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Siddhartha Hermann Hesse

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The following entry presents criticism on Hesse's novella Siddhartha: Eine indische Dichtung (1922; Siddhartha: An Indian Poetic Work.

Siddhartha (1922) is often considered the high point of Hesse's art in fiction, as well as the pinnacle of his fascination with orientalism. The novella is concerned with the individual's search for truth and identity by means of what Hesse termed the Weg nach Innen (inward journey), a recurring theme throughout his works; in fact, Siddhartha was written after a difficult period of introspection in Hesse's own life. Although the novella was completed by 1922 and was widely recognized and appreciated in Europe, it did not become popular in the United States until the 1960s and 1970s. During that period, American youth, embroiled in an era of cultural upheaval, identified with the title character and his struggle to transcend meaninglessness and materialism through mysticism and love, and a near cult following for Hesse ensued. The popularity of Siddhartha, while no longer near that of the 60s and 70s, remains steady. It was written during Hesse's second and most productive period—1916 to 1925. A crisis initiated by multiple personal problems led Hesse to undergo psychoanalysis during the early part of this stage, an intensive therapy which provided Hesse the incentive to begin his Weg nach Innen toward self-awareness and ultimately to greater self-realization, all of which helped shape the writing of Siddhartha.

Plot and Major Characters

The title character of Siddhartha is the son of a Brahman who with his friend Govinda leaves home and caste to join the ascetic Samanas. For three years Siddhartha and Govinda deny the body's senses and external world, yet Siddhartha fails to find the true path he is seeking. He renounces this life of ritual and asceticism and departs with Govinda to hear Gautama Buddha speak. Govinda decides to stay with Gautama, but Siddhartha does not accept the Buddha's teaching and declares that one must seek truth through living, not preaching. Leaving Govinda and the Buddha, Siddhartha encounters a river, which becomes a symbolic motif throughout the narrative, representing the boundary between two universes and two lifestyles. Siddhartha now immerses himself in the world of the senses, the physical universe—the polar opposite of the austere nature of repressed sense perception he was previously pursuing. Siddhartha travels across the river to a city where he meets Kamala, a courtesan, who introduces him to a life of wealth and pleasure—sexual and commercial. Siddhartha eventually realizes that “sensual lust is related to death,” and that he must leave Kamala and the merchant way, unaware that she is now pregnant with his son. Siddhartha returns to the river, which now functions as the symbol of a turning point, rather than a boundary. There, in despair, he nearly commits suicide, but, in observing the mystical symbology of the river, does not. Siddhartha decides that both his years as an ascetic and as a profligate allow him “to live again,” as he explains to Govinda, who comes across Siddhartha sleeping. Determined to stay by the river, Siddhartha lives with the ferryman Vasudeva: a figure based on both Eastern attributes and Charon, the boatman of the river Styx. After twelve years Kamala visits the river bringing the son Siddhartha fathered and dies from a snakebite. Siddhartha cares for the boy and discovers that he loves his son desperately. But the child is spoiled and longs only to leave the two boatmen and return to the city, which he eventually succeeds in doing. Through his son's departure, Siddhartha experiences first the pain of love and then pure, unselfish devotion, eventually learning the lesson of the river: “All voices, all aims, all yearning, all suffering, all pleasure, all good and all evil, all together made up the world.” When Vasudeva dies, Siddhartha carries on the tradition and knowledge he has been taught by the ferryman and the river. When Govinda passes by, he sees that Siddhartha, like Buddha, has achieved absolute peace and harmony, that he has finally “found the Way.”

Major Themes

Hesse's Siddhartha reflects much of the literary and intellectual history of Germany and Western Europe during the first decades of the twentieth century. In particular, the work has many points in common with the romantic movement, neo-romanticism, and expressionism. The years after 1918 in Europe were filled with literary turmoil and experimentation, and the results of both the psychoanalytic movement and the new orientalism then in vogue are much evidenced in Siddhartha. The importance of what Hesse termed Weg nach Innen—the individual's struggle to transcend the materialism of bourgeois society through art, mysticism, and love—is especially palpable in Siddhartha. Highly influenced by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, Hesse had vowed to reject traditional religion and morality and lead a life of individualism and isolation. Siddhartha also rejects traditional religion and morality, and ultimately finds that pure individualism is an embrace of unity, with love as the synthesizing agent. In his essay My Faith (1931), Hesse stated that “Siddhartha puts not cognition, but love in first place; that it disdains dogma and makes the experience of unity the central point. …” The inner perfection Siddhartha—and vicariously through him, Hesse—seeks is an awareness of the unity, totality, and simultaneity of all being. Siddhartha's life contains strong similarities to that of the historical Gautama Buddha, who, in addition to the proper name Gautama, was called Siddhartha in secular life, meaning “the one who has reached the goal” or “the one who has found the Way.” Other names in Siddhartha function similarly in their usage of Eastern religious motifs: Vasudeva is a name for Krishna, meaning “he in whom all things abide and who abides in all”; and Kamala can be associated with Kama, the Hindu god of love and desire. Hesse portrayed the dominant mythic overtones in Siddhartha by borrowing various facts from Gautama the Buddha: Gautama left his wife for a life of asceticism, much as Siddhartha left Kamala; the Buddha spent several years meditating on a riverbank and received his revelations under the Bo-tree, just as Siddhartha spends his final years beside a river and discovers enlightenment beneath a mango tree; and Siddhartha's final vision of the world as a simultaneity and totality corresponds to the Buddha's vision of interconnectedness. But there are also fundamental differences, due to the fact that Hesse's overall philosophy is explicitly opposed to that of Gautama the Buddha, who made a conscious attempt to put forth an established pattern of religious development. Hesse hoped, in Taoist fashion, “to fulfill the will of God precisely by letting myself drift (in one of my stories I called it ‘letting oneself fall’) …” The plot, characters, and setting of Siddhartha are indicative of Hesse's lifetime interest in the East: “I experienced religion in two forms,” the author commented, “as the child and grandchild of pious upright Protestants and as a reader of Indian revelations in which I give pride of place to the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita and the sermons of Buddha. … From early childhood I lived just as much in the atmosphere of Indian spirituality as I did in that of Christianity.” Hesse's interest in the East was partially reinforced by the popularity of orientalism in his time and by the influence of the book Travel Diary of a Philosopher (1919) by Count Keyserling, whom Hesse had praised as “the first European scholar and philosopher who has really understood India.” Hesse traveled to Ceylon, Malaya, and Sumatra in 1911, but, confronted with appalling poverty and a commercialized Buddhism, he found the trip a disappointment. He commented later to a friend that he had failed to get beyond “the charm of the exotic” and enter into “the world of the Indian spirit.” Disenchanted, Hesse returned home without actually visiting India. In contrast to his own physical journey to the East, he described Siddhartha as “an Indian poetic work,” a realistic narrative with a strong impulse toward lyricism, a symbolic projection of his internal vision through geographic symbolism. Thus, Siddhartha fits well both in the genres of the Erziehungsromane, or novel of education, and the Bildungsroman. Hesse addressed in Siddhartha, as in most of his other works, characters who struggle to come to terms with themselves, individuals who passionately attempt self-realization.

Critical Reception

Siddhartha has generated a vast body of critical commentary and has profoundly affected readers throughout the world, though its popularity peaks most notably during periods of social ferment. During the Weimar Republic in Germany, from 1919 to 1933, much politically motivated criticism of Hesse was in evidence. Throughout the Third Reich Hesse experienced both political and literary rejection. After National Socialism collapsed and Hesse won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, there was a rebirth of interest in his writing among German critics and scholars. During the last period of Hesse's life, when he wrote relatively little, his work was made more readily available in many reprints, new editions, and collections. Although Hesse's highly romantic prose style does not always lend itself easily to translation, many of his writings were translated into English after World War II, affording Hesse a wider audience. In the 1960s and 1970s Siddhartha was well received in the United States; the novella garnered an almost cult following, especially among the youth of the era. Hesse's extreme individualism and focus on the inner self, along with his disparagement of modern society and interest in the East, all spoke to a generation who often viewed America as a materialistic, mass-oriented, and morally bankrupt society. Hesse's belief in the ultimate meaningfulness of life became an inspiration for dissidents and seekers from both the establishment and the burgeoning counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. The author's ability to universalize private agony and personal crises, as demonstrated in Siddhartha, has allowed Hesse to achieve an ongoing international popularity.

Principal Works

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Eine Stunde hinter Mitternacht 1899

Knulp: Drei Geschichten aus dem Leben Knulps [Knulp: Three Tales from the Life of Knulp] 1915

Zwei Maerchen 1918

Klingsors letzter Sommer [Klingsor's Last Summer] 1920

Siddhartha: Eine indische Dichtung [Siddhartha: An Indian Poetic Work] 1922

Piktors Verwandlungen 1925

Die Morgenlandfahrt: Eine Erzaehlung [The Journey to the East] 1932

Weg nach Innen 1932

Tragisch 1936

Romantische Lieder (poetry) 1899

Peter Camenzind (novel) 1904

Unterm Rad [Beneath the Wheel] (novel) 1906

Gertrud: Roman [Gertrud and I] (novel) 1910

Roßhalde [Rossalde] (novel) 1914

Demian: Die Geschichte einer Jugend von Emil Sinclair [Demian] (novel) 1919

Der Steppenwolf [Steppenwolf] (novel) 1927

Verse im Krankenbett (poetry) 1927

Narziss und Goldmund [Narcissus and Goldmund] (novel) 1930

Stunden im Garten: Eine Idylle (poetry) 1936

Krankennacht (poetry) 1942

Knecht sant Knechts hinterlassene Schriften [Magister Ludi; later translated as The Glass Bead Game] (novel) 1943

Der Bluetenzweig (poetry) 1945

Mimi Jehle (essay date 1951)

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SOURCE: “The ‘Garden’ in the Works of Hermann Hesse,” in German Quarterly, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, January, 1951, pp. 42–50.

[In the following essay, Jehle discusses Hesse's use of the garden motif in Siddhartha and other works.]

A study of Hesse's works reveals the fact that through the garden motif much of his inner world and development can be studied, and the symbolic character of the use of gardens becomes more and more apparent. A number of critics of Hesse's works have suggested that a study of the use of water and clouds should be most interesting. It seems strange that the garden as a motif worthy of study was not mentioned, although Hesse's love for his own gardens is well-known. Hesse has often written about his different gardens, as in the sketch Einzug in ein neues Haus or the poem in hexameters Stunden im Garten. There is hardly a work of his without a garden. In a short paper like the present one the richness of this motif can only be indicated.

For Hesse the garden is first of all a symbol of childhood happiness, of the harmonious union between the child and nature. It is paradise before the entering of the serpent. How poignantly the wanderer Knulp expresses this when looking at his former childhood garden! He feels that no later experience can compare to the lustre of one single flower of that time.1 Hesse's heroes in the works published between 1900–1920 try in vain to return to the childhood garden which they have lost, through the experience of first love, like Hans Giebenrath in Unterm Rad or through the estrangement between father and mother in the novel Rosshalde. Hans in Unterm Rad goes to the small garden the morning after the meeting with Emma and the experience of the first kiss. Suddenly he is reminded of happy childhood days not long ago. Hesse writes: “Hans wußte nicht, warum er gerade heute an jenen Abend denken mußte, nicht, warum diese Erinnerung so schön und mächtig war, noch warum sie ihn so elend und traurig machte. Er wußte nicht, daß im Kleide dieser Erinnerung seine Kindheit und sein Knabentum noch einmal fröhlich und lachend vor ihm aufstand, um Abschied zu nehmen und den Stachel eines gewesenen und nie wiederkehrenden großen Glückes zurückzulassen. Er empfand nur, daß diese Erinnerung mit dem Denken an Emma und an gestern abend sich nicht vertrug und daß etwas in ihm aufgestanden sei, das mit dem damaligen Glücklichsein nicht vereinbar war.”2 The poem Rückkehr also expresses the deep-felt longing for childhood and garden:

“Sind wir alle denn so krank,
Daß die holden Kindertöne
Uns das Herz mit Weh bezaubern,
Nachklang nur verschollner Schöne?
Alle Reinheit ferner Kindergärten,
Alle Farben froher Morgenlust,
All die holden Schauer in der Brust—
Kann das nie mehr unser werden?”(3)

The garden as a symbol of childhood is so closely interwoven with the mother motif in Hesse's works that the two seem almost inseparable. The significance of the mother complex, as also Hesse's own strong attachment for his mother and its dangers, has been treated very fully by his critics. Hesse separates his inner world into a mother and a father world, or a world of the senses and one of the mind. This separation and conflict are the underlying theme of most of his works, which are all essentially autobiographical. The early garden world of Hesse is particularly the realm of woman, the “Urmutter” or Eva as she is called later on in the novel Demian. Veraguth, the painter in Rosshalde, envisions always his own dead mother with a gardening hat making a lovely bouquet of flowers. Symbolically one of his greatest wishes is to make a bouquet just like it and to paint it. In a very sensitive poem Hesse sees his mother walking in the garden looking for her lost son.4 Anselm, in the fairy tale “Iris,” is drawn to the girl Iris because her name subconsciously suggests to him the most precious thing which he lost, that is his mother and her garden world. The tale begins with a charming description of the different seasons in the garden.

“Waren die Lilien fort, so blühten die Kapuziner, waren die Teerosen welk, so wurden die Brombeeren braun, alles verschob sich, war immer da und immer fort, verschwand und kam zur Zeit wieder, und auch die bangen, wunderlichen Tage, wo der Wind kalt in der Tanne lärmte und im ganzen Garten das welke Laub so fahl und erstorben klirrte, brachten noch ein Lied, ein Erlebnis, eine Geschichte mit …”5

The minute detailed description of the mother's garden prepares the reader to follow Hesse's thought when Anselm's mother gradually becomes a symbol for the whole world of nature and earth from where we spring and to which we long to return. Hesse has comparatively few woman characters but Gertrud, Frau Veraguth, Eva, Kamala, the courtesan in the Indian novel Siddharta, all live in houses surrounded by gardens. The men entering these always feel on the threshold of a protective sanctuary. The approach of the musician to Gertrud's house is described in the following manner: “Der Garten stand in voller Frühsommerpracht, überall waren Blumen und sangen Vögel um das stille Haus, und wenn ich von der Strasse in den Garten trat und an den dunklen, alten Steinbildern der Allee vorüber mich dem grünumwachsenen Hause näherte, war es mir jedesmal wie der Eintritt in ein Heiligtum, wohin Stimmen und Dinge der Welt nur leise und gemildert dringen konnten.”6 Similarly Demian in the novel of the same name says: “Wenn ich die Pforte hinter mir schloß, ja schon wenn ich von weitem die hohen Bäume des Gartens auftauchen sah, war ich reich und glücklich. Draußen waren Straßen und Häuser, Menschen und Einrichtungen, Bibliotheken und Lehrsäle—hier drinnen aber war Liebe und Seele, hier lebte das Märchen und der Traum.”7 Apart from the symbolic significance that the garden has for Hesse's male characters, these passages also show clearly what the men seek in women and love. Most writers like Goethe, Stifter, Keller, Storm and many minor writers use the garden frequently as a scene for lover's meetings, the favorite place for proposals. Hesse never uses the garden this way.

Besides being the lost paradise of childhood and the natural abode of woman and mother, the garden is a symbol of middle class life which can be better expressed in German as “bürgerliche Lebenskultur.” When Hesse describes a house there is almost invariably a garden around it, to be sure a garden with a fence, giving the feeling of protection from the outside world. In this sense the garden is the direct opposite of the woods, the place for the wanderer. In Einzug in ein neues Haus, which I have mentioned before, Hesse tells with what joy he planted his own first garden after his marriage,8 and how strong his belief was at that time that he too belonged to the world of the “Sesshaften”, as he later in Knulp calls the middle class people who have house, wife, and garden. But gradually it becomes clear to Hesse that he is really a nomad. He lost family, home and garden and during his middle years was more or less a wanderer. He renounces, escapes, and abhors the middle class world in Demian, Klingsohrs letzter Sommer, and Steppenwolf. Yet he longs for it just as he does for his lost childhood. In the sketch Tessiner Herbsttag he writes: “Irgendwo heimisch zu sein, ein Stück Land zu lieben und zu bebauen, nicht bloß zu betrachten und zu malen … das schien mir ein schönes, zu beneidendes Los, obwohl ich selbst es einstmals gekostet und erfahren hatte, daß es nicht genüge, um mich glücklich zu machen.”9 Also in the poems illustrated by Hesse's own paintings, as in the book Wanderung the author loves to paint and describe small houses and gardens with the most nostalgic feelings, and yet conscious of his restlessness which will only find an end when he finds peace within himself. “Dann gibt es kein Liebäugeln mit Gärten und roten Häuschen mehr.—Heimat in sich haben!”10 he exclaims longingly.

Although the feeling of longing is uppermost in Hesse's attitude towards the garden considered so far, there are also early examples that show a consciousness of the garden as a place to think, to calm one's feelings, to plan new steps. Hans in Unterm Rad after he has fallen in love goes to his little garden several times in order to wake up and clarify his thinking (“um aufzuwachen und klar zu werden”).11 Siddharta, tiring of his love for the beautiful Kamala and his amassing of money, sits in his garden under the mango tree an entire day until the stars come out, gradually realizing that the life of the “Kindermenschen”, that is those who live chiefly outwardly and through the senses, is not for him. “War es nicht ein törichtes Spiel, daß er einen Mangobaum, daß er einen Garten besaß12 he asks himself. On that night he leaves forever. Later in the story, the dying Kamala brought their son to Siddharta; he is overcome with love for him and loses again the hard-earned peace. In following the son who has run away, Siddharta comes again to Kamala's garden. Leaning for hours against the garden fence, reliving the former time, torn with love for the son, and saying the holy words “Om,” the most sacred words in Indian Religion, he at last decides that his wish to help the son and to cling to him is foolish. Regaining his peaceful smile, he goes back to the river with Vasadeva, his old friend.

A similar instance of awakening, “Erwachen”, as Hesse calls this becoming aware of new goals, is found in Hesse's latest work Das Glasperlenspiel, his most symbolic work. Joseph Knecht's education for the Glasperlenspiel, his rise to the post of Magister Ludi and final abandonment of his high offices to teach youth is the main theme of this interesting work. Knecht who wishes to know Chinese wisdom and culture spends some time with “the older brother” in his little Chinese garden and pavillion which is protected against intruders by a bamboo wood. The garden consists of some flowerbeds, a fountain whose water flows in a small pond filled with golden carp. Here, Knecht sits the first morning after his arrival, “mehr und mehr versinkend, mehr träumend als kontemplierend.”13 Symbolically this little garden scene describes the peace gained through Chinese wisdom but as it becomes clear later Knecht's doubt about the absolute supremacy of the Glasperlenspiel, the small “Magistergarten”, formerly taken care of by Thomas van Trave (Thomas Mann), is known to Knecht as “geheiligten Erholungs-und Sammlungsort des Meisters”14 (as the holy place of recreation and meditation of the master). Soon after he has become Magister Ludi, Knecht rests a short time from his arduous labor in this garden and reads a book of directions about his future duties. During this short garden rest he conceives the plan for the festival Glasperlenspiel, the most important event of the year. When Knecht has definitely decided to leave the order of the “Glasperlenspieler”, he again spends an hour of meditation in the quiet garden. “Im Garten setzte er sich auf eine mit ersten welken Blättern bestreute Bank, regelte die Atmung und kämpfte um die innere Stille, bis er geklärten Herzens in Betrachtung versank, in der die Konstellation dieser Lebensstunde sich in allgemeinen, überpersönlichen Bildern ordnete.”15

Closely related to these swmbolic gardens of meditation and reflection are the garden and religion. Lohe in Gertrud who found peace in Indian theosophy is a gardener with “a kind, satisfied gardener's face.”16 Buddha in Siddharta teaches his followers in a wooded garden. The Chinese “older brother”, mentioned before, lives in peace “with himself and the world” in his little garden which he tends. Many consider him a saint. Hesse's numerous saints and hermits often have a little garden plot in which they meditate.

Let us turn to those works of Hesse's where the garden is particularly important. In the novel Rosshalde, the account of the unhappy marriage of the painter Veraguth, the garden is as significant as it is in Goethe's Wahlverwandtschaften. A comparison of these two novels would be a most interesting task. The inner separation between Veraguth and his wife is indicated first by her living alone in the big house while he lives and paints in a gardenhouse, secondly, by the separation of the gardens. The painter's realm is the wooded park and lake, while Mrs. Veraguth spends a great deal of her time in the linden- and chestnut tree-garden, the lawn and flower garden. Symbolically she rules over the cultivated, closed-in part while he, who longs to be free, roams the wilder part. Neither enters the part of the other. Only the child Pierre, passionately loved by both parents, is at home everywhere in the first part of the story. Pierre is the friend of the flowers, the animals, of all of nature, and through him the painter relives once more his own lost childhood. When the painter finally decides to leave the family, even to give up Pierre, the child is suddenly seized by a violent illness. In a fever dream Pierre sees the flower garden which now seems endless. “Die Beete waren schöner, als er sie je gesehen hatte, aber die Blumen sahen alle so sonderbar gläsern, groß und fremdartig as und das Ganze glänzte in einer traurig toten Schönheit.”17 In this garden, familiar and yet so strange, little Pierre sees his father, his mother and older brothers walking along the path but each by himself with expressionless faces. Pierre tries to call to them but to no avail. The separation destroys Pierre's childhood paradise and really kills him. After the boy's death Veraguth-Hesse leaves for India.

In Klingsohrs letzter Sommer Hesse uses a masterly description of a Southern garden to symbolize the troubled passionate and complex mood preceeding the last summer and death of the painter Klingsohr. He achieves this through the most careful use of details which give one a feeling of the exuberance and rapid decay of Southern vegetation. Klingsohr has returned home late and stands on the balcony, looking over the garden.

“Unter ihm sank tief und schwindelnd der alte Terrassengarten hinab, ein tief durschattetes Gewühl dichter Baumwipfel, Palmen, Zedern, Kastanien, Judasbaum, Blutbuche, Eukalyptus, durckklettert von Schlingpflanzen, Lianen, Glyzinen. Über der Baumschwärze schimmerten blaßspiegelnd die großen blechernen Blätter der Sommermagnolien, riesige schneeweiße Blüten dazwischen halbgeschlossen groß wie Menschenköpfe, bleich wie Mond und Elfenbein, von denen durchdringend und beschwingt ein inniger Zitronengeruch herüberkam. Aus unbestimmter Ferne der müden Schwingen kam Musik geflogen, vielleicht eine Gitarre, vielleicht Klavier, nicht zu unterscheiden. In den Geflügelhöfen schrie plötzlich ein Pfau auf, zwei- und dreimal, und durchriß die waldige Nacht mit dem kurzen, bösen und hölzernen Ton seiner gepeinigten Stimme, wie wenn das Leid aller Tierwelt ungeschlacht und schrill aus der Tiefe schelte. Sternlicht floß durch das Waldtal, hoch und verlassen blickte eine weiße Kapelle aus dem endlosen Walde, verzaubert und alt. See, Berge und Himmel flossen in der Ferne ineinander.”18

The description reminds one of Novalis whose influence on this story is felt in many ways. Hesse himself has told which of his own gardens he used in different novels. In Klingsohr the garden of Montagnola, near Lugano where Hesse has lived most of the time since 1920, was used.

Stunden im Garten, a most charming idyll, gives a complete picture of the same garden in an entirely different mood; it also presents all the different attitudes and uses Hesse makes of the garden motif. With Hesse we enter the garden early one morning and walk down past the vineyard to the vegetable terrace. The summer flowers along the path are a picture of the quick growing, blooming, and passing of life. The carrots recall to Hesse the happy childhood time when he ate them raw, but now the remembrance is only one of tender reminiscence, not of bitter longing. We watch Hesse typing up the tomatoes, which he does with love and skill. When it gets too warm, he goes to his favorite spot in the garden to burn weeds to be used later as fertilizer. This burning takes on symbolic character. As the weeds turn to ashes and new earth, so the soul through meditation and penance returns to the One—to God. Sitting at his little fire, Hesse, who feels his mission is to educate others, admonishes himself to patience. The regular beat, as he sifts the new won earth, sounds to him like a Mozart melody and starts him on the Glasperlenspiel “eine hübsche Erfindung, deren Gerüst die Musik und deren Grund die Meditation ist … In Zeiten der Freude ist sie mir Spiel und Glück, in Zeiten des Leids und der Wirren ist sie mir Trost und Besinnung …”19 The poem closes with Hesse's being called to lunch by his wife. (Hesse married again in the early thirties.) He finishes the meal eating raspberries raised by himself. The poem expresses hard-won peace and contentment. Hesse has achieved a synthesis of the world of the mind and the world of the senses. The garden is now a place where he attains unity with nature by working with the plants and earth. It is also a retreat from the ordinary cares of life, a place of thinking, meditation, and worship.

In the second Lebenslauf or Vita of Joseph Knecht, called Der Beichtiger, we find the garden mentioned as the last resting place. This is the story of two hermits, living in the desert, who at first separately and later jointly listen to the confessions of people. When the older one feels death approaching, he asks the younger one to help him dig his grave in their little garden and to plant a palm tree on his last resting place after his death. The story closes with: “Er begrub ihn, er pflanzte den Baum auf das Grab und erlebte noch das Jahr, in welchem der Baum die ersten Früchte trug.”20

May I close with a few lines of poetry which Hesse addressed to his sister:

“Bald holt in seinen Garten
Mich heim ins Abendrot,
Wo Vater und Mutter warten
Der gute Gärtner Tod.”(21)


  1. Knulp, p. 122.

  2. Unterm Rad, p. 212.

  3. Trost der Nacht, p. 69.

  4. Gedichte (1925): Im Garten meiner Mutter steht, p. 84.

  5. Märchen-Iris, p. 140.

  6. Gertrud, p. 213.

  7. Demian, p. 199.

  8. Gedenkblätter, p. 143.

  9. Ibid., p. 171.

  10. Wanderung, p. 109.

  11. Unterm Rad, pp. 211, 229–30.

  12. Siddharta, p. 85.

  13. Glasperlenspiel, vol. I, p. 197.

  14. Ibid., vol. I, p. 379.

  15. Ibid., vol. II, p. 148.

  16. Gertrud, p. 264.

  17. Rosshalde, p. 191.

  18. Klingsohrs letzter Sommer, p. 152.

  19. Stunden im Garten, p. 58.

  20. Das Glasperlenspiel, vol. 2, p. 380.

  21. Trost der Nacht, p. 123.

Johannes Malthaner (essay date 1952)

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SOURCE: “Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha,” in German Quarterly, Vol. XXV, No. 2, March, 1952, pp. 103–09.

[In the following essay, Malthaner discusses the relative “unpopularity” of Hesse's writing in the United States prior to the early 1950s, due to Hesse's preoccupations with autobiography and “Weltanschauung,” a philosophy of life, and how Siddhartha is such a work of literature.]

Herman Hesse, the German-Swiss poet and novelist, is relatively little known in this country although a good deal of publicity has been given him since he was granted the Nobel prize for literature in 1946. This “unpopularity” of Hesse is only partly due to the fact that he writes in a foreign tongue—until very recently only very few of his works have been available in English translations—, even now his books are little in demand outside of university circles. That means that Hesse has not caught the fancy of the American public, that he has so far no large popular following. The main reason for this is, as I see it, that his novels do not have a strong plot around which the action revolves and therefore lack suspense or excitement. They are largely autobiographical and deal with questions of “Weltanschauung”, of a philosophy of life. The plot is used by Hesse to drape his thoughts around it, to have an opportunity to present his innermost thoughts and the struggle for an understanding of the great problems of life. Hesse is, and always has been, a god-seeker; he has a message for his fellow-men, but one must “study” him, read and re-read his works carefully if one wants to get the full benefit of their message. His works are not so much for entertainment but rather want to give food for thought; they have therefore a very strong appeal for the serious minded reader but not for the masses that crave excitement and entertainment instead of beauty and depth.

Herman Hesse's novel Siddhartha is just such a work of literature, and it is of special interest to the student of literature, and of Hesse in particular, because it marks an important step in the development of Hesse and is unique in German literature in its presentation of Eastern philosophy.

The novel is largely auto-biographical and has a long and interesting history. It is no doubt true of all great works of art that they do not just happen, that they are not products of chance. Great works of literature have their roots way back in the life of their writers, they have grown out of life and are part of the life of their creators; great works of literature are not factory products but grow and ripen slowly to full bloom. This is especially true of Siddhartha.

Siddhartha was published in 1922 but has its roots in the earliest childhood of Hesse. His parents had been missionaries to India, his mother having been born in India of missionary parents; but on account of the poor health of Hesse's father the family had to return to Europe and came to Calw, a small Black Forest town, to help the maternal grandfather of Hesse, Dr. Gundert, the director of their mission and a famous Indian scholar and linguist. Indian songs and books, frequent discussions about India with visiting missionaries and scholars, a large library of Indian and Chinese writings, also many objects of Eastern art created great interest and left a deep impression on Hesse ever since his childhood.

The first part of Siddhartha, up to the meeting with the courtesan Kamala, was written before 1919 and was first published in the literary magazine Neue Rundschau. Siddhartha is the son of a rich Brahman of India. He is a good obedient son and the joy of his parents, but one day he awakens to the realization that his life is empty, that his soul has been left unsatisfied by his devotion to duty and the strict observance of all religious ordinances. He wants to find God who so far has been to him only a vague idea, distant and unreal, although he tried to serve him with sincerity of heart to the best of his understanding. Young Siddhartha realizes that he is at a dead end and that he must break away. So he leaves home leaving behind him all that he so far had loved and treasured, all the comforts, giving up his high social position, and becomes a Samana, an itinerant monk, with no earthly possessions anymore, accompanied by his boyhood friend Govinda who has decided to follow Siddhartha's lead. By fasting and exposing his body to the rigors of the weather, Siddhartha wants to empty himself completely of all physical desires so that by any chance he may hear the voice of God speaking to his soul, that he may find peace.

Hesse's books are confessions, and the story of Siddhartha is his own story describing his own doubts and struggle. He, too, had rebelled: against the pietistic orthodoxy of his parents and the strict school system in Germany that destroyed any attempt of independence in its pupils. So he ran away to shape his own life. Self-education is the main theme of most of the novels of Hesse, especially of the books of his youth. Self-education has been for centuries a very favorite theme in German literature and men like Luther, Goethe, Kant, and many other leading German writers and philosophers were the inspirers of German youth in their longing for independence.

It is significant that Hesse gave to a collection of four stories published in 1931, in which he included Siddhartha, the title of Weg nach Innen, Road to Within. Indeed, Siddhartha turns away from the outside observance of religious rituals and ordinances to a life of contemplation. So also does Hesse himself after the outbreak of World War I. Up to the war, Hesse had lived a rather quiet and self-satisfied life. After years of hard struggle to win recognition as a poet, he had found first success which brought him not only social recognition and financial security but also many friends and a home. But the war brought him a rather rude awakening out of his idylic life on the shore of Lake Constance where he had lived a rather happy and retired life. His apparently so secure and well ordered world came crashing down over his head. The vicious attacks by the German press and by many of his former friends for his stand against the war psychosis—Hesse was living at that time in Switzerland although he was still a German citizen—forced him to re-examine the fundamental truths on which he had built his life. He had become distrustful of religion as he saw it practised, and of education which had not prevented the western world of being plunged into a murderous war. Where was the truth? On what foundation could a man build his life? All had been found wanting.

Siddhartha is Hesse's attempt to restore his faith in mankind, to regain his lost peace of mind, and to find again a harmonious relationship with his world. A new more spiritual orientation takes place. He does no longer believe in the natural goodness of man, he is thrown back unto himself and comes to a new concept of God: No longer does he seek God in nature but, in the words of the Bible, he believed that “the Kingdom of God's is within you”.

Hesse confesses that he had been pious only up to his thirteenth year but then had become a skeptic. Now he becomes a believer again, to be sure it is not a return to the orthodox belief of his parents, he wants to include in his new concept of religion not only the teachings of Jesus but a'so those of Buddha and of the Holy Scriptures of India as well. In Krieg und Frieden Hesse states: “Die Lehre Jesus und die Lehre Lao Tses, die Lehre der Veden und die Lehre Goethes ist in dem, worin sie das ewig Menschliche trifft, dieselbe. Es gibt nur eine Lehre. Es gibt nur eine Religion.”

Returning to our story, we find that Siddhartha also as a Samana has not come nearer his goal of happiness and peace. It seems to him that his religious fervor had been nothing but self-deception, that all the time he had been in flight from himself. The hardships which he had endured as a Samana had not brought him nearer to God.

At this period of his life, Siddhartha hears of Gotama Buddha of whom it was said that he had attained that blissful state of godliness where the chain of reincarnations had been broken, that he had entered Nirvana. Siddhartha goes to find him, hears him teach the multitude, and then has a private conversation with the Holy One; but it becomes clear to him that the way of salvation can not be taught, that words and creeds are empty sounds, that each man must find the way by himself, the secret of the experience can not be passed on. So he leaves also Gotama Buddha and all teachers and teachings. Govinda, his friend, stays with Gotama and so Siddhartha cuts the last link with his past. He is now all alone. And he comes to the sudden realization that all through the years so far he has lived a separate life, that he actually never had sought a real understanding of his fellow men, that he knew very little of the world and of life all about him. For the first time in many years he really looks about him and perceives the beauty of the world. The world about him, from which he had fled, he now finds attractive and good. He must not seek to escape life but face it, live it.

This is the startling new discovery Siddhartha makes and so he decides to leave the wilderness. He comes to the big city where he sees at the gate the beautiful Kamala, the courtesan. He finds her favor and she teaches him the ways of the world. He discards his beggar's clothes and becomes in short time a very successful merchant. But his heart is neither in his love nor in his business; all the pleasures of the world can not still the hunger of his soul. He finds the world wanting, too, and, moreover, he must realize after a few years that the worldly things, the acquiring of money, have gradually taken possession of his life, that he is being enslaved and harassed by the necessity of making money in order to satisfy his extravagant tastes, that he has become a busy and unfree man whose thoughts dwell less and less on the eternal things.

So he cuts himself lose from all that he had acquired, leaves once again everything behind him, and goes back to the river which he had crossed when he gave up his life as a Samana.

At this point there is a long interruption in the writing of Siddhartha. Hesse realized that his knowledge of Eastern philosophy was not sufficient; he devoted himself therefore to a very thorough study of Indian philosophy and religion. After a year and a half he takes up the writing of the story again. It is quite evident, however, that the emphasis has shifted. Description from now on is practically absent, and the tone is lighter, the language, too, is not so heavy, not so mystic but transparent and more elevated. The whole concentration is on the spiritual element. Instead of long discussions of philosophies and systems, we find the emphasis now on Faith. He perceives that only through faith, not by doing or by teachings, can man penetrate to the source of light, can he find God.

At the bank of the river Siddhartha sits for a long time and lets his whole life pass in review before him. He finds that even the evil things which he had done lately had been necessary as an experience in order to bring him to an understanding of what life really was. But he also becomes discouraged because all his endeavors so far had not given him the desired insight and peace of soul. There was nothing left in life that might entice him, challenge him, comfort him; he finds himself subject to an unescapable chain of cause and effect, to repeated incarnations, each of which means a new beginning of suffering. Will he ever be able to break this chain? Will he ever be able to enter Nirvana? He doubts it and is at the point of drowning himself when the mysterious word “OM” comes to his mind. “OM” means “having completed”, in German “Vollendung”. He realizes the folly of his attempt to try to find peace and an end to his sufferings by extinguishing his physical being. Life is indestructible. Siddhartha realizes, too, that all life is one, that all creation is an indivisble one, that trees and birds are indeed his brothers; he sees his great mistake in trying always to do something instead of just to be.

He joins Vasudeva, the ferry man, who shows him the great secret of the river, namely that for the river the concept of time does not exist: The river just is, for the river there is no past, no future, no beginning, no end; for the river is only the presence. And for man, too, Vasudeva tells him, happiness is real only when causality—that is time—has ceased to exist for him. The problem is not, as Siddhartha had always understood it, to find perfection, but to find completion, “Vollendung”.

One more lesson Siddhartha had to learn. When he left Kamala she had known that she would bear him a child, but she did not tell Siddhartha because she realized that she could not and must not hold him back, that Siddhartha had to go his own way. Later, too, she felt the emptiness of her life; so one day she decides to seek Gotama Buddha of whom she had heard. Her way leads her to the river where, unknown to her, Siddartha lived and stopping at the bank of the river to rest, she is bitten by a poisonous snake. Siddhartha finds her dying and recognizes her. After he had buried her, he takes his son, a boy of some twelve or fourteen years of age, to him. Siddartha feels keenly the loss of Kamala, but it is not sadness that is in his heart for he knows now that all life is indestructible, that Kamala has only entered a new life, life in a wider sense, that in every blossom, in every breeze about him there is Kamala. He is not separated from her, never will be, in fact she is nearer to him now than ever before.

Siddhartha devotes himself to the education of his son but must make the painful experience that his love is not appreciated and his endeavors are repulsed. His son does not want the life Siddhartha thinks best for him, he wants to live his own life, and thus breaks away from his father as Siddhartha in his own youth had broken away from his own father. With the loss of his son, there is nothing left that binds Siddhartha to this world. He realizes that this had to come, so that he would no longer fight what he considered fate but give himself unreservedly to his destiny; thus Siddhartha has overcome suffering at last and with it has attained the last step of his completion, he has entered into Nirvana; now peace has come to Siddhartha at last.

Leroy R. Shaw (essay date 1957)

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SOURCE: “Time and the Structure of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha,” in Symposium, Vol. 11, No. 1, Fall, 1957, pp. 204–24.

[In the following essay, Shaw assesses Hesse's attempt in Siddhartha to transcend the limitations of time and to experience temporal unity.]

In 1911 Hermann Hesse set out upon a voyage to India, “to see,” he tells us, “the sacred tree and snake [of Buddha] and to go back into that source of life where everything had begun and which signifies the Oneness [Einheit] of all phenomena.”1 The vagueness of these words, written some ten years after his return to Europe, testifies to Hesse's uncertainty concerning the exact nature of his quest. The unity or oneness he sought may have been nothing more than a resolution of the conflicts developing within his own personality; it may refer to a cultural and political harmony he had not been able to find in Europe during the years before the Great War; or it may simply reflect the longing of someone steeped in the German Romantic tradition for a feeling of identity between the self and the world about one. Whatever the purpose of his search, however, it is clear that India, and more specifically the philosophy of Buddhism, which were familiar to Hesse from boyhood through his grandfather's scholarly and missionary activities,2 were supposed to contain the goal for which he was seeking.

The mission was a failure,3 not merely because Hesse found nothing to match his ideal, but because the motivation for it had already prejudiced his chances of finding what he sought. The voyage, Hesse confesses, had been an escape, an attempt to exchange one continent for another and to replace immediate circumstances with a more remote, but no less limited way of life. He had compromised the hope of universal oneness, therefore, by assuming it might be attained through sacrificing one portion of experience and through abjuring the responsibilities which had bound him to a present time and place.

The voyage to India convinced Hesse that oneness, whatever it was and wherever it existed, would produce a harmonious condition in which every contrast and all opposing forces had finally been resolved. Furthermore, it had become clear that the unity he desired did not reside in any particular philosophy or place, but that it belonged to “a subterranean and timeless world of values and the spirit” of which the visible marks of a civilization were only an external manifestation.4 Unity, in short, resided only in the timeless. With this realization the problem of finding unity became, for Hesse, the problem of transcending the limitations imposed by the domain of time. He had to learn to accept the present, but with the knowledge that it was only the embodiment of an essence which time itself had no power to destroy.

Siddhartha, eine indische Dichtung (1922), is in part a testimony to this awareness, in part a vision of the manner in which Hesse thought his problem might be solved. India, and the way of Buddhism, are joined to his own experience in the story of a man who achieves unity and the timeless through the realization that search, and the attainment of search, are simultaneous realities of existence. In the discussion which follows I shall try to show how Hesse was able to communicate this vision through an intricate and remarkable welding of meaning and form. Siddhartha stands almost alone in modern German fiction as an example of a work in which the structure is the idea, the latter growing organically out of the former and not fully revealed until the last element of composition has been fitted into its proper place.

Siddhartha, young “son of the Brahmans,”5 is propelled by the same search, and has the same foreknowledge of the goal, as Hesse himself. In the opening chapter of the novelle he is pictured meditating upon the magic syllable OM, “the word of words” which stands for Perfection or the Perfected:

OM ist Bogen, der Pfeil ist Seele,
Das Brahman ist des Pfeiles Ziel.
Das soll man unentwegt treffen.


OM, the alpha and omega of every Vedic text, is a symbol for that “holy power,” as Heinrich Zimmer describes it, which “turns into and animates everything within the microcosm as well as in the outer world,”6 a power without form or substance itself and yet the source of everything that was, is, or shall be. Brahman, the impersonal and universal godhead, is one aspect of this power, and Atman, the individual soul or Self, is an expression for the infinite aspects which are identical to it. To merge within this micro-macrocosmic essence, then, and by this merging find the unity which is without time and yet made manifest only in the multiplicities of time, is the goal Siddhartha envisages as the perfect fulfillment of his way upon earth.

The vocabulary of Indian philosophy suggests first of all the several dimensions concentrated in the single action of this novelle. Although Siddhartha's story recapitulates the search of a contemporary westerner, it also recalls the hyperconscious striving of an immemorial Eastern tradition as well. “The search for a basic unity underlying the manifold of the universe,” according to Zimmer, had been “the chief motivation” of Indian philosophies since the time of the earliest Vedic hymns.7Siddhartha is a legend, therefore, a story which is the amalgam of several possible actions, each of which has its origin in a discrete moment of historical time and yet is simultaneously identified with a multitude of other actions taking place on other levels of experience.

Legend as the framework of the novelle offers the first clue to the manner in which Hesse imagined the attainment of a timeless reality. A second is given in Siddhartha's unusual foreknowledge of the goal. Like Hesse's own yearning to “go back into the source of life,” Siddhartha's undertaking bears the characteristic of a return to, or from another point of view, of a discovery, by the self, of something that is already there. In his own words, he seeks “at-homeness in Atman,” a goal which is at the same time the place from which he has already departed. Unlike the classic novel of development, the story of Siddhartha's way to perfection is not the logical and inevitable unfolding of one event out of the other towards an end which could not have been foreseen from the beginning; it is rather an ever-expanding awareness of a reality already known, a progression which is at the same time a regression to a condition forever in being. We must be prepared, therefore, for a type of structure in which the various moments of the protagonist's life are presented as parts of a whole that is already existent even though it has not yet been realized in his actual experience. The events of the story occur in the fleeting instant, to be sure, but an instant in which the goal as well as the search, the process of what is developing as well as the end of development, are both implied.

With these facts in mind we may turn now to the implications of Hesse's title, with its suggestive reminder that the historical Buddha, Gotama Sakyamuni,8 acclaimed during his own lifetime as One who had found the way to Perfection, himself bore the given name of Siddhartha. It is striking that the life of Hesse's protagonist runs almost parallel to the little that is known of the Buddha's obscure history. The latter involves three basic events: the leave-taking from his father's house, the frustrating years wasted in vacillation between the pursuit of worldly desires and a life of extreme asceticism, and finally, the determination of the Middle Path as the only road to Enlightenment. Siddhartha also follows this course, if not in strict chronological sequence, still in the same pattern of significant experiences. The sole difference here—which, as I shall try to show, amounts to only a superficial distinction—consists in the fact that the Buddha left a body of sermons and teachings which are not advanced by Hesse's hero.9

The parallel just noted, which forms the structural backbone of this work, comes from Hesse's desire to superimpose upon his story of the seeker a portrait of the sage who had already found his way. Being and Becoming are both represented in the story, therefore, the former in the existence of a man who has found unity, the latter in the presence of a man who has identified himself with perfection although he is still approaching it. In this sense, time, the troubled present in which one seeks the way, is transcended in the novelle by the timeless fact of the goal already achieved. Siddhartha, indeed, is both seeker and sage, the One in whom perfection hovers as a silent attendant within the actions of the One who is still unperfected. His actual encounter with the Buddha in the course of the story anticipates this absolute crossing of the timeless with time, for here the aspect of life which is Becoming meets the aspect of a life already in Being, the One who is already perfect encounters himself in the process of attaining perfection. The fact that these two aspects do not coalesce at this point, and that Siddhartha refrains from declaring himself a disciple of Gotama although acknowledging the latter as a living Buddha, is essential to Hesse's message, for it signifies the distance which experience always intrudes between the seeker and his goal. Time, the sum of moments which the Buddha has already transcended in himself, must first be lived out in Siddhartha's own life.

The course of Siddhartha's discovery of the Self, his realization, so to speak, of the Buddha who is already within him, is therefore a process of acquiring the wisdom of the historical Sakyamuni while he himself is finding the way to enlightenment. The external design of the novelle—its division into two major parts, of which the first contains four, the second eight separate sections—corresponds in extremely subtle fashion to the Buddha's celebrated doctrine of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path to salvation from human suffering. This is not to say that Siddhartha is intended as a biography of the Buddha, or as a literal presentation of his doctrine, but that it has drawn upon the essential language of Buddhism in order to support Hesse's identification of the One-in-Being with the One-Becoming by tracing the seeker's acquisition of those virtues which are the special wisdom of an enlightened sage.

