Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*India. Asian country in which the young Siddhartha, a tall and handsome Brahman’s son, lives and travels in his search for fulfillment. His quest for enlightenment parallels the Buddha’s legendary journeys in India: He departs his father’s house to join the Samana ascetics; after forsaking them, he goes to the city, and eventually abandons the city to become a ferryman on the river.
India, where Herman Hesse traveled in 1911 to study Eastern religions and philosophies, is the birthplace of Buddhism and its promise of enlightenment, as well as Hesse’s conscious opposition to it. Whereas Buddhism attempts to prescribe an established pattern of development, Hesse attempts to show, through Siddhartha’s journey through India, that quests for spiritual fulfillment are voyages of discovery in which each person finds his or her own path to absolute peace. The setting of India, with its nameless features, incorporates the Buddha’s legendary journeys and their accumulated wisdom, through which Siddhartha pursues his own quest for universal oneness.
River. Unnamed river that is the central natural element in the novel. The river functions symbolically, marking Siddhartha’s evolution. Siddhartha’s early years in his father’s house are spent on the river’s bank in a state of innocence. At the age of eighteen, Siddhartha hopes to find truth by joining the Samanas, whose prescribed truth...
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In the fifth century B.C. India consisted of sixteen major states in the north. The region's southern parts remained largely undeveloped. Kings or chiefs ruled individual states and acquired income through taxation and trade. The Brahmans, or religious leaders, held a very high position in each state and often had the authority to approve of the ruling class. On some occasions, they were rulers themselves. In addition to the major states, there were dozens of smaller regions comprised of various tribes organized as oligarchies, each under a single ruling family. One of these oligarchies, in what is now Nepal, was ruled by the Shakya tribe, of which Siddhartha Gotama was a prince. Control of the Ganges Valley became a major issue between the northern Indian states during the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., and wars were continually fought over the rights to the lucrative trade routes. The state of Magadha established dominance in the region by the mid-fifth century B.C., but infighting continued into the next century. The nation of India was not unified until the establishment of the Mauryan Empire in 325 B.C.
The Story of Buddha
Siddhartha Gotama, who became known as Buddha, meaning the "Illustrious One" or "Enlightened One," founded
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Hesse locates his tale in remote India of a time long past, but any realism in the narrative is the symbolic projection of an inner vision, an inner world, an "inward journey," and not an attempt to capture external reality. Hesse, in fact, criticized the tendency to attribute excessive importance to "so-called reality" in the shape of physical events. He intended to take his readers into an elevated, poetic, legendary or "magical" world. Using the landscape of India, the book achieves a unity of style, structure, and meaning that Hesse never again attained with such perfection. He called Siddhartha "an Indic poem"; some might call it an extreme of symbolic lyricism. The Indian milieu provides timeless, mythic validity—the legendary times allow the reader to lose the sense of differentiation and to come nearer to the oneness of the human race. The parallels to the Buddha's life are contributing factors to this legendary quality.
Hesse uses an exotically formalized style, more noticeable in the original German but still apparent even in translation. The novel is borne along on a strong rhythmic current (like a river), on what seems an undertone of chant. All harsh sounds are avoided, while there is much alliteration and assonance. There is frequent use of parallelism in clause structure and repetition of words and phrases. The threefold repetitions, corresponding to the tripartite...
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Throughout his writings, from poetry to essays to long prose, Hesse employs several characteristic general techniques. One might even say that the order of influence begins in his love of poetry, which then permeates all his prose. His sentences, usually direct and often short and grammatically uncomplicated, read like poetry. Their rhythmic flow is like a melody, the words like musical notes. This poetic, musical quality to his prose gives it a loftiness befitting the meditative and philosophical content.
Although poetic imagery informs his writing, there is no evidence of an unconventional or avant garde style. He himself averred he never strove for the new in form, but remained traditional in his use of language. The unconventionality is evident primarily in his thoughts.
The substance of Hesse's thoughts is always tempered by the admission of an opposite. Such duality is the very fiber of all his works. Even the titles of his novels state or elicit an awareness of duality: for example, Narcissus and Goldmund, Demian (Emil Sinclair), Siddhartha (Govinda), Steppenivolf (sheep). His works therefore evoke such dichotomies as meditation and action, pleasure and pain, love and hate, heterosexual love and homosexual love, peer love and mother love, the bourgeoisie and the artist's world, introversion and extroversion, God and Satan. His technique entails combining these and other opposites in an attempt to create a totality of person. In the...
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A Westerner disillusioned by the attitudes which brought about and sustained World War I, Hesse sought meaningfulness in the Orient. Raised in a family of Pietist missionaries to India and living amidst the artifacts of Eastern culture, he said he often felt more at home surrounded by the thoughts and accouterments of the East than he did in his hometown of Calw.
Deeply introspective, Hesse was intent upon discovering the very kernel of his being; his hope was that he might find a way to affirm life. Whatever answers he might come across he did not consider as material for proselytizing, but as fuel for his own inner development. This ideal found its expression in the character Siddhartha (based on the Buddha Gautama Siddhartha), who achieves self-realization at the end.
Ever fascinated by opposites, Hesse saw much in the East that was diametrically different in the West and sought to wrest from the former the most useful aspects for the latter. At the top of the list stood meditation, an uncommon practice in the West calculated to achieve a knowledge of one's relationship to reality, called in Buddhism "enlightenment" (bodhi) and Nirvana, i.e. the attainment of a higher state of being. In this enlightenment there is no time in the face of all history and the future. Every moment, every individual life is indestructible; there is no "was," no "will be." Any moment is part of a continuum reaching into the past and future simultaneously. In a...
