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“Too much knowledge had held him back, too many sacred verses, too
many ritual rules, too much denial, too much doing and striving. He
had been full of arrogance—always the smartest, always the most
industrious, always a step ahead of everybody, always wise and
spiritual, always the priest or sage. Into this priesthood, into this high-
mindedness, into this spirituality, his ego had crept.”
“Most people, Kamala, are like fallen leaves that blow and whirl about
in the air, then dip and fall to earth. But others, only a few, are like
stars, which move on a fixed course where no wind reaches them; they
have their law and their course within them. ”

In a nutshell
Instead of striving for great spiritual heights, gain peace and power
from the acceptance of life as it is.

In a similar vein
Ram Dass Be Here Now (p. 72)
The Bhagavad-Gita (50SHC)
The Dhammapada (50SHC)


Hermann Hesse
efore he was Hermann Hesse, the great writer, Hesse was
struggling to bring up three sons with a wife suffering from
schizophrenia. When the illness became too much to bear, she
was put into an institution and the boys were fostered out to friends.
Hesse moved into a large and enchanting house, Casa Camuzzi, near
Lake Lugano in Switzerland, and found some peace. He meditated
during the day and wrote during the evening, and was fond of walks
and painting watercolors of the landscape. Siddartha, a novella set in
India at the time when Buddha was alive, was written here.
Both Hesse’s father and grandfather were Christian missionaries, but
his grandfather also spoke nine Indian languages and was able to give
Hermann an appreciation of eastern spiritual literature. When the
author’s rebellious and non-conformist nature is taken into account (he
dropped out of school at 13, and was later a strident pacifist), it is not
surprising that he would produce a book like Siddartha, a synthesis of
Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, and Christian concepts that nevertheless ends
up rejecting conventional religion in favor of a very personal and
individual form of spirituality. But what is the story of Siddartha and
why has it captured spiritual imaginations for the last 80 years?

The quest
In strong echoes of his own life, Hesse introduces the character of
Siddartha as the son of a high-caste Brahmin scholar, immersed at an
early age in the discussions and practices of the Hindu religion.
As the book begins, Siddartha is restless. He has grown up with so
much knowledge, but there is something lacking: everyone talks of God
and the great unity of all that exists, but he wonders who has actually
experienced it. With the quest for purity characteristic of some young
men, and against his father’s wishes, Siddartha decides to go off and
join the shramanas, the wandering holy men with their harsh existence.
Joined by his friend Govinda, from now on Siddartha owns nothing
but a loincloth, and fasts for weeks at a time. In this ascetic life he aims


to shed all his desires and rid himself of his ego, and in this quest
hunger, thirst, fatigue, and pain are happily endured.

Meeting the Buddha

After three years the two friends begin hearing about a legendary figure
by the name of Gotama, a buddha with a “radiant countenance” who
has attained nirvana and now suffers none of the usual pain of living.
They journey to visit Gotama, and Siddartha is taken by his perfect
explanation of the universe as an unbroken and eternal chain of causes
and their effects.
Yet Siddartha does not become a follower of Gotama, believing that
liberation from suffering can happen not through teachers or teachings
but only through taking our own, direct path. Now alone, he has an
epiphany. Whereas before he despised the physical world as maya (illu-
sion), now he looks at the trees, the sun, the moon, the rivers as if for
the first time, without “thinking” about them. He realizes that his
relentless work to find inner wisdom has blinded him to the beauty of
the world.

Coming down to earth

The story continues with Siddartha emerging from the forest and
entering a city. He sees a beautiful woman being carried aloft by
servants, with a mouth “like a fig freshly broken open.” He feels the
stirrings of love and attraction, but the woman, Kamala, finds it
amusing that a bedraggled ascetic from the forest thinks he can
befriend her, with her fine clothes and shiny hair. He wants to learn
from her the ways of love, but when she asks him what he can do in
return, all he can say is that he can “think, fast, wait, and compose
poetry.” She likes his poetry, but tells him he will need to have clothes
and look good before things can go further.
Siddartha begins working as an assistant to a businessman, quickly
learning the ways of the business and proving invaluable to his
employer. He is a success because, unlike his boss, he is detached from
his dealings, carrying them out without fear of loss or skewed by greed,
able to live in the world of striving and suffering without being too
much a part of it. To him, people worry and fight over things that are
really of little consequence: money, pleasures, recognition. These are


merely samsara, the game of life, rather than life itself. Since he has the
mind of a shramana, these things do not move him.
Yet Siddartha begins to lose his detachment and is pulled more into
the selfish concerns of normal human existence, of property and money
and pride. He becomes fond of gambling and drinking, and realizes
that he is becoming one of the “child people” whom he once looked
down on. In fact, after a night of wine and dancing girls, he realizes
that he is worse than most.