The first part of the novelle, written near the end of the First World War,10 brings Siddhartha the knowledge of Buddha's Four Noble Truths. The experiences recounted here reflect certain events in Hesse's life up to his return from India and convey the realization, already noted, that the problem of finding unity was a problem of transcending time and that, paradoxically, the way into this timeless realm led through the multiple fields of the Here and Now. In the second part of the novelle, then, Siddhartha undertakes this journey through experience and arrives at the goal he is seeking.

Buddha's First Noble Truth is revealed to Siddhartha while he is still a son of the Brahmans dwelling in his father's house. The world of the father is a world of things as they have become, determined by the past and geared to the perpetual repetition of an unchanging way of life. Ritual and formula govern this world, and life in it revolves around the rendering of sacrifices and offerings at “the accustomed time,” the performance of established duties from which not even the “most blameless” of men, Siddhartha's own father, is free. He must “cleanse himself every day, strive for purification every day, every day anew” (621).11

The world of the father, then, is fixed in the moment and regulated according to the set times of an inherited manner of existence. What will come is the same as what has been; the present exists only as the appointed moment for acting within a cycle of time that is forever revolving around the same course. This, Hesse indicates, is the world into which all men are born—orthodox, traditional, determined by the past—a world in which they suffer not only from the imposition of a way of life that is not of their own making, but also because time, the necessity of living according to a ritualized moment, stands between them and the reality they seek. Between Brahman and Atman, the universal godhead and the Self that is supposed to be identical to it, lies the ethic of the gods and their demands, mere formulas for life which are no less “ephemeral and subject to time” than man himself. Thus Siddhartha, as a son of the Brahmans, suffers from the impossibility of translating the consciousness of truth, his foreknowledge of the goal, into the actual experience of living free from the repeated phases of established time.

When he leaves this world of the father, Siddhartha sets out with his friend Govinda to find a place in which “the cycle of time might be eluded, the end of causes [found], and an eternity without suffering would begin” (627). Like the historical Buddha, he joins the jackal men called Samanas,12 fanatic ascetics for whom enlightenment was to be found only through denial of the flesh and all worldly desires. Among the Samanas Siddhartha tries “to kill memory and his senses,” to deny the sum of things as they had been, withdraw from the present, and close himself off from the possibility of further experience. He tries, in short, to escape from time. The arts of the Samanas are conscious attempts of the intellect, exercising itself through the will, to free the self from all temporal effects. Through fasting, Siddhartha tries to make himself physiologically independent of the moment; through thinking, to control what the moment might bring him and to determine his own attitude towards it; and through waiting, to suspend the moment between a part he has rejected and a future condition which he hopes to will into existence. The purpose of Siddhartha's life among the Samanas may be summed up in the rhyming words leer and nicht mehr: to be no longer subject to the experience of time, but to be “empty of thirst, empty of desire, empty of dream, empty of joy and sorrow,” to become a void which only Atman-Brahman, the timeless unity of his search, would be sufficient to fill.

The way of asceticism succeeds only in revealing to Siddhartha the second of Buddha's Noble Truths—that the cause of suffering is the craving for something which can never be satisfied: “Although Siddhartha fled from himself a thousand times, lingered in nothingness, in an animal, in a stone, the return was inevitable, the hour unavoidable when he came back to find himself once more, in moonlight or in sunshine, in shadow or in rain, when he became himself again, Siddhartha once more, and again felt the torture of an imposed cycle of time” (627–628). No matter what his way of escape, then, Siddhartha always returns to the self restricted by time. Thus he realizes not merely that asceticism can bring him no salvation, but also that it is impossible to solve the problem of time by trying to crush it with an act of will. His attempts to escape from suffering only lead to further suffering; the denial of the moment serves only to accelerate the temporal cycle. Siddhartha has learned that the timeless may not be found apart from the medium of that self which time is still in the process of making. Being does not reveal itself through the negation of Becoming.

In “Gotama,” the next chapter of the novelle, Siddhartha discovers the third of Buddha's Noble Truths through an encounter with the historical sage himself. The presence of the Enlightened One proves that there is a way of release from suffering. Gotama has made “the highest wisdom his own; he has remembered his previous lives, he had reached Nirvana and returned no longer into the cycle of time, he immersed himself no longer in the murky stream of illusionary forms” (632).13 In Buddha, then, the searching Siddhartha sees a living demonstration of the fact that it is not necessary to depart from time in order to know the timeless. Yet at the same time the presence of the Buddha, who has learned to preserve the memory of what was and yet not be bound to it, who has found his place in the present and yet is still at home in Atman, is a reminder that the roots of the timeless are embedded in the experiences acted out within the world of time.

Siddhartha's recognition of Gotama is unhesitating and unequivocal: “I have not doubted for a moment that you are Buddha, that you have reached the goal, the highest, which so many thousand Brahmans and sons of the Brahmans are looking for” (642). Nevertheless, he does not become a disciple of Buddha, as his friend Govinda does, for reasons which are both pertinent and revealing. The Samanas had taught him to look upon experience only with his intellect; under this influence, he cannot overlook a logical error in the Buddha's teaching. Gotama, he claims, had clearly demonstrated “the unity of the world, and the interconnection of all that happens,” but he had himself broken that unity by advising one to overcome the world and seek salvation outside of it. In contradiction to his own presence, therefore, Gotama seems to Siddhartha to preach that timelessness lies in abjuration of the world and of present time.

Buddha himself answers this argument in warning Siddhartha against a too zealous and trusting attention to words: “Be on your guard, o eager seeker for knowledge, before the thicket of opinions and the strife over words” (642). Buddha may speak this way, indeed, because he knows that wisdom is not limited to his own doctrine and because that doctrine has been promulgated solely for the sake of those, like Govinda, who depend upon another's word in order to receive a hint as to their own way into enlightenment. Eventually, when he has reached the wisdom the Buddha now possesses, Siddhartha will admit the justness of Gotama's admonition. “Salvation and virtue, even Sansara and Nirvana,”14 he will tell Govinda, “are only words. There is no Nirvana as such; there is only the word” (728).

Siddhartha refuses to become a disciple of Buddha for another reason which is more fundamental, perhaps, since it leads to a revelation of the fourth Buddhistic truth. “One thing,” he says to Gotama, “is not contained in your clear and most respected doctrine; it does not contain the secret of what the Buddha has experienced himself” (643). Buddha, in other words, cannot direct Siddhartha towards his goal because the way lies through Siddhartha's knowledge of himself. This is at one and the same time a confession that a man may not learn salvation from any teacher, even if that teacher be Buddha himself, and a recognition that the path to unity and the timeless lies through one's own experience of temporality, in that very process of Becoming which seems to contradict the absolute state of Being.

In “Erwachen” Hesse stresses the word hier as the sign of Siddhartha's acceptance of the fact that his way of discovery leads through the determining world of the Here and Now. After perceiving this truth, Siddhartha suddenly finds that “the world is beautiful, the world is many-colored, the world is strange and full of mystery”: “Here was blue, here was yellow, here was green. The sky was in flux, as was the river, the forest was silent, as were the mountains, everything was beautiful, everything mysterious and magical, and in the middle of it all was Siddhartha, the Awakening One, on the way to himself. … Meaning and essence were not hidden somewhere behind things; it was in them, in everything” (647). Thus in the midst of what exists with himself as the center of the various phenomena in time, Siddhartha sets out to discover what he is. He calls this turning point in his life a rebirth, the first of several in the course of the action, a rebirth which signifies death to what he was and ignorance of what he is to be. He knows he cannot “go home any longer, no longer to his father, no longer back”; but he knows also that he does not know “where he belongs, whose life he will share, what language he will speak” (649). For Siddhartha it is a moment without a remembered past and without a discernible future, a present which is more than a time of transition, however, since it offers the potential reality of a timelessness that contains the sum, and yet is more than the sum, of all individual instants in time. Although Siddhartha barely realizes it, he is very close in this supreme awareness of a suspended present to the Oneness he seeks. At the end of a period in his life which had brought him the knowledge of Buddha's Four Noble Truths, he is ready now to enter upon the Eightfold Path, the way of multiple experience in time, which will bring him those virtues of enlightenment by means of which his Self will become at one with Brahman.

The first night after leaving Gotama, Siddhartha finds himself in the hut of a ferryman on the banks of a great river. It is an appropriate departure point for one who is about to embark on a discovery of the Self, not only because the river symbolizes the nature of the reality towards which Siddhartha is moving, but also because it marks out the course he must travel in order to arrive at the goal. Siddhartha will cross and recross the river many times during his error-laden search, and return in the end to the very place from which he started, with the realization that the several paths of his experience were all implicit in the beginning.

The river is the first of two master tropes into which Hesse concentrates the action and meaning of this latter portion of the novelle. The second is the image of sound which Siddhartha first perceives as the innermost “voice” belonging to every object, by means of which it proclaims its own nature. As he contemplates the river, listening to it sing the song of itself through the forms and attributes peculiar to it, it seems to Siddhartha that the river is telling him how to undertake his own voyage of discovery. He must go the way of experience, getting to know himself in the course of creating himself, becoming acquainted with his own characteristics before he can find the nature of the being hiding within. In following his own “voice,” Siddhartha believes he has found the way which will lead him home again to Atman. “He would long for nothing except what the voice commanded him to long for, linger nowhere except where the voice advised him” (652).

Siddhartha's voice leads him first onto a path that is directly opposite to the way of a Samana. Instead of denying the senses, he decides now to exploit them; instead of escaping from the present, he elects to explore it to the full. With this decision he enters into that world of time which the Indian pantheon assigns to the god Kama, lord of desires,15 who has left his mark upon the names of those who are closest to Siddhartha during this phase of his life. In “Kamala” he becomes the disciple of a famous courtesan and learns from her the arts of love and sensual pleasure; in “Bei den Kindermenschen” he is apprenticed to Kamaswami, a great merchant, and finds the secrets of success in business and commerce.

From both these worldlings Siddhartha learns much that is useful in the world of time: how to reside happily in the moment and induce it to yield its fruits; how to utilize the present so that it will produce a desired consequence in the future. Yet at the same time, and almost without his knowing it, Siddhartha's life in the world of Kama brings him the first of those virtues which are appropriate to a seeker on his way to enlightenment. From Kamala he learns “right attitude,” the correct way to approach an experience through complete surrender of the self even while the purpose of the experience is kept steadily in mind; and from Kamaswami he learns “right aspiration,” that there is no real profit in working for an immediate gain, as the merchant himself does, in constant fear of losing the little he already has, but that there is always a worthwhile return in any voluntary investment of the temporal moment.

The world of Kama does not, however, lead Siddhartha onto the way that is right for him alone. In learning from Kamala and Kamaswami, in following the direction they had taken before him, Siddhartha finds that he has lost his own path: “going through the things of this world,” he once tells Kamala, “like a stone through the water, without doing anything and without bestirring himself” (663). He has begun, in short, to separate the Self from its experience, acting in such a way that he cannot become part of the immediate experience nor it a part of him. Gradually, then, as the years pass, Siddhartha notices that “the divine voice in his own heart became a memory”; “the sacred source which had once been so near and had once rustled so deep inside him was distant now and barely discernible” (673). Thus Siddhartha learns, through his disappointment, the Buddhistic virtue of “right speech,” the lesson that one cannot hear the voice within if the ear is too closely attuned to the dialogue of others. He becomes like the bird which Kamala keeps in a golden cage: beautiful to look upon, but unable to sing, some day to be cast out upon the street to die.16

In “Sansara” Siddhartha experiences the last bitter consequences of a life adjusted to the sensuous moment. He finds that he has been playing a game “whose rules he endeavored to learn exactly, but whose meaning had never touched his heart” (666). And after becoming a perfect player of the game, as he had once been a model son of the Brahmans and paramount among the Samanas—the desire to excel never leaves this seeker for perfection—Siddhartha discovers that he has become a slave to the very thing he had mastered, a gambler, as Hesse pictures him, waiting anxiously upon every turn of the dice, hoping for a possible break within the cycle of predictable events. Even his play with Kamala fits now into this unending round of being, Sansara, “the game without end, a game for children, glorious to play once, twice, or even ten times perhaps, but [not] for always” (680).

In the end, Siddhartha's devotion to Kama brings him only the poignant experiences common to anyone who must live out his life in time. He encounters boredom, and with it the fatal necessity of repeating pleasures over and over in the futile attempt to keep boredom from returning. And finally, as the years accumulate upon him, Siddhartha sees that the cycle of the senses is revolving slowly but inevitably around the fixed point of death. One night, after a conversation in which Kamala begs him to tell again of his meeting with Gotama, Siddhartha “reads a frightened script underneath her eyes and near the corners of her mouth, a script of fine lines and soft furrows, a script which reminded him of autumn and of death” (677). Suddenly he becomes afraid, for the mention of Buddha, recalling him to his effort to free himself from the limitations of becoming, warns him that time is drawing to a close without his having found a way to transcend it. That very night, departing from Kamala's arms, he leaves the world of the exploited moment forever.

Siddhartha's renewed search for the goal soon leads him to the same river from which he had once started. Again it reflects his present state, appearing now as a boundary beyond which he cannot go, a literal reminder of the fact that he had exhausted the possibilities of search and still not found the essence for which he had been seeking. As a Samana he had emptied himself of all experience to create a void for the reception of Atman-Brahman; afterwards, among the childlike ones [Kindermenschen], he had tried to accumulate experience in the hope that the sum of it would yield an ultimate reality. Thus frustrated at the extreme poles of time-denied and time-exploited, it seems to Siddhartha that there is nothing left for him to do and no place left in which to search.

Yet as he gazes upon the river, recalling the enthusiasm with which he had crossed it years before, Siddhartha remembers that the ferryman had predicted his return to this very spot: “Everything comes again, and you too, Siddhartha, will also come again” (653). The fulfillment of the prophecy comforts him, for he realizes that his life in the world of Kama was an inevitable, but temporary phase of his discovery of the Self. The river represents not only the completion of one cycle of his existence, it marks the beginning of a new life with the past already behind him. Once more, then, as in the moment after his encounter with Gotama, Siddhartha is suspended between that which was and that which shall be, curiously close to the timeless because he exists in a present undetermined by specific time.

In this moment between life and death, Siddhartha falls into a deep sleep. And when, after several hours, he awakens, “the past seemed to him as if it were covered by a veil, infinitely far away, a matter of infinite indifference. He knew only that he had left his former life (which, at the first moment of consciousness, seemed far away like an embodiment, or an earlier existence, of his present Self), and that now. … awake, he was looking out into the world as a new man” (684). This renewal through sleep, like Hesse's own descent into the underworld of the Jungian unconscious during the First World War,17 is not quite the same as the rebirth noted earlier in “Erwachen.” There Siddhartha had tried consciously and deliberately to break with the past, to deny what had been for the sake of what might come, exchanging one world of time for the other. The present rebirth, on the other hand, takes direct issue with the past and puts it in a proper relationship to present existence. As something once lived, the past is a matter of “indifference” and no longer has the power, as it had in the world of the father, to determine the future; but as a part of life, as a factor entering into the creation of what Siddhartha had become, the past, revealing itself through memory, exists still as a bridge between life experienced and life still being lived, a previous embodiment, in Siddhartha's words, of the present self.

The initial result of this dip into the past is to recall Siddhartha to his goal and to remind him of his continuing search. The sleep itself appears as a “long immersion in the depths of OM, in the Nameless, the Perfected” (684); and he awakens to find Govinda, the friend who had begun his search with him and is still seeking, at his side. With this recollection of what had been, this residue of the essential past establishing his permanent condition, Siddhartha is able to make a clear evaluation of the “round-about ways” of his life so far. He sees that it had been a mistake to try to control the direction of life, for this could be done only by submission to the repetitive cycles of time. “Your life is going backwards!” he tells himself, and considers that a long lifetime of experience and wandering have brought him nowhere at all. Yet once more the river, which mirrors his present condition in its constant flow downstream, also sends back the knowledge of himself by which his subsequent actions may be guided. In “Am Flusse” Siddhartha learns the Buddhistic lesson of “right conduct,” that one must take the way which comes naturally, heeding only the voice of oneself, without trying to arrange the course of discovery in advance. “No matter where my way will go,” he promises, “let it go where it may, I will take it” (600).

The promise involves Siddhartha in a paradox, for he decides to stay by the river and learn from it, to find his Self, in short, by ceasing to create it through experience in time. With this decision the full significance of Hesse's choice of the river image becomes clear. In India, where water plays such a large role in domestic and religious life, and the cry of Ko paraga? (Who is going to the other shore?) is a familiar and often-heard phrase, the river has become a symbol common to all philosophies of timeless perfection. In the Vedic hymns the knowledge of enlightenment is called the “Transcendental Wisdom of the Far Bank,” in Jainism the wise men are known as “Makers of the Crossing,” and in Buddhism itself, the doctrine is identified as the “Knowledge that goes to the Other Shore.” The river is life and the teachings of the sage are that “boat of virtues” in which the seeker undertakes his voyage to the state of enlightenment symbolized by the other shore.18

When Siddhartha decides to remain by the river and become a helper to the ferryman Vasudeva, then, he acts like the Indian novitiate surrendering himself, his own will and his own preconceptions, into the hands of a wise man in order to learn from his example how one may discover the way to perfection. Vasudeva (the name is that of a legendary Hindu king who was the father of Krishna, the Savior, and means “one who dwells in all beings”) may be compared to the Bodhisattva of Mahayana Buddhism, “a sublimely indifferent, compassionate being who remains at the threshhold of Nirvana for the comfort and salvation of the world.”19 Because he has stopped at the brink of time and eternity, poised between this world and the state of enlightenment, yet with a knowledge of enlightenment, Vasudeva appears in the novelle as another aspect of Buddha, a sort of intermediary, let us say, between the aspect of Seeker personified in Siddhartha, and the aspect of Perfected personified in Gotama.20 Vasudeva's function is to teach Siddhartha Buddha's “right means of livelihood,” the occupation which, under the guidance of a maker of the crossing, will bring him knowledge of the virtues necessary for the final stages in his passage to the other shore.

The ferryman, counseling Siddhartha to hearken to the voice of the river, brings together the two main images of this second of the novelle: “The river has taught me how to listen, and you too will learn listening from it; the river knows everything and one can learn everything from it” (697). It is the doctrine that knowledge resides in the present time and place, and that from one's position in the Here and Now, in the depths of the fleeting instant, one can discover all there is to know. Wisdom lies not in denying the present, nor in trying to exploit it, but in accepting it as the repository for truths that are not apparent in the visible context of a single moment.

In his deep sleep on the banks of the river Siddhartha had discovered an unsuspected dimension to his life in the memory of a past which was still part of the present moment. In “Der Fährmann,” listening to the voice of the river, he sees further that his earlier distinction between past and present was only an apparent one. “The water ran and ran, forever and ever it ran, and yet was always there, was always and at all times the same and yet new in every moment” (694). Because it is “simultaneously here and there,” no matter what its form, no matter what its position, “everywhere at the same time,” the essence of the river remains always existent. And so it is with Siddhartha's own life, for he himself has always been the same in spite of the changing aspects of his temporal experience. Time, then, does not really exist: “Nothing was, nothing will be; everything is, everything has essence and is present” (698). Likewise, the experience of time—the fear of ephemerality, the weight of boredom, the terror of a determining past—are only the shadows of a mind thinking in temporal terms.

Without this fear of time, Siddhartha is soon able to destroy the illusion of multiplicity. As there are no breaks in his continual process of Becoming, of realizing the Being which lies eternally within him, so there are no barriers between the various phenomena of the world or between himself and these phenomena. The river, Siddhartha hears, speaks “with a thousand voices,” all of them identical, the multitudinous voices of Atman echoing the single cosmic voice of Brahman. And the sound is OM, “the name that had always been and would always be, the voice of life itself, the voice of Being, of the eternal Becoming” (699).

Thus the difference between Siddhartha and Gotama, which had seemed so vast to the seeker at his meeting with the sage, becomes non-existent. The knowledge Siddhartha has been acquiring is the same as that already possessed by Gotama, and in becoming enlightened, he has already begun to resemble the Enlightened One himself: “For a long time now [Siddhartha] had known that he was no longer separated from Gotama although he had not been able to accept his teaching. A true seeker, he knew, one who really wanted to find, could accept no teaching, but the man who had already found could approve every teaching, every way, every goal; nothing separated him any longer from the thousands of others who lived in the eternal and breathed the Divine” (701). So close is Siddhartha to this realization of his goal that Kamala, who chances upon him in her own search for Buddha, suffers no disappointment in having to die with only a glimpse of Siddhartha's face: “It was good, just as good, as if she had seen [the Buddha] himself” (704). Her death advises him of his nearness to the goal, if only because it confirms his knowledge that the final stroke of time, the cessation of temporal existence itself, cannot destroy the timeless unity present in all things. Looking upon her countenance in death, Siddhartha was “filled with the feeling of presentness and simultaneity, the feeling of eternity; in this hour, deeper than ever before, he perceived the indestructibility of each life, the eternity of every moment” (704).

If the novelle does not end with this awareness, it is because Siddhartha has not yet applied his wisdom to a situation beyond himself in which he is deeply involved. Up to now his problem has centered on the relationship to time as it has been experienced in his own life; he has not yet taken issue with what may be called the extensive future, that is, with that which will come after him and for which he is the specific cause; nor has he taken issue with the extensive past, that is, with that which has preceded him of which he is the immediate product. He has, in brief, not related his own Self with the uniqueness of the Self in others; he still needs to gain the knowledge of unity as it centers in experiences outside his own, in the lives of those who are linked to him through the accidents of time, and yet who must seek their own way into the timeless independently of him.

This final insight comes to Siddhartha through the son whom Kamala has borne him and whom she leaves in his keeping at her death. The boy arouses an emotion of which Kamala had accused him of being incapable: “Then, because his son was there, Siddhartha also became a childlike one, suffering because of a human being, lost in love, become a fool because of love” (710). His love is imperfect, however, because it is an attempt to imbue the boy, who has scarcely begun his experience in the world of time, with the knowledge the father has already acquired from his penetration into the timeless. Hoping to spare a loved one the suffering he has known, Siddhartha tries to make up for the son's lack of experience by giving him something of his own past, so that the boy may begin his life at the limits of his father's knowledge.

Siddhartha does not realize, as the boy does, that this is tantamount to making his son into his own image. And blinded by love, he does not heed Vasudeva's reminder that no one can determine the boy's calling, “to which way, to what deeds and to what sorrows” (707), since all must follow their own voice to enlightenment. Thus it happens that in becoming a father himself, trying to predict his son's life as his father had once tried to predict his, Siddhartha also becomes a representative of that world which is never acceptable to those who find it imposed upon them at their birth. The revolving cycle of time has described a full circle, therefore, and the truths of Buddha begin to reveal themselves again in the life of the son. Like his father before him, the young Siddhartha runs away to search for his own way into salvation.

With this Siddhartha learns the Buddhistic lesson of “right endeavor,” that it is not possible to impose one's knowledge of the timeless upon one who is still subject to the limits of time. But he also learns that what he has experienced as a father is, in the all-encompassing circle of the timeless, the same as that which he had experienced years before as the son. Setting out one day to look for his son once more, Siddhartha pauses for awhile beside the river and there, as a reflection of himself, he sees the image of his own father, subjected to the same trial that he is now undergoing. This vision of the Self, posed in a situation of the past which had once been future, the image of a father-son dissolving again into the image of a son-father, proves to Siddhartha that the present moment truly contains all time, for it concentrates experience which, in the cycles of merely temporal existence, it would take several lifetimes to go through. With this realization, the limits to his previous grasp of unity are broken, for in addition to the knowledge which is already his own, that he himself is always the same in spite of a multitude of changes in his own life, he now has the knowledge that he is the same as all others although each has an identity of his own.

In “OM” the two master tropes of the novelle meet and mingle once more in a magnificant symbol for Siddhartha's final meditation upon unity and the timeless. The voice of the river, collecting the multitudinous sounds of Atman, the voice within each individual thing, becomes the imperishable and divine tone of all existence.

As in the case of the river, the full significance of Hesse's image can only be understood with reference to Indian philosophy. The sound OM, which accompanies every Vedic text, is perceptible either in the depths of Atman, the individual Self or soul, or in the world of Brahman, the universal godhead—in the microcosm as well as the macrocosm, therefore, joining the individual with the great totality of which he is a part, demonstrating that “the phenomenal visible sphere (that of change, the Heraclitean flux), wherein the manifestations of time appear and perish” is identical to “the transcendent, timeless sphere, which is beyond yet at one with it (that of imperishable being).”21

Both timelessness within time and unity through multiplicity are represented by the traditional manner in which OM is uttered. In Sanskrit the first vowel of the charm is pronounced A-U; thus instead of two sounds, there are actually three. The charm is made by opening and closing the lips in movement from the back, open sound A, through the half-open, half-closed sound U, to the front closure of M.22 One repeats this without stopping. It is, therefore, a continuous utterance, a circle without end, or a constant process of becoming in time in which the entirety, never wholly contained in any one part, is forever and timelessly existent. This invisible unity is symbolized by a fourth factor, or “silence,” obvious when the mouth is poised between final M and initial A, a silence which is considered part of the magic formula's total sound and is analogous to “the silence always present in the creations, manifestations and dissolutions of the universe.” Out of the visible three, then, is revealed an invisible four which is the essence of the whole, the being and unity underlying the becoming and multiplicity of the various parts. “What has become, what is becoming, and what will become—verily, all of this is the sound OM. And what is beyond these three states of the world of time—that too, verily, is the sound OM.”23

Siddhartha's meditation in “OM,” the “right meditation” of Buddha's Eightfold Path, proceeds according to this mystic awareness. As he looks into the river, he sees a succession of images: of his father, himself, and his son, all of them discrete persons, and yet himself as all three; present in this moment are al the apparent stages of temporal succession. Similarly, the river sings to him three songs: a song of sorrow, a song of longing, and a song of joy, each of them different, each of them distinct historically in terms of its appearance in Siddhartha's own life, but all of which are present in him and are included in that great “music of life” implicit in every song and yet greater than any one of them.24

“Govinda,” the final chapter of the novelle, is a paean of “right rapture,” the Enlightened One rejoicing in his enlightenment and yet mocking the glory of his knowledge by his admission that it is impossible to communicate it fully. In Siddhartha's conversation with his friend one can hear Buddha's warning that wisdom does not reside in the doctrine, that beyond the word lies the mystery, the silence out of which the sounds have come and into which they inevitably return.25 Although trying to define the Being which is in and around him, Siddhartha knows that words are one-sided, robbing truth of its impartiality, emphasizing the rightness of one point of view at the expense of an opposite which is no less true. It is because this is so that Siddhartha cautions Govinda against believing in time, for “if time isn't real, then the span which seems to exist between the world and eternity, between sorrow and blessedness, between good and bad, is also a deception” (725).

As he reviews his life for Govinda, Siddhartha reflects that einst, the powerful adverb by which men try to distinguish between past and future, marks no real division in the fundamental oneness of their lives. It is a mistake to think of oneself as on the way to enlightenment, in the sense of progressing by stages in which one leaves off one thing as one acquires another, for enlightenment exists within one at every moment of present time. “In every sinner there is, now and today, the future Buddha; his future is all already there, in him, in you, in everyone there is the becoming, potential, hidden Buddha” (726). Similarly, unity, whether within or outside oneself, is not to be attained by trying to put it together as one would a puzzle out of many pieces, for it is present and entire in every object. Thus Brahman, the holy power identical with the Self, the timeless unity of all creation, is simply the reality discovered by lifting the deceptive veil of time as it is experienced in one's own life. Unity resides in the readiness, at each individual moment of time, to see the timelessness beneath, “to see all that has been, life being and life becoming, as simultaneously existent” (726).

In the last paragraphs of the novelle Govinda, the everlasting disciple and uncomprehending seeker, has a vision of this truth as he looks into the face of his friend:

He no longer saw Siddhartha's face, he saw instead other faces, many faces, a long series, a streaming river of faces, hundreds and thousands, all of which came and went and yet seemed to be there all at the same time, all of them changing continually and renewing themselves, and yet which were all Siddhartha. … And thus Govinda saw that this smiling mask, this smiling of unity within the streaming forms, this smiling of simultaneity within the thousand births and deaths, this smiling of Siddhartha was exactly the same, was exactly identical to the quiet, delicate, impenetrable, perhaps goodnatured, perhaps mocking, wise, thousandfold smile of Gotama, the Buddha.


Thus the goal Siddhartha has realized for himself, the destruction of multiple time, is imaged for Govinda in the face of a living Buddha. And with this we too, who have attended the search like Govinda without a full knowledge of its implications, arrive at the wisdom which Hesse has made manifest through the unique form of eternal Being discovering itself in the process of Becoming. There is after all no difference between seeker and sage, no difference between Siddhartha and Gotama, no disunity possible for the Enlightened One who has found his way to the wisdom of the other shore.


  1. Hermann Hesse, Gesammelte Dichtungen, Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin, 1952, III, 806. Hereafter quotatins from this edition will be given in parentheses within the text. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are from Vol. III.

  2. Dr. Hermann Gundert-Dubois, Hesse's maternal grandfather, was “one of the first pioneers of Pietism's mission in India” and became an accomplished linguist and scholar of Indian lore. See Hugo Ball, Hermann Hesse, sein Leben und Werk, Zürich, 1947, p. 5 ff., 168 ff.

  3. “… Und mitten in Kandi unter den Buddhapriestern hatte ich nach dem wahren Indien, nach Indiens Geist, nach einer lebendigen Berührung mit ihm das ungestillte Heimweh wie vorher in Europa” (III, 856). Besuch aus Indien, 1922.

  4. “Ich wusste, dass es, in Europa wie in Asien, eine unterirdische, zeitlose Welt der Werte und des Geistes gab … und dass es gut und richtig war, in dieser zeitlosen Welt zu leben, an der Europa und Asien, Veden und Bibel, Buddha und Goethe gleichen Teil hatten” (III, 857).

  5. Brahman, first of the four castes, whose members were originally priests with the primary duty of studying and teaching the Vedas, the sacred hymns of “Divine Knowledge.” Not to be confused with Brahma(n), the supreme soul of the universe.

  6. Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India, ed. Joseph Campbell, Bollingen Series XXVI, Pantheon Books, New York, 1951, p. 79.

  7. Ibid., p. 338.

  8. Siddhartha, “Desire accomplished,” is the given name; Gotama or Gautama, the name by which Buddha is generally known and also the name of a great teacher and founder of the Nyaya system of philosophy; Sakyamuni means “Silent sage of the Sakyas,” the clan to which Gotama belonged.

  9. This rather obvious parallelism is overlooked by Johanna Maria Louisa Kunze, Lebensgestaltung und Weltanschauung in Hermann Hesses Siddhartha (Diss., Amsterdam, n.d.). In general Miss Kunze misses the point of the novelle in trying to decide whether Hesse was subscribing to Buddhistic views. That Siddhartha was not intended as a biography of the Buddha, nor yet a reproduction of his doctrine, is not disputed. It even seems likely, as a critic has recently suggested, that the tone of the novelle owes more to Chinese than to Indian philosophy (see Edmund Gnefkow, Hermann Hesse Biographie, Freiburg i. Br., 1952, p. 58 ff., for an informative discussion of this point).

  10. The first part, up to the point where Siddhartha is found at the river by his friend Govinda, was written in the winter of 1919; the remainder was finished after a year and a half. Ball's Hesse, p. 169.

  11. A separate essay might be written on the splendid manner in which Hesse has managed to convey the rigidity of that world in his prose. Variations in style throughout the novelle correspond to the basic discoveries Siddhartha makes in each chapter, yet one never loses the feeling that the same person is involved in these various experiences and that they all belong to the same process.

  12. Samana, “the equalizing breath,” apparently Buddha's own name for the extreme ascetics and the life he had lived among them (see Kenneth J. Saunders, Gotama Buddha, New York, 1920, p. 23).

  13. It is interesting to note that the rumors Siddhartha hears of Buddha are the same as those spread about Christ. Ball has pointed out the similarity between Hesse's portrait of Siddhartha with his portrait of St. Francis—a conscious attempt, perhaps, to suggest the timeless essence or harmony between the dissimilar figures of varying times and civilizations.

  14. Opposite and key terms in Buddhistic teaching. Sansara is the “round of being,” transmigration in the cycles of time; Nirvana, “blown out,” is the state of enlightenment when the flame of temporal existence has been extinguished. Siddhartha's insistence that these are mere words is quite in keeping with the spirit of Buddhism. “So long as nirvana is looked upon as something different from samsara [sic], the most elementary error about existence still has to be overcome” (Zimmer's Philosophies, p. 481).

  15. Kama is discussed by Zimmer in a chapter called “The Philosophies of Pleasure,” p. 140 ff. The name does not occur in Hesse apart from its use in the proper names as I have noted.

  16. Hesse uses images very sparingly in Siddhartha; their beauty and appropriateness is therefore the more striking (cf. the image of the wheel of asceticism, III, 673). Much more typical of the novelle are the continuing appearances, either in person or in memory, of people who keep reminding Siddhartha of his search and his goal, e.g., Govinda, Gotama, and Vasudeva.

  17. For the events leading up to Hesse's psychiatric treatment, in 1918, by the Jungian disciple J. B. Lang, see Ball's Hesse, p. 156 ff.

  18. See the fascinating discussion in Zimmer, p. 474 ff. It should be remarked that the emphasis in Buddhism is on the crossing, not on reaching the other shore, for “Illumination means that the delusory distinction between the two shores of a worldly and a transcendental existence no longer holds. There is no stream of rebirths flowing between two separated shores: no samsara and no nirvana” (p. 479).

  19. Zimmer, p. 535. There are two Buddhistic traditions, the Hinayana, “little ferryboat,” in which “the accomplishment of Buddhahood is regarded as a goal attained only by very few”; and the Mahayana, “great ferryboat,” which teaches that the secret meaning and goal of the doctrine is the universal Buddhahood of all beings” (Zimmer, pp. 484–85).

  20. Another example of the three in one whose sum adds up to an invisible four (see below, discussion on OM, pp. 27–28).

  21. Zimmer, p. 372.

  22. Each of the letters corresponds to a part of the Self: A is Vaisvanara, “common to all men,” the waking state; U is Taijasa, “the shining one” whose field is the dream; and M is Prajna, “the knower,” deep sleep (Zimmer, p. 377).

  23. Zimmer, p. 372.

  24. Ball (p. 175) has commented that the “music of India” in Siddhartha is a “hieratic triad which makes the individual sentence resound like a constellation,” but he seems unaware of the implications pointed out here.

  25. It is important to understand that in Buddhism final knowledge involves, not only the destruction of all dualism (including the primary spheres of Sansara and Nirvana), but complete incommunicability of the absolute state of enlightenment itself.

Robert Donald Spector (essay date 1958)

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SOURCE: “Artist against Himself: Hesse's Siddhartha,” in History of Ideas Newsletter, Vol. 10, Summer, 1958, pp. 55–58.

[In the following essay, Spector comments on Hesse's belief that the communication of essential truth can take place only in a person's own experiential circumstances, and the effects of this belief on literary art.]

In Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, considered for what it has to say about the purpose of art, rests the fundamental failure of existentialist philosophy as a doctrine for the literary artist. Given the truth of Hesse's message, the artist must deem himself incapable of fulfilling the basic function of the creative writer. For at the heart of Siddhartha is the paradoxical statement that the teacher cannot teach and the student cannot learn, since communication of the essential truth is to be found solely in one's own experiential circumstances.

All the superficialities of knowledge are available to the Govindas of this world—those who are concerned not with the great secrets of life but with the falsity of salvation that comes through illusion. They may very well listen to the words of the wise men, to the Brahmins, to the Samanas, and to the Gotamas, and they may believe—as do those who listen to the novelist—that here, indeed, is the philosophy of life, but from Hesse's point of view this is no more than the art of self-deception.

What is it that we can learn from an author whose motto, derived from the Upanishads, is, “He whose reflective pure spirit sinks into Atman / Knows bliss inexpressible through words,” when the very substance of the statement is destructive of the meaning of art? In the dictum of the artist is a renunciation of the purpose of his craft. Yet for all the experience that Siddhartha goes through, he is still able to say at the very end, “knowledge can be communicated but not wisdom. One can find it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.” Here is a distrust of the artist as teacher and of words as implements of truth.

Central to the difficulty of Hesse's position is the negation presented by existentialism in general, whether it seeks expression in philosophy or literature. Its failure is dialectical, and its dilemma is not unlike the logic presented by the skeptics, who maintained that real knowledge of things is impossible, thereby, at the same time, refuting the principle that they were declaring. So, too, for the existentialist. If the real meaning of things rests in the individual experience, it is useless to try to convince another by virtue of one's own discovery. No matter how profound the revelation of the mystic, it is muted by his own conviction. Whatever the philosophical difficulties of this position, they are as nothing when compared with the impossibilities that they present to an artist convinced of their validity, yet dedicated to the normal functions of his work.

Since literature rests on experience and almost pre-supposes that the totality of experience produces knowledge and wisdom, Hesse's intuitive view, divorced from past teachings—as Siddhartha must shed these to come to true knowledge—runs counter to the purpose of literature itself. The possibility of developing empathy is minimized by the constant reiteration that Siddhartha can learn only by seeking within himself. Consequently, what happens to Siddhartha, what knowledge he does gain, can only be meaningless to the reader. Just as Siddhartha must renounce the teachings of priests, ascetics, and parents, and reject the views of courtesan and merchant, the reader must repudiate the instruction of Siddhartha. If this becomes a commentary on an attitude toward literature, it denies the identification so essential between readers and characters, upon which so much of the effectiveness of a novel depends.

Perhaps the point seems labored. It may give the impression that the message of the work is being mistaken for the attitude of the artist toward his creation. No easier way to examine these possibilities exists than a simple comparison between Hesse and Joyce. Both writers concern themselves with the rhetorical device of the epiphany. Most of the stories in Dubliners, for example, provide the revalatory experience, and the theme, almost redundantly, is frustration. Yet, for Joyce, the objective of his art is purposeful. Despite the very personal meaning of his stories, they are felt and experienced by his readers. Their theme is not self-negating; their effect is not the destruction of the meaning of the work of art because of the hopelessness of the author's communication with his reader. But the acceptance of Siddhartha must convince the reader that the work itself must be disregarded, just as existentialist philosophy must disqualify itself as an explanation of the world view that it is attempting to convey.

It is not that Siddhartha finds “that the Buddha's wisdom and secret was not teachable, that it was inexpressible and incommunicable. …” It is not that all other forms of teaching—of which, after all, this was the epitome—are equally unsatisfactory. Instead, it is that the only was to real knowledge, as Hesse sees it, is inconsistent with the purposes of literature and hence with the novel itself. Oddly enough, the theory of knowledge is related to the Platonic notion of the inner voice. But what validity can there be for the artist, if this is personal and self-sufficing, if this is symbolic to the individual? The voice of the poet and novelist so stirred must fall unheeded upon listeners intent upon more than the mere illusion of truth.

In effect, the problem for Hesse is far too commonly shared by the modern idiosyncratic author. It involves more than the fragmentation of knowledge in our world, more than the individualized and personalized idiom of the coterie writer. Indeed, it suggests that the experience of the artist is so specialized, so meaningful to him and to nobody else that the very raison d'être of his expression is questionable.

At the same time Siddhartha's attitude suggests one of the more unsavory aspects of the contemporary writer. In this unwillingness to believe in the teachings of others, in this self-reliance, and in this patronizing and smug confidence of one's own superiority, there is the apparently unconscious, although no less deliberate, demeaning of the audience. Not only is one's experience impossible to express, but the lack of desire to cast such pearls to the swine removed the author from his reader, and further impedes the artist's responsibility to communicate.

Ironically enough, Siddhartha is itself a repudiation of its author's thesis. All that has been said of the novel thus far concerns the work as a philosophy of life, and, in turn, considers the relation of its point of view to a theory of the meaning of art. But Hesse's work, whatever his desire, is foremost a novel. If what it teaches is not what Hesse meant it to teach (which aim is a contradiction of his view), fortunately it does not have to be judged according to this “intentional fallacy.” Accepting Hesse's values, the reader could not identify with Siddhartha in his quest for knowledge; acknowledging the existentialist epiphany of the novel as anything more than a failure in man's noble effort to seek out the truth, the reader could only reject the significance of the work; but happily, artistic experience overcomes the dogma of philosophy and literary theory.

Hans Beerman (essay date 1959)

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SOURCE: “Hermann Hesse and the Bhagavad-Gita,” in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 1, October, 1959, pp. 27–40.

[In the following essay, Beerman explains the influences of the Bhagavad-Gita on Hermann Hesse and on his novella Siddhartha.]


It is difficult to overestimate Hermann Hesse's literary achievement. There are few works in modern literature comparable to his. When he received the Nobel Prize in 1946, an author of no less stature than Thomas Mann said of him: “his life work belonged to the highest and purest spiritual aspirations and labors of our epoch.” Unfortunately, Hesse's highly romantic prose style does not lend itself too well to translation, and many of his works are not available in English. He is thus not known too well in Anglo-Saxon countries. Hesse, a Swiss citizen but German-born, produced some twenty-five important works. While some of these belong to the realm of poetry, his most important novels are autobiographical in nature or fall into the category of Erziehungsromane. The Erziehungsroman, or novel of education, commonly shows the protagonist in his effort to cope with the demands that life throws up to him. How do I live best? How can I master the art of living the abundant life? These are most often the problems confronting Hesse's leading personalities. In nearly every one of his works there is thus some attempt at soul-searching. Most of his characters try desperately to come to terms with themselves, and most try to achieve a certain measure of self-realization. There is always the problem of man's spiritual loneliness, the effort to find one's way in a world where individualism and introspection are suspect. His seven major novels that deal with similar problems are: Peter Camenzind, Knulp, Steppenwolf, Demian, Siddhartha, Narziss und Goldmund, and Das Glasperlenspiel.

Hesse has repeatedly condemned our age as materialistic and devoid of spirit. It is an epoch that only pays lip service to the ideals of Western civilization and thereby has sunk to a low level of culture where lofty thoughts have been replaced by greed and technics. Man does not envision any more the ideal possibilities of life but has become corrupt. Hesse calls our age “the journalistic age—the era of the digest.” In the preface to his most recent and most prophetic novel, Das Glasperlenspiel, he tells us: “The uncertainty and artificiality of the intellectual life of that period … we of today explain as symptoms of that terror which befell the spirit as it suddenly found itself at the end of an age of apparent victory and prosperity facing the void; of a great material distress, a period of political unrest and war storms, and of a mistrust that had sprung up overnight in oneself, in one's own strength and dignity—in one's very existence” (24).

Disappointed and disgusted with the bloodshed and the loss of individualism during the last fifty years in Europe, Hesse has felt himself increasingly attracted to Eastern idealism. In 1921 he had already written: “Europe's decline is a homecoming to her mother, a return to Asia” (Betrachtungen, 172). Some time later he made the significant statement: “more than half of my life I tried to come to an understanding of the Indian view of life” (Bilderbuch, 181).

This article will limit itself to showing Hesse's indebtedness to Indian philosophy with particular reference to the Bhagavad-Gita, as shown in his work Siddhartha. Hesse himself says of this work that “it expresses best the concept of the self and of my world” (Betrachtungen, 172). Among critics it is generally agreed that Siddhartha is the best written of his works. It telescopes most of the ideas and problems presented in his previous works and brings most clearly into focus the Eastern tendencies of thought which can be found as a sous-entendu in nearly all his mature writings.


Hinduism is characterized by its emphasis on fact. Never has it leaned as heavily on authority as other religious beliefs. This fact alone may be the reason that during the last one hundred years many of the world's most outstanding thinkers and Nobel Prize literati, artists, and scientists have made Hinduism their private lebensphilosophie. A perusal of the published works of Alexander von Humboldt, Aldous Huxley, Strindberg, Romain Rolland, Oppen-heimer, etc., is enough to convince us. Hinduism is not a founded religion—it does not center around any historical events. It is experiential in character. Its distinctive characteristic has been its insistence on the inward life of the spirit. “To know, possess and be the spirit in this physical frame, to convert a pedestrian mentality into clear spiritual illumination has always been the endeavor of Hinduism” (An Idealist View of Life, 89).