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Topics for Further Study
- Research the Indo-European family of languages, of which English, German, and Sanskrit are members. How does Pali, the language of Buddhism fit in? What are other member languages? What migrations may have affected the history of this language group?
- Investigate C. G. Jung's concepts of the shadow, the anima, and the animus. Consider how the various characters in Siddhartha illustrate these concepts.
- Compare the Eastern ideas of simultaneity and totality as represented by the river with the philosophy of time and space that evolves out of Einstein's theory of relativity.
- Consider the father/son theme in Siddhartha in relation to Hesse's idea of synthesis.
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Although the crystallization of Hesse's thought came only after his trip to India in 1911, the groundwork had been laid earlier in his readings in Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Jakob Burckhardt. Hesse appreciated the artist in Nietzsche but rejected much of his philosophy. In Basel, Hesse replaced Nietzsche with Burckhardt as the dominant intellectual force in the second half of his life. Jakob Burckhardt's namesake, good and wise Pater Jakobus of Magister Ludi, is to Josef Knecht what Burckhardt must have represented in his writings for Hesse.
During the 1930s Hesse also read and studied Goethe and the German romantics, as well as others as diverse as Maeterlinck, Dante, Meyer, Fontane, and Bohme. Although he saw no future for naturalism, he admitted the artistry and depth of Ibsen, Hauptmann, Turgenev, and Zola. Because he also associated Dostoevsky and other Russian writers with this sordid, near-nihilistic movement, he rejected them.
His relations with contemporary authors were cordial, even close. There are photographs of him with such famous men as Thomas Mann, Jakob Wassermann, Bertolt Brecht, Henry Miller, and Stefan Zweig. Many journeyed to Montagnola to visit him.
The collection of literary and philosophical influences upon Hesse is numerous and varied. It is more difficult to point to particular works as establishing literary precedents for him than it is to see certain general characteristics that might have been borrowed...
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What Do I Read Next?
- The oldest speculative literature of the Hindus is the Upanishads, composed between 600 B.C. to 300 B.C. It is a collection of works on the nature of man and the universe.
- The Bhagavad Gita is part of the great Hindu epic the Mahabharata and has been called the New Testament of Hinduism. This discussion on the nature and meaning of life between the god Krishna, who appears as a charioteer, and Arjuna, a warrior about to go into battle, has had substantial impact on Western thought.
- The writer of Ecclesiastes, a book of the Old Testament, portrays his search for the meaning of life, his sense that all is vanity, and his own conclusions in his old age.
- Goethe's Faust, an 1808 play based on the legend of a German necromancer, Georg Faust, focuses on an old scholar who yearns to have not so much all knowledge but all experience. In order to do so, he must promise his immortal soul to the destructive tempting spirit, Mephistopheles.
- A different look at India is provided in E. M. Forster's 1924 novel, A Passage to India. The novel is notable for its strong mystical flavor and its treatment of Indian religions, including Islam and Hinduism.
- With the publication in 1904 of Peter...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Boulby, Mark. Hermann Hesse: His Mind and Art. Cornell University Press, 1967. A book-length study of Hesse's fiction with a chapter on Siddhartha that shows how Hesse's use of Indian themes promotes a Western, Christian world view.
Brown, Madison. "Toward a Perspective for the Indian Element in Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha," in German Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 2, March, 1976, pp. 191-202. An analysis of how Siddhartha draws on themes from Indian religious and cultural traditions but revises them to promote Hesse's own world view.
Chander, Harish. "Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha and the Doctrine of Anatman," in South Asian Review, Vol. 2, No. 8, July, 1979, pp. 60-66. An analysis of how Siddhartha develops Buddhist religious themes regarding the universal soul.
Conrad, Robert C. "Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, Eine indische Dichtung, as a Western Archetype," in German Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 4, Fall, 1975, pp. 358-69. An analysis of how Hesse uses Indian themes to develop Western archetypal patterns.
Field, George Wallis. Hermann Hesse. Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1970. This book is a comprehensive and detailed study of Hesse's novels complemented by biographical and factual information.
Kassim, Husain. "Toward a Mahayana Buddhist Interpretation of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha," in...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Boulby, Mark. Hermann Hesse: His Mind and Art. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967. Scholarly study of the major novels of Hesse. The chapter on Siddhartha provides illuminating information on Hesse’s Orientalism. Discusses the work “in the context of Hesse’s movement away from Buddhism” and views it as the culminating point of his art as a novelist.
Field, G. W. Hermann Hesse. Boston: Twayne, 1970. Contains a critical and analytical chapter on Siddhartha.
Otten, Anna, ed. Hesse Companion. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1977. Eight essays on Hesse’s work by various scholars. Theodore Ziolkowski’s essay, “Sid-dhartha: The Landscape of the Soul,” gives an excellent critical analysis of the novel’s Eastern background, plot structure, symbolism, and epiphany. Useful glossary and a bibliography of secondary sources in English.
Shaw, Leroy R. “Time and the Structure of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha.” Symposium 11 (1957): 204-224. A close reading of the text, demonstrating how Hesse communicates his vision of Unity through an intricate blending of form and meaning. A perceptive and illuminating analysis.
Timpe, Eugene E. “Hesse’s Siddhartha and the Bhagavad Gita.” Comparative...
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