Merchant to ferryman
In his misery, Siddartha flees into the forest, ready to die. Falling asleep
by a river, he awakens to find his old friend Govinda, who provides a
sounding board to reflect on his life and to find within himself the germ
of the purer spirit he once was. It dawns on Siddartha that, being who he
is, he had to go through the stage of lust and love of worldly things in
order to see that they did not satisfy him. Only in disgust of what he had
become could he be reborn, and not as the wandering ascetic he had
been, but as someone who was part of the world but not seduced by it.
He becomes a helper to a ferryman, learning how to use the oar to
take people across the river, and living in a hut. It is a simple life, but
the river speaks to him in a way that a teacher never could, and he
finds peace.
One day a woman and her small son are traveling to see the
Buddha, who was said to be near the end of his life. The two are not
far from the ferry crossing when the mother is bitten by a snake. Their
cries are heard by the ferrymen, who comes to see what is happening.
Siddartha quickly recognizes the woman; it is Kamala, his former love,
and the boy is his son.

Joining up the circle

What happens next can be left up to the reader, but Siddartha learns
the simple but powerful love a parent has for their child; he no longer
looks down on those whose attachments run deep. He realizes that it
has not been constant spiritual striving that has led him to a degree of
peace and enlightenment, nor was it throwing himself into worldly
pleasures and status. Offered in a conversation with his old companion
Govinda, Siddartha’s conclusion is this:


“The only thing of importance to me is being able to love the world,

without looking down on it, without hating it and myself—being able to
regard it and myself and all beings with love, admiration and

It is the river that helps him to arrive at this awareness. He listens to

the “thousandfold song of the river,” which sounds like life in its
unceasing movement toward goals, its strivings, sufferings, and
pleasures, yet which also moves as one. Existence, though it may seem
a bewildering and fearful tumult of separate people, places, events, and
feelings, is like the river in that it is really all one current. And in its
oneness it is perfect.

Final comments
The message of Siddartha is that we should not try to withdraw from life
to have a superior feeling of holiness, but throw ourselves into things.
Filled with events, thoughts, and relationships, life often seems terribly
fragmented, but from the perspective of the bank it is one, smooth-flow-
ing river of experience. If you can appreciate this unity, you become less
wrapped up in yourself and identify with the larger flow of life.
The book also suggests that neither a hard existence of going with-
out, nor one of sensuality and “things,” nor even a life of the mind and
knowledge can result in the spiritual development we crave. What
Siddartha finds is that it is only when he gives up finding nirvana that a
degree of enlightenment comes to him.
Though the book was published in German in the 1920s, the first
English translation of Siddartha did not appear until 1951, and it was
only in 1960s America, with the explosion of interest in eastern philos-
ophy and religion, that it became an influential bestseller. As translator
Sherab Chödzin Kohn notes, the work chimed perfectly with the free-
spirited non-conformity of the times, but its theme of a life beyond
materialism has remained attractive. The book’s timelessness also
comes from the simple prose, and Hesse’s descriptions of the healing
power of the river are quite beautiful.
Siddartha was the fruit of Hesse’s own grueling spiritual journey (in
Sanskrit the name means “he who has found the goal”), but thankfully
you do not have to be such a tortured soul to make use of the insights
he reveals in the book.


Hermann Hesse
Born in 1877 in Calw, Germany, at 18 Hesse went to live in Basel,
Switzerland, working as a bookseller. His early novels include Peter
Camenzind (1904), Beneath the Wheel (1906), and Gertrud (1910). In
1911 he traveled to India, and in 1914 he published Rosshale. His first
real literary success was Demian (1919). In the same year Hesse took
up residence in Montagnola, in the Ticino region of Switzerland. There
he wrote Klein and Wagner, Klingsor’s Last Summer, Siddartha,
Steppenwolf (1927), Narcissus and Goldmund (1930), Journey to the
East (1932), and The Glass Bead Game (1943).
Hesse wrote the first part of Siddartha easily, but stopped for
over a year due to depression. The book was finished in May 1922 and
published in October of that year, and was translated into a number of
Asian languages.
In 1923 Hesse became a Swiss citizen. Throughout his life he
was a pacifist and in wartime a conscientious objector. In 1946 he won
the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in 1962.