The Gita, or the Song of the Lord, occupies a unique place in the philosophical literature of India. In conjunction with the Upanishads and the Brahmasutras, it is the most popular authority for Indian orthodox religion and philosophy. It is part of one of the two great Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata, and was written sometime during the first millennium B. C. Because of its excessive length—it contains more than 90,000 verses—and the variety of its content, it has never been translated into English in full. It is often compared in sheer beauty and grandeur to the Odyssey. In the philosophical part of this epic we encounter the Bhagavad-Gita, in which the most prominent religious ideas of ancient and modern India are expressed. The personal and incarnate Lord Krishna engages Arjuna, the warrior hero, in an inspired dialogue about the immortality of the soul, the essence of God and the means to achieve perfect happiness on earth. While the older Brahmanism postulated knowledge and Buddhism an ethical-ascetic way of life as the only means for salvation, the Gita teaches that the vital force of life is devotion or love (La Theosophie Brahmanique, 135). It is the easiest road to salvation, to encounter the personal God. The demand of devotion is compulsory—the whole power of the soul and intellect of man shall constantly be focused toward God, even though man is fully engaged in the whirl of everyday activities amidst the struggles of life. Unlike the Upanishads, action per se is not condemned, provided that work is done in the right frame of mind. “To work, alone, you are entitled, never to its fruit. Neither let your motive be the fruit of action, nor let your attachment be a non-action” (Gita, II, 47). According to Samkara, the most famous commentator on the Gita, human action, to be effective, has to be free from all traces of duality (notions of good and evil) and also from the tripartite idea of man, who might think of himself as a separate doer, as an instrument, and who might worry about the results of any action he performs. According to the Gita, “on the battleground of the human soul is waged the most desperate of all conflicts, that between the forces of good and evil. … The struggle itself is not possible unless we look upon the longing for the good and the rebellion against it as belonging to the same individual. The felt contradiction is possible only through the reality which is above the discord” (Radhakrishnan, 58). Strict self-discipline is preparation not only to complete inner peace and absence of passion but also to the love of God. The Gita thus exalts love directed toward the pure spirit and exhorts the spiritual aspirant to turn away as much as possible from the sensual aspects of life. In this respect the teachings are, however, far more tolerant than those of the severe Brahmanism and Buddhism. The single sine qua non is devotion to God and an intense longing for liberation from the illusory experiences of the relative world. The main rule that man is to observe is the avoidance of enslavement so that he may remain his own master: “Not the desirer of desires attains peace, but he into whom all desires enter as the waters enter the ocean, which is full to the brim and grounded in stillness” (Gita, II, 70).

The Gita is also a scripture on yoga. This Sanskrit term implies the union of the individual soul with the Universal Soul. Man is to realize: (a) that the relative universe has to be overcome; (b) that worldly life is to be transformed into spiritual consciousness. For that purpose man needs the discipline of yoga, a psychological and physical method toward self-unfoldment. For the yogi, the Gita prescribes various rules to follow, all of which are designed to make it possible for man to remove the doubts and delusions regarding aspects of duality that so frequently assail him and prevent him from the realization of the Truth. This realization is experience of Reality known by direct apprehension. “The Gita represents,” says Dr. Radhakrishnan (Vice President of India) who is considered the greatest living Eastern philosopher, “not any sect of Hinduism but Hinduism as a whole, not merely Hinduism but religion as such, in its universality without limit and space, embracing within its synthesis the whole gamut of the human spirit, from the crude fetishism of the savage to the creative affirmation of the saint. The suggestion set forth in the Gita about the meaning and value of existence, the sense of eternal values and the way in which the ultimate values are illumined by the light of reason and moral intuition provide the basis for agreement in mind and spirit so very essential for keeping together the world which has become materially one by the acceptance of the externals of civilization” (Radhakrishnan, 533).


Siddhartha, brilliant, handsome and a favorite son of a Brahmin, is disgusted and dissatisfied with his life at home. Though the pride and joy of his family, he “had begun to suspect that his worthy father and his other teachers, the wise Brahmins, had already passed on to him the bulk and best of their wisdom … his intellect was not satisfied, his soul was not at peace, his heart was not still” (5). The main cause for his disgust is the violent contradiction between the teachings and the actual life of the Brahmins, particularly the antinomies of ecclesiasticism and the philosophical spirit. As modern man, Siddhartha cannot believe in the magical power of the ritual. The tragic gulf between dogma and actuality is too barefaced for him. “But where were the Brahmins, the priests, the wise men, who were successful not only in having the most profound knowledge, but in experiencing it? Where were the initiated who, attaining Atman in sleep, could retain it in consciousness, in life, everywhere, in speech and in action?” (7). Here we can understand the author's own dissatisfaction with book knowledge that does not lead to personal experience.

Siddhartha does not find supreme bliss, and he leaves the Brahmins, feeling the attraction to the life of a Samana, a wandering monk. He thus follows the precepts of Brahminism. He tries to grasp the essence of the Spirit by rejecting the sensual side of life: “… he killed his senses, he killed his memory, he slipped out of his Self in a thousand different forms. He was animal, carcass, stone, wood, water. …” (16). Unfortunately, even at the height of his asceticism he only experiences “a flight from the Self, a temporary palliative against the pain and folly of life” (18). With increased intensity he goes on searching for Truth. He hears about the preaching of Gautama Sakyamuni, the Buddha. He decides to meet and possibly join him, even though he is unconvinced that Buddha's teachings will do him any good. “… I have become distrustful of teachings and learning … and I have little faith in words that come to us from teachers. But … I am ready to hear that new teaching, although I believe in my heart that we have already tasted the best fruit of it” (24).

Siddhartha meets the Buddha, but his teachings confirm him more and more in his conviction that Buddha's methods will not bring him any closer to Self-realization. While Gautama's way of life does satisfy his logical needs, it does not answer his metaphysical longings. He is not interested in attaining Nirvana—he wants to search for a world of Becoming in which the plurality of the world of sensual perception shall give rise to Unity. Thus, Siddhartha turns away from the teachings of Buddha, unable to tolerate for himself the negativistic, life-denying character of Gautama's message. Indeed he doubts the very basis of Buddha's teaching: “Whether it (the world) is good or evil, whether life in itself is pain or pleasure, whether it is uncertain—that it may perhaps be this is not important” (35). This statement is diametrically opposed to the thought of Buddha, who wants to suppress both evil and suffering. Siddhartha rather wants to learn through personal experience how one goes about finding Fullfillment; Buddha's experience is not his own: “To nobody, O Illustrious One, can you communicate in words and teachings what happened to you in the hour of your enlightenment. The teachings of the enlightened Buddha embrace much; they teach much. … But there is one thing that this clear, worthy instruction does not contain; it does not contain the secret of what the Illustrious One himself experienced—he alone among hundreds of thousands” (36).

Siddhartha is a so-called imminent mystic as described by E. Spranger in his revealing work Lebensformen. He is possessed with the probing of the human problem of individuation. “Truly nothing in the world has occupied my thoughts as much as the Self, this riddle, that I live, that I am one and am separated and different from everybody else, that I am Siddhartha; and about nothing in the world do I know less than about myself, about Siddhartha” (40). Realizing that by his intensive search for the Atman (Oversoul) he has been compelled to dispel his energies from the discovery of the personal Self, he confesses: “I was seeking Brahman, Atman, I wished to destroy myself, to get away from myself, in order to find in the unknown innermost, the nucleus of all things, Atman, Life, the Divine, the Absolute. But by doing so, I lost myself on the way” (41). The turning point has been reached in the life of Siddhartha. Having previously tried to transcend the visible world, he now turns toward its sensual characteristics as a means for Realization. “When anyone reads anything which he wishes to study, he does not despise the letters and punctuation marks, and call them illusion, chance and worthless shells, but he reads them, he studies and loves them, letter by letter. But I, who wished to read the book of the world and the book of my own nature, did presume to despise the letters and signs. I called the world of appearances, illusion. I called my eyes and tongue, chance. Now it is over; I have awakened. I have indeed awakened and have only been born today” (42). He now goes about to experience the World, a lebensphilosophie which is diametrically opposed to the very heart of Brahmanism and Buddhism.

He gives up his life as a mendicant monk and now goes into the world where he makes the most beautiful courtesan he can find his mistress. For him she is the embodiment of sensuality pure and simple. To defray his expenses, he enters the services of a merchant. His previous ascetic training supplies him with the secret of absolute control of his mind and of his body—he becomes more and more successful. His boss, the important trader, admires him. “He has the secret of those people to whom success comes by itself, whether it is due to being born under a lucky star or whether it is magic, or whether he has learned it from the Samanas” (69). But at the same time he dislikes his aloofness: “He always seems to be playing at business, it never makes much impression on him, it never masters him, he never fears failure, he is never worried about a loss” (ibid.) Siddhartha looks amusedly at the ordinary people whom he meets in his daily business dealings. It is their childlike attachment to the things of the world that makes him smile, even though, sometimes he envies them “the anxious but sweet happiness of their continual power to love” (79).

Time passes by. Siddhartha has increasingly become involved with the world. His soul rebels against the worldly life—more and more he dimly senses that the aim of Self-realization, his deepest raison d'etre, is lost to him. “Just as the potter's wheel, once set into motion, still turns for a long time and then turns only very slowly and stops, so did the wheel of the ascetic, the wheel of thinking, the wheel of discrimination still revolve for a long time in Siddhartha's soul; it still revolved but slowly and hesitatingly and it had nearly come to a standstill. Slowly, like moisture entering the dying tree trunk, slowly filling and rotting it, so did the world and inertia creep into Siddhartha's soul; it slowly filled his soul, made it heavy, made it tired, sent it to sleep” (77). His senses attained near mastery over his body and soul. He even becomes attached to greed. “He lost his patience with slow-paying debtors, he was no longer kindhearted to beggars, he no longer had the desire to give gifts and loans to the poor” (81).

One night, after carnal excess, he is so overwhelmed with disgust for his life that his sick soul rebels, and he again renounces all his property, leaves town, and becomes a homeless wanderer again. He sees clearly that his life as a merchant has been mere play-acting. Never had he been able to dip deep down into his real being. “Then Siddhartha knew that the game was finished, that he could play it no longer” (86). His disgust changes to desperation, and he is about to commit suicide, when suddenly out of the very depth of his subconscious there flashes the saving concept, the knowledge of his youth. “He was conscious of Brahman, of the indestructibleness of life; he remembered all that he had forgotten, all that was divine” (91). It is this truth emphasized in the Bhagavad-Gita: “He who knows the Self to be indestructible, eternal, unborn and immutable—how can that man slay or cause another to slay?” (Gita, II, 21). Siddhartha subsequently falls into a deep sleep. According to Indian philosophy the soul of man enters the world soul (Brahman) during sleep, and Siddhartha discovers during this period his real Self. Upon awakening he realizes that he is able to love again, an ability he seemed to have lost previously: “And at that moment, in that splendid hour, after his wonderful sleep … how could he help but love someone and something. That was just the magic that had happened to him during his sleep … he loved everything, he was full of joyous love towards everything that he saw. And it seemed to him that was just why he was previously so ill—because he could love nothing and nobody” (96). He has changed into the new Siddhartha who recognizes that both mental and sensual activities have led him to private individuation and separateness. He now understands that only loving devotion is able to save him from himself. To have one's heart and mind absorbed in love brings us to Unity with all creatures, seems to unveil the mysteries of the universe.

Siddhartha has now attained the peace of mind he has longed for all his life. He settles down on the banks of the river in pursuit of the Spirit. He is accompanied by the local ferryman, another contemplative. Siddhartha realizes the Self—it has become an organic unity, a unity with the Absolute. The river, in which he wanted to drown himself, has now become the symbol for the collective divine force that is immanent in the Universe. Siddhartha engages in a contemplative life, but also works for humanity: he ferries the passers-by across the river, and often dispenses consolation and spiritual help to the worldly customers. “Something emanated from the ferry and from both ferrymen that many of the travellers felt. It sometimes happened that a traveller, after looking at the face of one of the ferrymen, began to talk about his life and troubles, confessed sins, asked for comfort and advice” (111). The strength of the Spirit, manifested and embodied in these men, becomes the living well from which those who are exhausted by the treadmill of worldly ambitions can drink.

Siddhartha, however, has not yet reached the last perfection. When the courtesan, his former mistress, succumbs to a snakebite near the ferry, he discovers that he has a son, who was conceived during the last night he spent with her. This son is now left with him. Only too painfully Siddhartha realizes that he is unable to communicate with him, even though his love toward his own flesh and blood tears his heart. Annoyed by his father's attitudes, which he can neither understand nor bear, his son runs away. After a period of deepest anguish of soul Siddhartha comes to realize that his pain was caused by his blind, onesided love for his son. In a wonderful charismatic experience this love slowly changes to an all-absorbing devotion to the Absolute; Siddhartha is saved and absolved from his individuation: “His wound was healing, his pain dispersing; his Self had merged into unity” (138). It was this deepest suffering that brought about the last serenity of Knowledge and complete inner peace.


Looking retrospectively at the career of Siddhartha, we can now summarize Hesse's ideas about how life should be lived. Siddhartha's life as a Brahmin and ascetic, later as a merchant, exemplifies the wrong turns of the road that the protagonist took. Neither the life of the thinker nor that of the man of power and force of will bring him inner peace. The type of personality which Riesman calls today the other-directed man in his book The Lonely Crowd will end up being miserable and impotent. Siddhartha only finds peace and self-realization in a quiet, contemplative existence. It is not abstract thought that liberates man, but loving devotion to the universe.

Such an attitude towards the world is that which is preached throughout the Bhagavad-Gita: “Endowed with pure understanding, restraining the self with firmness, turning away from sound and other objects, and abandoning love and hatred; dwelling in solitude, eating but little, controlling the speech, body and mind, ever engaged in meditation and concentration, and cultivating freedom from passion; forsaking conceit and power, pride and lust, wrath and possessions, tranquil in heart, and free from ego—he becomes worthy of becoming one with Brahman.” The result of this undeviating union with the Absolute is further described in the Gita: “Having become Brahman and being tranquil in heart, he neither grieves nor desires. He treats alike all beings and attains supreme devotion to Me. By that devotion he knows Me, knows what, in truth, I am and who I am. Then, having known Me in truth, he forthwith enters into Me.” Liberation may also be attained through action performed selflessly: “Even though engaged in all kinds of action, a man who has taken refuge in Me reaches, by My grace, the eternal and imperishable Abode. Fixing your heart on Me, you will overcome every difficulty by My grace; but if from self-conceit you do not listen to Me, you shall perish utterly” (Gita, XVIII, 51–58).

With this in mind, we are aware that Siddhartha's attitudes and his final Realization clearly follow the essence of the Bhagavad-Gita. His life indeed finishes on the same chords as the verses quoted above. His experience is not unique nor private and subjective. It can be the experience of anyone: “… the truths revealed are capable of being re-experienced on compliance with ascertained conditions. … The Hindu philosophy of religion starts from and returns to an experimental basis” (Radhakrishnan, 401). Most of the works of Hesse dealing with spiritual problems implicitly, if not explicitly, point to this best solution for living. It is particularly evident in his last work, Das Glasperlenspiel. Here, the Magister Ludi drowns, however, before he is able to bring his Buddhistic-monastic life to the highest point of self-realization.

Hesse has always believed, together with the eminent Dr. Radhakrishnan quoted before, that this world can only survive if “we strive for a philosophy which will combine the best of European humanism and Asiatic religion, a philosophy profounder and more living than either, endowed with greater spiritual and ethical force, which will conquer the hearts of men and compel peoples to acknowledge its sway” (Radhakrishnan, 636). In the opinion of many Eastern statesmen, it is the Bhagavad-Gita “which not only preaches a life of action and non-violence but which also has a universal world-outlook which could really be the outlook of UNESCO” (Radhakrishnan, 533).


Hesse, Hermann, Betrachtungen (Berlin: S. Fischer, 1926).

———, Bilderbuch (Berlin: S. Fischer, 1926).

———, Demian (Berlin: S. Fischer, 1928).

———, Das Glasperlenspiel (Berlin: S. Fischer, 1952).

———, Knulp, der Wanderer (Berlin: S. Fischer, 1925).

———, Narziss und Golmund (Berlin: S. Fischer, 1931).

———, Peter Camenzind (Berlin: S. Fischer, 1930).

———, Siddhartha (New York: New Directions, 1951).

———, Steppenwolf (Berlin: S. Fischer, 1931).

Oltramare, P., La Theosophie Brahmanique (Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1906).

Radhakrishnan, S., An Idealist View of Life (New York: MacMillan, 1933).

Swami Nikhilananda, The Bhagavad-Gita (New York: Ramakrishma Center, 1944).

Schilpp, Paul Arthur, The Philosophy of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1952).

Spranger, E., Lebensformen (Halle: Max Niemeyer, 1930).

Ernst Rose (essay date 1965)

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SOURCE: “The Turn Inward,” in Faith from the Abyss: Hermann Hesse's Way from Romanticism to Modernity, New York University Press, 1965, pp. 68–78.

[In the following essay, Rose comments on the artistic logic that prompted Hesse to use the influences of his own life experience in writing Siddhartha.]

Demian as well as Klingsor's Last Summer already had visualized an ironical acceptance of the world as a possible solution for the problem of human existence. Yet because of their contemporary connotations both stories were open to misunderstanding. It was not conformity that Hesse was advocating, but a reshaping of the world from within. The Turn Inward (Der Weg nach Innen) was the common title chosen by him, in 1931, when he brought Siddhartha and Klingsor's Last Summer together under the same cover. The “turn inward” was meant to be described in both Demian and Klingsor.

For the reader of Siddhartha (1922) no further misunderstanding was possible. The Indian locale at once removed Hesse from contemporary European realities and forced him to come to grips with the existential problem. The story also made Hesse's message universal by no longer addressing itself to occidentals only.

Siddhartha is based on the life of Buddha. (Siddhartha was Buddha's original name and means the man who is on the right road.) But the interpretation of Buddha's life is by no means traditional, and the India of Siddhartha is far removed from the reality Hesse experienced in 1911. The poet has concentrated on the “subterranean, timeless world of spiritual values” (III, 857).

The son of a Brahmin, Siddhartha, at first seems content to follow the pious Hindu's path to salvation through chastity, which is here stressed in a way comparable to Protestant Pietism. However, he becomes aware that the precepts of his parents and tutors do not fit his spiritual needs, and he decides to leave home to seek his own salvation. With his friend Govinda he joins the Samanas, an ascetic sect of beggars. Both learn to restrain their impulses and to concentrate on the spirit which is innate in man and is united with the spirit of the universe. Such concentration is achieved by the practice of Yoga.

After a time, however, Yoga no longer yields true satisfaction. It is merely a step toward fulfillment; it does not represent the whole way. Siddhartha feels that trust in detailed moral prescription leads only to despair. Man can never hope for salvation by external works; he must give up his self-righteousness. It is useless to starve and maim oneself in order to find the secret behind the fragments of life. The youth therefore sets out to live a real life in the spirit—a life in Atman.

Now, Siddhartha studies the teachings of Gotama Buddha and strives “to die away from himself, to be an ego no longer, … to be open to the miracle in a selfless spirit” (III, 626). He learns that Buddha teaches his disciples to control their senses without extinguishing them, promising salvation in the Nirvana. Govinda becomes a Buddhistic monk, but Siddhartha cannot accept the whole doctrine. To him real experience is more revealing than all the formal doctrines of religion, including the concept of Nirvana.

Siddhartha enters the world of Samsara, the disturbing cycle of earthly happenings. As the lover of the courtesan Kamala he becomes a rich merchant, a gambler, and a drinker. But this type of life proves to be empty, since it is lived in the fearful world of man's fiendish cruelty and lust of evil. A disillusioned Siddhartha leaves his wealth behind and sets out to drown himself in the river. At this point Klein's solution looms as a possibility. But Siddhartha happens to meet the ferryman Vasudeva and is taught by him to “sleep on the wave,” i.e., to have confidence in life and to be in harmony with nature.

This “sleep on the wave” overcomes time, which already for Klingsor was a deception. “Was not all suffering time, was not all self-vexation and fear time, did not everything hostile and heavy in the world disappear and was overcome, as soon as one had conquered time, as soon as one became able to extinguish time?” (III, 698). Life through this act of time-negation opens up and gains a fourth dimension.

Siddhartha has a momentary vision of Brahma, the absolute divinity behind all worldly deceptions. He pronounces the sacred syllable “Om” and anticipates the life of mystic intuition, the via illuminativa. But he has not yet followed the way of purification, the via purgativa, to the end. He has merely taken the first step by giving up his luxurious existence and living a simple life of solitude.

Kamala brings him a son she has borne him, and turns aside to die. Siddhartha now has to take care of his son. The son, however, does not understand his father and eventually runs back to the city. Siddhartha is heartbroken, but Vasudeva reminds him that his own father had the same experience when Siddhartha left home.

Now the pilgrim is ready to enter the via illuminativa. He resigns from Samsara completely and, after Vasudeva's death, himself becomes the ferryman. He lives beside the river and consoles all travelers. Govinda, who comes to visit him, believes Siddhartha to be a saint. He is taught by Siddhartha the unity of life, the unity of night and day, of I and thou, of poverty and affluence, of flesh and spirit. Siddhartha tells him that only by living a life of both the spirit and the senses will he gain peace.

The new ferryman's wisdom has been gained from the river. The river has become his teacher and the voice of life, which is continuously changing. Siddhartha is not one of those mystics who shut out the world by withdrawing into their selves. His mysticism is immersion into life. He aims, like Friedrich Schleiermacher, “in the midst of final life to become one with the infinite and to be eternal in a moment” (Speeches on Religion, 1799). This immersion into life enables Siddhartha to shed great parts of his individuality and to find inner freedom.

The first stage of his way to freedom had been innocence. The second stage was the observation of a system of moral prescriptions in the certain hope of reaching salvation. The third stage was characterized by the discovery of ineradicable evil and the consequent abandonment of all hope. The fourth stage is reached by the acceptance of evil and the resumption of ordained tasks. Only now, when justification is left to the Godhead, does the real path to salvation, the via unitiva, lie open. Siddhartha can aspire to vedantic identity mysticism. To be sure, complete identity with the all-embracing divinity is open to him as little as to other men. But he can live within the higher divinity.

It must be seen clearly that this is a continuation of Hesse's early theopanism and not simply “pantheism.” God is here the cosmos and expresses himself by it; the cosmos has no separate existence without him or within him. The central idea of this theopanism is unity. In the vision transferred to him by Siddhartha, Govinda no longer sees the face of his friend Siddhartha, but a continuous stream of faces “which all came and disappeared and yet all seemed to be there at the same time, which all continually changed and renewed themselves and which were yet all Siddhartha” (III, 731). They represent all ages and sexes; they change into the faces of animals and gods. Yet there hovers above this welter of passing forms the smile of unity, “this smile of simultaneousness over thousands of births and deaths,” which is also the “thousand-fold smile of Gotama, the Buddha” (III, 732). Before this smile Govinda is “overwhelmed by a feeling of great love, of the most humble veneration” (III, 733).

There is here a certain stressing of passivity, and the story can almost be interpreted as an illustration of Hinayana Buddhism or of the Upanishads' way to salvation. It seems to resume Klein's and Klingsor's solution on a higher level. But there is more to it than passivity. Siddhartha has not become a monk, but a ferryman; he has shown active concern for the other travelers and for Govinda, as well as for his son.

Despite the Eastern coloration, the message of Siddhartha is Christian, even Protestant Christian, not Asiatic. Mystic union in the last instance means a loving embrace of the world. One could justifiably quote Christ's pronouncement that “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matth. 23:32). Hesse aims at a synthesis of Eastern and Christian thought. Western intellectual arrogance and impatience is tempered by Eastern contemplation and humility. Eastern mysticism is expressed in a Western concern for the world's creatures. Of course, this concern is not to be equated with the Platonic eros where the love of the beautiful form leads back to the original idea as the true basis of reality. On the contrary, the way here leads from the union with the transcendental to beauty as an expression and metaphor of God.

Potentially all things participate in God, and the more man succeeds in changing these potentialities into actualities, the more he realizes himself and participates in divine love. Love for one's neighbor and love for the world are ways to self-realization. Siddhartha's experience of mystic union does not lead to spiritual aloofness, for man can never wholly divest himself of the earth, he is “never wholly saint, nor is he ever wholly sinner” (III, 725). Siddhartha's way leads to humble, Christian charity. In all his awareness of the infinite realm of God and the universe, he remains a simple ferryman and farmer.

Still we must not forget that the book is a work of art, and not a philosophical treatise. Its ideas are implicit; they are never expressed outright. The charm of Siddhartha lies in its unforgettable images. The god-seeker's childhood among the Brahmins, his ceaseless ascetic roamings with the Samanas, his mad worldly exploits with Kamala, and finally his meeting with Vasudeva and his life as his disciple, are all parts of a closely interwoven tapestry. They are far from being flowery transcriptions of abstract formulas. A symbolic expression like “sleeping on the wave” is of unusual poetic depth. It is comparable to Goethe's description of poetry as “water shaped into a ball.” The final meaning of Siddhartha, just as the ultimate meaning of life, defies philosophic definition and can be hinted at only by the poetic symbol. It remains forever closed to the literal mind unable to read between the lines.

In keeping with the introspective theme of the story, the technique of narration here is different from the one employed in Klingsor's Last Summer. The natural background of the two books is similar, but the perspective has changed. In Klingsor's Last Summer, the garden of the Casa Camuzzi became an overriding symphony of sound and color. Here it has taken on calm, restrained, and almost classic features. The exotic jungle of Klingsor has become the grove of contemplation, the Indian forest of sallows and fig trees and shadowy mangoes. Everywhere the stress is on the essentials of the description, and these essentials are intensified by repetition and intensifying variation:

He however, Siddhartha, did not fashion joy for himself, he did not live for his pleasure. Walking on the rosy paths of the fig garden, sitting in the bluish shadow of the grove of contemplation, washing his limbs in daily ablutions, doing his sacrifices in the deep shadows of the mango forest, loved by all for the perfect grace of his gestures, and a joy for everybody, he yet bore no joy in his heart

(III, 618).

The profuse orchestration of Klingsor is reduced to the measured rhythm of short, direct sentences, precisely balanced: “He came to the river, he asked the Old One to ferry him across, and when they left the boat on the other side, he said to the Old One: ‘Much good you do to us monks and pilgrims. Many of us you have ferried across. Aren't you, ferryman, a seeker for the right path?’” (III, 722). With Hesse, all the images keep their full weight and can therefore be expressed in stark, even archaic, simplicity. His parallels are intensifications, not verbosities. Labored involutions are absent, but dependent clauses are not avoided: “The years passed by, and nobody counted them. Then monks came on a pilgrimage, disciples of Gotama, the Buddha, who asked to be ferried across the river, and who informed the ferryman that they were hurriedly walking back to their great teacher, for the news had spread that the sublime one was sick unto death and would soon die his last human death, in order to enter into salvation” (III, 700).

In these circumstantial clauses with their interruptions and their afterthoughts, the restlessness of the Buddhistic monks is aptly expressed, while Siddhartha himself gains peace by listening in silence to the river and remaining at his post. His calmness is described in simpler sentences, the repetition of which are slowly growing extensions of thought:

Siddhartha was listening. He now was nothing but a listener, wholly engrossed in listening, wholly emptied, wholly breathing in, he was feeling that he now had mastered listening to the end. He had often heard all this, these many voices in the river; today they sounded like new. He already could no longer differentiate between the many voices, between the happy ones and the weeping ones, between the childish and the manlike voices, they were all belonging together, the plaints of longing and the laughter of the sage, the shout of the irate and the moans of the dying man; they all were one, everything was interwoven and tied together, was intertwined a thousandfold. And everything together, all the voices, all the goals, all longing, all suffering, all good and evil, all this together was the world

(III, 720).

As in Klingsor, the rhythm in Siddhartha is often triadic. “He felt a great desire to laugh, to laugh at himself, to laugh at this strange, foolish world” (III, 689). “Siddhartha felt what a great happiness it was to confess to such a listener, to sink into his heart one's own life, one's own strivings, one's own sufferings” (III, 696). Again there are sentences arranged in contrapuntal parallels: “Wonderful insight came to me through the teachings of the great Buddha, I felt the knowledge of the unity of the world circulate within me like my own blood. But I also had to leave again Buddha and the great knowledge” (III, 689).

Staccato passages of intensifying enumeration are scattered through the entire book. “The sun browned his light shoulders on the river bank, at bathing, at the holy ablutions, at the holy sacrifices. Shadow flowed into his black eyes in the mango grove, during his games, while his mother sang during the sacred sacrifices, during the teachings of his learned father, during the conversations of the wise men” (III, 617). At times this style assumes the character of a ritual chant. Its musical quality is unmistakable, but the music is more subdued than in Klingsor. Such a style does not represent the studied mannerism of artificial simplicity. It is rich enough in varitions to capture our undivided attention, and yet it is pure, as only the style of a master can be pure.

The highly spiritual view of the world presented in Siddhartha exercised its appeal on West and East alike. Hesse's book found recognition in Japan as well as in India itself. The Japanese translations put Hesse in the first place among all German authors whose works appeared in the East in translation, and lectures on the book were given at the Zen-Buddhistic university of Komadzawa in Tokyo. In India the book was translated into nine major dialects, and an Indian scholar praised Siddhartha as a proud tribute to the sons of India by one of the great contemporary spirits. He was amazed to find a European who had actually understood the spirit of the country.

For Western readers, Siddhartha climaxed centuries of effort to penetrate Eastern thought and religion and to understand that God had revealed himself to mankind in different ways. At the end of the nineteenth century it had become a common conviction of enlightened Easterners and Westerners alike that the Orient and the Occident could very well learn from each other. The seventeenth-century Jesuits had opened up the world of China to the European mind. About 1780 the great Sanskrit scholars had laid before it the world of India. The naval demonstration of Commodore Perry before Tokyo in 1854 had initiated an era of lively economic and cultural interchange between the West and the Far East, and had engendered an Eastern fashion among Western painters and decorators, poets and philosophers. Profound thinkers like Aldous Huxley and Romain Rolland found themselves obliged to justify the occidental, Christian attitude to the East and to accommodate the Western mind to profound Eastern insights. The West was reminded that it must give up its intellectual pride and admit the Eastern spirit of reverence.

For Hesse himself, the world of the East had been a living reality from his childhood. His trip to India, Malaya, and Sumatra had not even been necessary. At an early age he had realized the independence of the Orient and had begun to doubt the wisdom of the Christian missionary efforts. In the story Robert Aghion (1913; II, 355–394) he described the experiences of the first English missionary to India. Aghion had soon become convinced that it was presumptuous to take away their God from these strangers and in the end had succumbed to the lure of India. Like the author, Robert Aghion no longer felt certain of his mission and the superiority of his European ways.

At this point the poet's mind was refreshed by a study of oriental classics in excellent translations which, from 1890, had been brought out by far-sighted German publishers. These studies often included scholarly annotations and introductions. Previously, the oriental image of the German Romanticists had been based primarily on William Jones' translation of Kâlidâsa's Sakuntala. Lao-tse had still been unknown to them. Even Schopenhauer had to be satisfied with Anquetil Duperron's translation of Oupnekh' at (1801), at that time the only Eastern work of consequence available. He did not know that the “divine” Oupnekh' at was a Persian, and therefore second-hand, extract from the original Vedas.

It was only at the end of the nineteenth century that Paul Deussen's translation of the Upanishads (1897) and Karl Eugen Neumann's rendering of the Buddhistic Canon made the documents of Indian religion available in the original. Neumann's Dharmmapada came out in 1893; his Last Days of Gotamo Buddho (Mahaparinibbana-Sutta) in 1911. Die chinesische Flöte, Hans Bethge's free adaptation of Chinese poetry from English and French sources, appeared in 1907. Richard Wilhelm's Tao-tê ching was printed in 1911. It was part of his monumental translation of the Chinese classics, of which I Ching (1924) was to influence Hesse's thoughts profoundly. All of these translations enabled the nonlinguist to penetrate oriental thought to a degree unknown among older specialists.

The evidence of the Orient became so overwhelming that lesser spirits could give themselves Buddhistic and Confucian airs. This became fashionable in the nineteen-twenties, when World War I had so visibly demonstrated the breakdown of European culture. Now Max Dauthendey's, Karl Gjellerup's, and Waldemar Bonsels's stories from India and Malaya found an appreciative public, and Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophic movement was spawned by Indian thought. Count Hermann Keyserling's Travel Diary of a Philosopher (1919), with its more critical appreciation of Buddhistic thought, became a publisher's success. This was the climate of public opinion in which Hesse's own Siddhartha found a deeply gratifying echo.

Siddhartha was begun in 1919 and finished in 1922. The process of its gestation was interrupted by a period of one and a half years, while Hesse studied comparative religion and meditated closely on his subject. The first part of the novel was dedicated to Romain Rolland, the second to Wilhelm Gundert, Hesse's “Cousin from Japan.” In the last years of the poet's life, Gundert's translation of the basic document of Zen Buddhism appeared, with an introduction by Hesse.

Still, the end of Siddhartha was clearly not Buddhistic, and its affirmative attitude toward life appeared to Western critics to be more Christian than Indian. This statement of course does not hold true when one has read the Brahmanistic Bhagavad-Gita (The Song of the Lord), where life pursued in a spirit of piety is envisioned as man's duty. Also, one must not forget that, according to Radhakrishnan, the world is no mere illusion for the pious Hindu.

It might also be argued that the ending of Siddhartha is more Taoistic than Indian, and it would be appropriate to quote Lao-tse's saying that the gentlest overcomes the strongest. In the following years Hesse more and more turned to Chinese philosophers, and in The Bead Game they replaced the Indians. At the same time he no longer found any contradiction between the Taoistic view of the world and the essense of Christianity. He realized that Lao-tse would have fully understood the Sermon on the Mount and could have uttered the promise that “the meek shall inherit the earth.”

Theodore Ziolkowski (essay date 1965)

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SOURCE: “Siddhartha: The Landscape of the Soul,” in The Novels of Hermann Hesse: A Study in Theme and Structure, Princeton University Press, 1965, pp. 146–77.

[In the following essay, Ziolkowski discusses the influence Eastern thought and religion had on Hesse's writing of Siddhartha, and finds parallels between the life of Buddha and that of Siddhartha.]

One of the most salient characteristics of the reaction against the nineteenth century was a reawakening of interest in the Orient. The East, with its aura of mystery, has been a symbol of revolt against rationalism in Germany at least since the twelfth century, when the authors of medieval romances such as König Rother and Herzog Ernst sent their heroes off to Constantinople and beyond in search of adventure and magical knowledge that were no longer in evidence in Europe. Not until Herder, however, was a mythical image of India created that inspired, on the one hand, the scholarly investigations of Friedrich Schlegel, Friedrich Majer, and Josef von Hammer-Purgstall, and, on the other hand, the poetic vision that permeates the writings of Novalis, the older Goethe, and Schopenhauer—to mention but a few characteristic examples.1

With the reaction against positivism and the advent of modern mysticism that is so conspicuous in the works of Maeterlinck, Yeats, Hofmannsthal, and others, the mystical image of the Orient received a new impulse. Alfred Döblin, with his The Three Leaps of Wang-lun (Die drei Sprünge des Wang-lun; 1913), was one in a line of expressionists that included poets such as Else Lasker-Schüler and Franz Werfel, who exploited Oriental materials in their effort to find a correlative substance for their new conceptions. This interest was disseminated in popularized form to thousands of readers in many languages by Hermann Count Keyserling, whose Travel Diary of a Philosopher (1919) gave an account of his trip around the world in 1911 and 1912 as well as an introduction to the mystical thought of the East. The Orient became a popular province for all those—writers, theosophers, and readers alike—who sought a philosophy of unity and totality to offset the fragmentation of existence produced by the scientific and technological progress of the West, whose decline Spengler was gloomily prognosticating.


While Keyserling was making his subsequently publicized tour of India, he might have encountered Hermann Hesse, who, with the painter Hans Sturzenegger, was taking a quiet trip through the East in the same year (1911). In his Picture Book (Bilderbuch; 1926) and in the journal Out of India (Aus Indien; 1913) Hesse published his own far less spectacular account of his impressions. India was a goal for Hesse, toward which he had long been striving, and at the same time a disappointment. In many of his stories and essays he has told of his childhood, surrounded by the objects that his grandfather Gundert had brought back from thirty years of missionary work in India. India, it can safely be maintained, was one of the most influential conditioning factors in Hesse's childhood. “From the time I was a child I breathed in and absorbed the spiritual side of India just as deeply as Christianity.”2 As a boy he had before him the constant stimulus of that same grandfather, who continued in Germany his scholarly enterprises on Indic languages; and his father also published works dealing with his years in the Orient.3 “For over half of my life I was concerned with Indic and Chinese studies,” Hesse wrote in Picture Book, “—or, so as not to get the reputation of scholarly authority, I was accustomed to breathe the air of Indian and Chinese poetry and piety.”4 Anyone who takes the trouble to glance at essays like A Library of World Literature (Eine Bibliothek der Weltliteratur; 1929) can easily obtain a quick synopsis of Hesse's impressive range of reading in Oriental literatures and philosophy.5 It was only natural that he should desire to see with his own eyes the lands that had so long filled his imagination. And, indeed, he found there the India of which he had dreamed; his disappointment lay in the realization that he himself, as an Occidental, was unable to partake of this Oriental paradise.

“We come to the South and East full of longing, driven by a dark and grateful premonition of home, and we find here a paradise, the abundance and rich voluptuousness of all natural gifts. We find the pure, simple, childlike people of paradise. But we ourselves are different; we are alien here and without any rights of citizenship; we lost our paradise long ago, and the new one that we wish to build is not to be found along the equator and on the warm seas of the East. It lies within us and in our own northern future.”6

What he brought back from his trip was “a deep reverence for the spirit of the East,”7 whether in its Indian or Chinese form. But Western Man can never hope to return to that state of primitive innocence; rather, he must seek his own paradise in the future. Not cyclical, but progressive regeneration is his destiny, and that fact separates him irrevocably from the primeval Golden Age of which he dreams.

Hesse's attitude toward the East is at this time not one of enthusiastic affirmation, but rather of critical assessment. The magic of the East, which he clearly regards as an image of a lost and irrecoverable paradise, exerts an ineluctable attraction upon his mind and imagination, and he returns to it again and again. Yet he pores over the lore and wisdom of the East with a skeptical eye, striving to single out those elements that are relevant to his own problems and, in turn, testing and sharpening his own thoughts on the systems that he discovers there. This is particularly evident in his journals from the year 1920, precisely during the composition of Siddhartha.

“My preoccupation with India, which has been going on for almost twenty years and has passed through many stages, now seems to me to have reached a new point of development. Previously my reading, searching and sympathies were restricted exclusively to the philosophical aspect of India—the purely intellectual, Vedantic and Buddhistic aspect. The Upanishads, the sayings of Buddha, and the Bhagavad Gita were the focal point of this world. Only recently have I been approaching the actual religious India of the gods, of Vishnu and Indra, Brahma and Krishna. And now Buddhism appears to me more and more as a kind of very pure, highly bred reformation—a purification and spiritualization that has no flaw but its great zealousness, with which it destroys image-worlds for which it can offer no replacement.”8

This evaluation is perfectly consistent with Hesse's thoughts as we know them already; it is the reproach that Sinclair, the poet, made to Pistorius, the analyst. A purely abstract vision of the world is insufficient for men who require substance and life. This brings us directly to the story of Siddhartha, the Brahman's son who rebels against the strictures of his caste and predestined office in life.

After all that has been said it is no surprise that Hesse undertook to write a novel about India; by the same token, it would be naïve to read the book as an embodiment or exegesis of Indian philosophy. Hesse found this book difficult to compose because he was engaged in coming to terms with India as he wrote. Demian was poured forth within the period of a few months in 1917; Siddhartha: An Indic Poem required almost four years of effort although it is shorter than Demian by one quarter. Hesse began the book in 1919 and quickly wrote the first four chapters, which were published separately in the Neue Rundschau (1920). Then there came a break during which he wrote the expressionistically flavored story “Klingsor's Last Summer”; later in the winter of 1919–1920 he went on to compose the next group of four chapters (the Kamala episode).9 Then he suddenly found himself unable to go on.

“My Indic poem got along splendidly as long as I was writing what I had experienced: the feelings of Siddhartha, the young Brahman, who seeks the truth, who scourges and torments himself, who has learned reverence, and must now acknowledge this as an impediment to the Highest Goal. When I had finished with Siddhartha the Sufferer and Ascetic, with the struggling and suffering Siddhartha, and now wished to portray Siddhartha the victor, the affirmer, the subjugator—I couldn't go on.”10

It was not until 1922, after a complete revision of his views of India, that Hesse was finally able to finish the last third of his novel and publish it in full.


Siddhartha, feeling that the teachings of Brahmanism do not lead to salvation, decides to try other paths. He leaves home with his friend Govinda (chapter 1) to join the ascetic Samanas, with whom he spends three years. But gradually realizing that asceticism and yoga are only leading him further away from himself, he goes with Govinda to hear the teachings of Gautama the Buddha (chapter 2). Govinda remains with the great teacher, but Siddhartha perceives that everyone must seek out his own path (chapter 3). Departing from Buddha, Govinda, and a life of the spirit alone, Siddhartha determines to expose himself to the world of the senses and experience (chapter 4).

Crossing a river on a ferry, he reaches a large city where he quickly meets and desires the love of Kamala, a famous courtesan (chapter 5). Aided by Kamala, who has taken an interest in the poor stranger, Siddhartha soon becomes wealthy and is able to afford all the pleasures of life that he desires—including Kamala herself (chapter 6). After many years, however, he realizes that this path was just as foolish as that of asceticism; that his luxurious life has lulled his true self to sleep just as perniciously as the exercises of yoga had done before. He decides to break his way out of the world of Sansara and illusion (chapter 7). Unaware that Kamala is now pregnant with his child, Siddhartha steals secretly away from the city and returns to the river where, at the height of his despair, he almost commits suicide. But as he sinks toward the water, he suddenly feels a stirring of his old self and realizes that escape by suicide is impossible (chapter 8).

He decides to stay by the river and to try to learn to understand himself again: he regards his years as ascetic and then as profligate as two necessary evils that cancel each other out, leaving him once again in his original state of innocence—with the added dimension of knowledge of good and evil. Living with the wise ferryman Vasudeva, Siddhartha learns many secrets from the river: primarily that there is no time and that all being is a unity (the awareness of simultaneity and totality!) (chapter 9), but before this knowledge can be of real significance, it must be conditioned by love. After twelve years have passed, Kamala comes to the river with her son in search of Buddha. She dies from a snake bite, and Siddhartha begins to care for the boy. He loves his son desperately, but the spoiled young city boy yearns only to get away from the two senile old boatmen and to return to life in the city. Eventually he succeeds in escaping, and Siddhartha experiences for the first time the pangs of love and, then, pure unselfish devotion (chapter 10). When he has reached this stage, Vasudeva dies, for Siddhartha can now take over the tradition and his knowledge (chapter 11). Govinda passes by one day and, in a mystic revelation, realizes that Siddhartha in his own way, like Buddha, has achieved absolute peace and harmony (chapter 12).

It is immediately apparent that, though the scene has changed, many elements of the plot are similar to those of Demian. Like Demian (and later Sinclair) Siddhartha is characterized by an almost physical illumination that is a reflection of his inner control and mental powers. Here, too, we have a dichotomy between the world of the spirit and that of the senses. Accordingly, Siddhartha passes through the stages of saint and profligate, like Sinclair, on his road to fulfillment. His development also involves the seeking out and consequent transcending of a series of teachers. Vasudeva's death, with the symbolic embrace, has the same significance of mystical transference as the death of Demian. And, finally, Siddhartha's development follows the triadic rhythm that we have already noted as characteristic of Hesse's novels, indeed his whole conception of human growth. Here, to be sure, the initial stage of childlike innocence is not portrayed, for Siddhartha, when we meet him, already has the seeds of knowledge and doubt in his heart. Yet that stage is clearly implied, for instance, in Siddhartha's words after his awakening on the bank of the river: “Now I stand again beneath the sun as I once stood as a small child: nothing is mine. I have no powers, no accomplishments, I have learned nothing.”11 And the harmony that he attains at the end of the book is, of course, the third stage of higher innocence.

Apart from those familiar to us from Demian, there are other elements of the plot that are clearly discernible: namely, elements borrowed from the life (or legend) of Gautama Buddha.12 Siddhartha, in the first place, has the same name as the Buddha, who in addition to the proper name Gautama also bore the epithet Siddhartha (“the one who has reached the goal”). Both are supposed to have been first among their fellows, as children, in all competition. Buddha left his wife and newly born son to become an ascetic; Siddhartha leaves his beloved Kamala and their still unborn son for the same purpose. Both spent time among the ascetics, learning the practice of yoga. Buddha spent six years meditating on the bank of a river; Siddhartha's last years are spent at the river, where his final revelations come to him. Buddha's revelations came to him under the Bo-tree, while Siddhartha makes his most important decision while sitting under a mango tree. During his three vigils under the Bo-tree Buddha experienced in a vision all of his previous existences, the condition of the present world, and a revelation of the relationship of all things to one another; this is precisely the essence of Siddhartha's final vision in the novel: a view of the world as simultaneity and totality.

These parallels do not mean that Hesse is writing a life of Buddha or using Buddha as a typological prefiguration. On the contrary, any attempt to analyze the novel according to Buddha's life or his teaching about the Four Truths and the Eight-fold Noble Path does violence to the natural structure of the book.13 The book includes, certainly, an implicit critical exegesis of Buddhism,14 but Hesse's entire view of life and development is explicitly opposed to that of Gautama. In his diary of 1920 he states categorically that he opposes Buddha's conscious attempt to postulate an established pattern of development, maintaining instead (just as Siddhartha does) that he hopes “to fulfill the will of God precisely by letting myself drift (in one of my stories I called it ‘letting oneself fall’) …”15 As a matter of fact, recent studies indicate that the thought of Siddhartha has more in common with Chinese than with Indian philosophical and religious systems.16 However, questions of this nature are out of place here since, as in Demian, Hesse defines his symbols adequately within the framework of his fiction.

