Review Of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/6/06


  Siddhartha, a bildungsroman by Herman Hesse, first published in 1922, is simply one of the greatest books ever written. I say that not because I agree with its essential philosophy (which is problematic in some of its over-simplicity), a predisposition that far too often accounts for why critics recommend or do not recommend a work of art, but because it is the embodiment of one of the oldest maxims that defines great literature: saying the most in the least amount of words. Technically, the book- which I have read several times, the last over a decade ago, is a long novella of just under 40,000 words (in English translation- and I read the famed Hilda Rosner version; the original German may be a few hundred words longer or shorter) yet the amount and depth of information it reveals about its titular protagonist has rarely been equaled in works five to ten times its length. It is this remarkable poetic compression that is at the heart of the book’s greatness; and a style rarely used. Recently, I just finished reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation And Empire (the second book of his original Foundation trilogy) and was struck at how similar the two (or three- counting the original Foundation) books were in their approaches to narrative and characterization. It is well known that Asimov’s masterpieces- which go well beyond the sci fi genre- were based upon the excellent historical stylings of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire, and it is in that fact that the key to Siddhartha is turned.

  Even though Hesse’s book is fiction, and its lead is not based upon the real Siddhartha Gautama (the original Buddha)- although he makes a fictive cameo, Hesse employs the same pseudo-historical approach to the tale. This allows for him to leap over great periods in the main character’s life by tossing off bon mots and facts as if they were generally known beforehand by the reader. Later, many of these observations are revealed or reinforced by the ‘on stage’ actions of Siddhartha and his colleagues. Of course, this is not the usual style of character revelation- which is dependent upon scene setting, interior analysis, symbolism, etc. Instead, Hesse’s narrative simply puts the characters into situations where they have to tell what they feel. Siddhartha encounters the Buddha, the prostitute Kamala, or the ferryman Vasudeva, and instead of ‘showing’ us, he ‘tells’ us what is going on with the characters. Yet, he does it so well that to ‘show’ us would require the novel being stripped of all its originality, and fabular qualities, in favor of another didactic tract on how to live one’s life. Yet, slyly, the very fact that the characters, especially Siddhartha, tell us so much reveals their character very effectively. Siddhartha, himself, glosses over years in a few sentences, but the very fact that he does not feel inclined to tell us- or himself in interior monologue- certain details says quite a bit about his way of dealing with the world and himself. Rationalization is a quality few characters have as a prime one, so the fact Siddhartha has it in spades sets him up very uniquely.

  I see this form of characterization as ‘silhouetting’ for what stays hidden, but can be presumed, is as important as that known. Asimov also uses this technique to great effect in his portrait of Foundation and Empire’s villain The Mule. Little is known or revealed about the mutant until the last chapter, when all the hints coalesce into one of the great villainous perorations in literature; surpassing that of many arch-villains in thrillers and detective novels. The Mule, like Siddhartha, is sketched in great detail by all that is left out when key points are made. It’s a wonder more writers have not picked up on this technique. Another aspect of the great characterization comes from the very contradictory nature of the tale’s lead. Only a great character could utter such New Age banalities as, ‘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,’ as well as something truly profound as this: ‘Wisdom is not communicable. The wisdom a wise man tries to communicate always sounds foolish.’ A final point on the characterization is that too often bad critics have conflated Siddhartha’s beliefs with Hesse’s, when clearly such a schism in the level of thinking, as detailed above, is not a flaw in the intellect of the lead character, but Hesse neatly limning a great and realistically flawed character. The two are not always the same.

  As for the basic tale: Siddhartha is a young man who lives with his father and grows up with a best friend named Govinda. The two men seemingly seek the same thing- enlightenment, but have differing ideas on getting to that goal. They are opposites, yet in union on many things. This theme is foreshadowed in the book’s opening sentence: ‘In the shade of the house, in the sunshine on the river bank by the boats, in the shade of the sallow wood and the fig tree….’. Look at all the opposing images: light/shade, homes on land/boats on rivers, heat/wetness. Throughout the tale Siddhartha finds and becomes close to people who are his opposite in some way. Siddhartha is ever restless, so both youths hit the road by joining a band of Hindu beggar-ascetics called Samanas. This contrasts with their upbringing, yet both youths take the plunge into the new, and spend three years as Samanas, until Siddhartha sees that even the oldest of their band has not really accomplished his goals. Again restless, Siddhartha seeks to leave the band. Rumors of a man named Gotama (the Buddha) having achieved Nirvana sets the two youths out to seek a new master, although Siddhartha is skeptical. The head Samana objects to their leaving, yet Siddhartha reveals hidden powers by somehow brainwashing the leader into assent. Upon hearing Gotama, Govinda is smitten, but Siddhartha is not. He reckons a steep contradiction in Gotama’s beliefs: How one can embrace the unity of all if they are told to overcome the physical world? While Sidddhartha affirms (or feigns) his belief that Gotama has achieved his own enlightenment, he doubts that the man’s teachings can do the same for others. He recognizes that a superman, as Gotama, may find such philosophy useful, but doubts its utility in mere mortals, for he already suspects that preachments have their limits in ameliorative power. Here is how he tells the Buddha:


  ‘One thing, o most venerable one, I have admired in your teachings most of all. Everything in your teachings is perfectly clear, is proven; you are presenting the world as a perfect chain, a chain which is never and nowhere broken, an eternal chain the links of which are causes and effects. Never before, this has been seen so clearly; never before, this has been presented so irrefutably; truly, the heart of every Brahman has to beat stronger with love, once he has seen the world through your teachings perfectly connected, without gaps, clear as a crystal, not depending on chance, not depending on gods. Whether it may be good or bad, whether living according to it would be suffering or joy, I do not wish to discuss, possibly this is not essential- but the uniformity of the world, that everything which happens is connected, that the great and the small things are all encompassed by the same forces of time, by the same law of causes, of coming into being and of dying, this is what shines brightly out of your exalted teachings, o perfected one. But according to your very own teachings, this unity and necessary sequence of all things is nevertheless broken in one place, through a small gap, this world of unity is invaded by something alien, something new, something which had not been there before, and which cannot be demonstrated and cannot be proven: these are your teachings of overcoming the world, of salvation. But with this small gap, with this small breach, the entire eternal and uniform law of the world is breaking apart again and becomes void. Please forgive me for expressing this objection.’


  The two childhood friends part over their schism, as Siddhartha decides to pursue hedonism. He comes upon a ferryman, who does him a favor, and gets him across a river. He meets and is seduced by a prostitute named Kamala, who demands he succeed in material ways. She gets him employ with the merchant Kamaswami. Siddhartha learns business and Kamala takes him as her lover. Years go by, and life passes in a blur of sameness. He becomes a hollow man and loathes his life, despite his riches and beautiful lover. So, he leaves it all behind. He heads back towards the river he crossed decades earlier, and considers suicide. Instead, he falls asleep. A monk sees him, and decided to guard the sleeper till he awakens. It is Govinda. The two old friends talk after Govinda fails to recognize his friend, yet both see that they have failed to reach their goals. They part, and Siddhartha meets the same ferryman from earlier in his journey. His name is Vasudeva, and he offers Siddhartha employ and lodging. Vasudeva has found peace via his years on the river, and listening to its motion.

  More years go by, and Kamala appears at the river, with Siddhartha’s eleven year old son, also named Siddhartha. She has become a follower of Gotama, and sojourns to see him before he dies. A snakebite kills her, though, and the elder Siddhartha cannot control his brat offspring, who runs away, having stolen the two ferrymen’s money. He attempts to find his son, but Vasudeva convinces him it is futile:


  ‘The ferryman’s smile lit up; softly, he touched Siddhartha’s arm and said: ‘Ask the river about it, my friend! Hear it laugh about it! Would you actually believe that you had committed your foolish acts in order to spare your son from committing them too? And could you in any way protect your son from Samsara? How could you? By means of teachings, prayer, admonition? My dear, have you entirely forgotten that story, that story containing so many lessons, that story about Siddhartha, a Brahman’s son, which you once told me here on this very spot? Who has kept the Samana Siddhartha safe from Samsara, from sin, from greed, from foolishness? Were his father’s religious devotion, his teachers’ warnings, his own knowledge, his own search able to keep him safe? Which father, which teacher had been able to protect him from living his life for himself, from soiling himself with life, from burdening himself with guilt, from drinking the bitter drink for himself, from finding his path for himself? Would you think, my dear, anybody might perhaps be spared from taking this path? That perhaps your little son would be spared, because you love him, because you would like to keep him from suffering and pain and disappointment? But even if you would die ten times for him, you would not be able to take the slightest part of his destiny upon yourself.’


  Siddhartha now understands what he only knew intuitively when he rejected Gotama’s lessons earlier, for Gotama’s way was not the way of the river, which merely seeps in, and does not preach. More years pass, and Siddhartha finally learns from the river what it taught his friend: as the river flows into the ocean and is returned as rain, all life is connected in such an endless cycle. Then, Vasudeva announces his end has come- as ferryman and living being. He wishes to join the great cycle of life and death, says goodbye to his longtime apprentice, and disappears into the jungle. More time passes, and Govinda comes to the river, seeking out a wise old man who has found the peace he never has. Again he does not recognize Siddhartha, yet asks him to help him get the enlightenment Gotama’s ways never provided. Siddhartha reveals himself and explains that such wisdom is either gotten or not. There is no learning it, and even were there mere words can never plumb such depths. Govinda is disappointed, until Siddhartha asks his old friend to kiss him on the forehead. Out of respect, Govinda does, and suddenly understands it all. Both men’s lifelong quests have succeeded, and the book comes full circle, to where it started, with the two lifelong friends in a moment of union, by a river.

