Study Guide

Siddhartha

by Hermann Hesse

Siddhartha Analysis

Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*India

*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

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 stirs his doubts. He then crosses the river and goes to the city. Representing boundaries of time and development, the river symbolizes Siddhartha’s passage from the realm of spirit to sense and back again.

When Siddhartha returns to the river, twenty years after his first crossing, he suffers from sickness of the soul and desires death. He listens to the river’s characteristic om murmuring—a sound that is the sacred syllable of the Hindu priestly Brahmin caste—for the unity of all being. The same om wells up within his soul and forms a bond between him and the river. The river’s murmuring lulls Siddhartha into a trancelike sleep. Eventually he awakens, refreshed, and begins the process of restoration to his former state of innocence.

The river proves to be the agent through which Siddhartha finds fulfillment. He assists Vasudeva, the wise old ferryman who transported him across the river twenty years earlier. He learns that the river represents the natural synthesis of sense and spirit; he also realizes that life is a river and that the past, present, and future are all one. The river embodies all creation, all layers of consciousness, memories and impulses common to humankind as a whole; the eternal om brings them to the surface, awakening in Siddhartha knowledge of the essential unity of being.

The river has one last lesson to teach Siddhartha—love. Many years later, Kamala, Siddhartha’s love from the city, arrives at the river with the son she has borne him and soon dies of snakebite. Little Siddhartha runs away to the city, leaving his father stricken with grief. Once again, the river speaks the sacred syllable om and heals the wound produced by his grief.

City

City. The projection of feeling into abstract geographical places continues with the unnamed city, Siddhartha’s destination after leaving the Samanas—a move signifying a progression from the spirit to the senses. There he meets the beautiful courtesan Kamala, through whose assistance he becomes prosperous and comes to lead a life of luxury. At length, sickened by his own degeneracy and intent on suicide, he quits the city, unwittingly abandoning Kamala, who is pregnant with his son. The city represents the second step in Siddhartha’s development, which cancels out the earlier excursion into the spirit and leads to his return to the river and his state of innocence.

Siddhartha Historical Context

Worshippers bowing before Buddha in Singapore, 1989. Published by Gale Cengage

Ancient India
In the fifth century B.C. India consisted of sixteen major states in the north. The region's southern...

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Siddhartha Literary Style

Setting
Hesse locates his tale in remote India of a time long past, but any realism in the narrative is the symbolic...

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Siddhartha Literary Techniques

Throughout his writings, from poetry to essays to long prose, Hesse employs several characteristic general techniques. One might even say...

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Siddhartha Social Concerns

A Westerner disillusioned by the attitudes which brought about and sustained World War I, Hesse sought meaningfulness in the Orient. Raised...

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Siddhartha 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...

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Siddhartha Literary Precedents

Although the crystallization of Hesse's thought came only after his trip to India in 1911, the groundwork had been laid earlier in his...

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Siddhartha Media Adaptations

Scene from the 1972 film version of Hermann Hesse Published by Gale Cengage
  • Siddhartha was adapted as a film by Conrad Rooks, starring India's leading actor, Shashi Kapoor, Lotus Films, Columbia-Warner,...

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Siddhartha 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...

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Siddhartha Bibliography and Further Reading

Further Reading
Boulby, Mark. Hermann Hesse: His Mind and Art. Cornell University Press, 1967. A book-length...

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Siddhartha Bibliography (Great Characters in Literature)

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 Literature 10 (1969): 421-426. Demonstrates that Hesse was deeply influenced by the Bhagavad Gita (c. first or second century c.e.) when he wrote his book and that Siddhartha’s quest for self-realization follows the path suggested by the Bhagavad Gita.