The parallels to Buddha's life are, rather, contributing factors to the legendary quality of the novel, for the legend is the genre that Hesse seems consciously to be imitating here. The legend, as one can easily verify by a cursory comparison of selections from the Acta Sanctorum, consists substantially of an ideal life whose episodes are filled by traditional “motifs” or, in the terminology of André Jolles,17 by “linguistic gestures.” These incidents or motifs are, as a rule, traditional and transferable; precisely in this way Hesse has transplanted various motifs from the life of Buddha to the life of Siddhartha—not as typological prefiguration, but in order to sustain the legendary quality of the narrative. Hesse, of course, is not attempting to write a model legend; he exploits the possibilities of the genre only insofar as he can do so without obstructing the development of the novel. Yet there are certain other features of the legend per se that appear as elements in his novel and contribute to its structure. In the first place, Siddhartha is clearly regarded as a “saintly” figure—he is, in Jolles' words again, an imitabile—not in the sense that his road can be emulated, but rather his goal of absolute peace. Then, his reunification with the All at the end of the book corresponds to the miraculous union with God in Christian legends. As in Christian canonization trials, his saintliness must be attested by witnesses: namely, Vasudeva, Kamala, and Govinda, all of whom recognize in his face the aspect of godliness and repose. These elements of the plot unquestionably heighten the legendary atmosphere of the story.

The quality is maintained above all, however, in the language. The style here is just as highly consistent with the theme as in Demian and hence, properly, is unique and different from the style of the earlier novel. As a matter of fact, in the latter part of the novel one can find passages in which Hesse did not quite succeed in sustaining the pure simplicity of the earlier pages. This is accounted for by the fact that the first part of the book, as we have seen, was written in a mood of reflection whereas the second part was a voyage of discovery for Hesse himself. Thus in the beginning the style is more controlled. It is characterized essentially by extreme parataxis of syntax (which corresponds to the parataxis of structure, as we shall see), consciously archaic phraseology, epic repetition and epic cataloguing of detail (joined by many passages of iterative-durative action to denote the passing of time), Homeric simile, and, in general, by a highly stylized presentation. This is the basic tone of the entire book although in the excitement of the second part Hesse occasionally lapses into discongruous passages of extended hypotaxis and less leisurely presentation.


The central symbol around which the plot and substance of the novel are organized is the river. Unlike those in Demian, this symbol is not complicated or complemented by other symbols or motifs; it alone bears the full burden of communication. The river, as so often in literature from Heraclitus to Thomas Wolfe, is a symbol for timelessness, and with this symbol Hesse aligns himself with many other modern authors who are obsessed with the problem of the tyranny of time: Proust, T. S. Eliot, Hermann Broch, Thomas Mann, and Faulkner, to mention only a few.18 In Hesse's case this symbol of simultaneity is expanded to include the realm, already anticipated in Demian, in which all polarity ceases: totality. It is a realm of pure existence in which all things coexist in harmony. Fluidity is a corollary of what, in Demian, we called magical thinking, or what Siddhartha expresses thus: “… of every truth it can be said that the opposite is just as true!”19 For in any system that regards all polar extremes as invalid, as interchangeable, traditional values are indeed in a state of flux. Hence we find in Siddhartha many symbols of fluidity, and this extends even to the vocabulary, which returns to expressions of fluidity just as consistently as the language of Demian to the style of the Bible. Further: another corollary to the principle of magical thinking is metamorphosis. Just as fluidity might be regarded as the mode of totality in space, metamorphosis—in the Indian sense of transmigration of the souls—is its mode in time. Thus the concept of the “cycle of transformations” (Kreislauf der Verwandlungen) plays an important role in the argument of the book, for Siddhartha's ultimate goal, as exemplified in the final vision, is to escape the wheel of metempsychosis by realizing that all possible transformations or potentialities of the soul are possible not only consecutively, but simultaneously in the human soul. “In deep meditation there is the possibility of annulling time—to regard everything that has been, that is, and that will be, as simultaneous.”20 Siddhartha explains this idea to Govinda by using the example of a stone: “… this stone is stone: it is also animal, it is also God, it is also Buddha. I love and venerate it not because it might someday become this or that—but because it has long been all these things and always will be. …”21 Siddhartha's redemption lies in the fact that he has escaped the circle of metempsychosis: his Nirvana is no more than the recognition that all being exists simultaneously in unity and totality. As Hesse states it in his diary excerpts: “Nirvana, as I understand it, is the liberating step back behind the principium individuationis; that is, religiously expressed, the return of the individual soul to the Allsoul.”22

All of this is nothing new: we met it in Demian's magical thinking and in many of Hesse's essayistic utterances. And in the story “Pictor's Metamorphoses,” which was written in the same year (1922), Hesse transports us to a fairy-tale realm where the hero actually does undergo the various transformations that Siddhartha experiences only psychologically. Through the powers of the magic carbuncle Piktor is physically transformed into a tree and other natural objects. But nowhere else has Hesse employed a more appropriate symbol for his ideas than here: for the river is in essence fluidity and simultaneity. This is made clear repeatedly:

“This is what you mean, isn't it: that the river is everywhere at the same time—at its source and at its mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains—everywhere, at the same time—and that for the river there is only the present, without the shadow of a future.”23

In the river Hesse found the perfect symbol for his views. Demian's Abraxas, Harry Haller's Magic Theater, and the Glass Bead Game itself are all symbols for precisely the same concept; but they are invented or esoteric symbols that have to be explained, whereas the aptness and significance of the river is instantly apparent to the reader. But Hesse did not stop at the symbolic function of the river. He uses it in addition as the central structural element. Substance, symbol, and structure are so closely welded that it is almost impossible to separate these functions, for the meaning is not put into words, as in the other works, but must be derived from the action of the book itself.

It is only on the river, this realm of totality and effacement of polarities, that Siddhartha could have experienced the visionary dream that he has as he departs from Govinda to experience the life of the senses in the city.

“Sad was the appearance of Govinda, sadly he asked: Why did you leave me? Thereupon he embraced Govinda, wrapping his arms about him, and as he drew him to his breast and kissed him, it was no longer Govinda, but a woman, and from the woman's garments there burst a full breast; Siddhartha rested his head upon this breast and drank, sweet and strong tasted the milk of this breast. It tasted of woman and man, of sun and forest, of animal and flower, of every fruit, of every passion. It made him drunk and unconscious.”24

In this dream, which comes to Siddhartha as he spends the night in the ferryman's hut beside the river, we have a transition from Siddhartha's previous ascetic life, personified by Govinda, to his new life in the arms of Kamala. But here on the river itself the two realms—spirit and senses—are united in the embrace of the strange hermaphroditic figure of his dream (a figure strongly reminiscent of the male-female dream-ideals of Sinclair in Demian). This dream plays a key role in the structure of the novel, for it is at once a transition between two parts as well as an anticipation of yet a third part, in which the two worlds will be reconciled in Siddhartha's vision of totality and simultaneity on the river.


Superficially the novel is divided into two parts with, respectively, four and eight chapters. Any attempt to analyze the book on this basis, however, is fallacious, for it is quite obvious that the book falls into three natural sections: Siddhartha's life at home, among the Samanas, and with Buddha (four chapters); his life with Kamala and among the “child people” of the city (four chapters); and his life with Vasudeva on the river (four chapters). We have three parts of roughly equal length, each devoted to a distinct period of Siddhartha's development.

Temporally and spatially the periods are delimited by Siddhartha's initial crossing of the river and by his subsequent return to it.25 Only with reference to the river is it possible to determine the fact that the three periods are of equal duration. And the river, as the natural symbol of synthesis, is the natural border between the realms of spirit and sense in which Siddhartha attempts to live before he achieves the synthesis upon its very banks. What we have, in other words, is a projection of Siddhartha's inner development into the realm of space: the landscape of the soul.

It can be ascertained that each section encompasses roughly twenty years of Siddhartha's life.26 There is very little to go on. When Siddhartha leaves Kamala to go and live by the river he is “only in his forties.”27 Yet when he first meets Kamala he is still a “youth,”28 and Vasudeva recalls that he had ferried Siddhartha across the river once before: “It must have been more than twenty years ago.”29 Roughly, then, Siddhartha is in his early twenties when he first crosses the river, and approximately twenty years elapse before he returns to it. When Siddhartha sees Kamala again, the son conceived on the night of his departure is eleven years old.30 After this reference there is no other specific statement: we read only that “long months” passed before the son fled back to the city. And the opening pages of the following chapter are filled with expressions indicating the passage of time. So we should be justified in assuming, for reasons of parallelism if for none other, that at least twenty more years elapse before Siddhartha's final interview with Govinda. Thus, the narrated time in each major section or life-epoch31 is roughly equivalent.

Within the sections the time scheme is different. It is obvious from the total time structure of the novel that Hesse must operate, in this book more than in any other he has written, with compression of narrated time within the epochs. This is achieved, in the first place, by the frequent occurrence of passages indicating iterative-durative action. A good example is the opening paragraph.

“In the shade of the house, in the sun of the river bank by the boats, in the shade of the Sal forest, in the shade of the fig tree Siddhartha grew up, the handsome son of the Brahman, the young falcon, along with Govinda, his friend, the son of the Brahman. Sun browned his fair shoulders on the river bank, during the bath, during the sacred ablutions, during the holy sacrifices. Shadow flowed into his dark eyes in the mango grove, during the children's games, during the songs of his mother, during the sacred offerings, during the teaching of his father, the scholar, during the conversations of the sages.”

Although the novel begins when Siddhartha is about eighteen years old (he spends three years with the Samanas before he crosses the river for the first time), we receive, in passages of this sort, a clear impression of Siddhartha's childhood and an almost tactile sense of time passing.

From this general continuum of time that lasts for some sixty years, certain phases are isolated as characteristic examples for each of the three epochs. In general Hesse is operating here with two-day phases in all three sections, and these phases fall, in general, at the beginning and end of each epoch. The intervening time is filled—never simply omitted or ignored!—with iterative-durative action of the type just mentioned. In the first epoch we find a two-day phase beginning with Siddhartha's decision to leave home and continuing to the next day when he and Govinda join the Samanas. The second phase takes place three years later, when Siddhartha accompanies Govinda to the grove of Jetavana, where they meet Buddha; forty-eight hours after their departure from the Samanas, Siddhartha also takes leave of Buddha and sets out on his new adventure.

The first phase of the second epoch relates the crossing of the river and his first full day in the city. The following twenty years, however, are expressed by time compression:

“Siddhartha thanked him and accepted, and now lived in the merchant's house. Clothes were brought to him, and shoes, and a servant prepared his bath daily. Twice a day a plentiful meal was laid out, but Siddhartha ate only once a day, and neither ate meat nor did he drink wine.”32

This passage is a particularly good example because it shows a transition from phase style to iterative-durative style. The first sentence is actually the last sentence of the preceding phase and is a specific answer to a specific proposal by Kamaswami. In the next sentence, however, the change takes place. The fact that clothing and shoes were brought to him is still specific, referring to the first day in Kamaswami's house; but the last part of the sentence is already iterative-durative: his bath was prepared not only on this one occasion, but every day for the next few years. From this point on, the epoch is not interrupted by another specific phase until the end of the twenty-year period when Siddhartha, who is now a wealthy merchant with his own house, possessions, servants, suddenly tires of his life and decides to leave it behind in order to start out all over again. This decision is again related in a two-day phase, which begins with Siddhartha's terrifying vision of his degeneracy and lasts until he finds himself on the river bank two days later, after his near-attempt at suicide by drowning, whereupon he decides to remain with Vasudeva, the ferryman.

The last epoch is richer in phases. The first, which takes place when Siddhartha has been with Vasudeva for twelve years, describes Kamala's arrival with her child and her subsequent death. The next phase relates the son's flight, many months later, and Siddhartha's realization that he cannot keep the boy with him or determine his way in life. The third phase depicts Vasudeva's death some years later; and the final phase is Siddhartha's mystical transfiguration before the eyes of Govinda. Yet between these eight specific phases, which form the slight action of the novel, the sense of time is never suspended, but is kept flowing by a variety of iterative-durative devices that leave us with a full impression of Siddhartha's life over a period of some sixty years.

The flow of time has two important functions in the novel. In the first place, the flow of time in Siddhartha's life must be depicted in order to make the symbol of the river plausible as an analogy for human life; the tertium comparationis is flux. In the second place, time is necessary to allow Siddhartha's own development. He must have time to exhaust fully the possibilities of two aspects of life and, in his third epoch, to adjust to the totally new synthesis of which he becomes aware on the banks of the river. In its own way, the novel Siddhartha is a Zeitroman in Thomas Mann's definition of his The Magic Mountain—a novel about time.33 And the time in Siddhartha is as carefully structured as that in Mann's novel although the structure is a totally different one.

The temporal structure of the novel, which can be determined only by reference to the river, is paralleled by the spatial structure and what might be called the symbolic geography of the book. We have seen that the river symbolizes the goal of simultaneity and totality that Siddhartha aspires to achieve. Simultaneity and totality, however, imply the resolution of polar opposites. In Siddhartha the polar opposites to be reconciled—the spirit and the senses—are restricted geographically to realms divided by the river. The river by its very nature has part in both realms: it is not an obstacle to be crossed (as in Buddhistic symbolism) but rather constitutes in itself the natural synthesis of extremes. Siddhartha's wanderings in geographical space thus parallel his inner development.

Siddhartha leaves home in the first chapter in search of “Atman, It, the Only One, the All-One,”34 which he had not discovered in Brahmanism. “And where was Atman to be found, where did It reside, where did Its eternal heart beat, where else but in the own Self, in the innermost being, in the indestructible part that everyone bears within himself?”35 These are all periphrases for the word “soul” as we have seen it in Demian and Hesse's various essays. Accordingly, Siddhartha sets out to find Atman in asceticism and yoga, for he is still persuaded that the answer lies in exercises of the mind and denial of the world of senses. Yet, in the crucial phase at the end of his first epoch he is forced to conclude: “I sought Atman, I sought Brahma, I wished to dismember and unpeel my Self in order to find in its unknown interior the kernel of all shells, Atman, Life, the Divine, the Ultimate. But in doing so I lost myself.”36 As he wanders on he meditates:

“He now had to experience himself. … The body was surely not the Self, nor more was the play of the senses; yet thinking was not it either, nor reason, nor acquired wisdom. … No, this world of thoughts also was not part of the beyond, and it led to no goal if one killed the random I of the senses in order to fatten the random I of the mind and of erudition. Both of them, thoughts as well as the senses, were nice things. But the ultimate meaning lay hidden behind both of them; it was important to listen to both of them, to play with both, neither to despise nor to overestimate either—and to perceive in both the secret voices of one's innermost being.”37

With this perception in mind he crosses the river and proceeds to the city, where he devotes himself to the sense pleasures of the second section. We have here the familiar polarity of spirit and nature, but in Siddhartha the two realms are not mingled as was the case in Demian, where Sinclair pendulated constantly between the light and dark worlds. Instead, one section (twenty years) is devoted to the cultivation of intellect and another section (twenty more years) to the cultivation of the senses. Geographically, however, these are also different realms, and they are separated by the symbolic river which Siddhartha crosses. Twenty years later, when he returns to the river, he realizes that his life among the “child people” had merely cancelled out his preceding experiences in the realm of spirit and asceticism: “That was why he had had to go into the world, to lose himself in desire and power, in women and money; that is why he had had to become a merchant, a gambler, drunk and avaricious—until the priest and the Samana within him were dead. … He had died, and a new Siddhartha had awakened from the sleep.”38 The return to the river is, of course, not accidental; if Hesse had not intended it as a structural element, he would not have described Siddhartha's first crossing and meeting with Vasudeva, which include certain elements anticipatory of the final resolution.

What we have is a geographical parallel to the temporal structure: in the first section Siddhartha spends twenty years in the realm of the spirit on one side of the river; in the second section, twenty more years in the realm of nature and the senses on the other side of the river; and the last (twenty) years of his life are spent on the river, which represents the synthesis of nature and spirit, the unity, totality, and simultaneity of all being. It is of interest to note that Siddhartha also begins his life on the banks of a river. (In the paragraph quoted above, the river is mentioned several times as an important feature of his childhood.) We have no indication that it is the same river. Yet it is significant that his period of childlike innocence (the first of his three stages) was spent on a river; he leaves the river when the seeds of doubt have sprung in his heart and returns to it only when the poles of spirit and senses have cancelled each other, leaving him again as a child. For although rivers occur elsewhere in the book (there is, of course, a river in Kamala's city), they are mentioned only in passing and play no structural role.

It might be added that the parallelism between the first two epochs extends further to include the characters who play an important role. The significant dream that invades Siddhartha's mind before he first crosses the river calls our attention to the parallel function of Govinda and Kamala:39 both stand for the essence, or the ideal, of the realm that they respectively represent. Buddha himself, who has achieved fulfillment, does not fit into the realm of the spirit any more than does Vasudeva: both show by anticipation the state upon which Siddhartha will enter when he has advanced far enough. But the Samanas, as representatives of the extremes of asceticism repel Siddhartha just as instinctively as does the village maiden who, at the beginning of his second epoch, invites him to engage in a little amatory sport from the Kama Sutra: she is not the essence of sensuality, but its gross extreme.

Through the projection of inner feeling into the realm of geography we have followed Siddhartha's development from the pole of spirit to the pole of nature and back to the synthesis of totality and simultaneity in the symbol of the river. In the final vision of the book Hesse renders Siddhartha's fulfillment visually by reversing the process. For as Govinda looks into Siddhartha's face at the end, what he perceives is no longer the landscape of the soul, but rather: the soul as landscape. Siddhartha has learned the lesson of the river so well that his entire being now reflects the totality and simultaneity that the river symbolizes. As in a painting by Marc Chagall or in Rilke's poem “The Death of the Poet,” the landscape is actually reflected in Siddhartha's face. He has reached fulfillment by affirming the totality of the world and by accepting it as part of himself and himself as part of the development of the world.

“He no longer saw his friend Siddhartha's face, he saw instead other faces, many, a long row, a streaming river of faces, hundreds, thousands, all of which came and went, and yet all seemed to be present at the same time, all of them seemed to be changing and renewing themselves constantly, and yet all were Siddhartha. He saw the face of a fish, a carp with its mouth opened wide in infinite pain, a dying fish with breaking eyes—he saw the face of a new born child, red and full of wrinkles, drawn up to cry—he saw the face of a murderer, saw him plunge a knife into the body of a man—he saw, in the same instant, this same criminal kneeling in chains and his head being cut off by an executioner with a blow of the sword—he saw the bodies of men and women naked in the positions and battles of furious love—he saw corpses stretched out, still, cold, empty—he saw heads of animals, of boars, crocodiles, elephants, bulls, birds—he saw gods, saw Krishna, saw Agni—he saw all of these forms and faces in a thousand relationships to one another. … and all these forms and shapes rested, flowed, reproduced, swam along and streamed one into the other, and over all of them there was constantly something thin, insubstantial and yet existing, drawn like a thin glass or piece of ice, like a transparent skin, a shell or mold or mask of water, and this mask smiled, and this mask was Siddhartha's smiling face. …”40


Siddhartha's smile in the preceding passage is the best example of the new dimension that we find in this novel. Here, in brief, we have the same story that we encountered in Demian: a man's search for himself through the stages of guilt, alienation, despair, to the experience of unity. The new element here is the insistence upon love as the synthesizing agent. Hesse regards this element as “natural growth and development”41 from his earlier beliefs, and certainly as no reversal or change of opinion. In the essay “My Faith” (1931) he admitted “that my Siddhartha puts not cognition, but love in first place: that it disdains dogma and makes the experience of unity the central point. …”42 Cognition of unity as in Demian is not the ultimate goal, but rather the loving affirmation of the essential unity behind the apparent polarity of being. This is the meaning of Siddhartha's transfiguration at the end of the book. The passage goes on at length, developing all the images of horizontal breadth in space and vertical depth in time that we have indicated. But the whole vision is encompassed and united by “this smile of unity over the streaming shapes, this smile of simultaneity over the thousands of births and deaths.”43

The beatific smile is the symbol of fulfillment: the visual manifestation of the inner achievement. As a symbol, it too is developed and anticipated before the final scene in which Govinda sees it in Siddhartha's face. It is the outstanding characteristic of the two other figures in the book who have attained peace: Buddha and Vasudeva. When Siddhartha first sees Gautama he notices immediately that his face reveals neither happiness nor sadness, but seems rather “to smile gently inward.” Everything about him, “his face and his step, his quietly lowered gaze, his quietly hanging hand, and even every finger on this quiet hand spoke of peace, spoke of perfection.”44 When Siddhartha departs from the Buddha he thinks to himself:

“I have never seen a man gaze and smile, sit and walk like that. … truly, I wish that I too might be able to gaze and smile, sit and walk like him. … Only a man who has penetrated into his innermost Self gazes and walks in that way. Very well—I too shall seek to penetrate into my innermost Self.”45

Siddhartha acknowledges in the Buddha a conscious ideal, but it is Buddha's goal and not his path to which the younger man aspires. The symbol of this goal is the beatific smile behind which, almost like the smile of the Cheshire Cat, the individual disappears. The same smile appears again when Vasudeva is portrayed, and we see it grow on Siddhartha's own face.

“And gradually his smile became more and more like that of the ferryman; it became almost as radiant, almost as illumined with happiness, similarly glowing from a thousand little wrinkles, just as childlike, just as aged. Many travelers, when they saw the two ferrymen, took them to be brothers.”46

At the moment of Vasudeva's death the unity of this smile is clearly expressed: “His smile shone radiantly as he looked at his friend, and radiantly shone on Siddhartha's face, too, the same smile.”47 The words here are not used in a figurative sense, for it literally is the same smile. The smile is the symbol of inner perfection, but inner perfection for Hesse means the awareness of the unity, totality, and simultaneity of all being. It is thus appropriate that the three men who share this perception should also share the same beatific smile, even though each reached his goal by following a completely different path.


The beatific smile as the symbol of fulfillment recurs in many of Hesse's novels: we shall find it again in The Steppenwolf, The Journey to the East, and The Glass Bead Game. But before we leave Siddhartha we must discuss one major point: the achievement of Siddhartha's affirmation of existence.

Siddhartha's development to the point of loving affirmation is marked by a technique of modern fiction that James Joyce defined as the epiphany, but which occurs regularly in much prose, German and French as well as English, of the early twentieth century.48 In the epiphany the protagonist perceives the essence of things that lies hidden behind their empirical reality, and as such the epiphany is another symptom of the modern turn away from realism toward a new mysticism. The epiphany reveals the essential integral unity of a given object in a burst of radiance (what Joyce, in the words of Aquinas, calls the integritas, consonantia, and claritas of the object), and the observer is able to enter into a direct relationship of love with the object thus newly perceived. It is this element of loving perception, missing in the cooler cognition of Demian, that we find here in passage after passage. The most striking example occurs in the “awakening” scene of Chapter 4 after Siddhartha has made up his mind not to follow Buddha, but to seek his own way in the world of the senses:

“He looked around as though he were seeing the world for the first time. Lovely was the world, colorful was the world, strange and mysterious was the world! Here was blue, here was yellow, here was green. The sky flowed and the river, the forest towered up and the mountains, everything lovely, everything mysterious, and magical, and in the midst of it all—he, Siddhartha, the Awakening One, on the way to himself. All this, all this yellow and blue, river and forest, entered Siddhartha for the first time through his eyes, was no longer the magic of Mara, no longer the veil of Maja, no longer the senseless and accidental multiplicity of the world of appearances, contemptible for the deep-thinking Brahman who disparages multiplicity and seeks unity. Blue was blue, the river was river, and even if the One and the Divine lay hidden in the blue and river within Siddhartha, it was still simply the manner of the Divine to be yellow here, blue here, sky there, forest there, and Siddhartha here. Sense and Essence were not somewhere behind the things. They were in them—in everything.”49

The points to be noticed in this and other epiphanies (including, of course, those written by the young Joyce) are, first, the impression of radiance aroused by the entire description, which here is created largely by words such as “blue,” “yellow,” and “sky.” Then: these are all objects encountered constantly in daily life, but here perceived for the first time. And finally: what Siddhartha realizes is that the meaning of these things is inherent within them and not some abstract ideal that lies behind their reality. They are radiant and meaningful as manifestations of the One and the Divine, hence as symbols of unity and totality.

A further characteristic of the epiphany—one that is inherent in its very nature but not usually present in the actual epiphany scene—is the subject's feeling that words, phrases, and concepts detract from our ultimate perception of the object, that they lie as a veil between the viewer and true reality. (This is a syndrome that we discussed earlier as the language crisis.) In Siddhartha, as well as Hesse's works in general, we find this attitude, which provides the background for the experience of the epiphany. Siddhartha's final interview with Govinda makes it clear that he has been able to attain his affirmation and union with the All only because he eschews the easy way of convenient words and phrases as explanations of reality. “Words are not good for the secret meaning. Everything is always slightly distorted when one utters it in words—a little falsified, a little silly.”50 He goes on to confide that he does not make distinctions between thoughts and words. “To be perfectly frank, I don't have a very high opinion of thoughts. I like things better.”51 And he concludes by asserting that any ostensible difference between his views and those of Buddha is only illusory, the product of wordconfusions. In essence, despite all superficial differences, they agree. The final vision, in which Govinda sees totality and simultaneity revealed in his friend's face, is also an epiphany: a direct revelation to Govinda of the essential unity of being that Siddhartha was unable to convey through the medium of words.

It is through epiphanies that Siddhartha breaks out of the rigid schematism of Buddhism and Brahminism (their “highly bred reformation” quality of which Hesse speaks in the diary of 1920) and begins to enter into an immediate contact with the world, though it first leads him to the false extreme of sensualism. Since love is the new dimension of Siddhartha's world, he must, as his final trial, learn to affirm even the rejection of his love by his own son. Only after he has suffered the torment of rejection can he perceive the final truth, which had hitherto been purely intellectual: no two men have the same way to the final goal: not even the father can spare his son the agonies of self-discovery. When Siddhartha accepts this truth, he perceives with visionary clarity that in the realm of simultaneity and totality even he and his own father are one. Just as he had once deserted his father, so had his son left him.

“Siddhartha gazed into the water, and in the flowing water pictures appeared to him: his father appeared, lonely, grieving about his son; he himself appeared, lonely, he too bound by the bonds of longing to his distant son; his son appeared, he too lonely, the boy, storming covetously along the burning course of his young desires; each directed toward his goal, each possessed by his goal, each suffering. … The image of the father, his own image, that of the son flowed together; also Kamala's image appeared and merged with the stream, and the image of Govinda, and other images, and flowed one into the other, becoming one with the river. …”52

Not until he has recognized and then affirmed the loss of his son is Siddhartha ready to enter the state of fulfillment. Only at this point does he affirm with love the insight which had been purely intellectual cognition when he departed from Buddha. For even in the case of his own son he is forced to concede that each man must find his own way in life, that no man's path can be prescribed. Thus the highest lesson of the novel is a direct contradiction of Buddha's theory of the Eightfold Path, to which, as we saw at the beginning of this chapter, Hesse objected in his diary of 1920; it is the whole meaning of the book that Siddhartha can attain Buddha's goal without following his path. If rejection of that doctrine is the essence of the novel, then it is futile to look to Buddhism for clues to the structural organization of the book. Rather, the structural principle is to be found precisely where the meaning of the book lies. Just as Siddhartha learns of the totality and simultaneity of all being—man and nature alike—so too the development of the soul is expressed in geographical terms and, in turn, the landscape is reflected in the human face. The book achieves a unity of style, structure and meaning that Hesse never again attained with such perfection after Siddhartha.

It would be futile to deny, on the other hand, that this unity has been achieved at the expense of the narrative realism we customarily expect from fiction. Just as the characters and landscape have been stylized into abstractions by Hesse's poetic vision, likewise the dialogue and action have been reduced—or escalated—to symbolic essentials. As in Demian the action is almost wholly internalized: the excitement of this externally serene work is entirely within Siddhartha's mind. It is ultimately beside the point to judge this work by the criteria of the traditional realistic novel. Like Hermann Broch, who insisted that his The Death of Vergil was a “lyrical work” and that it be read and criticized as such, Hesse had good reasons for calling Siddhartha “an Indic poem.” In both works there is a stratum of realistic narrative, but each as a whole represents the symbolic projection of an inner vision and not an attempt to capture external reality mimetically. Like his heroes, who vacillate between nature and spirit, Hesse as a narrator feels conflicting impulses toward realism and lyricism. In Siddhartha he reached an extreme of symbolic lyricism; his next major work, The Steppenwolf, comes closer to realism in its characterization, dialogue, and plot than anything else Hesse has written.


  1. See, in this connection, A. Leslie Willson, A Mythical Image: The Ideal of India in German Romanticism (Durham, N.C., 1964).

  2. GS, vii, 371.

  3. For an account of these matters see Joseph Mileck, Hermann Hesse and His Critics (Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1958), pp. 3–4, and E. A. F. Lützkendorf, Hermann Hesse als religiöser Mensch in seinen Beziehungen zur Romantik und zum Osten (Burgdorf, 1932).

  4. “Besuch aus Indien”; GD, iii, 856.

  5. “Eine Bibliothek der Weltliteratur”; GS, vii, 307–343.

  6. Aus Indien; reprinted extensively in Bilderbuch (GD, iii, 786–862); here p. 845.

  7. GD, iii, 851.

  8. “Aus einem Tagebuch des Jahres 1920,” Corona, 3 (1932), 201–02.

  9. Hugo Ball, Hermann Hesse …, p. 162.

  10. “Aus einem Tagebuch des Jahres 1920,” p. 193. A similar explanation can be found in Hesse's correspondence with Romain Rolland, to whom the first part was dedicated.

  11. GD, iii, 688.

  12. I refer especially to the biographical evidence for the life of Buddha in Maurice Percheron, Buddha in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten, trans. Joachim Rassat (Rowohlt-Monographien, 1958), pp. 17–33.

  13. Here my interpretation differs from that of Leroy R. Shaw, “Time and the Structure of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha,Symposium, 11 (Fall 1957), 204–224. Shaw regards the novel as an expression of the Four Noble Truths (chapters 1–4) and the Eightfold Path (chapters 5–12) of Buddha. I believe that this view is structurally fallacious for the following reasons. In Buddhism the Eightfold Path is the way to the perception of the Four Noble Truths, which represent fulfillment. If Siddhartha achieves the Truths in the first part of the novel, then it is contextually pointless and structurally inconsistent for the novel to continue. But more important: the whole novel is Hesse's attempt, as we shall see, to reject the Buddhist way. If that is so, then it would be illogical for Siddhartha to follow the Eightfold Path in his own development. Finally, Shaw's interpretation is predicated upon an acceptance of the superficial disposition of the material: namely, two parts of, respectively, four and eight chapters. I believe, as the following analysis will show, that this approach ignores the essential triadic structure of the novel.

  14. Particularly informative on this point is the dissertation by Johanna Maria Louisa Kunze, Lebensgestaltung und Weltanschauung in Hermann Hesses Siddhartha ('s-Hertogenbosch, 1946). Miss Kunze, however, seems, like Shaw, to be unaware of the very important journal of 1920 from which I quote.

  15. “Aus einem Tagebuch des Jahres 1920,” p. 206. (The story to which Hesse refers is Klein and Wagner.)

  16. See esp. Edmund Gnefkow, Hermann Hesse: Biographie 1952 (Freiburg in Breisgau, 1952).

  17. Einfache Formen (2nd ed. Darmstadt, 1958), esp. pp. 23–61: “Legende.” Cf. also the article “Legende” by Hellmut Rosenfeld in Reallexikon der deutschen Literaturgeschichte, ii (2nd ed. Berlin, 1959).

  18. For a stimulating and informative discussion of this topic, with explicit reference to the river as a symbol, see Hans Meyerhoff, Time in Literature (Univ. of California Press, 1955), pp. 14–18.

  19. GD, iii, 725.

  20. GD, iii, 726.

  21. GD, iii, 727.

  22. “Aus einem Tagebuch des Jahres 1920,” p. 206.

  23. GD, iii, 698; for similar passages see pages 699 and 720.

  24. GD, iii, 652.

  25. Shaw, p. 212, is mistaken when he writes that “Siddhartha will cross and recross the river many times during his errorladen search. …”

  26. See Marianne Wagner, “Zeitmorphologischer Vergleich von Hermann Hesses Demian, Siddharta [sic!], Der Steppenwolf und Narziss und Goldmund zur Aufweisung typischer Gestaltzüge” (Bonn, 1953). In this unpublished dissertation, written under the influence of Günther Müller and his seminar, the author attempts to establish a precise chronology of events by referring to such things as rain seasons and banana crops. She assumes a lapse of one year between parts I and II, states categorically that Siddhartha is 57 years old when Vasudeva dies, and figures Siddhartha's own age at the end as sixty-one. However, the argument is unconvincing despite its subtleties; there is simply not enough evidence for a detailed chronology of this sort. Far more persuasive is the approach of Marianne Overberg in her dissertation for Müller: “Die Bedeutung der Zeit in Hermann Hesses Demian” (Bonn, 1948), for the author assumes that Hesse is interested not in any specific chronological time, but rather in “biological-inner” (“biologisch-innerseelisch”) time. Even Miss Overberg is tempted at times to be unnecessarily specific, as when she establishes the first chapter of Demian in the month of September “soon after the apple harvest.”

  27. GD, iii, 677.

  28. GD, iii, 657.

  29. GD, iii, 695.

  30. GD, iii, 706.

  31. I use here the terms suggested by Eberhard Lämmert in his excellent study, Bauformen des Erzählens (Stuttgart, 1955). Lämmert uses the term “epoch”. (Lebensepoche) to designate the large units of time into which a story naturally falls and the word “phase” (Lebensphase) for specific periods of action within the larger epochs. The terms Zeitraffung (compression of time by various techniques) as well as iterative-durative compression stem from Günther Müller and are employed by Lämmert and others in a restricted technical sense.

  32. GD, iii, 665.

  33. Thomas Mann, “Vorwort,” Der Zauberberg (S. Fischer, 1950), p. xxiii.

  34. GD, iii, 619.

  35. GD, iii, 619.

  36. GD, iii, 646.

  37. GD, iii, 651–52.

  38. GD, iii, 692.

  39. Kamala's name, like that of Kamaswami, is based on the Sanskrit root kama, meaning “love,” or Kama, the god of desire.

  40. GD, iii, 731–32.

  41. “Mein Glaube” (1931); GS, vii, 372.

  42. GS, vii, 372.

  43. GD, vii, 732.

  44. GD, iii, 637.

  45. GD, iii, 644.

  46. GD, iii, 699.

  47. GD, iii, 721.

  48. For a full discussion of this term, its use in literature, and relevant bibliography, see my article “James Joyces Epiphanie und die Überwindung der empirischen Welt in der modernen deutschen Prosa,” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift, 35 (1961), 596–616.

  49. GD, iii, 647.

  50. GD, iii, 727.

  51. GD, iii, 728. (My italics.)

  52. GD, iii, 719.

Mark Boulby (essay date 1967)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14961

SOURCE: “Siddhartha,” in Hermann Hesse: His Mind and Art, Cornell University Press, 1967, pp. 121–57.

[In the following essay, Boulby describes Hesse's familiarity with the East, apparent in Siddhartha and many of the author's writings.]

Hesse's journey to the East began in his childhood. His parents' personal experience of Southeast Asia, the indological expertise of grandfather Hermann Gundert with his specimens, books, and mastery of several oriental languages, the Asian visitors who came frequently to the house at Calw—the sources were early and varigated. This was, in any case, the age of the “Oriental Renaissance” in Europe. That movement which began in Germany with the Schlegels and with Schopenhauer had turned into a fashionable cult by the mid-nineteenth century, and in the time of Hesse's own childhood was if anything accelerated and intensified by the reaction against the pseudoscientific banalities of the Naturalist school.

Hesse's conscious, intellectual interest in India came first from a study of theosophical writings, all of which led him back to the same sources, in particular the Bhagavad-Gita. He became acquainted with the work of Hermann Oldenberg, Paul Deussen, and Karl Eugen Neumann, as well as with that of Leopold von Schröder.1 Schopenhauer, whom he began now to prefer to Nietzsche,2 merely confirmed for him the significance of Indian ideas he had already found elsewhere. Translations, however, often seemed to Hesse poor and badly written.3 Nonetheless, poor or not, those versions of the Sanskrit and Pali scriptures which he read did communicate to him an experience of religion on a par with that which he had received from the faith and practice of his parents: “I experienced religion in two forms, as the child and grandchild of pious upright Protestants and as a reader of Indian revelations in which I give pride of place to the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita and the sermons of Buddha. … From early childhood I lived just as much in the atmosphere of Indian spirituality as I did in that of Christianity.”4

In the interpretation of Hesse's works it is inadmissible to suppose these Indian influences largely subordinate to, or simply an intensification of, the stimuli of the German Romantic tradition;5 India was at least as old as Novalis in Hesse's imagination, each fructifies, at various times, the other. In any case the interaction was not at all a simple one; Hesse remarks that Indian religion offers more food for the imagination than does Protestantism,6 while Leopold von Schröder noted, not wholly absurdly, that the Indians were in a sense the Romantics of the ancient world.7

The journey of 1911, which took in Malaya, Sumatra, and Ceylon, was a severe disappointment to Hesse; it ended summarily that idealization of the East in which the hermit of Gaienhofen was seeking escape.8 Hesse found the Orient europeanized and having its own momentum of degeneration. Buddhism, with its ludicrous pomp and circumstance, was a decayed religion with which one could not sympathize, although one might feel for the good, gentle, and naïve peoples at whose foolish hands it had been destroyed.9 Though he was repelled by this, Hesse's attitude remained ambivalent; at least in the East he found a bond of ideal community together with some contact with a magical source, and Demianlike he harps upon the need for the “Northern European” to rediscover such things in his own culture, “in a higher form.”10 He writes still, to some degree, with the superiority, even the conventional smugness of the Western intellectual toward such matters, but as the years passed this shell fell away and a more positive kernel was revealed: “What remains is the experience of a dream-visit to distant ancestors … and a deep respect for the spirit of the East.”11

Retrospect or distance is perhaps the precondition of romanticization; whether Hesse subsequently reromanticized the East on the basis of the former, the latter condition having been lost, is a matter of opinion. At all events childhood, fairy tale, and above all home with a nuance of paradise are the imagery with which the Orient remains uncertainly and ironically bound in Hesse's later writings. In 1916 he finds the vital experience of the Indian journey had been that of the oneness of humanity, now thrown so into relief by the war. “Visit from India” (1922) recalls how he still felt in Kandy—just as he had felt in Europe before setting out—that identical homesickness for a contact with the true spirit of India, and how at length the realization came that physical contact was unnecessary, that a teacher was unnecessary, the fundamental insight into the universality and ubiquity of the magical sphere. “Here my education in magic began”; “Buddha and the Dhammapaddam and the Tao Te Ching [sounded] pure and familiar to me and had no riddles any more.”12 India, he eventually found, was all around him everywhere: the same magical thinking as in the Upanishads might be discovered in the novels of Dostoevsky; yoga belonged not only to those Indian practitioners he had personally known but was also, for example, the key to the personality of that curious Pietist who used to visit the Hesses in Calw, Herr Claassen. The magical bridges to the East were really built, however, in the time of Dr. Lang and Demian. And then the year 1920 apparently sees Hesse moving back from the Vedanta and the Buddhist scriptures toward “the true religious India of the gods, of Vishnu and Indra, Brahma and Krishna.”13

Siddhartha is the pinnacle of Hesse's orientalism; perhaps it is the high point of his art in the novel as well. It is the culmination, all but successful, of that struggle for a new style which characterizes this author's most productive, most impressive period, the years 1916–1925. Of Hesse's earlier and later novels probably only The Steppenwolf stands comparison with it as a formal achievement, and then for other reasons. It shares its high position in his life's work, however, with productions which are themselves not novels, with “Iris,” with Pictor's Transformations, with “Klingsor's Last Summer” and “Klein and Wagner,” and perhaps with the “autobiographies” of The Glass Bead Game. “Iris” and Pictor's Transformations are both Märchen; it is indeed practically only in the Märchen form that Hesse seems able to approach what in Demian recedes the farther the more it is pursued, namely, some resolution of the fundamental stylistic dualism, a language fit to render directly the constatations of magical thinking, the numinous experience of the soul. The approximation—which is all it can be—is principally achieved by surrendering mind to the hegemony of Märchen, by making of reflection the servant, and no longer the discursive critic, of dreams.

“Iris” (1918) is a story in which the reflective commentary is present only in a subtly muted form. When Anselm gazes into the calyx of the iris, “then his soul looked through the gate where things become mysteries and seeing becomes intuition” (III, 367). Only the sudden present tense lifts this sentence gently onto the plane of the reflective. The next paragraph—“Every earthly object is an image”—and that which shortly follows—“All children feel this way”—are generalizing language, but this is little more than the age-old moralizing of the Märchen, the distilling of wisdom. There is no tension between the narrating and the interpreting mind; the dualism, though not extinguished, is softened to the point of incipient harmony. Indeed, “Iris” is impressive just because of its harmony, its oneness, its being cast in a single mold. The debt to Novalis is decisive, but yet the story is no mere pastiche. Few works of its author, in fact, are so strikingly, so intimately his own work, the deepest expression of himself.

Hesse's central, poignant theme of childhood is here wholly translated into the fragile tissue of Märchen. Anselm (the name recalls E. T. A. Hoffmann) has one or two points of contact, in his childhood, with Hans Giebenrath; Iris, the bride “older than he would have wanted for a wife” (III, 371), has no doubt some qualities of Maria Bernoulli; but the autobiographical approach would be a total desecration of such a work as this. In the magic world of Anselm's childhood, in the entrancement of the garden, it is the iris which casts the deepest spell, arouses the deepest dream. He gazes into the calyx of the blue flower:

Long rows of yellow fingers grew out of the pale-blue flowery ground, between them a light path ran away and down into the calyx and the distant blue mystery of the flower … [He] saw the yellow delicate members sometimes as a golden hedge by the park, sometimes as a double line of beautiful dream trees which no wind stirred, and between them bright and interlaced with glassy delicate, living veins ran the mysterious way down into the interior

[III, 364].

In his dreams Anselm goes into this fairy palace and the whole world with him, “drawn by magic, down into the lovely gorge where every anticipation must be realized and every presentiment become truth” (III, 367).

It is of this dream of childhood, long lost, that the girl Iris, difficult, withdrawn, musical, and flower-loving, unconsciously reminds him when the subsequent professor and man of the world seeks a wife. But she hesitates, for she perceives that this young intellectual—successful, worldly, ambitious, furrows already upon his brow—is far from being at peace with himself and cannot harmonize with her soulful inner world. We have heard before, in Demian, of the music of fate—“the music and rhythm of my fate”14 (III, 178)—Iris speaks of “the music in my heart” (III, 373), and she will only marry a man whose “inner music” harmonizes with her own. She sets Anselm the task of searching in his memory to discover what it is of which her name always reminds him, and in this task he now sacrifices his entire empirical existence; in the pursuit of lost memories he forfeits forever his worldly posture, his material aims, his acquisitive will. He becomes a vagabond, but immersed in memory and thus close to wisdom, to nature and to truth. Finally, as an old man, he comes across an iris growing miraculously in the snow and, gazing into the calyx of the flower, he at last remembers his childhood dream. Iris herself is now long dead, but soon Anselm comes upon the spectral gate opened by the spirits only once in a thousand years. He goes within and down into the earth: “Anselm walked past the sentinel into the crevice and through the golden pillars down into the blue mystery of the interior. It was Iris into whose heart he made his way, and it was the iris in his mother's garden into whose blue calyx he stepped” (III, 382). The world within is that sphere in which there are no symbols, no images, no archetypes any more, but only reality, the I, the self.

This story, dominated by blue, is altogether rich in colors, as fairy tales often are, as Hesse's anoetic style invariably is. Yet it has the insubstantiality of a dream. The subjective mystery of the childish self, and its synesthetic mode of experiencing, are effectively evoked. This is the inward home, and its loss sets the human being off on that spiral journey—“the long, hard detour”15 (III, 369)—which is the course of the soul. For Anselm a modification of his childhood relationship with his mother was the first sign of the great sea-change. Adulthood also brought the impoverishment of memory. When Anselm eventually begins to re-enter his memory world, it is like uncovering a series of concealed frescoes; experiences rise from the past, sensations of spring and winter days, nameless and dateless, moments of childhood which were awakened moments and therefore stored up: “the gorges of memory” (III, 378)—we think not only of the “lovely gorge” of the iris itself but of the preface to Demian (“We all come out of the same gorge”). There are also here, as in Demian, allusions to the possibility and the nature of pre-existence. The path which Anselm treads is that which goes inward into the womb; and as Iris tells him upon her deathbed, he takes this path not for her, but for himself. Within him he becomes aware of a presence, a voice which directs him. A vagabond in search of his soul, he discovers anew how to converse with the things of nature, with trees and stones, as he could as a child (and as his Romantic forbears were able to do). If this verges on pastiche, the bird which sings to him and leads him to his final goal belongs intimately to Hesse's own symbolic vision. The bird finds its way inside him, its song comes from within his breast. It directs him to the spectral gate, the cleft in the rock, the way into the heart of the iris, and away from that sphere of mere phenomena in which men live.

