Siddhartha (literally “he who has achieved his aim”) is a handsome young Indian Brahman who is restless and unhappy with his comfortable village life, and so he decides to become a seeker. Along with his friend Govinda, he becomes a samana, or wandering ascetic. He quickly masters the self-discipline and meditations, but he becomes dissatisfied with the ascetic life, and comes to the village of Savathi to hear the illustrious Buddha preach. Siddhartha is much impressed with Buddha’s teachings but decides that he cannot be content as a disciple and must find his own “way.”
Leaving his friend Govinda to become a Buddhist monk, Siddhartha abandons the monastic life and returns to a large town, where he meets the beautiful courtesan, Kamala. In order to become her lover, he decides to work for a wealthy merchant named Kamaswami. Though Siddhartha is quite successful in business, his real devotion is to Kamala. He learns the arts of love from her and cultivates his taste for sensual pleasures. Gradually he loses his ascetic detachment from the world and comes to love wealth and luxuries for their own sake. He becomes a compulsive gambler and abandons himself to the thrill of winning or losing for high stakes.
One morning, he awakens from a dream unhappy and depressed. He realizes that the pleasures of the world can become as much of an illusion as asceticism. He decides to return to the ferryman on the river and lead a simple life there. Through the old ferryman’s example, Siddhartha finds contentment not through renunciation or sensuality but through love and acceptance of the things of this world.
In Hesse’s religious novel, he offers his own interpretation of Buddhism through the character of Siddhartha, a name often given to the Buddha himself. The proud Siddhartha can never be content in a disciple’s role, but must seek out truth and wisdom himself through his own experience. After the old ferryman Vasudeva teaches him the secrets of the river, the simultaneity, unity, and timelessness of all that exists, Siddhartha achieves the peace he has always sought.
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...
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