Hesse, who was a pacifist, moved to Montagnola, Switzerland. He became a Swiss citizen in 1923. His despair and disillusion with the war and by a series of personal tragedies caused his writing to become more focused on the spiritual search for new goals and values as seen in his next novels “Demian” (1919), “Siddhartha” (1922) and “Journey to the East” (1923) all of which are deeply symbolic and psychoanalytical in nature.
Hesse’s next novel, “Steppenwolf” (1927) is perhaps the most innovative of all of his works. In the book, the artist and heroes double nature – human and wolf-like – force him into a labyrinth of nightmarish experiences. The work symbolizes the split between individuality and convention.
Hesse viewed the rise of Nazism in Germany with disgust and worked against Hitler’s domination in his own way. He had publicly announced his opposition to Anti-Semitism many times before and married a Jewish woman. However, at no time did he openly speak against the Nazi party as he considered himself mostly detached from politics.
Hesse’s last novel, “Magister Ludi” (1943) set in a utopian future, is in effect a resolution of the author’s concerns. Several volumes of his nostalgic, mournful poetry have also been published.
Hesse won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946. In the last few years of his life, he enjoyed writing short stories and painting watercolors.
Hesse died in Switzerland in 1962 at the age of 85 and was buried in San Abbondio cemetery in Montagnola, Switzerland.