The psychoanalytic approach to this work would constate the significance of the cleft which leads into the earth; but then, even more so than the biographical, it would destroy “Iris,” without understanding it. Novalis—above all “Hyazinth und Rosenblütchen”—might help us more discreetly. But “Iris,” in the last resort, lives in its own symbols, Hesse's symbols, the blue orifice and golden stigma of the flower, the mystery of memory, the song of the bird in the seeker's breast.

Pictor's Transformations (written 1922; first published 1925) is an equally intimate work; it was originally published in a limited edition of 650 copies, and is now available as a facsimile complete with Hesse's curious illustrations.16 The story of Pictor unfolds entirely in paradise, “in the home and source of life,” in the garden where grows the tree of life17—“it was both man and woman.” Here Pictor enters full of longing, and here metamorphosis is the controlling law. The bird of paradise is transformed into a “bird-flower”; the “bird-flower” turns into a butterfly; the “bird-flower-butterfly” into a ruby crystal, a magic carbuncle which threatens to sink away into the earth until Pictor hurriedly makes use of it, at the serpent's bidding, to transform himself into a tree. Years pass, and as a tree he is happy, until he finds that he is somehow excluded from the flow of the river of metamorphosis, he cannot transform himself any more. He has been trapped by the serpent's advice into assuming an immutable and therefore an agonizing form, since it is subject all the same to time, to sadness and decay. The fatal difference lies in the fact that the tree of life is androgynous, whereas Pictor is not. Then a girl enters paradise and sits beneath Pictor's tree, drawn to Pictor, in whom now new dreams are stirring. When the bird brings the carbuncle, her longings too are realized and she is united with the tree—“sprouted from his trunk as a strong, young bough.” For Pictor this monoecious state is “eternal transformation”—“He became a deer, he became a fish, he became a man and a serpent, a child and a bird. But in all his forms he was entire, he was a pair, he had moon and sun, man and woman in him, flowed as a twin river through the lands, hung in the sky as a double star.”

Pictor's Transformations is no doubt among other things a prose poem on loneliness, and the hope of surmounting it (and we may think of Hesse's eventual—unsuccessful—marriage to Ruth Wenger in 1924), but biography helps no further than this. At the heart of Pictor stands Peter Camenzind's tree, its mythical identity at last fully revealed; the bird of the soul flies through the air of paradise, while the twin river of metamorphosis is Siddhartha's stream. All Hesse's works from this period, from “Iris” through Demian to Siddhartha and ultimately Pictor are intimately interwoven, linked by “symbols of transformation.” In Pictor at times the rhythmical prose of the tale slips over, with its meter and internal rhymes, into undisguised verse. Pictor's Transformations is indeed a highly sophisticated Kunstmärchen, designed to convey “magical” insights; in a sense it is more hermetic still than “Iris,” in a sense also less overtly personal, for the fragile connection in the former with the world of common experience has in Pictor finally been abandoned. The story seeks to portray objective reality, that is, eternal change and flow.

Ensconced between these two Märchen lies Siddhartha, but not alone; apart from Demian itself, “Klingsor's Last Summer” and “Klein and Wagner” are the other principal works of Hesse's middle period, and in comparison with the Märchen both move on an external plane. Into both of these, the reflective, critical mind—which in the verbal context (at least) of Pictor finds no place—obtrudes.

“Klingsor” is a unique and outstanding work; its weakness is a certain imaginative overstrain, its harleqinade of self-dissipation is perhaps in some degree a theoretical speculation and its language a concession to Expressionist fashions.18 But the splendor of the language of “Klingsor” is, after all, unparalleled elsewhere in Hesse; the intoxicated, burning summer of 1919 in Tessin lives vividly and poignantly in such sketches as the walk to Kareno (Carona), while the scene in the grotto achieves a force rare in this often passive, slowly contemplative writer:

Klingsor, king of the night, lofty crown in his hair, leaning back in his stone seat, conducted the dance of the world, gave the beat, summoned forth the moon, vanished the railroad. … Painting was fine, painting was a fine, sweet game for good children. A different thing—grander and more massive—to conduct the stars, to project the beat of your own blood, the colored rings of your own retina out into the world, to let surges of your own soul rove forth in the wind of the night

[III, 583].

This drunken solipsist is wholly enmeshed and entranced by his own monologue; though famous, he is in reality the artist whose public has disappeared. This was Hesse's condition of mind in 1919, doubt in his public, desperate doubt in the sense and purpose of his own “profession.”19 Klingsor is moreover an artist in physical decline, an artist already ultimately engaged with death, for whom this is now his greatest source of inspiration; with the missiles from his palette Klingsor takes aim at death, with empty wine bottles for cannon he tries to shoot down time, death, and suffering. Around him as he moves through the sultry, virulent months of summer there is only “music of doom” (III, 588). “I believe in one thing alone: in doom. … All over it is the same: the great war, the great revolution in art, the great disintegration of the states of the west. … We are perishing, friends, this is our destiny, the key of Tsing Tse has sounded” (III, 591–592).

The gaunt figure of Klingsor, caught wandering ecstatic and lonely through these fabulous days, is already self-portrait enough; so also, however, in a sense is Li Tai Pe, is the Armenian astrologer, are the poets Hermann and Thu Fu, even Louis the Cruel (though the model was Hesse's friend Louis Moilliet). There is fragmentation of the ego. The powerful dialogue between the astrologer and Klingsor-Li Tai Pe is that between magical insight and death-wish, acceptance and frenzy, the seer and the artist. Klingsor's last picture of himself has many faces, even “prehuman, animal, vegetable, stony” ones (III, 611). Once again the metamorphosis motif is introduced and combined with allusions to prehuman forms of existence—both motifs from Demian, both occurring later in Siddhartha and Pictor; indeed, one of Klingsor's faces resembles Demian's—it is “like an idol's” (III, 609). Throughout the whole sounds the drunken music of fate, in which the Armenian magician's words ring out: “There is freedom of the will. It is called magic” (III, 595).

Hesse writes of that vital year, 1919: “Three circumstances combined to heighten this summer into an extraordinary and unique experience: the date of 1919, the return from the war to life, from the yoke to freedom, was the most significant, but to this was added the atmosphere, climate, and language of the South, and as a blessing from heaven there came in addition a summer like very few I have experienced.”20 In May 1919 he had taken up residence in the Casa Camuzzi in Montagnola, entirely alone and impoverished, convinced that the only possibility of further existence which remained to him was to live in and for his literary work.

“Klein and Wagner,” also, was composed in those days (it was the first work written in Montagnola); it is a novella of escape, of wrenching loose, escape over the wall of the Alps to the south, the feminine Without, yet another repetition of the “exemplary event” in which the innate death-wish apparently at last fulfills itself in Klein's suicide by water. “Klein and Wagner” is probably one of the most ruthlessly direct and merciless pieces of self-exposure in the whole range of modern German literature, of the same stuff as the later Crisis poems and The Steppenwolf. Friedrich Klein sees in flight from his marriage and flight to the south “the two most burning desires of his life” (III, 472); he has become a criminal, a refugee from justice, and the whole act seems to him “crime and revolt, abandonment of sacred duties, leap (Sprung) into cosmic space” (III, 477). While the word “Sprung” indicates the unconditional nature of this act, the adjective “sacred” is also telltale, pointing to its deepest sources, resonant of the past. Klein's theft and subsequent flight were in fact a milder substitute for a fearful blood bath modeled on that of the South German schoolmaster Wagner who murdered his entire family, and whose specter haunts Klein. But Wagner is also the name of that composer whom Klein now hates so intensely,21 thereby hating his own lost youth.22 For Klein has struggled all his life to repress his drives, to be a good husband and citizen; it is this moralizing Klein, whom painted women and sensuality still revolt, who now has to die, for he has been throttling his own soul.

Here lies the essential theme of the story, which follows Klein—through his casual affair with the elegant Teresina—on his concentrated course in ultimate self-insight. Klein's face is a mask, like Demian's and like Siddhartha's. When he gazes into a mirror, it is the face of Wagner he sees there. The narcissus figure with which Demian ends repeats and repeats in the works of these years; but in “Klein and Wagner” a new element is added, for this experience belongs to the “Wagner theater,” “the theater with the sign ‘Wagner’” (III, 529). Klein's dream of Lohengrin is the descent into the unconscious mind, the world of instincts unmasked and unbridled, in fact the “Magic Theater” of The Steppenwolf. In the long account of Klein's suicide the Erzählzeit expands to contain the expansion of Klein's consciousness, at the moment of bursting through the principium individuationis, of entering the magical sphere, the sphere of endless flow, of union with Brahman. For this is “the world-stream of forms” (III, 553)—many creatures and faces swim by. Moreover, it is also “a transparent sphere or dome of notes, a vault of music, in the middle of which sat God” (III, 554), not the throttling divinity of Calw but rather the Krishna of the Gita, beyond good and evil.

“Klein and Wagner” has something of the verbal pyrotechnics of “Klingsor,” the same dire mood of transience, combined with the claustrophobia and cacophonies of The Steppenwolf; it is of course not really a Schopenhauerian relapse vis-à-vis Demian, but just the other side of the very same coin, its doctrine the living out of fate. The neurotic criminal Klein, the thief who would steal freedom, has something in him of the saint; in this his Way is like that of the rake and the drunkard. In the figures of both Klein and Klingsor, moreover, other specific prototypes shine through, distant and distinguished luminaries remodeled at several Romantic hands, Don Juan and Faust. Klingsor at the end, as he paints his self-portrait, has been shrewdly diagnosed as a Faust with traits of a Buddha, as “already Siddhartha.”23

The first half of Siddhartha (up to the point at which Siddhartha leaves Buddha and Govinda behind) was written during 1919 and appeared as a fragment in the Neue Rundschau,24 with a dedication to Romain Rolland. The second section, up to the point at which Siddhartha is saved from suicide, was composed in the winter of 1919–1920 and the rest of the book not until a year or eighteen months later. The author could go no further for a time, he had exhausted his own experience: “When I was finished with Siddhartha the endurer and ascetic, the struggling and suffering Siddhartha, and wanted to portray Siddhartha the victor, the affirmer, the conqueror, I could not go on.”25 In the intervening months, in which he almost despaired of finishing the novel, Hesse occupied himself with painting, with the study of Bachofen, and with his reawakened interest in the Indian pantheon.26

The complete work is written in a strongly rhythmical, sensuous prose with ritual features. The use of leitmotifs, parallelism, and the repetition of phrases and of single words (especially threefold repetitions) in the liturgical manner is constantly reminiscent of the Bible, the Psalms, or—perhaps more directly—the Pali Canon. In none of Hesse's novels is the style more material to the nature of the act of communication sought after in the work; referring to the extreme parataxis and the apparently endless repetitions of Buddha's canonical preachings, like prayer mills, which had led to some ridiculing of Neumann's translations, Hesse explains: “Buddha's sermons are in fact not compendiums of doctrine, on the contrary they are examples of meditations.” In this special sense the language of Siddhartha may be characterized as meditative; the purpose of meditation is defined as “a shifting of the state of consciousness, a technique the highest goal of which is a pure harmony, a simultaneous and uniform functioning together of logical and intuitive thinking.”27 The function of the language of Siddhartha is to correspond to this purpose; each phrase (as, later on, each ideogram in the Glass Bead Game) is a possible threshold of meditation. Rhythm is the essential feature of this language, an undertone of chant; there is a predilection for adverbial openings to sentences because of their rhythmic effect: “Wonderfully did he feel the joy surge in his breast” (III, 690), and also for resonant inversion combined with repetition, alliteration, and assonance: “Dead was the singing bird of which he had dreamed. Dead was the bird in his heart. Deep was he snared in Sansara, disgust and death he'd sucked up from all sides, as a sponge sucks water till full. Full was he of ennui, full of misery, full of death” (III, 681). In that it is appositional, the style also betrays its sources: “Know ye, in Jetavana, in the garden of Anathapindika, tarries the exalted one” (III, 636); poetic meter, in fact, constantly recurs, while there are many stock epithets.

The language of Siddhartha, however, is unmistakably Hesse's own; “your wondrous doctrine” (III, 641), for instance, has an affective quality the ancestry of which is evidently German Romantic rather than Pali, and such touches are common both in the vocabulary and the cadences of the prose: “Sweetly sounded the legend of Buddha, magic wafted fragrantly from these tales” (III, 632). The unresolved stresses and disharmonies of Demian are replaced by a style much closer to “Iris” and Pictor. Its concreteness has frequently been remarked upon;28 it is indeed a curious interfusion of the tactile and the intuitive-visionary, a product of the esemplastic imagination. It might be possible to characterize it by that rather dubious term “magic realism,” since it does indeed seem to express magical insights, to circumscribe the “inner” world, in a language owing a debt both to this world and to “external reality,” having points of reference in both, but closer to the latter perhaps than would be appropriate in the Märchen.

And indeed Siddhartha is precisely not a Märchen; it is a species of legend, and as such it has marked hagiographical features. As Hesse remarked while in the course of composing this novel, “Now the fact is that the saint is the strongest and most attractive of models for me.”29 Almost timeless and unhistorical, Siddhartha is the presentation of an exemplary vita, and in this alone no Märchen. Like Demian it is constructed upon the basis of interleaving conversations and moments of enlightenment and insight. The apparent realism of Siddhartha is in the last resort a superficial thing; both characters and background are to a high degree stylized. What Hesse is concerned with above all else in the work is the depiction of a series of moments of awakening, in which the vita is borne forward Sometimes the description is cursory; sometimes, however, the Erzählzeit lengthens extraordinarily—these are the moments of freedom when the curtains draw back from the magical reality which it is the true purpose of this partially didactic novel to disclose.

The Sanskrit word “siddhartha” was the personal name of the most recent of the Buddhas, Gotama, bestowed on him by his father King Suddhodana, and means approximately “he who has achieved his aim.” Siddhartha is indeed the first of Hesse's heroes of which such a great claim might be made and almost the only one. The hesitant, scarcely discernible vita of Peter Camenzind took this form partly because he did not know his aim; in Demian, where the aim is much more conscious, the lines of the vita are starker. Siddhartha knows his own aim from the outset, and there is in the novel no element which does not directly subserve the tracing out of his Way. Siddhartha grows up on the riverbank, “in the shade of the Sal forest, in the shade of the fig tree” (III, 615)—sacred trees (the Sal Grove in Buddhist scripture) and also another tree which suggests, in Hesse's emblematics, the sensual and the profane. At the very beginning his achievements are not inconsiderable; he understands the use of breathing exercises, knows how to say “Om,30 and knows that within him is the indestructible Atman, at one with Brahman, the universe. He has been impressed with the deep wisdom of the Samaveda Upanishads.31 He burns with a longing for knowledge, and his father hopes of him that he will become a prince among Brahmans; his mother, on the other hand, sees in him above all “the strong one, the beauteous one, he who walked on slim legs, he who greeted her with perfect seemliness” (III, 617–618). Demian too was physically impressive; and like him Siddhartha finds an admirer of his own sex, Govinda, “his shadow” (III, 618)32—whose life is consumed in emulation, imitatio.

Siddhartha is dissatisfied, the waters of the river send him dreams and restless thoughts; he is dissatisfied with ritual and the worship of the gods. He wishes to find his way to experience the Atman, but to this no one can help him—the Upanishads merely bestow abstract knowledge. Like Faust, it is his revolt against the frustrations of the intellect which sets him on his path. Deciding to cast his lot with the Samanas, itinerant ascetics, he is involved in a conflict of will with his father, “the pure one, the learned one” (III, 620), and in this he conquers. The Way of the Samanas is, however, ironically enough, really only an intensification of the father principle in Siddhartha's heart. In search of the spring of the self, the “Urquell,” Siddhartha joins these ascetics; their method involves a total rejection of sense experience, its suppression, the achievement of a condition of apparent emptiness. While killing the senses, the novice must learn to project himself, by meditative techniques, into the selves of other things; he must use multiple “ways away from the ego” (III, 627). But for Siddhartha these are all a disappointment; he shocks Govinda by the remark that such escape from the self may be obtained “in every tavern” (III, 628). The Faustian “Auerbach's Cellar,” as Hesse's protagonists mostly well know, is a kind of premature surrogate for the spiritual Way.

“Much time have I needed to learn and am still not at an end of learning, O Govinda, that nothing can be learned” (III, 630). Like Faust, Siddhartha expresses his disillusionment. But Govinda is more patient than he; Govinda already knows a good deal: “We do not go in a circle, we go upward, the circle is a spiral, already we have climbed many a step” (III, 629). It is of course not such a crass self-confidence, but there seems to be a resonance of Faust's famulus Wagner here; the irony is in the parallel implicitly drawn, that the rationalist Wagner is reincarnate as Govinda, apostle of gradualism upon the mystical Way. Siddhartha is his Faust, impatient and absolutist, demanding all at once, contemptuous of the method of knowledge, inevitably seeking nothing less than “the Way of Ways” (III, 630). Knowledge may indeed exist, but learning is impossible—this paradox demolishes, in Siddhartha's eyes, the whole philosophical structure of the Wagner-Govindas. In the eyes of Govinda, however, such iconoclasm also destroys the very dignity of the hierarchical system and thus of all pedagogy—“What … then,” he protests, “would become of everything … which is venerable?” (III, 631)—and a thought of the preceptors at Maulbronn is not too far removed.

Siddhartha, like his author, has discovered that comforting secret that a teacher is unnecessary. Hence he is prepared to refuse to accept even Gotama Buddha. What the Samanas hear of Buddha is first of all “legend,” and “Märchen”—the two spheres of the consummate saint. Here is one who is enlightened, who has reached Nirvana and need never descend again into “the turbid stream of forms” (III, 632)—apart from the significant adjective, these are the very words of “Klein and Wagner.” To refuse Gotama is tantamount to refusing all teachers, a decision already discernible in Beneath the Wheel. The conversation Siddhartha has with Gotama centers on the Buddhist doctrine of the unbroken chain of cause and effect; Buddha's teaching makes immensely clear the unity of the world, as Friedrich Klein had experienced it at the moment of death. But Siddhartha finds a logical flaw in this closed, apparently coherent system, the crack through which slips the doctrine of redemption, of the possibility of Nirvana. Gotama praises his perspicacity, but does not resolve the ambiguity; he merely emphasizes the pragmatic nature of the system, warning Siddhartha against “the thickets of the intellect” (III, 642).

Buddhism makes a moral judgment upon existence, a negative judgment which Siddhartha proves unable to accept. That Hesse could only laugh (in 1925) at being so often called a Buddhist is not surprising; overt world-denial is indeed nowhere to be found in his work: “At bottom I knew I was further from this confession than from any other. And yet there was something that was right, a particle of truth hidden in this that I only recognized somewhat later.”33 The reservation is intriguing; perhaps it refers to this renegade Protestant's insight that Buddhism itself was a reform religion, the Protestantism of ancient India.34 Hesse had believed in Buddha “for a while in my youth very faithfully,” had been interested in the Sankhya, and had understood Nirvana to be “the redeeming step back behind the principium individuationis, that is, expressing it in religious terms, the return of the individual soul to the universal soul.”35 But the notion that it was the individual's primary task to find his way back to this condition was counterbalanced in Hesse's mind by the doctrine of “letting-oneself-fall,” the true meaning of which is thus expressed: “Or should I not rather fulfill God's will precisely by letting myself drift (in a story I called it ‘letting-oneself-fall’), by doing penance with Him for His love of breaking Himself up and living Himself out in individual beings?”36 Now “letting-oneself-fall” was the ultimate doctrine of “Klein and Wagner,” and it is therefore implied that this was really the expression of an incipient “heresy against Buddha,” whose extreme rationalism and godlessness was perhaps revelatory of a certain unwillingness to submit fully to the fate of living and thus to the fatherhood of God.

Siddhartha as a whole must therefore be seen in the context of Hesse's movement away from Buddhism, not toward it, characterized also by the reference to his increased interest in the multiple Indian gods. Hesse was throughout his life probably more influenced by Hinduism than by Buddhism; he apparently found that yoga answered better the needs and yearnings of himself and his contemporaries than did the Eightfold Path.37 Yet Siddhartha differs in the end from all such faiths and systems by the extremism of its derogation of the intellect. Certainly, Siddhartha's experience leads him away from Buddhistic “pessimism”; it leads him away from ethical judgments to the total amoralism of chaos; while the doctrine of universal love points away from Indian teachings altogether toward that of St. Francis. We may note that Hesse remarks at this time that Jesus, with his doctrine of the childhood of men before God, was perhaps further advanced than the Buddha.38 The actual description given in Siddhartha of Gotama Buddha is not without its interest: “With a hidden smile, still, peaceful, not unlike a healthy child, the Buddha walked by” (III, 637). The harshness, the stoniness of Demian's trance face has been softened; the hermaphroditic smile of the Buddha speaks a serenity which in a later novel is to be transformed into laughter.

To leave Gotama and to leave Govinda, now Buddha's “shadow,” is a turning point in Siddhartha's life, a moment like a snake's shedding of its skin (a symbol beloved of the Upanishads). Now he seeks neither teachers nor a teaching, but only self-knowledge. This had been his error: in the pursuit of the Atman he had striven to escape from the self, but it is precisely the self which he must come to know, what the Vedas cannot teach, what no teacher can teach, “the secret called Siddhartha” (III, 646). At this point something happens:

He looked around him as if he were seeing the world for the first time. Beautiful was the world, colorful the world, strange and baffling the world! Here was blue, here was yellow, here was green, sky and river ran, forest stared and mountain, everything beautiful, everything bewildering and magical, and in the midst of it he, Siddhartha, the awakening one, on the way to himself. All this, all this yellow and blue, river and forest, entered Siddhartha's eyes for the first time, was no longer the spell of Mara, was no longer the veil of Maya, was no longer the meaningless and accidental multiplicity of the world of phenomena, despised by the deep-thinking Brahmans, who scorn multiplicity, who seek unity. Blue was blue, river was river, and even if in the blue and the river in Siddhartha the One and the Divine lived concealed it was precisely the nature and sense of the Divine to be here yellow, here blue, there sky, there forest and here Siddhartha. Meaning and being were not somewhere behind things, they were in them, in everything

[III, 647].

This must be placed side by side with a passage from “Klein and Wagner”:

The wave went through him like pain and a thrill of pleasure, he shuddered with feeling, life resounded in him like surf, everything was incomprehensible. He tore open his eyes and saw: trees on a road, silver flakes in the lake, a running dog, cyclists—and everything was strange, a fairy tale and almost too beautiful, everything as though brand-new out of God's toy box, everything solely for him, for Friedrich Klein, and he himself only there to feel this stream of marvels and pain and joy shudder through him. Everywhere there was beauty, in every pile of dirt by the wayside, everywhere there was deep suffering, everywhere there was God. Yes, this was God, and unimaginable ages ago as a boy he had experienced Him this way and sought Him through his heart whenever he thought the thoughts “God” and “omnipresence.” Heart, burst not of your fullness!

[III, 515].

The moment of inward enlightenment involves, indeed often begins with, an awakening of sense impressions; remembering themselves, Siddhartha and Klein remember the world, and vice versa; the colors of the world light up, movement (“a running dog”) leaps to the eye, it is suddenly a world of concrete particulars, not just the hypothetical veil of Maya. It may certainly be regarded as an epiphany, but it is more important still to note that it involves a total change in the mode of consciousness; in Klein's case (and this reminds us of experiences of Emil Sinclair's) it results in a state of hypermnesia: “Once more there poured up from all the forgotten shafts of his life liberated memories, countless ones” (III, 515). A passage from “Dream Traces” adds rewardingly to our general insight:

He blinked out of a narrow crack between his closed eyelids and perceived, not merely with his vision, a light wafting and gleaming … somehow valuable and unique, transformed by some secret content from mere perception into experience. What flashed multi-rayed, drifted, blurred, surged, and beat its wings was not just a storm of light from without, and its theater was not just the eye, it was also life, a rising urge from within, and its theater was the soul and his own fate. This is the way in which the poets, the “seers” see, this is the delicious and devastating manner in which people see who have been touched by Eros. … Everything was eternal moment, experience, innermost reality

[IV, 424–425].

“Life resounded in him like surf”; “it was also life, a rising urge from within”—the connection between the world within and the world without, that of the affects and that of the senses, which connection Emil Sinclair experienced first and foremost as a linked movement of fate, can also be a bond of consciousness. The process may indeed begin in the senses or in the soul, but it eventually embraces both of these. It involves the feelings, but equally it involves the memory and the insight.

Above all, it is a state of awakened presence, magical thinking, the experience ascribed to Dostoevsky's Prince Myshkin: “The highest experience for him is that half-second of highest sensitivity and insight which he has known several times, that magic ability to be for a moment everything, to feel everything, to suffer everything, to understand and affirm everything that is in the world.”39 This is a condition in which perceptions are transformed into experience. The passage from “Dream Traces,” it is worth noticing, is anything but naïve experience; in fact, the account which precedes it of the author enjoying the spring as he sits in a park is markedly intellectualized. A certain formal stylization in the Siddhartha passage is also undeniable—the colors are not from Klingsor's rich palette, they are representative only; in neither Siddhartha's case nor in Klein's is the outside world experienced wholly with naïve sensuality, but still with a certain detachment, and sub specie aeternitatis; Siddhartha's objects are no longer merely the veil of Maya but yet they are not just objects, like Klein's they have a soul, they have God within them as Siddhartha has; in this the things are replicas of the man, Siddhartha. For the magical realists, precisely, “objective reality” can never be simply “a storm of light from without” but must also be subjectively conditioned, by an awakening within the self; the locus in quo is essentially within, “its theater was the soul and his own fate.” This is, as we are told, the vision of poets, a form of mystical vision; it is intimately bound up with contact with Eros, and of course Siddhartha stands, at this moment, on the brink of his plunge into the erotic world. Thus each nodal point upon the vita may be regarded inter alia as a moment of poetic inspiration.

Siddhartha walks out of the grove of Jetavana, the grove of the Buddha, with the intention of returning home, to his father. But the ambiguous feast of the Prodigal Son is not for him. He stops short, “as if a snake lay before him on the path” (III, 647). Between him and home there lies a barrier of a spiritual, but evidently also of a specifically sexual kind (the snake symbol recurs again at a much later point in the novel). For the first time Siddhartha really feels his solitude, his homelessness; he belongs to no community, has no place even among Samanas, hermits, or monks. Out of the coldness of this experience “Siddhartha came to the surface, more I than before, more tightly coiled,” resolved to go on, “not home any more, not to his father any more, not to go back” (III, 649). The world of the senses is now evoked—“for the world was transformed” (III, 650)—the description, though vivid and colorful, is perhaps more like the Märchen than like “Klingsor”; all is subordinate to the laws of metamorphosis, that is, to Siddhartha's changing consciousness, to his “liberated vision.” Flickerings of archaic memories rise from the depths of the author's work; there is the characteristic animal movement as the pike hunts; the orgiastic force of “Klingsor” and “Klein and Wagner,” Eros, and even Dionysos is not far away: “Siddhartha saw a ram pursue a sheep and cover it” (III, 651). The world is beautiful when it is experienced thus, “without searching, so simply, in so childlike a way” (III, 650).

In fact, the second part of Siddhartha turns upon the paradox of enlightenment and childlikeness; in a sense these are one and the same, in a sense infinitely different: the Way is a spiral indeed, not a circle; and the world of the magician (cf. “Childhood of the Magician”) has deep analogies, but no identity, with that of the child.40 Siddhartha now goes to dwell among the “child-people,” an ambiguous term. Their childlikeness both is and is not that spoken of in the New Testament; theirs is the sphere of reality, with which the magical reality of Siddhartha can never coincide. As the magical realism of the novel differs from realism, in some such way does Siddhartha differ from the “child-people” among whom he now lives. This first night of freedom he dreams of Govinda, who in embracing him is transformed into a woman, from whose breast Siddhartha drinks the intoxicating milk; the characteristic transition from male to female, that fundamental structural element in Hesse's novels, may now be noticed again. The erotic motif now becomes dominant, but not before the ferryman Vasudeva (one of the many names of Krishna) has borne Siddhartha over the barrier of the river into the wide world. Vasudeva speaks briefly of the teaching which it is the river's to bestow, predicts Siddhartha's return, and makes a childlike impression upon the wanderer: he reminds Siddhartha of Govinda, but Siddhartha is to learn painfully of the ambivalence of childlikeness, and is with time to come to see the gulf which separates Govinda from Vasudeva, the perfected one.

Klingsor, on the road to Kareno, had had an encounter unlike any which had occurred in Hesse's work before: “Out of a dark stone room as though out of a primeval cave a woman appeared. … From her dirty clothes her brown neck emerged, a firm broad face, sunburned and handsome, a full broad mouth, large eyes, a rough sweet charm, her large Asiatic features spoke expansively and silently of sex and motherhood. … She was everything, mother, child, lover, beast, Madonna” (III, 575). Such words as these had, it is true, been used of Emil Sinclair's dream lover, but the physical reality had turned out somewhat contrived. This woman, however, is seen; and now a figure takes shape—in this book of Klingsor, Hesse's first Don Juan—fit at last to wrest to herself the hegemony which Peter Camenzind's statuesque Elisabeth had so long held. She is born at the same time as Klein's Teresina, is in fact her dissimilar twin; we may note that the peasant woman who comes to Klein when he stays the night in her hovel does so when he has just been dreaming about the elegant Teresina. It is a gypsy girl who later introduces Goldmund to the experience of love; and Siddhartha, once across the river, has a similar encounter, feels for the first time stirring “the spring of sex” (III, 654), but the call of some inner voice disperses his entrancement, he recognizes the animal in the woman, and his virginity is spared for Kamala.

Kamala herself,41 the courtesan, belongs to the school of Teresina and of Harry Haller's Hermine. There is more naïveté, more of the animal, in Teresina than in Kamala, whose oriental sophistication is of subtler kind; it is hard to imagine Teresina being converted, as Kamala eventually is, to Buddhism. Nevertheless, both are the type who always used to make that conscience-shackled bourgeois, Friedrich Klein, both disgusted and afraid. When Teresina first appears, Klein sees “a girl, strong and rhythmic, very upright and challenging, elegant, haughty, a cool face with painted red lips and dense high hair which was a bright, metallic yellow,” and then again “a calm and clever face, firm and pale, a little blasé, the painted mouth bloodred, gray eyes fully alert, a handsome, richly formed ear on which an oblong green stone shone. She was dressed in white silk, the slim neck sank away in opal shadows, encircled by a thin necklace with green stones” (III, 499). Kamala is unquestionably the same figure; the hair style, the eyes, the vocabulary, and the structure of the portraits are astonishingly similar; only race, and therefore some of the coloring, is different: “Beneath black upswept hair … a very bright, very delicate, very clever face, a bright red mouth like a freshly opened fig, eyebrows trained and painted in high arches, dark eyes clever and alert, light high neck emerging from a green and golden tunic, still bright hands long and narrow with broad gold bangles on the wrists” (III, 655). Kamala assures Siddhartha that she can dispense love at her will alone, as the Samana and Brahman can dispense spiritual truth. She can teach love, the graduated wisdom of kissing; on this Way too there are many stages, it is a hermetic mystery.

To be initiated, Siddhartha, who has just left one grove, must now enter another, Kamala's pleasure grove—“to go into the grove” is the emblematic phrase. Siddhartha now plunges into the world of sex, of the “child-people,” into the game. Friedrich Klein had let himself fall into the waters of the lake, but the truth was he could just as well have let himself fall into life—“letting-oneself-fall” in life, the doctrine of Demian, and of the Tao. Siddhartha now lets himself fall into life. He has understood the paradox of determinism, the nature of action. Real doing is the same as suffering; both are the execution of fate;42 to wait, to submit—this is the teaching of the Vedanta and of Lao-tzŭ. On those who have understood this most elusive truth and converted it into a way of life, as Siddhartha has, fortune smiles: “Siddhartha does nothing, he waits, he thinks, he fasts, but he goes through the things of the world like a stone through water” (III, 663).

This is magic, and through it Siddhartha succeeds in the commercial world of the “child-people,” where it astonishes his mentor, Kamaswami.43 He becomes rich, learns the life of the merchant detachedly, “like a game” (III, 666). Unlike Kamaswami, neither time nor money cause him the least concern. He is participant and spectator at one and the same time—the positive aspect of Klein's decadent schizophrenia. The life of ordinary people, child-people, seems to Siddhartha only a passionate game, with which, however, they are wholly identified. Kamala, for whom love is a game, is more like Siddhartha himself; like him she is inwardly detached, she has “a quiet place and refuge” (III, 671) within her. However much she teaches him, he does not really love her; as he says: “I am like you. You do not love either—or else how could you treat love as an art? People of our sort perhaps cannot love. The child-people can, that is their secret” (III, 672). Sexual love is an art, and art is a game; every game is dangerous, for the player may sooner or later forget it is a game.44

To let oneself fall, to submit, to play—like all great spiritual secrets this one too has its hellish converse. That which can liberate can also bind all the faster. Thus Siddhartha begins to forget, to lose the all-important power of discrimination, to lose awareness of the distinction between the game which he practices and the source, the stream, “the spring of his nature” (III, 670), which flows, or used to flow, within him. What he experienced at the peak of his youth—“that lofty, bright wakefulness” (III, 673)—this is no more; his soul, filled with world and sloth, falls asleep. His decline, like Hans Giebenrath's, is compared to that of a tree: “as dampness penetrates the dying tree trunk” (III, 673). Like Faust, whom he so often resembles, he all but succumbs to “flache Unbedeutenheit” (triviality). For the first time, pointing backward to Hermann Lauscher and forward to The Glass Bead Game, Hesse openly develops the symbol of the game as a figure for the aesthetic existence. Those who but play the game, be it in art or be it in life, in the end are lost in the game. However unsatisfactory the asceticism of the Samanas was, it remains a fact that without some degree of self-discipline, of self-recall, the spiritual life is impossible.

Siddhartha, becoming like the “child-people,” acquires only their painful, negative side, “the soul-sickness of the rich” (III, 675), their animal emotional life. He remains intolerably without their comfortable blindness, their anaesthetic self-confidence, the “tranquillity” of perpetual identification with purposes. He ends by being possessed by greed and by taking to dicing (apparently to demonstrate his contempt for money!), to wild gambling—most degraded of all forms of game. So he comes to feel—though at first in a superficially pleasurable form—that emotion which is characteristic of the “child-people” and which reduced Klein's life to hell, anxiety. Like Klein, haunted by Wagner, and like Klingsor, Siddhartha stares at his own face “in the mirror” (III, 676), stands outside himself and watches his decline, his “Wagnerization.” It is in this form, the mirrored or painted face, that the motif of the double, introduced into Hermann Lauscher, recurs most often in Hesse's later works.

A dream warns Siddhartha, the aging Kamala's wish to be told more about the Buddha strikes home with him; one day, she thinks, she will hand over her pleasure grove to the monks of Gotama. Into their lovemaking there comes a new element, fear of old age, of autumn, of death. In his disgust with himself Siddhartha sleeps and dreams of a bird, Kamala's singing bird, which he finds dead in its cage, extracts and throws into the gutter; then suddenly it seems as if he has thrown away everything that has value in existence. He surveys his life, he discovers the terrible truth that for the partially enlightened one to seek to be again like ordinary men makes him in fact far worse off than they; in truth, there is no reversal possible, no way back at all. Not even the game which Kamala plays can be endured any longer; and his mango tree, his pleasure garden, his riches—all is but a stupid game which he leaves there and then, without more ado, in the very same hour of the night. When Kamala hears of Siddhartha's disappearance she opens the golden cage, takes out her bird and lets it fly away. When Hermann Heilner fled from Kloster Maulbronn he breathed deeply and stretched his limbs, “as if he had escaped from a narrow cage” (I, 482). There are many varieties of cage; but Hermann Heilner and Siddhartha have at least this much in common, they both go on and not, like poor Hans Giebenrath, back.

On the bank of the river, beneath a huge cocos tree, Siddhartha contemplates suicide, death by water. He thinks of it in terms such as those which ran through the mind of Klein, “to smash to pieces the unsuccessful form of his life, to throw it away” (III, 682). Klein was pursued by the detailed vision of his body pulverized beneath the wheels of a train.45 His eventual suicide seemed to him “a child's trick, something no doubt not evil, but comic and pretty foolish” (III, 548); as for Siddhartha, his mind awakes in time and he perceives the absurdity of seeking peace through the destruction of the body. Looking into the mirror of the water, he perceives his own emptiness and spits at his own face. At this moment the word “Om,” rising from the depths of the self, stays his hand, as Faust's hand is stayed by the Easter chorus. The dreamless sleep (Tiefschlaf [III, 620])46 which now overcomes him and which, as the Upanishads teach, takes him temporarily to Atman, separates him utterly from his previous life, just as Faust is separated in the scene “Anmutige Gegend.” The moment of enlightenment which precedes the sleep, described at some length, is, however, summarized as “just a moment, a flash” (III, 683).

Immensely refreshed, joyful, awakened, and inquisitive again he is now confronted by a man in a yellow robe, Govinda, who has been watching over his sleep. For a short moment his friend, his former “shadow,” has reversed his role, has been his guardian and protector. To Govinda he relates about his rich and worldly life, now gone, for the Wheel turns. Govinda, full of doubt, goes on his way, watched by Siddhartha with love; the woman, Kamala, has duly given place to the man, Govinda, but Govinda is now a symbol for humanity, the object of a new kind of love. Now at last Siddhartha can really love; that is, he is free of the game, for those who only play cannot love. Siddhartha has lost his ascetic self, he has lost his worldly self, he must begin again as a child, a situation which brings him to laughter, “to laughter about himself, to laughter about this strange, foolish world” (III, 689).

At this moment of utter destitution, which is the beginning of freedom, Siddhartha's vita brushes against the author's life as it was in these lonely years, and indeed a note of Klingsor's “music of doom” sounds: “He was going downhill” (III, 689). In a passage extraordinarily close to the language and mood of “Iris” (III, 689) Siddhartha's life seems to him to have been a long and strange detour (wunderliche Umwege); these circuitous paths have brought him to be a “child-person”—the word is full of double-entendre—and the bird in his breast is not dead after all. It is an errant, maybe a foolish Way (närrisch; III, 690), perhaps even a circle, but he will continue to follow it. Recognition of this brings joy, as does something else, his escape like a bird from the cage, the charmed circle of Kamala's pleasure-grove: “that I have escaped, that my flight is a fact, that at last I am free again and stand here like a child beneath the sky. Oh, how good it is to have fled, to have become free!” (III, 690). Heilner's flight from the teachers, Klein's flight from marriage, Siddhartha's flight from Eros—all three coalesce; but it is above all the figures from “Iris” which are dominant here: “you have done something, you have heard the bird sing in your breast and you have followed it” (III, 691).

The dark night of the soul is past; Siddhartha now feels only joy that the bird is still alive, the bird whose voice is now identified with the source itself—“the bird, the merry spring and voice” (III, 691). Siddhartha no longer merely knows about, he understands the evils of the worldly life, that is, they are a part of his experience; he listens to the song of the bird in his breast and realizes that what has really died is his egoistic pride, his small willful self, that unconquerable enemy with which his haughty intelligence, his priestly knowledge, his self-mortification, and spiritual insight so long contended in vain. The reason for his erstwhile failure is really not far to seek, though inobvious: “Into this priesthood, into this arrogance, into this spirituality his ego had crept and had hidden itself there” (III, 692). Siddhartha told Gotama of his perceptive fear that his ego, instead of finding dissolution in Nirvana, might batten on to Buddha's teaching, or on to the pupil's veneration for Buddha, and thus grow fat. Now he has discovered, and thereby escaped from a similar, profounder, snare upon the Way—that the mainspring of spiritual development, the will-to-change itself, should become the ultimate hiding-place of that which is resolved to remain the same.

Siddhartha the Brahman and the Samana are long dead. Siddhartha the slave of the senses has now followed them. The first of these deaths is that we find prefigured in “Klein and Wagner,” in the liberation of the inhibited conscience-ridden Klein; the second is the final exorcism of Wagner, achieved by Klein only through suicide, by Siddhartha through satiation and enlightenment. Vasudeva the ferryman, with whom Siddhartha now comes to live and work, is already fully enlightened. He has understood the fundamental secret of listening: “I know only how to listen and to be devout, I've learned nothing else” (III, 697); this is “hearkening with a quiet heart, with waiting, open soul” (III, 698). Hermann Lauscher had in a sense been right after all; in a sense also the passivity of the Neo-Romantic impressionists was right; one must listen, it is, however, very material how one listens. Listening may appear to be purely a passive function; performed correctly, however, it is an active function of the rare genuine kind (here we may compare Josephus Famulus in The Glass Bead Game), for what men call active is really passive, while acceptance is true activity. Amor fati is active, submission is active; Vasudeva has learned through serenity what Klein discovered only in tumult: “that it is good … to sink, to seek the depths” (III, 697). Through the river, moreover, the river of life, this paradox of endless change and changeless presence, Siddhartha comes to penetrate the illusion of time: time, Klingsor's demon, does not really exist. The river, the flow, is indeed all things; in its sound may be heard all existing sounds, blended into the holy syllable “Om.” Siddhartha's illumination now commences, he becomes like Vasudeva, “childlike and aged” (III, 699), as the years pass. Then monks go by, on their way to the dying Buddha, from whom Siddhartha himself no longer feels in any way separated; once more the thought is formulated that teachers and teachings can only lead astray: “No, a true seeker could not accept any doctrine. … But he who had found could approve every doctrine” (III, 701).

Kamala, pilgrimaging with Siddhartha's son to the scene of the dying Gotama, expires in her former lover's arms of snake bite;47 she recognizes him and reads in his eyes that he is now at peace. The boy whom she leaves behind is to be Siddhartha's final trial; as he once struggled with the will of his father, so his own son now revolts against him. Siddhartha resists Vasudeva's recommendation that the boy be released to go out into the world, since this would mean committing him to Sansara—at which objection the river laughs, for Sansara is indeed the lot of all and cannot be avoided. Thus the issue of the Prodigal Son is apparently resolved—the father perceives the inevitability of the son's departure, of his son's corruption by the world. The lesson is harsh, for Siddhartha for the first time feels truly possessive love, strongest of all the passions, characteristic emotion of the “child-people,” belonging truly to “the turbid stream of forms,” for it is “a turbid spring, a dark water” (III, 710), a necessary folly, however, upon the Way. Saintliness does not captivate the boy; he runs away, resolved rather to be a robber and a murderer than a saint like his father. Siddhartha goes after him, as far as Kamala's pleasure grove in which the yellow-robed monks now walk, and then returns, empty and wounded, to the place of his meditation; his son has not to become like his father, any more than Emil Sinclair had to become like Demian; he has to become himself.

The paradoxical term “child-person” at last discloses its full significance: “Although he was nearing his perfection … it still seemed to him that the child-people were his brothers” (III, 715). Their passionate, darkened lives are also Brahman. A necessary and lofty stage upon the Way is the pilgrim's realization that he is after all no different from other men.48 Perhaps even the great secret itself, knowledge of the One, is nothing but “a childishness of the think-people, of the think-child-people” (III, 716). Staring into the water at his own reflection, Siddhartha this time sees in it his father's face. Wisdom is indeed knowledge of the One, of endless repetition too, “this running in a fateful circle” (III, 717), again and again the same conflict of father and son, the same suffering. Siddhartha's pursuit of his son toward the city had itself been a kind of flight, he himself a “childish refugee” (III, 718), for what repeats, repeats on many levels. Thus he confesses to Vasudeva, that “confession to the father” to which Hesse's protagonists so often come, Vasudeva listening silently like the later Josephus Famulus, sucking in his confessions “as a tree does rain” (III, 718). This seems like, and is, a confession to the eternal, to God.

Vasudeva, in love and serenity (Heiterkeit), takes Siddhartha to the river, bids him watch and listen again: “And the river's voice sounded full of longing, full of burning pain, full of invisible yearning. … All things together made up the river of events, the music of life” (III, 719–720). These are the many voices of Klein's universal stream, over which rises God's temple of music; more, it is suddenly the language of the German Romantics again, a language which describes no music better than it does that of Richard Wagner. Siddhartha, now “seeing,” and thus united with the One, bids farewell to the departing Vasudeva, now Sri Krishna leaving this incarnation: “Radiant he departed” (III, 721).