  This book distills so lucidly its philosophy in ways that many far more turgid tomes do not, and, again, what is not specified is as important as what is- such as in the conversation between Siddhartha and Gotama, which presages the systematic dismantling and demolishing of the tenets most describe as being an Eastern philosophy. Far from the book being an Eastern cultic argument, as many loopy, awestruck, but feeble-minded Western pseudo-intellectuals believe in their caricaturized misperceptions, the book is actually a vivid affirmation of material Western values subordinating a few Eastern precepts, and rendering them into a typically Western smorgasbord of do-it-yourselfism. Here are some choice soundbites that really tear at the meat of the Eastern way of life:


  ‘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, because he is only thinking of the thing he is seeking, because he has 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 worthy one, are perhaps indeed a seeker, for in striving towards your goal, you do not see many things that are under your nose.’


  That this plaint is directed against the Eastern mode of thought shows how little difference Hesse saw between it and Westernism. And this is the author’s indictment being spoken, because it has no equivocation, and is an equal opportunity basher of all religious thought.

  ‘I learned through my body and soul that it was necessary to sin, that I needed lust, that I had to strive for property and experience nausea and the depths of despair in order to learn not to resist them, in order to learn to love the world, and no longer compare it with some kind of desired imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and be glad to belong to it.’


  This too is a Western thought; Siddhartha defending the smorgasbord described above. And, all this is foreshadowed in the very first chapter, when Siddhartha defies his father’s refusal of permission to join the Samanas by standing and looking out a window all night, and vowing to do so until his father relents. Not only is it a classic portrayal of a father-son relationship, but also of a coming of age moment, and- most importantly- as the definition of the Western self-made man. It is for this reason, not the layers of Orientalist claptrap, that the book was so popular in the 1960s and 1970s, for in Siddhartha’s growth from Hindu to ascetic to Buddhist to hedonist to man of his very own virtues and flaws the hippies-cum-yuppies (think Jerry Rubin and company) saw their own secretly desired life courses sketched in a wonderfully written syllabus. Siddhartha is eminently identifiable to the modern Westerner, and heartily empathized with. And this blurring of the East and West continues the fact that the ever-seeking main character is never definitely portrayed as either leaving something behind, or seeking after something. Yet, there is no doubt that Govinda is always seeking. Even up to the very moment before his kiss of Siddhartha brings him bliss he is insatiate:


  Govinda said: ‘But are what you call ‘things’, actually something real, something which has existence? Isn’t it just a deception of the Maya, just an image and illusion? Your stone, your tree, your river- are they actually a reality?’

  ‘This too,’ spoke Siddhartha, ‘I do not care very much about. Let the things be illusions or not, after all I would then also be an illusion, and thus they are always like me. This is what makes them so dear and worthy of veneration for me: they are like me. Therefore, I can love them. And this is now a teaching you will laugh about: love, o Govinda, seems to me to be the most important thing of all. To thoroughly understand the world, to explain it, to despise it, may be the thing great thinkers do. But I’m only interested in being able to love the world, not to despise it, not to hate it and me, to be able to look upon it and me and all beings with love and admiration and great respect.’
  ‘This I understand,’ said Govinda. ‘But this very thing was discovered by the exalted one to be a deception. He commands benevolence, clemency, sympathy, tolerance, but not love; he forbade us to tie our heart in love to earthly things.’


  Note the contradictions of the East and West within the main character until the end, as well the schism between the two friends. They are still opposites, for even though both reach the goals they set out to when young, they do so in different ways. Siddhartha through trial and error, in the mold of the Western scientific method, and Govinda via osmosis, as many Eastern ideals are seemingly transmitted, whether truly understood or not; although one could argue that Siddhartha was merely recapitulating his experience of wisdom gained from the river with his friend, with himself in place of the river, and Govinda as Siddhartha. Yet, I think not, for Siddhartha’s (and Vasudeva’s) absorption of the river’s wisdom seems merely to be metaphoric, and an after the fact rationalization, whereas Govinda’s seems to be a genuinely supernatural act, as described. Regardless, though, it begs a final question of whether Govinda’s transmutation at the end is truly real, or as deep as Siddhartha’s. It’s no accident that the final image and focus of the book is not on the Western lead character, but his Eastern sidekick, for the book is an indictment, or, to be kinder, a trial of the Eastern way of life.

  Whether it passes that test or not is for each reader to decide, as is the test all great art faces in front of its audience. To recapitulate the book’s greatest virtue, I say: YES!

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared in the Midwest Book Review.]

Return to Bylines

Bookmark and Share