One of the major twentieth century writers and an important cultural and intellectual force, Hermann Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946 for his achievement as a novelist, particularly for his masterpiece, Das Glasperlenspiel: Versuch einer Lebensbeschreibung des Magister Ludi Josef Knecht samt Knechts hinterlassenen Schriften (1943; Magister Ludi, 1949; also The Glass Bead Game, 1969). Hesse stated, “All the prose works of fiction I have written are biographies of souls.” Siddhartha, his most widely read work of fiction, is a biography of the soul in the essential sense of the term. It evokes the magical realm of the spirit in exploring the protagonist’s quest for self-knowledge and the unity of being.
Hesse called Siddhartha “an Indic Poem.” Of all his fictional works, it is undoubtedly the one most impregnated with Indian religion and philosophy. Hesse himself unequivocally acknowledged his long-standing interest in India and his preoccupation with Hinduism, Buddhism, Vedanta, and Yoga. “More than half of my life,” he stated, “I tried to come to an understanding of the Indian view of Life.” India was his family’s spiritual homeland for two generations, and he himself undertook a voyage to India in 1911 “to go back into that source of life where everything had begun and which signified the Oneness of all phenomenon.” Siddhartha was an artistic expression of his understanding of the Indian view of life, modified by his own romantic vision.
Using the historical Buddha’s life as a framework of his fictional narrative, Hesse appropriated Buddha’s given name Siddhartha for his mythical hero and endowed him with many qualities of the Enlightened One. However, he presented them as two separate figures in the novel and used the encounter between them as a catalyst to reinforce his romantic concept of the bildungsroman. Hesse believed that all knowledge must come from personal experience rather than from formal training and doctrinaire teaching. Siddhartha’s rejection of the teachings of Buddha served as a turning point in his quest, fortifying his conviction that, to attain the state of perfect enlightenment, he, too, must extinguish his ego and merge with the unity underlying the universe. That he attains his supreme destiny, Nirvana, through pure disinterested love and self-surrender is confirmed by the novel’s conclusion.
Because Siddhartha deals with themes of initiation and search for the self and focuses on the emotional, intellectual, psychological, and spiritual development of the protagonist, it can be viewed as a bildungsroman, a novel of growth and education. All the major characters, episodes, and symbols in the novel serve as important milestones in Siddhartha’s journey toward self-realization.
The predominant, all-inclusive symbol in the novel is the river. The river represents the continuum of life and time, the eternal process of being and becoming, and the constant flux in nature. It defines, divides, entwines, and merges the transitions in Siddhartha’s journey and ultimately manifests the cosmic vision of totality and timelessness that he attains at the end of his quest. Siddhartha’s vision on the riverbank leads to intuitive wisdom.
Though Siddhartha, like all great literature, has a timeless dimension, it had a profound impact on the youth culture in the United States from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. Its gospel of disinterested love appealed to the American flower children, as its emphasis on self-realization, integration, and wholeness attracted many alienated youth to Eastern religions and philosophies. Many Western youth were in rebellion against the institutionalization, growing materialism, and fragmented, scientific worldview of their own society. Written in a lucid, poetic, rhythmical, symbolic, and dignified style, Siddhartha presents the spiritual heritage of the East to the West. It came to be recognized as an important landmark in the history of East-West literary relations.