Siddhartha remains for his ultimate task, the meeting with Govinda, with the “friend” who has not yet found salvation, which we may understand as the final confrontation with his own intellect, his questioning, reflective self. Govinda has made the mistake of too much searching, while to find is precisely “to be free, to be open, to have no goal” (III, 723). Siddhartha cannot teach Govinda anything, for truth cannot be taught; his highest secret, with which he permanently confounds the logical faculty, is the paradox of paradoxes, that of each truth the opposite is equally true. The apparent flaw in Buddha's coherent system, the unfounded division of the world into Sansara and Nirvana, was merely a teaching device. It is taught that the sinner at this moment of time will one day, in some later incarnation, evolve into a Buddha, but since time itself is an illusion this can only mean that the world is already complete in every moment of its existence, all is Brahman. While Siddhartha might previously have venerated a stone because of its divine potential, he reveres it now because all levels of existence, including the divine, are already contained within it. At the same time, he loves the stone because it is a stone, he loves things, and not doctrines, ideas, or words. Govinda intellectualizes; he protests that this “loving the world” is the very opposite of the Buddha's teaching: “He commands benevolence, consideration, pity, tolerance, but not love” (III, 729), but Siddhartha dismisses the objection as a theoretical confusion. Govinda, though impressed by his friend's saintly appearance, finds his doctrine foolish (närrisch), which for such as him is a serious matter. Kissing Siddhartha's brow, with that symbolic kiss which links the two “friends” in novel after novel, he looks into his face: there he sees many faces, first of all fish—Hesse's favorite figure for the prehuman stage—then, Wagner-like, the face of a murderer as he drives his knife into his victim's body (his execution follows), then men and women in acts of sensual frenzy, animal faces of all kinds, gods—Krishna and Agni—a stream of faces in constant metamorphosis behind a mask, a smiling mask of water, Siddhartha's face smiling the masked smile of Gotama.

So Siddhartha concludes with the confrontation of the two “friends,” two students of the eternal, the one who, by turning his back not only upon family but also upon teacher and tradition, by bursting into the vast Without alone, has found serenity and wisdom, the other who has failed because he remained with the other monks within the grove of Jetavana, celibate within the walls of the Spiritual Academy.49 It is not in fact an idle allusion to compare Govinda with Faust's famulus, Wagner, for at the very least the comparison illuminates Hesse's fundamental, ironical analogy between the ladder of the traditional pedagogical hierarchy and the ladder of the “conventional” spiritual Way—that is, the Way which depends upon the relationship of pupil and guru. On the basis of this analogy, throughout this author's works, that monastic tradition which has always yoked divine and secular knowledge is constantly alluded to; but over and above all this a third kind of “knowledge” is proposed, which cannot be learned in the Christian monastery or in its Indian equivalent.

In 1931, in the essay “My Faith,” Hesse delivered himself of a categorical assertion: “I once attempted, a little more than ten years ago, to express my beliefs in a book. The book is called Siddhartha, and its convictions have often been examined and discussed by Indian students and Japanese priests, but not by their Christian colleagues” (VII, 370). It is a fact that no other novel of Hesse's (with the possible exception of The Journey to the East) gives such expression to his deepest insights, for in none is the form, that of legend,50 so perfectly adapted to the experience conveyed. Other effects, perhaps equally admirable, are achieved in The Steppenwolf in quite a different manner, by a new tension between matter and form. Siddhartha discloses finally and unmistakably the significance of hagiography, of the saintly vita, as a formal conditioning factor in Hesse's work; the book's doctrine of love is not Indian at all, but Franciscan, or at the very least Christian.51 The conception of spiritual development which the vita form implies and involves, having its roots in Calw, is linked with the trans-Darwinist dogma of “psychic evolution” so popular in Hesse's youth,52 and prominently reflected in the Karamazov essay, which itself suffers from the inextricable ambiguities of these doctrines, their inability to distinguish clearly between the evolution of the individual and that of the race. “On the Soul” informs us that man is to be seen as “the special order of beings whose present task it is to develop soul” (VII, 69). This very ambivalence lends a certain arrogance and artificiality to the last pages of Demian; but Siddhartha is free of such things, and its individualism is the more intense for this, its self-revelation the more genuine.

Hesse's theoretical framework for the spiritual evolution of man is laid down in “A Bit of Theology” (1932): the first stage is a state of no responsibility, called paradise or childhood, succeeded by the demands of culture and ideals, religion and morality with the correlate experience of sin and guilt; if this second stage is fully experienced, it leads inevitably to the realization of the inadequacy of the will, hence to despair—a condition which may mean destruction. “This despair leads either to destruction or to a Third Kingdom of the Spirit, the experience of a condition beyond morality and law, an advance to grace and redemption, to a new, loftier kind of irresponsibility, or in short: to faith” (VII, 389). This is not unlike the conventional, triadic structure of most mystical systems. Hesse finds that faith, irrespective of the particular religious garb it wears, is essentially a realization of the need for submission to the forces which rule man, a state of confident acceptance. He finds his formulation “European and almost Christian” (VII, 389); Brahmanism, together with Buddhism, constitutes the loftiest achievement of Theological Man, but has different categories from the Christian—first, the condition of childish or naïve man, then the stage of yoga which corresponds to that of “works,” and finally enlightenment, in Christian terms “grace.” In such analogies between systems Hesse finds “my suspicion of a central problem confirmed” (VII, 390). The second stage, that of the end of innocence, of the beginning of polarity, of the struggle of the will—that stage, indeed, with which Demian begins—terminates always in despair; it may lead “to destruction or redemption: that is to say, not backward beyond morality and culture to the paradise of the child, but forward beyond them to the capacity to live in faith” (VII, 391). This is the vital transition, the point of hazard between self-realization and infantile regression. Beneath the Wheel was also in this respect the early psychological paradigm of the later conceptualized spiritual Way; for Hans Giebenrath, after the desperate struggle of his will, regresses. The breakout (which he did not make), the “exemplary event,” therefore, may be seen as the qualitative leap from the second to the third stage. This issue is also cardinal at the end of The Glass Bead Game, where the transition is seen to be full of ambiguities.

For the understanding of Siddhartha it is, however, of importance to notice that the theoretical pattern, as adumbrated in “A Bit of Theology,” does not fit very well; the episode with Kamala, the approach to the life of the “child-people,” falls out of the pattern, and it is much too negative to regard this episode as being simply a regression to paradise. Perhaps Siddhartha's experience with the Samanas, with Buddha, and with Kamala and the “child-people” should all be regarded as part of the meandering via purgativa; the syllable “Om,” then, is the overture to the via illuminativa which follows. The important distinction between via illuminativa and via unitiva is blurred in Hesse's writings; but Siddhartha scarcely corresponds even to his own system, since illumination eventually comes to the hero through a despair which springs, not from the breaking of the will, but from satiety and disgust with the world.

“The Third Kingdom of the Spirit”—Christian dogma, Novalis and Heinrich von Ofterdingen, the old dream of the Third Kingdom, the chiliastic visions of the turn of the nineteenth century and of the Expressionists here combine in a term which has interesting applications in all Hesse's later novels. It refers to the condition of faith, of chaos, of magical thinking, of perception of the One. Fundamental to its attainment is submission to an inner autocrat, the law of the self wheresoever it may lead, just as the tragic hero, with his “self will” (Eigensinn), follows his star.53 Willfulness54 is one thing, it leads away from fate; true will, however, is identical with fate. The most successful exposition in allegorical minuscule of these basic ideas is the little-known Märchen “The Steep Road” (1917). This story has some stylistic and thematic affinities with Franz Kafka; it tells of a man who is led by a guide to climb an insurmountable mountain. They are teacher and pupil setting out together upon the Way, and the pupil painfully follows his teacher out of the pleasant valley of flowers and sunshine, picks up his chant: “I will, I will, I will” and significantly changes it to “I must, I must, I must” (III, 325). There is, once started on the Way, no turning back; there is no choice but to go on. Sometimes through effort, if it is strong enough, a change of state is produced and real will is born: “Now the climbing became easier, I did not have to any more, but really wanted to. … Within me it became bright” (III, 325). In this transformation is symbolized the rewards which may be bestowed from time to time on those who follow the Way of works, of yogic schools, or of extreme asceticism (fakirdom), which are, on their deepest level, all one and the same; but therefore all lead to the same end, which is an intolerable end, the summit of the mountain:

That was a strange mountain and a strange peak! On this peak … a tree grew out of the stone, a small, thick-set tree with a few short, tough boughs. There it stood, unimaginably lonely and strange, hard and rigid in the rock, the cool blue of the sky between its boughs. And at the top of the tree sat a black bird and sang a hoarse song.

Still dream of a moment's rest, high above the world: sun blazed, rock burned, tree sternly stared, bird sang hoarsely. His hoarse song was: Eternity, Eternity! The black bird sang, and his hard shiny eye gazed at us like a black crystal [III, 326].

In this fascinating passage, likely enough reflecting memories of Nietzsche's Zarathustra, the figures for the soul and the self, bird and tree, appear terrifyingly petrified; they are “in a stringent, ludicrously thin air,” in the mocking ether, indeed, of Harry Haller's Immortals,55 and the sky is a cool blue. For this summit is not the true goal—a moment of awakening, certainly, immense and lucid (the dropping of the article—“Tree sternly stared,” and so on—is often a feature of such passages; compare the Siddhartha excerpt quoted on page 138. This moment as the high point of willed effort is the ultimate incarnation of the father, the mind, a mere half or, worse, a dream surrogate (“still dream”) for the full self; it is that state of tension before the hermetic union has taken place which is the sense of Pictor's Transformations, in effect, before grace. To bring about this ultimate union, first the guide and then the pupil, following the bird, hurls himself into endless space: “And already I fell, I hurtled, leaped, I flew: I shot … downward through infinity to the breast of the mother” (III, 327). Only through the unbearable intensification of the father principle can the breasts of the mother be found; it was only Demian who could lead Emil to Frau Eva.

Thus it is that Siddhartha went first to the Samanas before he found himself and so found Kamala; this detour was indispensable. Later still he discovered how to unite the two in one, like Pictor's tree. Hesse is, despite certain ambiguities of statement, evidently traditional in his mystical formulations; there is nothing new in these conceptions, a fact which implies nothing at all as to either their depth or their fatuity. The act of submission, “letting-oneself-fall,” this is also, “as the German mystics called it, ‘de-becoming’ (Entwerden),”56 diastole. It is all the “perennial philosophy,” and it may be interpreted without difficulty in psychological terms, without the aid of metaphysical postulates. The parallelism of religious ideas and Jungian doctrines is a conditioning factor in Hesse's art at this period, of which he was well aware: “There began in me what the Christian calls ‘contemplation,’ the psychoanalyst ‘introversion.’”57 It is not at all surprising to find the mother-figure of his analyzed dreams in conscious association with the Madonna, when he confesses wryly to his own form of mariolatry and, à la Jung, to “my own cult and my own mythology.”58 There is much justification, however, for the view, to which he himself held,59 that the mainspring of his work was the religious impulse, an impulse corresponding, moreover, to an objective metaphysical correlative (though he may use the word “God” but rarely).

Out of all this, for Hesse's art as a writer it is the momentary experience of awakening which is of primary significance. Siddhartha's awakening on leaving the grove of Jetavana is the culmination of the first section of the novel and sets the lines for all that follows. The experience is one to which Govinda comes only at the very end, in contemplation of his friend's face. “No longer sure whether time existed, whether this vision had lasted a second or a century” (III, 732)—the destruction of the time sense, reflected in the style in the sudden expansion of Erzählzeit, is the telltale feature. This is that state which is localized both without and within—“as though wounded in his innermost self by a divine arrow, a sweet-tasting wound, bewitched in his innermost self and dissolved, Govinda stood for a little while longer bent over Siddhartha's face which he had just kissed, which had just been the theater for all the forms, for all existence” (III, 732). The analogies between this passage and that which describes Siddhartha's first moment of awakening are close, and with that which describes Klein's perhaps closer still. Not the surface of objects only but their spiritual texture, their inner divinity is opened to insight. In Govinda's experience the sensual has succumbed to the visionary, to the “magical,” not, however, to the reflective. This numinous translucency of the material world is more than the intrusion of reflection.

It is also very interesting that the last chapter of Siddhartha shows a change of standpoint: suddenly the author has moved out of Siddhartha and stands behind Govinda's eyes. “Deeply Govinda bowed down” (III, 733), for Siddhartha is now the image of the divinity, that archetype in Govinda's own soul before whom Govinda must bow. In “A Bit of Theology” Hesse had set up an elementary theory of types, dividing men into two classes, “the devout” and “the rational.” Govinda, to some extent still “rational,” has to learn like Siddhartha to be wholly “devout.” Veneration is said to be the chief characteristic of the devout,60 and in Govinda's heart there is now “the feeling of warmest love, of most humble veneration” (III, 733). At the end of Demian, Emil Sinclair climbed down inside himself, bent and regarded his own reflection in the dark mirror of the water within, and saw in fact the face of his friend. This was an act of narcissism, of reflection indeed. But now when Govinda bows down before his friend there is change and maybe progress: for one who has always been cursed with reflection this offers a possibility of escape, that the act of reflection become the act of worship.


  1. The most important translations with which Hesse was acquainted include: P. Deussen, Vedanta-Sutra (1887) and Sechzig Upanishad's des Veda (1897); H. Oldenberg, Buddha (1881; long the standard German work on the subject) and Die Literatur des alten Indien (1903); K. E. Neumann, Die buddhistische Anthologie (1892) and Reden Gotamo Buddhas (1896).

  2. Presumably in the early 1900's. See, e.g., “Kleines Bekenntnis” in H. Kliemann and K. H. Silomon, Hermann Hesse: Eine bibliographische Studie zum 2. Juli 1947 (Frankfort, 1947), p. 74. Cf. also “Aus einem Tagebuch des Jahres 1920,” Corona, III (1932–1933), 200.

  3. Cf. “A Library of World Literature” (1929; VII, 338–339).

  4. “My Faith” (1931; VII, 371).

  5. As Baumer, among other authorities, seems rather inclined to do.

  6. “My Faith” (VII, 372).

  7. Leopold v. Schröder, Indiens Literatur und Kultur in historischer Entwicklung (Leipzig, 1887), p. 7.

  8. In Rosshalde, which in part reflects Hesse's attitude before the journey, Veraguth dreams of the East as offering “a new, still pure, innocent atmosphere free of pain” (II, 504).

  9. Cf. “India” (1911; III, 841).

  10. III, 850. Cf. Hesse's review of the new, cheap edition of Neumann's Die Reden Buddhas aus der mittleren Sammlung: “When we Westerners have finally learned how to meditate we shall get quite different results out of it than do the Indians. For us it will not become an opiate, but will lead to a deepened self-knowledge” (Neue Rundschau, XXXII, i [1921], 118).

  11. “Recollections of India” (1916; III, 852).

  12. “Visit from India” (1922; III, 858).

  13. “Aus einem Tagebuch des Jahres 1920,” op. cit., p. 201. In his review entitled “Hinduism,” Hesse writes of the new Western interest in the manyarmed gods now penetrating “by many routes, by the routes of occultism … of collectors … of scholarship” (review of H. v. Glasenapp's Der Hinduismus, Neue Rundschau, XXXIV, ii [1923], 669).

  14. Demian actually postdates “Iris.”

  15. “The winding path (Umweg) of the libido seems to be a via dolorosa” (Jung, Symbols of Transformation, p. 54). Hesse is very fond of the word “Umweg” at this period, and it may well be a Jungian resonance.

  16. Frankfort, 1954.

  17. Cf.: “I told him I was on my way to Asia to see the holy tree and the serpent” (“India”; III, 806).

  18. Ball, who argues in this way, is perhaps a trifle severe.

  19. Hesse later points out (IV, 867–868) that previous generations of writers still had some sense of community with their audience; Keller had it, and Hesse himself had still felt it in his earlier works.

  20. “Recollection of Klingsor's Summer” (1938; VII, 412).

  21. Hesse is several times critical of Wagner; cf., e.g., Zarathustra's Return (VII, 225) and Letters (VII, 571).

  22. In Rosshalde, Wagner is referred to as the great musical love of Veraguth's youth (II, 538).

  23. K. Weibel, Hermann Hesse und die deutsche Romantik, p. 60.

  24. Neue Rundschau, XXXII, ii (1921), 701–724.

  25. “Aus einem Tagebuch des Jahres 1920,” op. cit., p. 193.

  26. Cf. ibid., p. 204.

  27. Neue Rundschau, XXXII, ii (1921), 1118.

  28. Ball notes an attempt to integrate the religious devotion wholly in the objective world of symbols and points back to the technique of Peter Camenzind (Hermann Hesse, p. 32). Weibel argues that the love of things in Siddhartha is an anti-Romantic characteristic of the novel (op. cit., pp. 66–67).

  29. “Aus einem Tagebuch des Jahres 1920,” op. cit., p. 200.

  30. Siddhartha (III, 621) recites (with a minor variation) three lines from the Deussen translation of the Dhyânabindu-Upanishad:

    “Om ist Bogen, der Pfeil Seele,
    Das Brahman ist des Pfeiles Ziel,
    Das soll man unentwegt treffen …”

    (P. Deussen, Sechzig Upanishad's des Veda, p. 661).

  31. Many of the references in the first chapter of Siddhartha seem to be traceable to the Chândogya, the principal Upanishad of the Samaveda.

  32. Here we must again take note of Jung's doctrine of the “shadow.” The “shadow,” the suppressed alter ego, “can manifest itself … in the guise of a figure from our field of consciousness, e.g., our elder brother (or sister), our best friend, when this person represents our opposite, as for instance Faust's famulus Wagner does” (Jolande Jacobi, The Psychology of C. G. Jung [New Haven, 1951], pp. 145–146).

  33. “A Short Autobiography” (IV, 482).

  34. “Aus einem Tagebuch des Jahres 1920,” op. cit., p. 201.

  35. Ibid. p. 206.

  36. Ibid.

  37. “The general longing is not so much for Buddha or Lao-tzŭ as for yoga” (Neue Rundschau, XXXII, ii [1921], 1117).

  38. “Aus einem Tagebuch des Jahres 1920,” op. cit., p. 207.

  39. VII, 182.

  40. “We do not want to go back to the child, the primitive, but onward, forward, to personality, responsibility, freedom” (“On the Soul”; VII, 72).

  41. Kama is the Hindu god of love and of sensual experience; the peasant girl's attempt to entice Siddhartha with “the tree climb” is, of course, a reference to the Kama Sutra of Vatsyanyana.

  42. “Doing and suffering, which together make up our existence, are one whole, one and the same” (Zarathustra's Return; VII, 212).

  43. Again a name with a meaning, presumably “master” (swami) of the “material world” (kama).

  44. H. Mauerhofer points out the tendency of the extreme introvert to seek refuge in “game” and then: “Es ist eine geschaffene Welt, in der nun der Introvertierte lebt” (It is an invented world in which the introvert now lives) (Die Introversion, pp. 20–21).

  45. Wilhelm Stekel (Die Sprache des Traumes [Wiesbaden, 1911], p. 536) observes: “Unter die Lokomotive wirft sich nur der Neurotiker, der einen andern auf diese Weise zermalmt sehen wollte” (The only neurotic to throw himself under a locomotive is the one who would like to see someone else crushed like this).

  46. The term is evidently taken from Deussen, op. cit., p. 470 and passim.

  47. Once more the snake. The psychoanalytic interpretation seems cogent—she pays the penalty in the end for her way of life, dies from the poison of that for which she has lived. Hesse thus, unconsciously, judges Kamala.

  48. This, of course, is also a paradox, true and not true. In The Glass Bead Game, Dion Pugil makes a sharp distinction between child-people and partially enlightened ones. Cf. VI, 636.

  49. “Platonic academies” are mentioned in the same breath as yogic schools. See Letters (VII, 640).

  50. For an attempted definition of “legend” as a specific literary form see André Jolles, Einfache Formen (Halle, 1930).

  51. Hesse notes this Christian element, even calling it “a truly Protestant trait” (“My Faith”; VII, 372).

  52. Given a great impetus by Nietzsche, who transmutes Darwinist conceptions much in this way. The idea, of course, is found widely in the fin de siècle, frequently linked with traditional occult and gnostic notions (for instance, in Germany, in the works of Johannes Schlaf). Nietzsche had pointed out the ambiguity of the idea of health, and we may compare Hesse's remark “that the diseases of today may be the healths of tomorrow” (“On Good and Bad Critics”; VII, 369).

  53. VII, 196.

  54. “Unclean and distorting is the gaze of the will.” “On the Soul” (VII, 68). Hesse, in the same essay, speaks of a “net, woven of mere distractions from the soulful” (VII, 71).

  55. We may compare also “The Rainmaker” in The Glass Bead Game, where the stars are “so ludicrously superior to him with their grand cold majesty and eternity” (VI, 590).

  56. Letters (VII, 545).

  57. “World History” (VII, 122).

  58. “Madonna Festival in Tessin” (1924; III, 896).

  59. “We poets and other outsiders … we religious people” (VII, 123); also: “I myself consider the religious impulse to be the decisive characteristic of my life and works” (Letters; VII, 497).

  60. VII, 397.

Kenneth Hughes (essay date 1969)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5056

SOURCE: “Hesse's Use of Gilgamesh-Motifs in the Humanization of Siddhartha and Harry Haller,” in Seminar, Vol. 5, No. 2, Fall, 1969, pp. 129–40.

[In the following essay, Hughes strives to illuminate Siddhartha in light of motifs important in the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic.]

Hermann Hesse's indebtedness to oriental literatures and philosophies has been noted frequently. However, the ancient Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh has been neglected in the investigation of his Eastern sources, although Hesse knew and appreciated this work and recommended it in 1929 for inclusion in his ideal library of world literature.1 Reference to certain motifs of Gilgamesh illuminates Hesse's development of his heroes in Siddhartha and Der Steppenwolf and explains the striking parallels, which have gone undetected in Hesse criticism,2 in the motifs which these two novels use in embodying their common theme of the humanization or spiritual growth of a man towards a higher stage of personal individuation and self-realization.

As far as I can see, the only comment on the relation of Gilgamesh to Hesse's Steppenwolf-theme has come from Thomas Mann. In reporting the myths and legends which comprise the literary education of the young Joseph, Mann mentions one story which particularly struck the pupil's fancy: “… die des Waldmenschen Engidu und wie die Dirne aus Uruk, der Stadt, ihn zur Gesittung bekehrte, … wie die Dirne den Steppenwolf zustutzte, nachdem sie ihn durch ein Liebesleben von sechs Tagen und sieben Nächten für die Verfeinerung empfänglich gemacht.”3 In a postcard to Hesse, Mann called this allusion to Der Steppenwolf a “Huldigung” and “Fingerzeig von meinem Werke hinüber zu Ihrem.”4 But it seems to me that Mann's reference is not only one of those playful declarations of mutual esteem which he and Hesse were fond of exchanging in their works;5 it is quite probably also a genuine insight into the background of some of the motifs which Hesse uses in his novel. Mann was at this time just as well versed in the culture and literature of the ancient Near East as Hesse was, and it would be surprising if they had not studied much of the same material. This may well be the reason why, as Mann wrote, “ganz unversehens floβ das Wort mir aus der Feder, zum Zeichen, daβ diese Ihre Prägung in den charakterisierenden Sprachschatz eingegangen.”6 The “Steppenwolf” whom Mann mentions here is the familiar Enkidu from the Gilgamesh epic, the wild man created by the goddess Aruru in the hope that Gilgamesh might find in him a companion equal to his strength and passion and leave the citizens and virgins of Uruk in peace. The process of humanization and civilization which Enkidu undergoes and which Joseph found so delightful is, as Mann noticed, the same evolution to which Hesse subjects his hero Harry Haller.

The epic characterizes Enkidu, before his conversion to civilized society, as a “natural” man, a companion of the animals of the woods and fields: “His body was covered with matted hair like Samuqan's, the god of cattle. He was innocent of mankind; he knew nothing of the cultivated land.”7 We learn that he ate grass with the gazelle and jostled with the wild beasts at the water-holes. He identifies himself with the beasts and thwarts the hunter's attempts to capture them. The hunter is therefore advised to take one of the temple-girls with him to the watering-place and let her seduce Enkidu, for then the animals will shun him. The trick works: the woman bares her breasts to attract Enkidu and teaches him her art while lying with him for six days and seven nights. When Enkidu tries to return to the wilderness, the animals flee from him. “You are wise,” the woman tells him, “and now you have become like a god.”8 This knowledge of good and evil that accompanies knowledge of the flesh so divorces Enkidu from his former state of innocence that he has no choice but to remain with the woman. His new status requires changes in his personal habits: if he is to be a man and live in a community of men, he must adopt the social amenities of his peers. His temptress provides instruction in the new customs: she leads him to the shepherds, she clothes him and teaches him to eat the bread and drink the wine of men. Enkidu shaves his body, grooms his hair and anoints himself with oil. Emblematic of his conversion from the bestial state and his assumption of human dignity is the occupation which he now pursues: he too becomes a shepherd and exercises human superiority over the animals with whom he had previously roamed the fields as an equal. He is now ready to be led by the woman into the city, to be “civilized,” and the epic comments that “Enkidu had become a man.”9 His humanization, which was initiated by the experience of sexual intercourse and the accompanying “knowledge,” is now complete in its external circumstances as well.

Although there have been many varying interpretations of the philosophical and historical significance of Gilgamesh, the concensus now is that the Enkidu episode is an ancient allegory of the humanization of man.10 Such was also the view, which Hesse was likely to have known, of one of the most popular and least exclusively scholarly translations and commentaries among the many which were published in Germany during the first two decades of this century: Hugo Gressmann imputes to the epic the intention of humanizing its main figures11 and speaks of the transformation of the Naturwesen into the Kulturmensch.12 He also mentions the fact that Enkidu is raised to a higher level through his experience of sexual and moral knowledge.13

I do not wish to suggest, however, that Hesse was directly “influenced” by any specific scholarly study or by Gilgamesh itself or that he went to that epic in order to appropriate various motifs for his own work. In fact, the tablets on which the most specific details of Enkidu's humanization are recorded were not published until 1917,14 and it is not probable that Hesse knew them. Nor, on the other hand, is it necessary, for, as Peter Jensen's monumental study Das Gilgamesch-Epos in der Weltliteratur15 has shown, such motifs are extremely common in oriental and near eastern literatures and are actually universal (although they all seem to derive ultimately from Gilgamesh). It is no doubt impossible to say just what Hesse's sources may have been; and yet it is equally impossible, in view of his wide reading in eastern literature and his specific appreciation of Gilgamesh, to deny that he was aware of the import and use of such motifs. Rather, it is my intent here to illuminate Siddhartha and Der Steppenwolf in the light of motifs important in the Enkidu episode of the Babylonian work. To summarize, the motifs with which we shall be concerned are: 1) characterization of the hero as a beast or denizen of the wilderness; 2) his temptation by a courtesan at a watering-place, specifically through his attraction to her breasts; 3) his instruction in and experience of sexual intercourse and the attendant moral “knowledge” which occasions his divorce from the wilderness; 4) advice and instruction in the civilised ways of clothing and eating; 5) advice and instruction in matters of personal grooming, such as shaving and coiffure.

The humanization of Siddhartha and of Harry Haller is cast in the mold of these motifs. When Siddhartha leaves the Samanas and decides not to join the disciples of the Buddha, he is described as emerging from the wilderness. Hesse frequently remarks that Siddhartha has spent the previous part of his life in the woods. The boundary which he must cross in order to leave the woods is symbolized by the river, and Hesse specifically indicates that the hut of the ferryman Vasudeva, in which Siddhartha spends the night before crossing, is still within the woods (iii, 653). On the other side, beyond the wilderness, the first person whom he meets is a young woman who asks him if it is true “daß die Samanas nachts allein im Walde schliefen und keine Frauen bei sich haben dürften” (iii, 654). This encounter takes place by a brook (watering-place); the girl attempts to seduce Siddhartha, and it is particularly her breasts which almost make him terminate his celibacy. He recalls the dream he had had the night before of a woman from whose dress burst a full bosom, at which he lay and drank (iii, 652), and he bends down and kisses the tip of the girl's breast (iii, 654). The temptress does not succeed, however, and when Siddhartha comes to the city he is still innocent. Again Hesse reminds us of where his hero has been: “Lange hatte er in den Wäldern gelebt …” (iii, 655), and this circumstance is recalled several times in the first conversation with Kamala, who specifically makes the connection with the innocence of the beasts: “ein dummer Samana aus dem Walde, der von den Schakalen kommt und noch gar nicht weiß, was Frauen sind.” (iii, 658)

Not only does Siddhartha's departure from the woods and the beasts parallel Enkidu's; his “civilization” also follows that model. Siddhartha realizes that he must humanize his appearance if he is to be accepted by Kamala (iii, 655), and even if, by having himself shaven and his hair groomed before presenting himself again, he anticipates some of the civilizing services which the temple-girl performed for Enkidu, he does so because of Kamala's inspiration (iii, 657), and enough remains for Kamala to teach him personally. Like Enkidu, he must be clothed and fed: he gives up his ragged loin-cloth for a new garment which Kamala gives him (iii, 661), and, since he now deigns to eat begged food, the first meal he enjoys in civilization also comes from Kamala's hand (iii, 662). In fact, all the humanization that Siddhartha undergoes he owes to the courtesan: “Was wärest du, wenn Kamala dir nicht hülfe?” (iii, 662) As Siddhartha becomes more and more accustomed to his new life among men, his humanization becomes completed. In the house of the merchant Kamaswami, such amenities as clothing, food and a daily bath are taken for granted (iii, 665), and finally even the most persistent remembrance of Siddhartha's former state is erased when he learns to eat meat and drink wine (iii, 673).

However, these sundry appurtenances of culture are not what Siddhartha originally wanted to learn from Kamala, and they are not the most profound lesson she has to teach him. They are merely the external concomitants of that new experience which, as in Enkidu's case, is most emblematic of his humanization: sexual love. Siddhartha's first request of Kamala was that she become his “Freundin und Lehrerin” in the art of love (iii, 657), and of the dozens of verbs of teaching and learning that appear on these pages, most refer to the sexual instruction that Siddhartha receives. This is the one lesson so important that it comes to comprise the “Wert und Sinn” of his life (iii, 666). His divorce from the woods, his humanization, is complete, and he is ready to plunge himself, in the next chapter, into the world of “Sansara.”

Harry Haller too owes the process of his humanization to a courtesan. Although he has not just emerged from the wilderness, the impression he makes on Hermine as he enters the “Schwarzer Adler” (“watering-place,” mutatis mutandis) is that he has just made a long journey and has the muddy shoes to prove it (iv, 274). Later, Hermine mentions that at that moment Harry was “so ein Stück Bestie” (iv, 303). He might just as well have spent years in the woods with the beasts, for he has become so unused to social intercourse (iv, 278) that, by his own metaphor, he is the Steppenwolf par excellence. Among the first things that Hermine does for Harry is to teach him to eat and drink: “Sie bestellte ein belegtes Brot und befahl mir, es zu essen. Sie schenkte mir ein und hieß mich einen Schluck trinken, aber nicht zu rasch.” (iv, 274) This is the same bread and wine that the temple-girl fed to Enkidu, and Hesse makes so much of Hermine's prandial instructions (iv, 277, 279, 280, 288) that there can be little doubt that he is calling more attention to eating than could be justified by the realistic level of the fiction alone. Hermine also provides counsel in the other amenities, such as clothing (iv, 275); when she refers to his hair, she implies that it too lacks the civilizing influence of a woman (iv, 277); and before Harry goes to meet Hermine for the second time, Hesse specifically mentions shaving and dressing (“mit besonderer Sorgfalt”) among his preparations (iv, 295). This second meeting takes place in a restaurant, where Hermine can really reveal herself as Harry's mistress in the art of eating and where she can treat him to a discourse on the consumption of a duck's leg and feed him a piece from her own fork (iv, 301).

Indeed, verbs of teaching and learning occur on these and the following pages even more frequently than in the parallel scenes in Siddhartha.16 All this instruction has as its aim Harry's humanization. The encounter with Hermine has shaken him into a renewed view of his human possibilities: “Ich konnte vielleicht wieder leben, ich konnte vielleicht wieder ein Mensch werden.” (iv, 290) The process succeeds, and Harry comes into closer contact with people like his landlady, who had always been in his environment, but from whom he had shied away. Soon Hermine can tantalize him with the prospect of graduation from her school: “Aber wie du dich verändert hast! … jetzt bist du schon beinahe wieder ein Mensch.” (iv, 296)

Of course, such instruction only serves to polish the veneer of Harry's humanity. Again, the real lesson, the experience which provides a new human knowledge and dignity, is that of sexual love. And here again the initial medium of seduction is the bosom of the temptress (iv, 328). Through Maria, who is specifically described as Hermine's “gift” (iv, 328 and 332), Harry relearns sexual love as an art and with the intensity of first experience. Although he has been married and has had a mistress, he remarks that Maria seems to be the first real love that he has had (iv, 334). Humanization, as we have seen, is not merely sensual refinement, but also the concomitant advance to a higher level of perception. Accordingly, what Maria teaches Harry is also “neues Verständnis, neue Einsichten, neue Liebe” (iv, 330). This new knowledge is extremely important to Harry; in his first night with Maria he has a vision of the potential richness of the “picture gallery” of his life (iv, 332), an initial fulfilment of the “little theatre” which Hermine had promised him (iv, 316) and an anticipation of the Magic Theatre.

Thus it is clear that both Siddhartha and Harry Haller undergo an introduction to civilization that employs in its fiction the same motifs that the Gilgamesh epic uses to enact the advance from bestial innocence to human knowledge and dignity. No matter what course the lives of Enkidu or of Hesse's protagonists may take from this point on, the similarities in this initial transition are indisputable. To be sure, some of the circumstances which we have mentioned to illustrate the connection between the epic and the novels are universal in human affairs. That the first instrument of seduction is the woman's bosom, for example, would seem to be common to all encounters of this sort. And the connection of the outsider-figure to a wild animal such as the wolf is an obvious one and occurs earlier in Hesse.17 However, the particular context in which Hesse employs these motifs, that is, his association of the breast and the beast with the other appurtenances of humanization found in the epic seems but to strengthen the evidence of the relation of his novels to the motifs of Gilgamesh.

Of course, the first introduction to sensuality does not occur through either Kamala or Hermine, as it does through the temple-girl in Gilgamesh. Because, in Hesse's much more sophisticated psychology, their concern is essentially the spiritual growth of the men entrusted to them, it would be naïve and inappropriate to attribute to them the more exclusively seductive function of the temple-girl. Hesse therefore uses an intermediary in both cases: the girl by the brook and Maria. Siddhartha attains to a mutual spiritual understanding with Kamala (iii, 671), based on their similar personalities, which would have been impossible with the young girl; and in the elaborately developed mirror-motif of Steppenwolf, Harry and Hermine reflect one another so perfectly (iv, 302 and 316) that Maria is ultimately excluded (iv, 338).18 And although the hetaera raises Enkidu from a truly natural state, whereas Siddhartha and Harry Haller are already members of a human order before they meet their courtesans, they are humanized nevertheless, advanced to a higher level of their human potential or degree of individuation. As Theodore Ziolkowski notes, the action of these novels takes place mainly on the second level of evolution, for the author's primary concern lies in this stage of the problematic man; the state of innocence is not characterized by those conflicts which particularly interest him.19 But, as we have seen, Hesse is careful to reduce Harry to the natural state of Enkidu before introducing him to Hermine. And although Siddhartha is still young in the first part of the novel, he has already experienced the psychological torments of the stage of awareness. The second part of the novel, which describes his departure from the woods, therefore opens with a rejuvenation of Siddhartha's senses and spirit: “Schön war die Welt, wenn man sie so betrachtete, so ohne Suchen, so kinderhaft. … Schön und lieblich war es, so durch die Welt zu gehen, so kindlich, so erwacht …” (iii, 650; my italics). Thus the stage of innocence is represented in both novels not only through occasional more or less realistic remembrances of childhood, but also through the symbolic reduction of their complex heroes to the simplicity which they had lost; and the subsequent advance to the complication of the next stage parallels that of Enkidu.20

Such structural parallels in the novels are not only striking in themselves; they have a profound significance which is revealed when one recalls how central the concern of humanization is in all of Hesse's fiction. Theodore Ziolkowski, utilizing a concept which Hesse developed in his essay “Ein Stückchen Theologie” (vii, 388–402), has demonstrated that one of Hesse's main themes is a “triadic rhythm of humanization” and that this theme is an underlying pattern in all of his major novels.21 In his essay, Hesse envisions a three-stage process of Menschwerdung, which begins in the innocence of paradise or childhood and leads into guilt and the knowledge of good and evil, into the obligations of culture, morality, religion, and human ideals. Everyone who passes into this stage perceives that such ideals cannot be realized and inevitably falls into despair. This despair leads either to downfall or to a new condition “jenseits von Moral und Gesetz,” to “einer neuen, höheren Art von Verantwortungslosigkeit” (vii, 389). This last stage is, in Hesse's view, the final desideratum, the ultimate goal of the development, and it is achieved only by few. It is this evolution which Hesse illustrates in the spiritual growth of Siddhartha and Harry Haller. The aged Siddhartha attains to his vision of the mystical unity of all life, and Harry Haller, although not permanently successful, is vouchsafed a glimpse of a similar wisdom in the Magic Theatre at the end of Der Steppenwolf.

Hesse is of course utilizing a traditional structure of thought, and Ziolkowski cites Lessing, Schiller, Hölderlin, and Kleist as predecessors in such a triadic evolution of humanity or of the individual.22 Hesse himself indicates that the process is European and almost Christian (vii, 389) and points not only to the Christian concept of salvation, but also to the Buddhistic, in which man strives through yoga to nirvana, and to that of Lao Tse, in which the end is fulfilment in Tao. Everywhere this pattern can be found: “das uns geläufigste dieser Bilder ist der Weg vom paradiesischen Adam bis zum erlösten Christen.” (vii, 392) However, it is significant that, for his application of this pattern to the development of Siddhartha and Harry Haller, Hesse does not use the exterior furnishings of any of these traditional paths to religious enlightenment. Siddhartha, we remember, found it necessary to leave the Samanas and to renounce all formal religious instruction in order to find his way. Similarly, Hesse makes a considerable variation on traditional teachings. The common religious view is that, since the world is evil, one ought to escape from it, and the religions which Hesse mentions thus accept the principle of monastic sequestration as the ideal way to achieve pious fulfilment. For Hesse, however, one must involve oneself in the “Sansara” of the world in order to attain individuation first, and only thereafter a “higher” sort of innocence. In fact, Hesse actually turns the theology of that “most familiar of these pictures” on its head: the Bible laments man's expulsion from Paradise and his acquisition of carnal and moral knowledge, whereas Siddhartha and Harry Haller must have such knowledge in order to reach a more conscious stage. Let us note that the aim of peaceful satisfaction is the same in both cases; the Bible, however, would have man happy in innocent ignorance, whereas Hesse pushes man through knowledge to a new fulfilment.23

The particular view which Hesse adopts here in opposition to that of the Bible parallels the view of Gilgamesh. This epic assigns to woman generally and to sexual intercourse specifically a unique role in the process of humanization. In the Biblical story of the expulsion from Paradise, the temptress woman brings misfortune to man. The Biblical writer looks back in nostalgia to the time when men went naked with the animals and lived on the fruits that grew of themselves in the Garden, and he regrets the more advanced stage of culture which necessitates the labour of growing food. The point of view of Gilgamesh is quite different: here the temptress helps Enkidu to escape from Paradise and to enter the civilized life which involves the behests of culture to which Hesse refers in his essay. The woman is clearly regarded as the medium through which man is raised to a higher level,24 a fact to which Gressmann had already referred in indicating that the view of copulation in Gilgamesh contradicts that of the Bible.25 The temple-girl, Kamala, and Hermine all possess the knowledge which the Bible suggests was not originally intended for man. Indeed, they are all professionals, and what they teach their pupils is the art of love. It is this knowledge and artfulness that makes their administrations so instructive and that, when imparted to their students, has the effect of humanizing them too. It is interesting that both the Bible and Gilgamesh use the phrase “the cursed ground”; but whereas in Genesis (3, 17) these words refer to the ground outside of Paradise, where it is necessary to cultivate food (such as bread and wine), in Gilgamesh the “cursed ground” is the “paradise” in which Enkidu has lived before the woman helps him advance to the dignity of human life.26 Thus Adam is required to leave Paradise as a punishment for having acquired knowledge, whereas Enkidu is permitted to leave for having done the same thing. Moreover, the Biblical writer looks upon Noah's inebriation as a disgrace (Gen. 9, 21), while Enkidu's initiation into the drinking of wine wins approval since it leads to gladness and is a step on the road to civilization.27

The relation of Hesse's novels to Gilgamesh is, then, by no means superficial. In its praise of the values of worldly civilization, in its specific celebration of sexual love and the resulting knowledge as that experience which most sharply distinguishes man from the beast and lends him the unique dignity of humanity, Gilgamesh represents an ancient model of the process of humanization with which Hesse is concerned. His heroes achieve their higher innocence—indeed, their innocence is higher—only because they do not follow the path of traditional religious teaching, but rather the path of the Gilgamesh epic. Hesse's use of the motifs which we have been discussing is therefore anything but an adventitious embellishment of his fiction. Rather, in lending significant shape to the novels, they are the precise tectonic complements to his theme. From the evidence of the striking parallels in the circumstances of Menschwerdung in the tradition of Gilgamesh and in Hesse's novels, as well as of their common view of sexual and the attendant moral knowledge as an instrument of a spiritual advance rather than of a “fall,” we are quite justified in citing Gilgamesh-motifs—even if the evidence does not permit us to see an immediate source in this epic itself—as a major contribution to the fictional embodiment of Hesse's concept of humanization in Siddhartha and Der Steppenwolf.


  1. “Eine Bibliothek der Weltliteratur” in Gesammelte Werke (Frankfurt/M., 1958), vii, 315. All references to Hesse's works are to this edition and are cited subsequently in the text. Hesse's letter to G. Burckhardt in Briefe, erw. Ausg. (Frankfurt/Main, 1964), p. 449, attests that his acquaintance with Gilgamesh goes back to ca. 1915.

  2. Although Mark Boulby's recent study makes a passing reference to similarities between Kamala and Hermine: Hermann Hesse: His Mind and Art (Ithaca, 1967), p. 142f.

  3. Gesammelte Werke in zwölf Bänden (Frankfurt/M., 1960), iv, 408. Cf. Briefe 1889–1936 (Frankfurt/M., 1962), p. 271.

  4. Hermann Hesse-Thomas Mann: Briefwechsel (Frankfurt/M., 1968), p. 46.

  5. See the partial compilation by Joachim Müller: “Hermann Hesse und Thomas Mann. Ihr Lebenswerk, ihre Begegnung und ihre Verwandtschaft,” Universitas, xix (1964), 1157–68.

  6. Hermann Hesse-Thomas Mann, p. 46.

  7. The Epic of Gilgamesh, transl. N. K. Sandars (Baltimore, 1960), p. 61. I quote this translation since it dispenses with philological apparatus within the text. The most recent scholarly translation and annotation in English is that of S. N. Kramer in James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton, 2nd rev. and enl. ed., 1955), pp. 72–99.

  8. Ibid., p. 63.

  9. Ibid., p. 66.

  10. Thus ibid., p. 31.

  11. Arthur Ungnad and Hugo Gressmann, Das Gilgamesch-Epos (Göttingen, 1911), p. 96f.

  12. Ibid., p. 98. Gressmann also refers to Enkidu specifically as a “Steppenwesen,” p. 92.

  13. Ibid., p. 98.

  14. By Stephen Langdon, Sumerian Liturgical Texts (Philadelphia). Revised by Morris Jastrow and Albert T. Clay, An Old Babylonian Version of the Gilgamesh Epic (New Haven, 1920).

  15. Vol. i (Strassburg, 1906) and vol. ii (Marburg, 1928).

  16. Cf. Theodore Ziolkowski's apt suggestion of “Harry Haller's Apprenticeship” as an appropriate title for this section of the novel: The Novels of Hermann Hesse: A Study in Theme and Structure (Princeton, 1965), p. 207.

  17. Cf. Hugo Ball, Hermann Hesse: Sein Leben und sein Werk (Zürich, 1947), p. 134, who refers to the 1903 story “Der Wolf” as “ein frühestes Auftauchen des Steppenwolf-Motivs.”

  18. Cf. Ralph Freedman's similar view: The Lyrical Novel: Studies in Hermann Hesse, André Gide, and Virginia Woolf (Princeton, 1963), pp. 82f. and 85.

  19. Ziolkowski, pp. 57f. and 153.

  20. It is not surprising that these motifs function importantly again in Narziss und Goldmund, Hesse's next novel (1930). Although Goldmund's career, which takes him from the pious seclusion of Kloster Mariabronn out into the world and eventually back into the monastery, is in its broad scheme parallel to Siddhartha's life, the theme of Narziss und Goldmund is no longer the general one of the growth of a man towards personal individuation (although it includes that element as well), but the more specific one of the development of an artist. One of the theses of the novel's aesthetic theorizing is that a work of art is an ideal synthesis of many individual cases. Goldmund must therefore have experience of many women before he can have his vision of the Urmutter or create his statue of Mary, and the displacement of the one temptress by the many results in a dispersion of the motifs throughout the novel. The task of humanization is assigned to no one woman; it is a gradual process: in none of Goldmund's amorous adventures do all the motifs occur together, yet all are present if the episodes are taken as a whole: (1) hero as beast: v, 86, 88; (2) watering-place; v, 28 f., 31, 87, 89, 98, 161; breasts: v, 51, 80, 87, 90; (3) instruction in love and “knowledge”: v, 80, 106f., 174; divorce from wilderness: v, 79, 89, 97, 120, 156, 164; (4) clothing and eating: v, 104, 109, 161, 199, 249; (5) grooming: v, 156, 195, 246. The location of these motifs in Narziss und Goldmund enables us to distinguish the group of Hesse's three middle novels from his earlier and later works. The motifs are not yet used in Demian, nor are they prominent any longer in Die Morgenlandfahrt or Das Glasperlenspiel. Hesse's occupation with such motifs in his three novels of 1922, 1927, and 1930 corresponds closely with his renewed and deepened interest in the Orient around 1920 and in the following decade. In Narziss und Goldmund, however, these motifs are generally subordinated to others more important to this novel, such as the polarity of “Geist” and “Blut” or of the “masculine” and “feminine” attributes of the philosopher and the artist. This shift of emphasis bears witness to a turn in Hesse's main interest away from the general humanization of his heroes and their attainment of personal individuation, the theme of Siddhartha and of Der Steppenwolf and the central concern of this paper.

