Hermann Hesse’s beautiful novel of spiritual journeying, Siddhartha, was written out of his own despair at a bleak time of life, when he was a figure of hatred in his homeland of Germany for championing pacifism and internationalism and his personal life had fallen apart. And yet out of those dreadful conditions was born the peace and the spaciousness Hesse needed to devote himself to Eastern wisdom and creativity. Living in exile in Switzerland, his wife in an asylum, his sons given to foster parents, he embraced the life of a recluse and delivered himself to the same pursuit of inner change as his main protagonist, Siddhartha. The novel was published in 1922 to a storm of harsh criticism, but it went on to become a global bestseller (over two million copies sold in Germany, over five million in the USA) and a classic of twentieth century literature. This was a reread for me, after a gap of maybe twenty years, but the experience remained uncannily the same; Hesse’s spare, elegant prose exhales serenity and sanity and regardless of the book’s setting in the sixth century, its message of tolerance, understanding and patience remains every bit as relevant today.
Siddhartha is a prince among Brahmins, the highest class of Hindu society. When the novel begins, he is nearing the end of his training for the priesthood and he has excelled at his studies and won the love and admiration of all who know him, including his good friend, Govinda. But despite belonging to the happiest of circumstances, Siddhartha is discontented. He is conscious of never having experienced the highest knowledge, and without it he will only ever be a seeker after truth, tied to holy scripture. This frustration and his growing sense of constraint lead him to a crisis point. He decides to make a complete break with his family and enter the wilderness to live with the Samanas a tribe of ascetics who seek through extreme physical deprivation to overcome the demands of the body. Govinda goes with him, and together they try to conquer their sense of self and attain transcendent bliss.
But the years pass and Siddhartha realizes that denial of the body is no true route to self-realisation. The two young men hear rumours of the existence of the Buddha, and in what will become a characteristic move of radical change, they leave the Samanas and go to find this new teacher. That the Buddha possesses the knowledge Siddhartha seeks is clear to him, from the mere experience of witnessing his presence. Early on in the novel, Siddhartha and the reader are given a glimpse of the ultimate goal – absolute serenity, effortless peace of mind. But rather than stay with the Buddha and hope some of this bliss rubs off, Siddhartha makes an eccentric decision. To become like the Buddha is a matter of experience, he believes, and not of teaching. No amount of learning will ever transform into wisdom, and so Siddhartha moves on once again, leaving the more dutiful Govinda behind him.
Completely alone and ready to redefine himself on the next stage of his journey, Siddhartha goes to the town and falls in love with the beautiful courtesan, Kamala. For the next twenty years he will live a life of materialism, becoming wealthy as a merchant, learning to love rich food and gambling, and mastering the art of love with Kamala, who represents the most important part of this stage for him. But the gap between who he is and what he wants to be widens to an intolerable degree, and the day inevitably comes when Siddhartha realizes the depth of his suffering in this superficial life, and is overcome with a desire for suicide. Leaving the town behind him, he runs away until he reaches the river, where a revelation rebinds him to life and the process of enlightenment, and he understands finally that the answer is not in becoming, but in being.
I won’t recount any more of the plot, suffice to say some of the greatest trials and greatest lessons still lie ahead for Siddhartha. But you can see how each stage of the story adds another layer of understanding to his experience of life, and how each is wholly necessary. Hesse’s great message, one born not just out of a passion for Asiatic studies, but out of his time in psychotherapy and his own life trajectory, was that suffering is intrinsic to living, and to live with any degree of serenity means finding an attitude to suffering that sustains rather than undermines. Siddhartha knows instinctually that learning will not provide him with the capabilities he needs – we cannot avoid suffering through the teachings of others, no matter how insightful. Nor can we find the best of life in materialistic achievement, in competition and hedonism and worldly pleasure. These things risk, in fact, removing us dangerously from the spiritual dimension that comforts and restores. But at the same time, Siddhartha could never have gained these insights for sure without going through the stages first – he had to live them and then reject them for the experience to transform into meaning for him. The time he spends in the town imparts a particularly valuable lesson to Siddhartha, one of humility. Before this experience, he held himself apart with pride based on his superior intelligence and his physical stamina. But now that he has succumbed to ordinary sinning and lost himself in the daily grind, he has a newfound compassion for all people no matter who they are or what they have done. This is the power of suffering – when we forgive ourselves, we can forgive others their mistakes and errors and pains, too.
Inside us all, Hesse believed, is a little voice, one that can only be heard in stillness and quiet, one easily drowned out by ambition and worldly demands, but one that acts as a compass on the uncertain road of life. Its mere presence, stretching from one end of life to the other, reminds us of the unity we seek, the wisdom that is inside us from the start but which will take decades to flower. What I love so about this narrative is that it tells us that every part of life is necessary, the good, the bad, the ugly. It tells us that moments of crisis exist always on the brink of enlightenment, on the borderline of self-renewal, and that we will meet those crises time and again, no matter what we do or how superficially well we live, because it is the nature of existence. Above all, we can keep faith that life is a progression, if we allow ourselves to learn from experience, to be patient, to be attuned to the spiritual, and that we may always hope for an ideal of serenity, even if it takes a whole lifetime to get there. In a crazy world, Hesse’s novel is an oasis of sanity and 150 pages of spiritual therapy.