  21. Ziolkowski, pp. 52–60.

  22. Ibid., p. 52f.

  23. Cf. Hesse's comment in a very relevant letter from 1930: “Was damals Theologie war, ist für uns Heutige mehr Psychologie, aber die Wahrheiten sind dieselben. … Die Mythen der Bibel, wie alle Mythen der Menschheit, sind für uns wertlos, solang wir sie nicht persönlich und für uns und unsere Zeit zu deuten wagen.” (vii, 488).

  24. Cf. Jastrow and Clay, p. 44.

  25. Gressmann, p. 98. The discovery that the Gilgamesh epic, although having a number of episodes in common with the Bible, opposes the Bible precisely in its conception of Paradise and the “fall,” occasioned a minor theological controversy in Germany at this time. For an indignant rejection of Babylonian ideas as Biblical canon see Christian Dieckmann, Das Gilgamis-Epos in seiner Bedeutung für Bibel und Babel (Leipzig, 1902); for a more reasoned discussion of these common episodes as well as a contrast of Biblical and Babylonian eschatology see Alexander Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (Chicago, 1946; 2nd ed. 1949). Hesse's theological interests, as well as his parents' concern for the confrontation of Christianity with eastern religions, may well have led him into an investigation of these matters.

  26. Jastrow and Clay, p. 45. Neither Sandars, p. 65, nor Kramer, p. 77, recalls this Biblical phrase, however.

  27. Ibid.

George Wallis Field (essay date 1970)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5788

SOURCE: “Siddhartha: The Way Within,” in Hermann Hesse, Twayne's World Authors Series Online, G. K. Hall & Co., 1999, pp. 1–13.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1970, Field comments on the background and social setting in which Siddhartha was written.]


The first part of Siddhartha was written in the winter of 1919, at the end of that first exuberant productive year in Montagnola. Hesse has told us how the composition was borne along on a surge of creative energy which suddenly came to an end, and he was not able to complete the work until two years later:

Nearly two years ago [i.e. 1919] was my last high point … the fullest, most exuberant, most industrious and most glowing [year] of my life. … And now for almost a year and a half I have been living like a snail, slowly and thriftily. … I have produced nothing but the first part of Siddhartha and the beginning of the second which has bogged down. Instead I have painted and read and inwardly moved closer to the India of gods and idolatry. …1

One of the difficulties was no doubt the finding of a suitable conclusion, since it involved conveyance in the logic of language of something essentially beyond words, i.e., magical insight.

In a later edition, Siddhartha appeared with other stories under the title Der Weg nach Innen (The Way Within),2 and it is in fact Hesse's most introspective work, apparently glorifying the vita passiva. But Hesse's writing is characterized by pulsation between active and passive poles, and this particular polarity was to become a major theme in Das Glasperlenspiel. It is well, then, to recall that in the very years when this work of pronounced Eastern meditation and introspection was taking shape, its author was engaged in very active battles on several other fronts. With the end of the war, while physically withdrawing to an isolated mode of existence, Hesse entered the lists to work for the establishment of a healthy, peaceful outlook in which the new German democracy could flourish.

Zarathustras Wiederkehr (Zarathustra's Return, 1920) was a clarion call to the Germans—especially to the German youth—to shake off not only despair and recrimination but also the “false gods” of commercialism, nationalism, and militarism which had led the nation into the abyss of defeat. In a commentary on this work Hesse pointed out that the misunderstood and misused Nietzsche seemed “the last solitary representative of the German spirit … who had finally become anti-German in revulsion against the cultural crudity of the Wilhelmian era.”3

In the last years of the war and in the first months after its end, Hesse's essays are permeated with a new biting satire. Der Europaer (The European) of January, 1918 envisages the Europeans fighting on indefinitely with ever more refined methods of destruction, until God finds it necessary to send another flood in order to end the carnage. But as the flood mounts, the embattled European nations build higher and higher platforms from which to bombard each other:

Ensconced in towers, human heroism preserved itself with touching faithfulness to the very end. While Europe and all the world was being inundated and deluged, from the last towering steel turrets searchlights kept on glittering through the moist grayness of the perishing earth and projectiles still soared to and fro in elegant arcs from the cannons. Thus the shooting was carried on heroically to the last hour.

VII, 105

Finally, there is only one surviving European floundering in a lifejacket. After he is picked up by the patriarch and taken on board the ark, the inhabitants entertain him with their special skills. The European has nothing to offer but his vaunted Western intellect, of which he can present no evidence, and so they accept him as the joker; but many doubt his capacity to make any positive contribution to the new world. The patriarch intervenes to point out that God has looked after this, for as the sole survivor of his species he cannot reproduce himself like all the others. The next day the tip of the sacred mountain appears above the receding flood waters, heralding the new beginning on earth.

Wenn der Krieg noch zwei Jahre dauert (end of 1917) and its sequel Wenn der Krieg noch funf Jahre dauert (If the War Lasts Five More Years, 1918) project an ironic vision of a dehumanized world. A modern Rip van Winkle is discovered by the authorities. Although he brilliantly passes all medical and intelligence tests, he is lodged in an asylum because he knows nothing of the war and the strange restrictions it has imposed on life.

The months after the armistice saw the appearance of Hesse's essays “Das Reich,” “Der Weg der Liebe” (“The Way of Love”), and “Brief an einen jungen Deutschen” (“Letter to a Young German”). Early in 1919 appeared the first number of Vivos voco, a new periodical founded and edited by Hesse and Richard Woltereck. The message of the title is plain: to summon the living to build a better world. For three years, Hesse himself wrote a large number of articles and reviews. In 1922 he retire as editor but continued to contribute until 1924. His work in this journal drew a considerable number of threatening and vituperative letters, from reactionary nationalistic elements, which Hesse used with devastating effect to pillory the stand-point of the correspondents in “Hassbriefe” II, [1921–22], 235–39.

In this period falls the separate publication of Blick ins Chaos (Glimpse into Chaos, 1920), containing the two major Dostoyevsky essays. Hesse saw in Dostoyevsky and his characters (and in Nietzsche) an intuitive anticipation of the descent into anarchy and an ensuing new morality, prefiguring the fate of Western Europe. Blick ins Chaos was instrumental in extending Hesse's fame beyond the German-speaking world. It was translated into English and reprinted, in whole or in part, in several journals. Among those impressed was T. S. Eliot, who visited Hesse and enlisted him as collaborator on his new periodical Criterion. As it turned out, only one article by Hesse appeared, entitled “New German Poetry.” Mr. Eliot upon being asked about his meeting with Hesse and why there had been no further contributions, replied in a letter of September 16, 1960:

My attention was first drawn to Hermann Hesse by my friend Sydney Schiff, who was also known as a novelist under the name Stephen Hudson [translator of Blick ins Chaos]. He gave me Blick ins Chaos to read and I was very much impressed by it. A little later—I think in 1921 or 22—I was staying for a short time in Lugano and took an opportunity of going up to visit Hermann Hesse in his mountain retreat. We had, as I remember, a very interesting conversation. He must have done most of the talking himself as my ability to understand German when spoken exceeds my ability to speak it. … I do not know why there was only one contribution by him, or whether I solicited further work, for I do remember that I was much impressed by the man and would, I suppose, have been very glad to have further contributions from him.4

In spite of his vigorous polemics on behalf of the delicate infant Weimar republic, Hesse became increasingly pessimistic about the future of democracy in Germany. In 1923 he formally dissociated himself from his fatherland by becoming a naturalized Swiss.

By 1922–23 Hesse was engaged on another front—the battle for existence. He depended on royalties from publication in Germany, and the ultimate effect of the inflationary spiral was to cut off his income entirely, since in the final weeks of the monetary crisis sums despatched from Germany became entirely worthless by the time they were received in Switzerland. For a while Hesse was helped by local friends, and he eked out a modest living by selling for 285 Swiss francs holograph copies of his fairy tale Piktors Verwandlungen (Piktor's Metamorphoses), illustrated with his Expressionistic water-color paintings (different in each copy). This tale emphasizes the motif of change and the yearning for wholeness. Having been transformed into a tree at his wish, Piktor pines away, for “one can see it every day in all creatures: If they do not possess the gift of metamorphosis, they decay in time with melancholy and atrophy, and their beauty is lost.” A beautiful girl redeems? Piktor by becoming one with the tree and restoring it to wholeness and the possibility of infinite transformations. “Piktor was no longer a bent old tree, now he sang jubilantly Piktoria, Viktoria. He was transformed. And because this time he had attained the right eternal transformation, because he had become a whole from half, from this hour he could transform himself as much as he wished.”5

This light-hearted tale reminds us, therefore, both of the financial plight of the author in the early twenties and of the themes which were uppermost in his mind at the time, for Siddhartha's quest, too, is for wholeness, oneness, and involves constant transformation.


The opening chapter of Siddhartha presents a pair of friends, both sons of Brahmans; but Govinda is the devoted follower while Siddhartha is marked as leader. Siddhartha overcomes his father in a gentle but inflexible contest of wills reflecting Indian passive resistance. Behind this Indian mask it is easy to glimpse Hesse's self-assertion vis-a-vis his own father and the priestly path ordained for him.

Both friends abandon home, family, and caste to join the Samanas, thus becoming indigent “holy men.” For the images of life are “not worth a glance, everything deceived, everything stank, stank of falseness, everything gave an illusion of meaning and happiness and beauty, and yet everything was unacknowledged decomposition” III, 626. At this stage, the aim is an ascetic denial of life, a suppression of the ego:

One goal stood before Siddhartha: to become empty, empty of thirst, of wish, empty of dream, of pain and pleasure. To die away from himself, to be no longer I, to find peace in his emptied heart, in his de-individualized thinking to be receptive to miracles, that was his goal. If the ego was completely overcome and extinguished, if every yearning and every instinct died in his heart, then the ultimate had to awaken, the inmost essence which is no longer ego, the great secret.

III, 626

After three years, the friends have steeled the flesh against the assaults of the senses and of the external world. But Siddhartha, finding no further progress and no ultimate goal attainable on this path, goes with Govinda in search of Gautama the Buddha, of whom each finger “spoke, breathed, exuded, gleamed truth” III, 638. But it is the living presence not the preaching which convinces. Therefore Siddhartha goes on his way, rejecting the temptation to linger among the Buddha's disciples who receive Govinda. Wandering now on his solitary way, he asks himself:

“What is it that you have been trying to learn from teachers and doctrines, and which they who taught you much nevertheless could not teach?” And he found: “It was the ego whose meaning and nature I wanted to fathom. It was the ego from which I wanted to free myself, which I wanted to overcome. But I could not overcome it, I could only deceive it. I could not flee from it, only hide from it. … I was fleeing from myself! I was seeking Atman [Sanskrit atman: breath, self, supreme spirit, universal self], I was seeking Brahma [a personification of the ultimate absolute or cosmic principle], … But in the process I was losing myself. …

I shall become acquainted with this ego, the secret of Siddhartha.”

III, 645–46

Now we see the polarity motif in operation, as Siddhartha from the ascetic pole of deadened sense perceptions awakes to the physical world: “He had to begin his life anew completely from the beginning” III, 648.

Early in the second part, Siddhartha's quest embraces the oneness that transcends al polarities:

No, this world of learning belonged to the phenomenal world and it led to no goal if one killed off the fortuitous ego of the senses only to fatten the fortuitous ego of thoughts and theories. Both were nice things, thoughts as well as instincts, but the ultimate lay beyond both; it was necessary to listen to both, to play with both, neither to despise nor overvalue both, but from both to harken to the secret voices of the inmost being.

III, 652

Siddhartha reaches the river, which is an obvious symbol of the boundary between two worlds and two ways of life. This river symbol soon assumes syncretic power, becoming also the major symbol of oneness, as its voice whispers the mystic syllable “om.”

Beyond the river, Siddhartha comes to the city and wins the courtesan Kamala who initiates him into sexual love, while he gains wealth and power in the merchants' world. His strength in love and business had been derived, however, from his years of physical and spiritual training. In the course of time, his stamina and concentration weaken. This reciprocal dependence of “nature” and “spirit” offers one of many points of comparison with Thomas Mann's treatment of the theme in The Transposed Heads. The major difference lies in Mann's hilariously ironical and satirical handling of the material, while Hesse maintains an exalted poetic tone.

Almost the opposite process takes place in Das Glasperlenspiel when Joseph Knecht finds the one-sided “spiritual” Castalian atmosphere too rarefied. In fact, Knecht's diagnosis of impending crisis stresses the necessity of embracing the polar elements of intellectuality and sensuality. Basically, the situation is similar in both works, and both protagonists in their actions stress metamorphosis.

In the last night spent with Kamala, Siddhartha realizes “how closely sensual lust is related to death” III, 677. Death is metamorphosis, as Rilke reminds us in the Sonnets to Orpheus and especially in “Wolle die Wandlung. O sei fur die Flamme begeistert” (“Will to be transformed. O show zeal for the flame”). We are prepared, then, for the next step on Siddhartha's Way as, on the next day, he leaves Kamala, his wealthy merchant patron Kamaswami, and abandons the life of the Kindermenschen (child-people).6

He wanders back through the forest to the river, which is now no longer the boundary but Rilke's central “turning point.” In the polar oscillation of Siddhartha's life, he comes to rest on the river. But his return first brings him to the verge of committing suicide. “He was filled with satiety, full of misery, full of death. There was nothing left in the world to entice him, give him pleasure or comfort … there was no aim left … but to make an end of this miserable and disgraceful life” III, 681–82. He “lets himself fall” into the river “towards death” (thus reintroducing the motif of “Klein und Wagner”). But from the depths of his soul “the holy ‘om’” resounds and he perceives the folly of his action.

He sinks into restorative sleep and on awaking finds Govinda watching over him—a temporary reversal of their roles. Siddhartha tries to explain his quest. “It is the same with me as with you. I am traveling nowhere. I am only wandering—a pilgrim. … I have had to sin, in order to be able to live again” III, 686–90.

He resolves to remain by this river of life and time and becomes the helper of the old ferryman Vasudeva. This figure evokes multiple associations. Apart from the Eastern attributes, which we shall examine in the next section, one is reminded of Charon and his duty to ferry the souls of the deceased across the river Styx. He represents essentially the vita passiva, but not entirely so, since he exercises a helpful function for his fellow humans. He has gained magical insight into the oneness and simultaneity of life, so that all life flows to him.

Siddhartha, however, faces one more trial when Kamala arrives to die in his arms, leaving the son born after Siddhartha's disappearance. He strives to win the boy's affection and to keep him, but the son rebels against the father, repeating more violently Siddhartha's gentler self-liberation from the paternal world effected a generation before. Gradually Siddhartha begins to understand “that with his son not peace and happiness had come to him, but suffering and worry” III, 706. He becomes again a “child-person,” losing his equanimity and serenity. After the boy's escape and the vain pursuit, Siddhartha, consoled by Vasudeva, gradually absorbs the lesson of the river:

All voices, all aims, all yearning, all suffering, all pleasure, all good and all evil, all together made up the world. Everything together was the river of events, was the music of life. And if Siddhartha harkened … to the river … he heard all, the whole, the oneness and then the great song of the thousand voices consisted of a single word, om: perfection. … In this hour Siddhartha ceased to fight his fate, ceased to suffer.

III, 720–21

After Vasudeva's death, Siddhartha inherits the office of ferryman and absorbs the inner awareness symbolized both by his predecessor and by the river. The last chapter brings back Govinda who sees that Siddhartha has “found the Way.” But the efforts of Siddhartha to express this way in words are doomed to failure, since the “Way Within” for one individual defies formulation for another. “Knowledge can be imparted but not wisdom” III, 742. As Demian has taught us, each individual has to become himself. However, Siddhartha's efforts to communicate with Govinda provide many interesting glimpses. He asserts, for example: “Time is not real, Govinda. … And if time is not real, then the span which seems to lie between world and eternity, between torment and bliss, between good and evil is also an illusion” III, 725. And again: “Love seems, Govinda, to be the main thing” III, 729.

While the teaching of Siddhartha cannot convince Govinda, the presence and countenance of Siddhartha remind him of the sensation he felt in the presence of Gautama Buddha, and Govinda realizes that “this is a saint” III, 730. The pedagogical importance of the living example later becomes a major motif in the ending of Joseph Knecht's life in Das Glasperlenspiel.


Despite its brevity, Siddhartha may properly be called a Bildungsroman, sharing many features of this genre examined in Demian. But Hesse published it under the rubric “Eine indische Dichtung” (“An Indian Poetic Work”). When I visited him in Montagnola in 1957, he showed me several of the translations into Indian language and spoke with interest of the work's recent success in the subcontinent. But in fact it is an interesting compound of Eastern and Western ingredients.

We have previously discussed the Eastern influences on Hesse and his affinity for elements of Eastern thought. In Siddhartha, the Indian milieu is the more effective for its temporal distance. When we get back to legendary times, we lose the sense of differentiation and come nearer the oneness of the human race. On the other hand, the legendary epoch of Gautama the Buddha provides a more remote background for Hesse's portrayal of himself or his Eastern alter ego.

The name Siddhartha has a double function, since it is a link with Buddha, who bore the name in his secular life, and at the same time signifies “the one who has found the Way.” Vasudeva is one of the names of Krishna and suggests the meaning “he in whom all things abide and who abides in all.”7 Kamala may be associated with Kama, the Hindu god of love and desire. Kamaswami combines kama and swami, suggesting “master of the sensuous and material pleasures of life.”

Hesse's Siddhartha is not intended to portray the life of Gautama the Buddha but he used the name and many other attributes to reflect the legendary atmosphere and prefigure the pattern of his hero's transformations. Both Siddhartha and Buddha were unusual children. Buddha left his wife and son to become an ascetic, as Siddhartha leaves his beloved Kamala and his unborn son to take up the ascetic, contemplative life. Both spent time among mendicant ascetics studying yoga. Buddha spent several years meditating by a river and Siddhartha's last years are spent in ferryman's service on the river. Buddha's revelations came to him under the Bo-tree while Siddhartha arrives at his final decision under the mango tree. Under the tree Buddha had a visionary experience of all his previous existences and the interconnection of all things, and Siddhartha's final magic vision also embraces simultaneity and oneness.

With all these Eastern allusions, attitudes, and legendary motifs, the reader may be lulled into accepting the work as basically Indian. However, Rudolf Pannwitz has pointed out the polar tension between East and West which underlies it:

Siddhartha is an Indian … contemporary of Buddha. He follows the ancient Indian ways but stops at each station and complements it by an opposing one, so that he reveals himself as a European … determined by the rhythm of Heraclitus. … [His European origin is further revealed] by the fact that he does not tarry in any lawful order and preordained role. Therefore for him there is no solution nor release that can satisfy him and free him from the demands of the subjective ego.8

Siddhartha recognizes the preeminence of Buddha's teaching and that he [Buddha] has found the Way. But Siddhartha cannot follow him for two reasons: first, because the European element in him prevents him from entering into anything fixed and prescribed; second, because Buddha is the redeemer not in a positive way by fulfilling, but negatively by overcoming and annihilating the world.

There is, therefore, an underlying Western Faustian quality in Siddhartha, which becomes almost explicit when Siddhartha exclaims “Immer habe ich nach Erkenntnis gedurstet” (III, 630: “I have always thirsted for cognition”), echoing Faust in his opening monologue “Dass ich erkenne was die Welt / Im Innersten zusammenhalt” (“That I may have cognition of what holds the world together in its inmost essence”). Siddhartha exclaims “I have devoted much time … O Govinda in order to learn this: that one can learn nothing,” recalling Faust's complaint “Und sehe, dass wir nichts wissen konnen / Das will mir schier das Herz verbrennen” (“And I perceive that we are not capable of attaining knowledge. This almost burns up my heart”).

If Siddhartha, therefore, has Western activist well-springs deep within him, Govinda represents passive Oriental acceptance. The two friends thus present polar contrasts which together make a whole, thereby in a sense prefiguring the theme of the quest for oneness. Basically, their positions amount to Western affirmation and Eastern negation of life. Siddhartha's final stand, however, is not clear—reminding us of the author's difficulty in bringing the novel to a conclusion.

In his last stage, Siddhartha peers with what we may call “magical insight” behind the veil of Maya to realize the illusion of individuation and to glimpse the essential oneness and simultaneity of all things, as symbolized in the river and its whispered syllable “om.” This is obviously Eastern, but in his attempt to convey his inner vision to Govinda, Siddhartha reveals two pronounced Western and Christian components: activity, experience, striving (in the Faustian tradition) and love or caritas (Franciscan in its universality). In addition, there is the element of divine grace, which has a Protestant ring; and the concept of metamorphosis seems at time closer to Western development and progress than to the Oriental eternal return through metempsychosis. All four elements can be glimpsed in the following excerpt:

All sin bears grace within it. … I have experienced in my body and soul that I was badly in need of sin. I needed lust, striving for worldly goods and vanity, and I needed the most humiliating despair … in order to learn to love the world … to love it and rejoice in being part of it. … I can love a stone, Govinda, and also a tree or a piece of bark. Those are things, and one can love things. But words I cannot love. … Love, above all, O Govinda, seems to me the chief thing. To see through the world, to explain it, to despise it may be the concern of great thinkers. But I am only concerned with being able to love the world; not to despise it and hate it and myself but to be able to regard all creatures with love and admiration and reverence.

III, 726–29

Even the paradoxical term “child-people” discloses its full significance near the end when Siddhartha has vainly pursued his son right back to the grave of Kamala:

Although he was nearing fulfillment and was enduring his last wound, it seemed to him nevertheless that these child-people were his brothers; their vanities, lusts, and silliness lost their ridiculousness for him and became understandable, became even worthy of reverence for him.

III, 715

The doctrine of love and the stress on individual experience in finding the Way suggest a Protestant element; for as Hesse observed in 1931: “The fact that my Siddhartha stresses not cognition but love, that it rejects dogma and makes experience of oneness the central point, may be felt as a tendency to return to Christianity, even to a truly Protestant faith” VII, 372.

The figure of Buddha is recalled as Siddhartha says of him “his deeds and his life are more dear to me than his preaching, the gestures of his hand more important than his opinions. Not in talking, not in thinking do I see his greatness but only in doing and living” III, 729.

This anti-intellectual tendency can hardly be categorized as Western or Eastern. It may be related, however, to the skepticism vis-a-vis Western rational and technological civilization arising out of the growing disillusionment in the postwar years. This antipathy to a technological society will reappear in Steppenwolf, but ultimately, in Das Glasperlenspiel, it will be modified in a searching analysis of what is really enduring in civilization.


The mood evoked by Siddhartha is that of serenity, of a poetic, exalted world on a higher plane. While serenity is dominant, an opposite undercurrent of dramatic tension reminds us of the similarly subtle effects of Adalbert Stifter's smoothly stylized poetic prose. There we encounter a similar shift from a serene outer world to the problematic inner world. This inner realm is the scene of repeated crises. The initial rebellion against the father is followed by Siddhartha's renunciation of the world to join the Samanas; they, in turn, are abandoned in order to hear Buddha. The rejection of Buddha's teaching and the consequent parting from Govinda are followed by the rejection of ascetism in favor of the sensual and material life. This, too, is abandoned, and the return to the river leads to the brink of suicide, which is followed by Kamala's arrival and death. Only after the tense battle to win his son does Siddhartha penetrate into the serene sense of cosmic unity.

In the most dramatic moments, the sedate style is slightly modified, as when Siddhartha reaches the decision to end it all:

With a distorted face he stared into the water, saw his face mirrored and spat at it. In deep fatigue he loosened one arm from the tree trunk and turned a little, in order to let himself fall vertically, in order to succumb finally. With eyes shut he plunged down to death.

Then a sound quivered from remote layers of his soul, from past epochs of his tired life. It was a word, a syllable, which he spoke without thinking, with a lilting voice, to himself, the old opening and closing word of all Brahman prayers. … When the sound “om” touched Siddhartha's ear, his benumbed mind suddenly awoke and realized the folly of his action.

III, 683

But the divergences in style here are minimal—a slightly more concise, clipped expression with stress on the verbs of action—while the features which mark the style of the whole are still present, namely a triadic pattern of sentence and paragraph structure, intensive repetition and the beginning of sentences with adverb or predicate, thus producing a chant-like rhythm: “Schon war die Welt, bunt war die Welt, seltsam und ratselhaft war die Welt!”9

The following paragraph offers a striking illustration of these stylistic features:

Langsam blute, langsam reifte in Siddhartha die Erkenntnis, das Wissen darum, was eigentlich Weisheit sei, was seines langen Suchens Ziel sei. Es war nichts als eine Bereitschaft der Seele, eine Fahigkeit, eine geheime Kunst, jeden Augenblick, mitten im Leben, den Gedanken der Einheit denken, die Einheit fuhlen und einatmen zu konnen. Langsam bluhte dies in ihm auf, strahlte ihm aus Vasudevas altem Kindergesicht wider: Harmonie, Wissen um die ewige Vollkommenheit der Welt, Lacheln, Einheit.10

The passage opens with an adverb and is constructed on a triadic pattern of three sentences: opening statement, development, and conclusion. This arrangement is especially appropriate here in summing up Siddhartha's quest and his attainment of magical insight. The repetition reinforces the three-beat rhythm.

Ziolkowski has pointed out the ubiquity of the beatific smile as the symbol of fulfillment in the novels from Siddhartha to Das Glasperlenspiel.11 At the moment preceding Vasudeva's death, this smile is transferred to Siddhartha in a mystical sharing. The style of this passage strikingly reflects the features we have discussed and which are more directly apparent in the original German text:

Hell glanzte Vasudevas Lacheln, uber all den Runzeln seines alten Antlitzes schwebte es leuchtend, wie uber all den Stimmen des Flusses das Om schwebte. Hell glanzte sein Lacheln, als er den Freund anblickte. und hell glanzte nun auch auf Siddharthas Gesicht dasselbe Lacheln auf. Seine Wunde bluhte, sein Leid strahlte, sein Ich war in die Einheit geflossen.12

Imbedded in the last sentence, however, is a double oxymoron: “His wound flourished, his pain shone radiantly.” This reminder of the theme of polarity is striking here at the moment when it is transcended by and embraced in a higher magical unity.

The inner structure of the novel is based not on the outer division into two parts; but, as Ziolkowski observes:

the book falls into three natural sections: Siddhartha's life at home, among the Samanas, and with Buddha (four chapters); his life with Kamala and among the “child-people” of the city (four chapters); and his life with Vasudeva on the river (four chapters). … Temporally and spatially the periods are delimited by Siddhartha's initial crossing of the river and by his subsequent return to it. … And the river, as the natural symbol of synthesis, is the natural border between the realms of spirit and sense in which Siddhartha attempts to live before he achieves the synthesis upon its very banks. What we have, in other words, is a projection of Siddhartha's inner development into the realm of space: the landscape of the soul.13

This is a perceptive analysis of the structure, which shows awareness of the dual symbolic function of the river as both a boundary dividing separate stages on the Way and as the unitary principle itself.

Repetition, which permeates the style in the form of recurring words, phrases, and sentences, leads structurally to the use of leitmotifs, many of which we have mentioned, such as the river symbol and the beatific smile. Among others, one may mention the bird (carried over from Demian), which occurs in a dream and exists as Kamala's pet. It becomes symbolic, however, in the phrase “Dead was the bird in his heart” III, 681.

In addition to leitmotifs, parallelisms also reinforce the unity of the work. Siddhartha's initial break with his father is paralleled by the situation between himself and his son. Buddha smiles and preaches the Way to Govinda and Siddhartha. At the end, it is Siddhartha who attempts to preach or explain his Way to Govinda. Again it is not the words but the smile, the face, and the hands which convince.

Such a style has obviously little to do with realism. Hesse deprecated the tendency in our age to attribute excessive importance to “so-called reality” in the shape of physical events and things, especially of a technological nature.14 Freedman has used the term “lyrical novel” for works such as this, and of all of Hesse's works Siddhartha fits this description best.15 Siddhartha's quest transcends “reality,” and the narrative manner is intended to carry the reader into an elevated, poetic, legendary, or “magical” world. In fact, in unity of style, structure, and meaning Siddhartha represents Hesse's highest achievement.

In spite of the Western ingredients, it must be admitted that Siddhartha's third and final stage stresses Eastern passivity and introspection. But this was Siddhartha's Way, not Govinda's nor anyone else's. It was not Hesse's Way either, or at least not his final station; and the most characteristic leitmotif in the work is that of “Erwachen” (awakening) to a new beginning.

Hesse's next major work, Der Steppenwolf, offers a complete contrast, replacing serenity by stridency, placing the individual problem in a social context and stressing the contrast between the “inner” and “outer” worlds for grotesque and humorous effect.


  1. Aus einem Tagebuch des Jahres 1920 (Zurich, 1960), p. 32.

  2. Der Weg nach Innen (Berlin, 1931).

  3. Vivos voco, I (1919–20), 72–73.

  4. Printed as note 7 in my article “Hermann Hesse as Critic of English and American Literature,” Monatshefte, LIII (1961), 147–58.

  5. Piktors Verwandlungen, Faksimile-Ausgabe (Frankfurt, 1954).

  6. “Child-people” is a paradoxical term, as Boulby points out: “Their childlikeness both is and is not that spoken of in the New Testament; theirs is the sphere of reality, with which the magical reality can never coincide” p. 141.

  7. Siddhartha, ed. T. C. Dunham and A. S. Wensinger, New York, Macmillan, 1962, p. 181. This is an excellent text edition with glossary of Eastern terms.

  8. Rudolf Pannwitz, Hermann Hesses West-ostliche Dichtung (Frankfurt, 1957), p 13.

  9. III, 647: Beautiful was the world, many-colored was the world, strange and enigmatic was the world.

  10. III, 716: Slowly bloomed, slowly ripened in Siddhartha the insight, the knowledge of the real nature of wisdom, the goal of his long quest. It was nothing but a readiness of the soul, a capacity, a mysterious ability at any moment in the midst of life to be able to think the thought of oneness, to feel and breathe in oneness. Slowly this bloomed in him, radiated back to him from Vasudeva's old, childlike face: harmony, knowledge of the eternal fulfillment of the world, smiling serenity, oneness.

  11. Op. cit., pp. 170–77.

  12. III, 721: Brightly gleamed Vasudeva's smile, over all the wrinkles of his age countenance it hovered radiantly, just as over all the voices of the river om hovered Brightly gleamed his smile, as he looked at his friend, and brightly gleamed now on Siddhartha's face, too, the same smile. His wound flourished, his pain shone radiantly, his ego had flowed into the oneness.

  13. Op. cit., pp. 160–61.

  14. Cf. e.g. “Kurzgefasster Lebenslauf” G.S., IV, 469–89.

  15. Ralph Freedman, The Lyrical Novel: Studies in Hermann Hesse, Andre Gide and Virginia Woolf (Princeton, 1963).

Hesse's works are cited from the collected edition wherever possible: Gesammelte Schriften (G.S.), 7 vols. (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1958). Parenthetical references in the text give volume and page. I have used my own translations throughout.

Colin Butler (essay date 1971)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3692

SOURCE: “Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha: Some Critical Objections,” in Monatshefte, Vol. LXIII, No. 2, Summer, 1971, pp. 117–24.

[In the following essay, Butler opposes Hesse's presentation of human existence in Siddhartha, adding that he finds the novel “laboured and unconvincing.”]

Like all the novels on which Hesse's reputation chiefly rests, Siddhartha is a fictitious biography. A sort of Bildungsroman, it records the passage of a special individual through selected key experiences until he attains to a position of competence in dealing with what little life is left to him. The nature of Siddhartha's preoccupations and development, and the stylistic devices used to relate them, suggest that the work is the repository of certain truths regarding human existence in general; and so the question naturally arises as to how acceptably Hesse presents and discusses them. In order to decide this, what is being offered must be defined as exactly as possible. In this undertaking, Hesse proves less than helpful.

Although generously endowed with intelligence, good looks, a winning personality, and all other requirements for what would normally be considered a successful life, Siddhartha is not content. He is conscious of a discrepancy between conventional assumptions and personal satisfaction which neither adulation nor material advantage nor received interpretations of life's meaning can overcome. The apparent cause of Siddhartha's discomfort is the inception of an awareness of himself as a question-begging phenomenon in a situation which provides no ready answers. This is a recognizable condition. Much of modern literature is consequent on the proposition that in the absence of a divine guarantor of a “sense” in creation, Man is nolens volens the recipient of an unsolicited and unexplained existence, a set of arbitrary moral and ethical conventions, and the doubtfully welcome ability to deduce that neither he nor anything else is logically necessary. However, while it is undeniable that the absence of discernible metaphysical certainties may give rise to acute anxiety, it is not true that sackcloth and ashes are the only possible response. However much of a philosophical wild goose chase the search for the overall meaning of existence may be, it takes a gloomy person to jump to the conclusion that because life is meaningless in a particular sense, it is also worthless in a general sense.

But, at least at the time of Siddhartha, Hesse could be a very gloomy person indeed; and by failing to make clear from the beginning that any appraisal of life and hence of the situation of the individual (or, as in practice is more often the case, vice versa) is determined as much by personality as by metaphysical speculation, he admits a confusion by which his entire story will be conditioned. It is wholly in keeping with the kind of mind which naturally inclines to seek external explanations for internal distress that Siddhartha's real concern rapidly turns out to be not the onset of self-awareness as such, the fancifully-phrased principium individuationis, but the narrower problem of the absence of a “Ziel,” an a priori absolute purpose. Nor is it surprising that self-awareness is consistently identified to such an extent with the absence of a “Ziel” that no real distinction is possible between them. This is a very convenient simplification for Hesse, for by becoming aware of the error of looking for a “Ziel,” Siddhartha will appear to solve the “problem” of individual existence at the same time. For the moment, however, Siddhartha is allowed to pursue his mistaken course, and as a result resolves to annihilate his Self (i.e., his doleful sense of individual identity), since a Self without purpose is held to invite the drastic solution of better no Self at all.

Siddhartha's activities with the Samanas could not be other than unsuccessful. One cannot consciously rid oneself of oneself (short of actually committing suicide), since any ridding process undertaken with that intention will only further confirm the presence of a conscious self.1 Once Siddhartha realizes this, the exercises of the Samanas lose their point for him; if continued, they would become merely an end in themselves, which is exactly the opposite of what he wants. Siddhartha's meeting with the Buddha is of greater moment, not only because it brings him face to face with a living success, but also because it introduces three elements that will be important later on. First, the imprecise religious connotation: the Buddha is a priest and has found “the way.” Second, however, the Buddha is not a priest in the orthodox Western sense, nor does his way lead to the Kingdom of Heaven or to any equivalent of it. In other words, Siddhartha becomes acquainted with a secular solution to life's problems that has the aura, but not the essence, of a religious solution in the usual sense of the word. Third, the word most frequently associated with the Buddha is “Vollkommenheit,” or other words and phrases amounting to the same thing. The inference is that ultimate truth (“the way”) and this undefined “Vollkommenheit” are inseparable; which allows the fallacy to be insinuated that attainment to the latter automatically entails the discovery of the former. And so terms such as “Erlösung,” “Erkenntnis,” “das Wesentliche,” and “der Weg der Wege” are employed indiscriminately, and Siddhartha's quest is now for personal happiness, now for an answer to “die Unsinnigkeit des Lebens,” now for knowledge, and now for a purpose in life. Predictably, Siddhartha's eventual solution (it is a comfort to know that life lends itself so readily to blanket solutions) will be a pot-pourri of all of these, for the way of understanding reality will also turn out to be the most satisfying. It could be, of course, that the attempt to gain an objective understanding of reality might well issue in the realisation that the kind of satisfaction Siddhartha is looking for is just not possible. But in Siddhartha the wish is always father to the thought, and so the illegitimate identification of objective truth and subjective contentment is allowed to run its course.

On leaving the Buddha, Siddhartha indulges in a period of stock-taking. He transfers attention back to himself, accepts the reality of the phenomenal world, which he has previously held to be illusory, and accepts for the first time the isolation of the seeker operating without the support of pre-established certainties. His objective remains the same: to find the sense of life as if there were a single sense to be found. Only the location of his enquiries and his modus operandi are changed. Having abandoned the possibility of forcing a solution by intellectual action, he will now try his luck with the senses.

It is worth pointing out here that Siddhartha's capacity for sensual experience is, like that of all Hesse's protagonists, singularly limited. Ultimately this is due to a deficiency on Hesse's part, but in terms of Siddhartha its effect is to invalidate the contrast that is purportedly being established. Siddhartha's removal from the country to the town was obviously intended to symbolize a complete change in Siddhartha's experience of reality and so to prepare the way for the conclusion that neither intellectual effort nor unconceptualized sensual gratification is sufficient by itself to cope with the demands of a problematical existence. If this is to be done convincingly, however, Siddhartha's change of environment must be accompanied by an appropriate change in expectations on his part. Yet this is precisely what fails to occur.

Siddhartha's life in the village is a catalogue of failures—failures which the uninitiated would incline to attribute directly to his inability to develop a capacity for spontaneity. That, however, would be all too simple an explanation. As in the episode with the Samanas, Siddhartha's various occupations are expected to provide him with a reason for living. His excursion into the world of business proves unsatisfactory, not because of the inherent tedium of buying and selling, but because, from Siddhartha's point of view, business is only one of a number of pastimes which mutatis mutandis are all equally available to him and which are also all equally imperfect. Again, his relationship with Kamala, the courtesan, is irretrievably compromised by dint of the fact that it is basically a deliberate and artificial course of instruction. Neither trading, nor sexual expertise, nor gambling is per se of sufficient teleological significance to provide Siddhartha with the feeling that here at last he has found the way. And so he not unnaturally generalises his situation and succumbs to the notion that all human activity is “Sansara,” a game.

At this point the question arises: has Siddhartha's position in any way been advanced since the end of the first part of the book? A superficial difference is immediately apparent, namely, that whereas he has hitherto been filled with confidence, he is now filled with despair. He is considerably older now, and the visible signs of physical deterioration are an undeniable reminder of the inevitability of death—which, of course, makes the discovery of a “Ziel” that much more desirable. And as far as the story's symbolical meaning is concerned, by the end of the second part2 Siddhartha is presumed to have exhausted if not the whole range of human experience, then at least sufficient of its two constituent areas for him to infer the impossibility of ever finding a solution to his problems. From another point of view, however, his position is not much altered. For although he has quantitatively increased the range and number of his experiences, the criterion of ultimate insufficiency by which he has found all of them wanting indicates that his sojourn in the village has amounted to no more than the continuation of old attitudes into new circumstances. If anything, Siddhartha has regressed, for in the earlier chapter “Erwachen” he was at least able to appreciate the beauty of the phenomenal world without feeling obliged to subject it to a process of intellectual evaluation; but this is an ability which was lost almost as soon as it was acquired. To be sure, Hesse is careful to point out that Siddhartha has forsaken his Samana's asceticism and drifted into the ways of the world. But there is a real and important difference between his eventual seediness, and the vigorous, whole-hearted indulgence of the fleshpots which the rudimentary capacity to enjoy being alive would provide, even if intellectually the business of living did not make any more sense than before. Even a bad Samana is still a Samana.

If all this is true, what appears to be the antithetical development of the book is really nothing of the kind, despite the fact that its formal arrangement suggests that a genuine antithesis was Hesse's intention. For if both the criteria and the conclusions remain substantially the same in both parts, it can hardly be contended that Siddhartha has been exposed to the advantages and disadvantages of an alternative appreciation of reality before he contemplates suicide, let alone that all of life's options have been exhausted. Again the fault lies with Hesse, whose outlook on life is much more inflexible than the attempted comprehensiveness of his story indicates. But given this inflexibility on Hesse's part, it is inevitable that if Siddhartha is to find any kind of solution, it will remain the product of a mentality that faute de mieux thinks in terms of purposes and absolutes, even though a number of apparent modifications will have to be made if the reader is not to be left with the impression that suicide might have been the best response after all.

Reduced to their essentials, the problems that have beset Siddhartha have been transitoriness, death, and the absence of a sense of fulfillment. Having foregone the opportunity in the second part of the book to consider life from any angle other than sub specie aeternitatis, and having resolutely refused to recognize in any meaningful way that Siddhartha's trouble derives as much from his congenital inability to adapt to life as from his sense of metaphysical isolation, Hesse is faced with the daunting task of discovering the world to be perfect in the face of its manifest imperfections, and at the same time of accommodating Siddhartha's personal disconsolateness.3 He begins by having Siddhartha persuade himself that he can apprehend reality in its entirety. In addition, a cyclic principle is perceived which, unlike Siddhartha's earlier assumption of linear progression (which for him necessitated the question: to what end?), means that reality is not only physically self-contained, with all matter recurring infinitely, but that it is philosophically self-contained as well. In virtue of the totality of his vision, Siddhartha may be sure that no upsetting factors exist beyond the confines which a merely partial view of things would entail; and in virtue of this newly-discovered cyclic principle, the nature and meaning of existence may be explained without reference to any supra-terrestrial arbiter. Suddenly the world is filled with meaning. The idea of the death of God which had made Siddhartha's search for a “Ziel” at once so necessary and so tortuous is accepted and dismissed as superfluous at the same time; and everything is perfect (“vollendet”) at last, particularly as the minor inconveniences of life such as pain, sorrow, and murder are apparently as amenable to assimilation in the grand view of things as are the large metaphysical issues. The unregenerate may argue that owing to the general inadequacies of the human mind and to the particular meagreness of Siddhartha's recorded experiences, a total view of things such as is vouchsafed to Siddhartha is not in fact possible; that furthermore his exclusively immanent interpretation of reality obscures rather than answers the philosophical issues which have previously exercised him; and that therefore he ought at the very least to be more tentative in his conclusions. Such reservations, however, only serve to confirm their unregeneracy.

In the light of Siddhartha's revelation, what had hitherto appeared to be problems now present no difficulty. First, since reality now makes sense beyond a peradventure, one has no longer to cast about for a sense in it, or for a “Ziel”: to appreciate one's inclusion in the unity of all things (“Einheit”) is enough. Second, the same sense of belonging to an homogeneous reality automatically ensures the annulment of the principium individuationis. (Again, it might be asked why one has to regard reality as being complete before one can feel one belongs to it.) Third, once the unsubstantiated assumption is made that time is not intrinsic to reality, transitoriness can be dismissed with equal facility; for in what is maintained to be a situation of nunc stans, that is, the eternal circulation of what is already at hand, transitoriness is a concept without meaning.

Without meaning, however, less because what are held to be the objective conditions of existence make it so than because the individual who has posited these conditions can feel it to be so. In other words, Siddhartha's attempt to mitigate the consequences of self-awareness by retailoring reality to his own specifications still in fact depends for its effectiveness on self-awareness. What has changed or rather, what has been decreased, is the anxiety which has hitherto been inseparable from Siddhartha's sense of individuation. That sense of individuation remains, however, and—a consideration which seems to have escaped Hesse's notice—it is implied by the grammar of almost every sentence in the closing chapters of the book (e.g., “Sein Ich war in die Einheit eingeflossen,” a statement which confirms the division between Siddhartha and external reality even as it tries to conceal it). It is in the light of this that Hesse's treatment of death has to be interpreted. For the disquiet which has made it so hard for Siddhartha to live will certainly make it hard for him to die unless a good deal of ingenuity is employed.

In order to express his attitude to death, Hesse resorts, as likely as not with many a side glance at Schopenhauer, to an analogy which would seem to be less than adequate. As an example of the truism that genres endure beyond the life-span of individual specimens the river has its use, but it falls short when it is adduced as a paradigm of the human situation because it depends for its success on an exact equation between human lives and drops of water. A drop of water does not die, nor can it ponder its end in advance, for it has no conscious existence; it evaporates and merges with its environment by an entirely mechanical procedure. The individual, however, does die, and this is not a relative and insignificant change of his immediate physical condition but an event which challenges everything he feels and understands himself to be. Having said that, however, it has to be recognised that in another sense Hesse's analogy is entirely appropriate, for it is precisely the insentient character of a drop of water that makes it so attractive. The same characteristic is to be found in Vasudeva. “Ich gehe in die Wälder. Ich gehe in die Einheit,” he says “strahlend,” meaning that he is going off to die. That Vasudeva has become so vegetated during his later years that his utterance sounds less ludicrous than it would normally is in the present context not a criticism but a commendation; for it is his total passivity and his reduction of the conditions of existence to a manageable minimum which makes him an exemplary figure in Hesse's eyes.4 Siddhartha's pseudo-apotheosis is of a piece with this. The total equanimity he attains to is achieved by that kind of fixed and determined contemplation which refuses to be disturbed by the intrusion of disruptive emotions. Death, transitoriness, and purposelessness have ceased to be causes for concern because Siddhartha has persuaded himself that he can view them with detachment, and therefore with acquiescence; and in that condition the way of ways and the way to truth must indeed seem to be conterminous. Since Siddhartha's understanding of reality is alleged to be comprehensive, the question of how long it may be sustained must needs be out of place. As long, one suspects the answer might be, could the question be put, as Siddhartha does not move.

It is possible, of course, that even if Siddhartha is mistaken in conception and misleading in detail it might remain a significant novel by virtue of the excellence of its style and its subtle analysis of the human soul. However, in view of Siddhartha's drab uniformity of response to situations which are already severely limited in type and variety; of his conviction, which is eventually “justified,” that all of life can be reduced to a single point of view; of his latent homosexuality (a characteristic of most of Hesse's protagonists, notably Narcissus and Joseph Knecht); and of the fact that despite all this Siddhartha is still the most developed character in the novel: both the book and its eponymous hero must invite the adjective “immature”—that is, they consistently draw large conclusions from a small fund of experience without being aware that they are doing so. Much has been made by Hesse's expositors of Siddhartha's love for his son, and Hesse clearly regarded it as important. Yet it is also true that he found it necessary to remove both the son and Kamala, the only characters in the story with whom Siddhartha manages to establish anything like an intimate relationship, before proceeding to a conclusion that is solipsistic and abstract. It would be foolish to deny the presence of real feeling in those parts of the book that deal with the son. But it is to Hesse's discredit that he obscures its true nature and significance by subjecting it to pretentious rationalizations. Whatever the explicit reasons advanced for the son's departure; for Kamala's premature demise; and, for that matter, for Govinda's ultimate exclusion: the real reason for those excisions is that Hesse found himself in each case having to treat an emotion to which he could only respond with the regret and incompetence of the deprived spectator. In the last analysis, love is short-changed; and instead of “l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle” we are presented with the substitute rearrangement of heaven and earth that is Siddhartha's barren vision.

If the foregoing analysis of the content is true, little need be said about the style; for if the content is unacceptable, it is difficult to see how its linguistic formulation can effect any kind of meaningful improvement. It may well be that Hesse manifests a certain gift for creating atmosphere (personally, I must admit to finding Siddhartha laboured and unconvincing). But the atmosphere of Siddhartha deceives rather than enhances; it makes up in cloudy strangeness for what the book lacks in precise insight. A superficial Orientalism and what Theodore Ziolkowski calls “symbolic lyricism”5 may be exotic enough to make for a certain immediate appeal;’ but they also serve to conceal the fact that Hesse's real reason for turning to the East was not an accession of faith, but an abortive attempt to escape the problems of an obdurately Western understanding of reality.


  1. Cf. T. S. Eliot: “We think of the key, each in his prison Thinking of the key, each confirms his prison.” (Waste Land, “What the Thunder Said.”)

  2. Siddhartha is manifestly written in three parts, despite its ostensible division in two.

  3. Referring to the composition of Siddhartha, Theodore Ziolkowski writes: “Siddhartha: An Indic Poem required almost four years of effort although it is shorter than Demian by one quarter. Hesse began the book in 1919 and quickly wrote the first four chapters, which were published separately in the Neue Rundschau (1920) … later in the winter of 1919–20 he went on to compose the next group of four chapters (the Kamala episode). Then he suddenly found himself unable to go on. … It was not until 1922, after a complete revision of his views of India, that Hesse was finally able to finish the last third of his novel and publish it in full.” (Theodore Ziolkowski, The Novels of Hermann Hesse, Princeton, 1965, pp. 150–151.)

  4. In Das Glasperlenspiel (1943), the virtues of seclusion are treated with a welcome measure of detachment through the figure of “der ältere Bruder.”

  5. The Novels of Hermann Hesse, p. 177.

Roger C. Norton (essay date 1973)

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SOURCE: “Paths to the Future,” in Hermann Hesse's Futuristic Idealism: The Glass Bead Game and its Predecessors, Herbert Lang/Peter Lang, 1973, pp. 45–53.

[In the following excerpt, Norton examines the future as a significant component of idealistic projection in Hesse's writing.]

Hesse's novels of the 1920's and early 1930's—Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, Narcissus and Goldmund, and Journey to the East—continue to draw the consequences of the new outlooks which arose from his personal crisis of the war years. Like Demian they focus on the problems of the creative individual and his way to self-knowledge. At the same time, as also prefigured in Demian, they explore ways to establish relationship with that which lies beyond the individual without compromising his need for distance and perspective in his observation of the world. In this exploration there is movement from the specific to the general and a linking of the temporal with the transtemporal which is reflected in both structure and theme.1 From works which, as various commentators have noted, have a basically closed, rounded-off form, there is seen a progress toward open endings where previously unknown possibilities beckon. Although the future does not appear as a clearly defined plot setting in these novels it is a very significant component of idealistic projections which, as we have seen, received their original impetus from his individuational precepts and were now to be given further substance and extension.


Despite its atmosphere of seeming serenity and perfection, Siddhartha depicts, as does Demian, an early stage in the development of Hesse's new ideals. It again gives evidence of his struggle for awareness of unity but goes farther than its predecessor in its exploration of the qualities of spirit and of life that may serve as prerequisites for personal rebirth and growth. In this sense Siddhartha is clearly future-oriented, although the future as a separately stated theme is not prominent. On one level of meaning, of course, Siddhartha can be interpreted as basically the recounting of an attempt to conquer fate and time through mystical transcendence. Such an interpretation is substantiated by Hesse's description of the wisdom which Siddhartha has attained toward the end of his story, during his sojourn as ferryman at the side of the symbolic “river of life.” He now sees all antinomies—temporality and eternity, suffering and happiness, good and bad, youth and age—as mere illusions. Differentiations or problems of the “real” world and of its times are of no significance here since they have no existence apart from the all-embracing unity and simultaneity which his contemplation of the river has taught him: “The world … is not imperfect or on a slow path to perfection; no, it is perfect at any given moment … All little children have their old age already within them, all nursing babies have their death within them, and all those who are dying have eternal life” (III, 726). Hans Meyerhoff has characterized the mystical aspects of such an attitude insofar as it concerns time: “Mysticism thus involves a denial of time both in experience and in nature. It does not distinguish one from the other, but declares both of them to be illusory and unreal from the point of view of the mystic experience which discloses a transcendent, eternal order of Reality.”2

However, in order to come to grips with the broader import of this novel, one should also consider Siddhartha's mystical experience in its relationship to the context of vital tensions, growth, and change in which it has its place. The following words from Hesse's diary of 1920 concerning the novel's inception suggest that much more is involved in this novel than merely the depiction of inner unity and peace of mind:

How amazingly and frighteningly long it takes for a person to learn to know himself even a little—and how much longer to affirm his existence, and, in a sense which surpasses egoism, to come to terms with himself or even to tolerate himself! How he has to keep at himself, fight with himself, loosen knots, cut knots, tie new knots! When he has finally finished his task, when complete insight, complete harmony, complete and perfect serenity and affirmation are attained … then he smiles and dies; that is death, that is the fulfilment of the “Never,” and the willing entrance into formlessness in order to be reborn. That is as far as I am able to spin this thread. The idea of never being reborn, genuine Nirvana, the bliss of having attained one's goals and being extinguished has never been entirely comprehensible for me in its full, genuine sense—that is, not in the sense of mere weariness and yearning for rest—; inexhaustible material for meditation! When Siddhartha dies he will not wish for Nirvana but for a new cycle, new form, rebirth.3

Of significance in illuminating this other side of the novel is the fact that Hesse makes the knowledge of real life and real time an integral part of his plot. Siddhartha's career as a merchant and his apprenticeship in love with the courtesan Kamala are shown to have had in their own way an importance for him which is equal to that of his former experiences as a world-denying Samana: “Now he … realized that his secret voice had been right, that no teacher could ever have given him salvation. For that reason he had had to go into the world, lose himself in lust and power, women and money, become a merchant, gambler, drinker, and man of greed, until the priest and Samana in him were dead. … He had died, and a new Siddhartha had awakened from his sleep” (III, 692). Despite the negativity of this particular description of the developmental process, there is implicit in it the belief that each person in his progress toward maturity must inwardly and deeply experience the full course of life and time, whether that course in its external traits seems good or bad.4 Thus the recognition either of antinomies or of unity cannot be a product of cerebral or mystical processes alone, abstracted from ordinary creatureliness. Nor, as his Jungian experience had taught Hesse, can one side of any polar relationship be said to be more important than the other. A balance must be sought and maintained. This principle seems to be the key to his exposition of the personal characteristics of Gotama and Siddhartha. There are strong indications that Hesse intended in this novel to project a future synthesis between an Eastern, world-denying, highly spiritualized Buddha (Gotama) and a dynamic, searching Western Buddha (Siddhartha) who sees that the way to the mysteries of transformation must first lead through the world and its times. Hesse gives a hint of his intention to depict two different Buddha figures in remarks from his diary of 1920 concerning a book by Oskar Schmitz entitled Dionysisches Geheimnis (Dionysian Mystery) in which are described, he says, inner experiences that are almost exactly like his own:

The experience of the War, the neurosis itself … then the awakening of the individual, the dawning recognition: But I am a god, I am Atman, nothing can happen to me; and finally the conscious study of Buddha together with Buddhistic practices, in the process of which, however, Schmitz conceives of a European, Dionysian Buddhism. And in this again there is something very strange. What the hero of the Schmitz book experiences as his ‘Dionysian mystery’ is exactly what I wanted to express, although in completely different manner and form, in my ‘Siddhartha,’ the first part of which … is finished and which I have not succeeded in continuing, because I really wanted to depict something in it which I to be sure knew and sensed, … but did not yet really possess inwardly. This is exactly what Schmitz described in his book!5

The apparent contrast between the two Buddha figures in Siddhartha is most clearly seen in a conversation between Govinda and Siddhartha near the end of the novel:

‘To see through the world, to explain it, to scorn it, may be the affair of great thinkers. But my [Siddhartha's] only concern is to be able to love the world, not to scorn it nor to hate it and me, but rather to be able to regard it and myself and all living things with love and admiration and respect.’ ‘I understand that,’ said Govinda, ‘but this is exactly what the exalted one [Gotama] recognizes as a deception. He teaches good will, forbearance, compassion, tolerance, but not love. He forbade us to let our hearts be attached by love to earthly things.’

(III, 729)

Other passages single out further differences: Gotama's more sublimely passive, ritualistic behavior based on tradition, in contrast with Siddhartha's rebellious and unconventional spirit, to which nature and earthliness had made essential contributions.6 However, in the further course of his conversation with Govinda, Siddhartha insists that the obvious differences between himself and Gotama cannot shake his conviction that in their essence they are united (III, 729). Govinda, who as follower and intimate of both Buddhas has the function of a symbolical “shadow” common to both, then has a vision in which he is able to imagine Nirvana and Sansara as one, to see multitudes of human figures flowing into and merging with one another in a successive but also synchronous coming and going, and finally to observe upon Siddhartha's face “the same calm, fine, impenetrable, perhaps kindly perhaps scornful, wise, thousand-fold smile that he had seen a hundred times with awe on the face of Gotama Buddha. Govinda knew that this was the way that those who are perfect smile” (III, 731–732).

Siddhartha's journey toward apotheosis is represented structurally by a division into three segments which can be equated with the three stages of individuation. Also, insofar as they represent human progress, they can be equated with time concepts which reflect the steps in Hesse's artistic career seen from the viewpoint of the early 1920's: 1) The youthful, innocent, and unknowing stage (the past) symbolized by Siddhartha's years as Brahmin and Samana; 2) Loss of innocence and direct engagement with the confusion and corruption of life (the present), i.e. Siddhartha's years as merchant and lover of Kamala; 3) Attainment of spiritual maturity and wisdom (the future) as represented by Siddhartha's passage over the river into an increasingly idealized and exalted state of being. The transition from each stage to the next is marked in the plot by a symbolical death, as has been noted above in regard to Siddhartha's decision to give up his life as a Samana (“He had died, and a new Siddhartha had awakened,” III, 692). In his next transition his “death” is suggested by the long sleep which preceded his final crossing of the river—a sleep that was “nothing but a long and deep speaking of OM, a thinking of OM, and a submersion into and complete union with OM, with the nameless and perfect” (III, 684).

Here a decisive step is being taken beyond present and ordinary human existence into a utopistic realm of sorts, identifiable with the future to the extent that it represents a self-fulfilment yet to be achieved. As if to emphasize the potential links between Siddhartha's current state of being and this realm, Hesse scattered through his plot brief references to his anticipatory moments of awareness of it. For example, in a contemplative moment during his association with Kamala he ruminates over his life and describes his intuiting of a better fate awaiting him: “Then [in childhood] he had felt in his heart: ‘A way lies before you to which you have been summoned; the gods await you.’ And again as a youth, when the ever-ascending aim of all his contemplation had led him above and beyond the crowd of fellow-strivers … when every attained bit of knowledge aroused only a new thirst and pain: ‘Go further, go further! You have been summoned’” (III, 679).7 Then, in the final segment of his story, an application to humanity in general is made. Here Hesse indicates the old Siddhartha's increased understanding and sympathy for the “childishly human” in man, as he describes Siddhartha's self-humbling attempts to win his son's affection and also his general attitude toward the people whom he ferries across the river. He has now become less “clever and proud” in his bearing and more “warm-hearted, curious, and concerned toward others,” willing even to concede that he as a man of thought might be equally childish in his own way and indeed inferior to them in many ways (III, 715–716).

Hesse's effort thus to link human life with the eternal and the ideal finds its summation in his statement that Siddhartha finally was able to comprehend that true wisdom “was nothing but a readiness of the soul, a capability, a secret skill of being able at any moment in the midst of life to think the thought of unity, to feel unity and to breathe it in” (III, 716). Through such readiness and skill the external experiences of life become interiorized and magically transformed. From this perspective the most idealized future seems very close and attainable, however imperfect one's present state may be: “In the sinner is found here and now the future Buddha; his entire future is already there, your task is to honor in him and in yourself and in everyone the Buddha who is becoming, who is possible, who is hidden” (III, 726).

There are obvious ambiguities and ambivalences in Hesse's idealism as expressed in Siddhartha, but they seem more intentional than accidental. He postulates an imprecisely defined goal which at one time is infinitely distant from ordinary experience and conventional time, but at another time is directly accessible to man's reason and will. Such oscillations between the ideal and the real, the magical and the rational became so much a part of Hesse's way of thinking, especially after his acquaintance with Jungian psychoanalysis that the probing of the complementary relationships between these and other apparently antithetical concepts became one of his most important aims. As a vehicle for exemplifying Hesse's beliefs, Siddhartha's plot and its message partake of roughly equal portions of allegory, myth, and human biography. It proposes that one is able, after struggling to find his own way in life and to understand and accept both the demon and the angel within himself and mankind, to rise by means of mystical perception to a level of being in which divinity and oneness are no longer merely glimpsed in blissful moments, but enjoyed as prolonged experiences. Thus Hesse undertakes to link immediate, ephemeral realities with truths that are eternally present, and to link the human future with the millennium.


  1. Cf. Gerhart Mayer, “Mystische Religiosität und dichterische Form,” Jahrbuch der deutschen Schillergesellschaft, IV (1960), 458.

  2. Hans Meyerhoff, Time in Literature (Berkeley & Los Angeles, 1955), pp. 61–62.

  3. “Tagebuch, 1920,” Corona, III (1932), 195.

  4. Siddhartha's thoughts on the value of experience are described as follows: “It is good to experience for oneself everything that it is necessary to know. As a child I learned that worldly desires and wealth are not good. I have known this a long time, but only now have I really lived it” (III, 691). See also III, 708–709.

  5. From an unpublished portion of Hesse's diary of 1920, by kind permission of the Schiller-Nationalmuseum, Marbach am Neckar.

  6. Hesse says about Gotama: “With a secret smile, quietly, calmly, not unlike a healthy child, the Buddha walked, wore his garment, and placed his feet like all of his monks, according to exact prescription. But his face and his step, his silently lowered glance, his quietly hanging hand … spoke of perfection, did not search, did not imitate, breathed softly in an eternal calm, in eternal light, in inviolable peace” (III, 637). Gotama is also represented as promising salvation to those who follow him—a doctrine that Siddhartha cannot accept (III, 638). In further contrast with Gotama, Siddhartha makes the impression of being, despite his obvious holiness, an unconventional, rather odd person (III, 730). Hesse's intentions in regard to the two figures may be hinted at by his choice of names for them. Gotama, the family name of Buddha, might well represent the sources and the conventions from which the worship of Buddha grew, while Siddhartha as given name could suggest the addition of new and more individualistic traits to the traditional conception of Buddha.

  7. For other similar passages see III, 619, 626, 643, 651–652.

Madison Brown (essay date 1976)

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SOURCE: “Toward a Perspective for the Indian Element in Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha,” in German Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 2, March, 1976, pp. 191–200.

[In the following essay, Brown discusses various theories about the Indian elements in Siddhartha.]

First contact with Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha indicates quite clearly that things Indian abound in the novel. Titles, names, settings, and cultural background are all Indian. For an author who grew up in a household having close ties to India and who was the enthusiastic inheritor of the eighteenth and nineteenth century German interest in India, such a preoccupation with the subcontinent and its culture in a novel is not surprising. Nor is it surprising that an author who was deeply concerned with religious questions but unable to accept wholly any orthodox form of Christianity would be open to non-Christian, e.g., Indian religions, in his quest for a belief. Hesse's trip of 1911 to Malaya, Sumatra, and Ceylon was likewise a manifestation of this interest. However, just as one cannot take the subtitle Eine indische Dichtung literally, one cannot take the whole of the Indian element at face value. Hesse's relationship to things Indian is complex, his response to Indian culture is selective, and his use of it is varied.

A survey of those critics who have dealt with the Indian element in Siddhartha reveals several tendencies and reflects the complexity of the matter. Some writers have tended to deal with Indian material as being of secondary importance and concentrate on other matters. Theodore Ziolkowski in his excellent book The Novels of Hermann Hesse (Princeton, 1965) seems fully justified in such statements as “it would be naive to read the book as an embodiment or exegesis of Indian philosophy” (150) and “Hesse defines his symbols adequately within the framework of his fiction” (155). Mark Boulby in his equally excellent book Hermann Hesse, His Mind and Art (Ithaca, 1967) speaks of Siddhartha as “the pinnacle of Hesse's orientalism” (124) but views it primarily as “an exemplary vita [in which the] apparent realism … is in the last resort a superficial thing” (134). Although Ziolkowski and Boulby explain much of the meaning of individual Indian elements (e.g., the names of characters and divinities, sacred writings, religious concepts, Gautama's life, and Buddhism), both tend to view the exotic not in terms of itself so much but as subordinate to narrative structure (Ziolkowski) or symbolic structure (Boulby).

Robert C. Conard in his article “Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, Eine indische Dichtung, as a Western Archetype”1 implicitly subordinates the Indian aspects of the work as he joins in the pursuit of its “Western possibilities” (359). Chief among these, declares Conard, is an unconscious pattern, the Isolato-archetype, which “does most to make [Siddhartha] Western literature par excellence” (359). After he discovers the ten conditions ascribed to this archetype in Hesse's work, Conard is satisfied that “Siddhartha proclaims a primordial image, emerging from the deepest strata of unconsciousness, which reveals the bodily structure of the work as Western despite the Indic garment it wears” (367).

A second group of writers has taken things Indian as their points of departure, indicated where these reappear in Siddhartha, and posited unqualified influence. Johanna Maria Louisa Kunze, Hans Beerman, and Eugene Timpe have found traces of the Bhagavad-Gita in Hesse's novel and have concluded that its relationship to this Indian work is one of great similarity, indebtedness or dependence.2 Leroy Shaw and the coauthors Brigitte Schludermann and Rosemarie Finlay find parallelism between the life of Gautama and that of Siddhartha and conclude that this parallelism is the basis of the book.3 These studies are thought provoking and informative, but the shortcoming they all appear to share would seem to be the failure to see that Hesse's technique with regard to Indian ideas is not so much to borrow from this material with which he is familiar and deeply involved, reproducing or even interpreting it, but rather to create an entity which despite all its Indian content is new and different, something which in the final analysis is purely Hessean.

For example, despite all his Indian appearance (name, clothes, family and social status, several occupations, etc.) Siddhartha is essentially Hessean. His early dissatisfaction, his searchings, his playing different roles, the inner voice which guides him, and finally his insights are peculiar to Siddhartha, the individual Hesse has created. Both the exemplary biography which is the story of Siddhartha and the statement the novel makes are Hessean. As one reads what Hesse writes about his “persönliche Religion” in the essay “Mein Glaube” (Gesammelte Schriften, VII, 372) of 1931, the conclusion one seems advised to draw is that the concepts and the Weltanschauung in the Bhagavad-Gita are not those of Siddhartha.4 By the same token one would suspect that any similarity between the lives of the two Siddharthas is merely a means and not an end.

The third tendency among critics is to acknowledge fully the Indian element as authentic in itself but to see the final product as non-Indian. Bhabagrahi Misra in his article “An Analysis of Indic Tradition in Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha5 recognizes and discusses many of the obvious Indian elements in the novel and sees Hesse as combining these from diverse sources into “an organic cultural whole of India” (121). Nonetheless he is sensitive to the technique defined above, namely that the Indian element is not essentially part of the author's belief. Misra sees the novel as Hesse's attempt to discover the meaning of life from an existential not Indian point of view (122).6 In his book Die Begegnung des Christentums mit den asiatischen Religionen im Werk Hermann Hesses (Bonn, 1956) Gerhart Mayer sees in Siddhartha “die Auseinandersetzung zwischen östlicher Weltverneinung und christlich ehrfurchtsvoller Liebe zur Schöpfung” and the striving for a synthesis (51). Siddhartha is “formal … die Beschreibung des östlich-mystischen Heilwegs, der zur Unio führt [however] diese Unio erfahrt nun eine spezifische christliche Färbung: sie bedeutet die liebende Hingabe an die Welt!” (50f).7 Mayer focuses his attention on Hesse's “Gottsucher” and his method, Hesse's God and His relationship to nature and man. Mayer finds what he considers genuine Indian and Christian (specifically similar to Eckhart and Schleiermacher) elements but the sum is “die wesentlichsten Elemente von Hesses Glauben” (42).

Bharati Blaise, in her very informative and thorough dissertation “The Use of Indian Mythology in E. M. Forster's A Passage to India and Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha” (unpub., University of Iowa, 1969), presents a wealth of detailed information regarding Hesse's use of things Indian and arrives basically at the same conclusion—namely that the final product is non-Indian. While Blaise shows certain elements such as the Hindu vocabulary, the setting, and some parallels between Siddhartha and the Narada legend to be authentic, she also shows convincingly that Hesse uses Indian mythology symbolically, i.e., not for its own sake but for other, Hessean ends: “to express a modern and Western sense of crisis” (2); as “an attempt to re-establish a dual perspective, a way, that is, of reintroducing mystery and overcoming a mechanical understanding of the cosmic law” (26); “to be not so much a doctrinaire solution to the fragmentations of the twentieth century … [but rather] an artistic tool to reinforce resolutions that are strongly Romantic and suggestively Christian” (102). Following the story line, Blaise takes up values, self, personality, perception, discontent, the goals to be sought, awakening, Seele, spiritual development, experiencing the truth and finally love and shows how Hesse adapts Indian mythology to his own personal concerns.8

For these three critics, Misra, Mayer, and Blaise, the importance of the Indian elements in Siddhartha is not their authenticity but their significance as the cultural context for the story (Misra) or as components in Hesse's religious system (Mayer) or as symbolic material by means of which Hesse expresses his views (Blaise).

In the face of these findings one might be inclined to draw the conclusion that the significance of India and its culture is superficial and decorative or at most part of a synthesis. This may be true for the message in the novel and the personality or the spiritual development of the hero but close examination shows that certain Indian elements have in various ways directly shaped the work. Three things—the idea of a Buddha and the life of Gautama, the four aims or goals designated in Hinduism, and the concept of maya—should serve well to illustrate the kind of impact things Indian have made on Siddhartha.

To what extent Hesse has retold or reinterpreted the life of the Buddha seems to be a difficult question. Most certainly there are “elements borrowed from the life (or legend) of Gautama” and it is clear that some of these elements are important to the plot or that these “parallels to Buddha's life are contributing factors to the legendary quality of the novel” (Ziolkowski, 153 ff.). If, however, one begins with the concept of what a Buddha is, the question resolves itself: “According to Buddhist theory, a ‘Buddha’ appears from time to time in the world and preaches the true doctrine. After a certain lapse of time this teaching is corrupted and lost, and is not restored until a new Buddha appears.”9 For Buddhism the last Buddha was Gautama and his teachings are still readily accessible and uncorrupted; for Hesse, who was not a Buddhist, there was a new doctrine and in terms of an Indian context the fitting way to present it was through a new Buddha, his character Siddhartha.10

Thus the elements in Siddhartha's life which are akin to those in Gautama's are there to lend the character the aura of a Buddha, and the elements which are foreign are there to convey the newness and distinctiveness of the novel's wisdom.11 Hesse uses yet another technique to convey this difference between the old and the new Buddhas; he changes the sequence of biographical episodes so that Siddhartha's life is significantly different from Gautama's. A clear example of this technique is Hesse's presenting Gautama's career in its final stage, that of teacher, by the end of the first quarter of the novel [Gesammelte Schriften, III, 635–645] (i.e., Chapter 3 of Part I) when Siddhartha is young and his development is in an early stage. This positioning makes several points quite clearly: Siddhartha still has a way to go to enlightenment; because he rejects Gautama's teaching, Siddhartha's subsequent development will be independent of the Buddha; Siddhartha's enlightenment will be distinct from that of the Buddha. The structure itself shows that the remainder of the story is Siddhartha's alone and that this wisdom differs from Gautama's. The concept of a Buddha provides Hesse with the appropriate conveyor of his wisdom and Gautama provides the pre-eminent example. It remained for the author to create his own Buddha and to borrow for him some credentials from the tradition. The result is a new, Hessean Buddha.

The temptation is strong to look to eastern teachings for a means of analyzing Siddhartha. I readily agree with the opinion that “any attempt to analyze the novel according to Buddha's … teaching about the Four Truths and Eight-fold Noble Path does violence to the natural [triadic] structure of the book.”12 If in fact Hesse's Siddhartha is a new Buddha, he will be the bearer of a new wisdom and to understand it we need not look to old ones. There is nonetheless a basic Hindu teaching compatible with the triadic structure of the book which critics have not considered but which seems to be a determining factor for Hesse: the four possible goals of human life—Kama, Artha, Dharma, and Moksha.13Kama is pleasure, especially physical love; Artha is material possessions and the power and influence over the lives of others they produce. These two goals compose the Path of Desire. A second and higher path, that of Renunciation, consists of the other goals, Dharma and Moksha. The first is equivalent to duty as prescribed by religious or moral laws; the second is salvation or spiritual release. Moksha is the highest and only satisfying goal of these four. It is redemption, that is, release from Karma, the cycle of reincarnations. The state one achieves with Moksha is Nirvana in Buddhist terms. It is beyond all verbal description.

Already the personification of these goals by the main characters in Hesse's novel should be apparent: Govinda seeks the goal of Dharma, Kamala Kama, Kamaswami Artha, and Siddhartha ultimately the highest, Moksha. Hesse is able to preserve his triadic structure simply by dividing the goals Dharma and Moksha and placing the former before, the latter after Kama and Artha. Seen in the light of this configuration, Siddhartha and his life is made more distinctive, more outstanding. He pursues each of these goals in this order whereas the other characters for the most part of their lives seek only one each. There is for Siddhartha a somewhat unorthodox Moksha in keeping with his being the new Buddha, bearer of the new wisdom. His achievement is indeed in a sense a liberation from the life cycle as he overcomes time and space in his vision but his achievement is also marked by a loving acceptance of life in its entirety. Hesse has described for us his own “Moksha.”

These four aims of life in the Hindu system provide Hesse with concepts for four allegorical characters. When combined with the development of the hero in all four of these areas of life the possibility of a structure emerges. Hesse is easily able to arrange the four elements into the triadic structure which conforms to his view.

At several points in Siddhartha Hesse depicts a sequence of events which takes place in the span of two or sometimes three days and the intervening nights.14 Two of these sequences differ in that they begin not during the day but at night or in the evening and each contains a dream. The first begins with the words: “In der Nacht, da er in der strohernen Hütte eines Fährmannes am Flusse schlief …” (652)15 and relates his dream of the Govinda-woman figure, the next day's events (conversations with the ferryman and later with the woman, arrival at the city and first glimpses of Kamala), his first night in the city, his meeting with Kamala the second day and with Kamaswami the third day. The other sequence begins with “Er war die Abendstunden bei Kamala gewesen …” (676), continues with mention of how he spent the night in entertainments and drinking before his dream at dawn, tells of his lying under the Mango tree in his garden all the next day and night, his departure from the city and the events of the next day as he wanders through the forest to the river. This sequence ends when the old ferryman says, “Laß uns zur Ruhe gehen, Siddhartha” (697). The part of the novel which lies between these sequences tells of the second twenty-year epoch of Siddhartha's life which he spends in the city pursuing worldly rather than spiritual goals.16

In Hindu thought, particularly in the Vedantic system

Māyā denotes the unsubstantial, phenomenal character of the observed and manipulated world17

and has the following significance:

“illusion and appearance,” … a term … applied to the illusion or the multiplicity of the empirical universe, produced by ignorance (avidya), when in reality there is only One, the brahman-atman18

and further:

The phenomenal world does not exist; it is only maya, arising from avidya, that makes us erroneously think it to be real; maya is overcome when he who ignorantly believed himself to be an individual realizes that in actuality he is only one with atman; then only is salvation (moksha, lit. ‘liberation’) finally won.19

To translate maya as ‘illusion’ is potentially misleading. Maya does have “a kind of qualified reality” which is like that of dreams in that they

are real in the sense that we have them, but they are not real in the sense that the things they depict necessarily exist in their own rights. Strictly speaking a dream is a psychological construction, something created by the mind out of a particular state. When the Hindus say that the world is maya, this too is what they mean.20

The particular aspect of maya with which Siddhartha primarily deals is sansara (or samsara), “the worlds of birth … the round of being” or “the realm of birth and death.”21 This is the world of reincarnation, the transmigration of an individual jiva or soul. Samsara could be characterized as the living, human content of maya.

The second twenty-year epoch of Siddhartha's life, his years in the phenomenal, empirical world of the city during which he pursues worldly goals, is samsara and maya, that is, illusion and as such has only a ‘qualified reality.’ As Siddhartha lives it and the reader reads it, it is real but in the total context of the novel it is not real, it is only a dream.

Hesse is careful to begin with the illusion of maya and then to make its reality possible for his hero. Maya is mentioned in the novel only once, namely in the last chapter of Part I, “Erwachen.” The awakening in question is that of Siddhartha's senses and his sense experiences of the second epoch are an antithesis to his spiritual experiences of the first epoch. In order to continue with his development from the spiritual into the sensuous, Siddhartha must reject maya as illusion and accept it as real in order to experience it. This is exactly what his first sense experiences during his awakening lead him to do:

All dieses [the world he seems to be seeing for the first time] … war nicht mehr Zauber Maras, war nicht mehr der Schleier der Maya, war nicht mehr sinnlose und zufällige Vielfalt der Erscheinungswelt …


While Hesse portrays the action of the second epoch in such a way that there is no doubt about its immediate reality, he is also careful to call it samsara and to indicate that from the perspective of the whole novel it is dreamlike. One whole chapter is entitled “Sansara” (672–681). Toward the end of this chapter the whole world of the Kamaswami-Menschen is likened to a game and “Dieses Spiel hieß Sansara …” (680). At the beginning of the next chapter Siddhartha is described as follows: “Tief war er in Sansara verstrickt” (681). The one element of this world of the Kindermenschen which follows Siddhartha into his life on the river as ferryman is his son and his love for his son. This love is called samsara (710).

After some twenty years of his life among people Siddhartha is intent on rejecting it. In the scenes in the forest and on the river there are two details which indicate that the action of the second epoch has been a dream. The first is the use of the word “Traum” in reference to the life he has decided to reject: “… es gab nichts mehr als die tiefe, leidvolle Sehnsucht, diesen ganzen wüsten Traum von sich zu schütteln …” (682). The second detail occurs close to the end of these scenes and is contained in a remark which implies that what happened during those “häßliche Jahre” was only a dream. He speaks of himself now as “ein neuer Siddhartha … aus dem Schlaf erwacht” (692).

As already noted this epoch of the years Siddhartha spent in the city is framed by two dreams: the first, the Govinda-woman dream, looks forward toward the sensual experiences and the second, about Kamala's dead songbird, looks back toward the death of Siddhartha's soul. This framing seems another device which is intended to place the whole epoch in the context of a dream.

There is a third device which Hesse uses to convey the dream nature of the samsara epoch. By handling the narrative material with great subtlety he is able to present this whole epoch literally as a dream.23 There is a place in the narration when the otherwise consistent and pervading flow of action is broken. This occurs soon after the beginning of the chapter entitled “Kamala” (650–663) when the scene shifts abruptly from Siddhartha's thoughts and aimless wanderings (narrative in the iterative-durative style) to a specific scene:

In der Nacht, da er in der strohernen Hütte eines Fährmannes am Flusse schlief …


The previous paragraphs describe the hero's wanderings and his ruminations about the encounter with the Buddha, his search for Self, and how it is necessary to follow the command of the inner voice in this search. Time and setting are vague. There is no connection in the narrative between this subject matter and the scene in the hut. The clearly, concisely described setting, particularly the detail of the straw hut, is unexpected and its specificity only points up the complete shift from the general places and thoughts described in the immediate preceding paragraphs. The scene in the hut is already in progress—Siddhartha is asleep—although the reader has no knowledge of how or when. A bridge to maintain the characteristic flow of narrative is missing.

The passage of time throughout the day, the meeting with the ferryman, the invitation to share the hut for the night are in the novel but do not appear until the beginning of the two-day phase which contains Siddhartha's departure from the city. This phase ends well into the night after Siddhartha has told his story to Vasudeva with the ferryman's gentle suggestion: “Laß uns nun zur Ruhe gehen, Siddhartha” (697). This remark is the narrative bridge which was missing from the beginning of the scene of Siddhartha's first night on the river. Thus a special connection is made between these two episodes: their complementary fit is such that all the action transpiring in the time between the two scenes lasted no longer than a night, was a dream in which Siddhartha at the breast of the Govinda-woman figure

trank, süß und stark schmeckte die Milch [, die] nach Welt und Mann, nach Sonne und Wald, nach Tier und Blume, nach jeder Frucht, nach jeder Lust [schmeckte]. Sie machte trunken und bewußtlos.


All the tastes of this milk are the tastes of the phenomenal world, the tastes of maya which Siddhartha drank in the course of a single dream.

The attraction India and its culture exerted on Hesse was obviously strong. Otherwise he would never have written “an Indian work.” But it should be equally obvious that Hesse's intent was not to write an authentic Indian work which would represent any Indian religion or philosophy, or even his adoption or interpretation of some aspect of Indian culture. Hesse had his own belief which he wanted to put on paper. Siddhartha, aside from being a milestone in his development as a writer and a reflection of his ideas, is an example of that aspect of Hesse's artistry which has to do with his use of established, traditional material. Within the framework of what Hesse wants to say, things Indian do exert an influence on how the novel takes shape. With his new wisdom in mind Hesse turned to India and saw that a Buddha was the most appropriate vehicle. Desiring an exemplary biography as the basis of the novel, he wrote in reference to the life of Gautama. The four life goals of success, duty, pleasure, and liberation (Artha, Dhama, Kama, and Moksha) offered Hesse the basis of four main characters but he altered their original religious configuration to suit the structure he had in mind. And finally Hesse's conviction that importance lies in the inner and not the outer life led him to the concept of maya. Hesse represented the epoch of Siddhartha's life in the outer world as maya by portraying it as a dream, by placing it between the two halves of a single night in the story.

To understand this method of using the old in the representation of the new is basic to a full appreciation of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. Close attention to things Indian in the novel may not open Hesse's mind but it will serve very well as a key to his artistry.


  1. The German Quarterly, 48 (1975), 358–69.

  2. Kunze in her Lebensgestaltung und Weltanschauung in Hermann Hesses Siddhartha (S'Hertogenbosch, n.d.) speaks of a “große Ähnlichkeit … mit … der ‘Bhagavad-Gita’” (69) and says “diese Dichtung [hat] zu dem dritten Teile des Siddhartha Pate gestanden” (69). Beerman in his “Hermann Hesse and the Bhagavad-Gita” (Midwest Quarterly 1 (1959), 27–40) undertakes to show indebtedness to Indian philosophy with particular reference to the Bhagavad-Gita …” (28). Timpe in his “Hesse's Siddhartha and the Bhagavad-Gita” (Comparative Literature, 22 (1970), 346–57) undertakes to show “that Hesse was influenced largely by the Bhagavad-Gita when he wrote his book and that his protagonist was groping his way along the path prescribed by the Bhagavad-Gita …” (347).

  3. Shaw in his “Time and the Structure of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha” (Symposium, 11 (1957), 204–24) states that “the life of Hesse's protagonist runs almost parallel to “the Buddha's” (206) and that “this parallel … forms the structural backbone” of the novel (207). Schludermann and Finlay in their “Mythical Reflections of the East in Hermann Hesse “(Mosaic, 2 (1969), 97–111) imply that Hesse's personal interpretation of the Buddha myth is basic to the novel and they state “the story … runs parallel to the traditional tale of Buddha” (100).

  4. Kunze (73 f.) is the only one of the critics mentioned here who acknowledges any discrepancy, but whereas she specifies three points of divergence she does not attribute the difference to Hesse's technique.

  5. Indian Literature, 11 (1968), 111–23.

  6. Misra clearly differentiates between the Buddha's life and Siddhartha's: “[Hesse] reshaped the legendary tale of Buddha to create Siddhartha as an imaginative non-conformist” (121 f.).

  7. Mayer does not consistently equate the narrative line in the novel with the “östlich-mystischer Heilsweg.” The word “formal” cannot be understood in the sense of “structurally.”

  8. See the whole of Chapter V, “Hesse, India as a Symbol of the ‘Inner Voice’” (100–145) and especially the section on Siddhartha (105–138).

  9. T. W. Rhys Davis, “Buddha,” The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed., 29 vols. (Cambridge, 1910), IV, 737–742.

  10. “Doctrine” is of course inappropriate for Hesse, and Siddhartha, who rejects all doctrines after his encounter with Gautama and in his final meeting with Govinda, explains that real wisdom cannot be communicated (III, 724). In this and other respects Hesse's new wisdom strives to contrast itself to that of Buddhism and it is this effort which leads Ziolkowski to the conclusion that Siddhartha is “an implicit critical exegesis of Buddhism” (Ziolkowski, 154 f.). Gautama's attitude toward the value of doctrine is not so simple as implied and not so far removed from Siddhartha's attitude as one might conclude. In his dialogue about the man who builds a raft and departs the world on it for nirvana, Gautama indicates that the importance or unimportance of doctrine is relative to the degree of spiritual development (See, for example, Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India [n.p., 1951], 477 f.).

  11. I am indebted to Professor Joseph Mileck for his helpful criticism which kept my observations on this point in accord with Hesse's purpose. The divergence between Gautama and Siddhartha should not be taken to imply superiority for the one or the other. Both attain the same ultimate degree of spirituality but by distinctly different means, e.g., the teacher-disciple relationship suited to doctrine for Gautama and the individual's inner voice guiding toward experience for Siddhartha.

  12. Ziolkowski, 154. I also agree with Professor Ziolkowski's rejection (154n) of Leroy R. Shaw's attempt to analyze the novel in the same terms (“Time and the Structure of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha,Symposium, 11 (1957).

  13. Cf. John B. Noss' Man's Religions (3rd ed., New York, 1963, pp. 254–56) or Huston Smith's The Religions of Man (New York, 1958, 16–25) or Zimmer (35–42, et passim).

  14. Ziolkowski in his analysis of Hesse's style in Siddhartha distinguishes three main types of narrative units each with its own particular type of content and action: two-day phases in which the action takes place over a period of a day and the following night and day, scenes of shorter duration, and iterative-durative passages of indeterminate length (163–165). Close examination reveals that some of the two-day phases are actually longer than the name implies. In spite of this slight discrepancy I find Ziolkowski's distinction entirely valid and have used it as the basis of this discussion of maya.

  15. This and other passages from Siddhartha are quoted from volume III of the Gesammelte Schriften.

  16. Ziolkowski, 163. Professor Ziolkowski's division of the novel into three “epochs” of approximately 20 years seems ingenious and totally justified (160–170).

  17. Zimmer, 19.

  18. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. James Hastings (13 vols., New York, 1908–1927), VIII, 503.

  19. op. cit., 504.

  20. Smith, 73 f.

  21. Zimmer, 53 and 174 respectively.

  22. Three themes are present here: the reference to Mara's seductive magic calls to mind the Buddha's temptation and indicates how Siddhartha unlike the Buddha does fall victim to it; maya and its content samsara; and the apparent multiplicity which ignorance causes man to see rather than the real unity. This last theme, the most important of the whole novel, is emphasized more than the other two as the sentence concludes “… verächtlich dem tiefdenkenden Brahmanen, der die Vielfalt verschmäht, der die Einheit sucht.” The possible irony of Siddhartha's awakening almost immediately prior to his succumbing to illusion which will be portrayed as a dream is gentle if it exists at all. That the pursuit of the sensuous and the sensual is as doomed to failure as the pursuit of the spiritual was, is ultimately immaterial because both are paths to the one and therefore good. (Cf. 689 f.)

  23. “Der indische Lebenslauf” of 1937 is another portrayal of maya in Hesse's work. In this instance the presentation is clearly and straightforwardly that of a dream.

Joseph Mileck (essay date 1978)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5786

SOURCE: “Rebel-Seeker: Montagnola 1919–1931,” in Hermann Hesse: Life and Art, University of California Press, 1978, 159–72.

[In the following excerpt, Mileck examines the influences that led Hesse to write Siddhartha, which he calls “a depiction of the human condition … and a sublime statement of faith in man and life.”]



Klingsors letzter Sommer marked the end of the wildest and the most prolific summer of Hesse's life. His frenzy of activity subsided when autumn set in and, before winter, he had again become withdrawn, given to reflection and to plans for his next story. Part I and much of Part II of Siddhartha were written in the winter and spring of 1920. Dissatisfied with the chapter “At the River” (Am Flusse), Hesse put the novel aside in June 1920. He did not resume work on it until the end of 1921, and did not finish it until May 1922. The book appeared that October.

Like Demian, Siddhartha was basically a cerebral experience. Sinclair's tale was a reexamination of Hesse's youth in psychoanalytical terms, and Siddhartha's was a review, and a systematization and culmination of his evolving thoughts of the immediately preceding years. Neither was an artistic rendering of immediate life but of immediate thoughts and hopes. Up to “At the River” Siddhartha was essentially a retracing of Hesse's path of experience and of thought from Demian to Klingsors letzter Sommer, in calm reflective detachment and in an idealized mythic manner. Having dealt with Siddhartha the iconoclastic thinker and ascetic (a variation on Sinclair's theme of parental and institutional emancipation), and with Siddhartha the suffering worldling (a variation on Klein's and Klingsor's theme of selfliving), having exposed his protagonist to the realm of the mind and that of the body, Hesse was at a loss for a conclusion. His vision of another Siddhartha, of one who would rise to a higher level, who would emerge a victor, an affirmer of life and all that it implied, was too dim.1 The work had to be put aside and months of hermitic living, of meditation, and of intense preoccupation with the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita, and with Buddhistic Scriptures, followed. What had been a childhood attraction to India's lore, and had become a major intellectual interest in India's religions, now became a profound spiritual experience.

As a youngster, Hesse had been as much attracted to mysterious India and its exotic religions as he had been repelled by the drabness and the severity of his parental Pietism. India suggested a desirable freedom from restraint and offered plentiful food for the imagination; Pietism knew only the evil in man and was intent solely upon an uncompromising rejection of all that is of this world.2 In Gaienhofen, theosophy itself had bored Hesse, but it had also whetted his appetite for a more direct reading contact with India. This he first found in about 1905 in Franz Hartmann's translation of the Bhagavad-Gita; he then discovered Hermann Oldenburg's Buddha, Paul Deussen's Sechzig Upanishad's des Veda, and Karl E. Neumann's Gotamo Buddho's Reden.3 The ultimate oneness of all reality, an underlying assumption of each of these religions, immediately fascinated Hesse, but he failed to find the wisdom he had hoped to discover. Hesse's was essentially not a quest for enlightenment, and certainly not a passion for a religious conversion, but primarily a hope for confirmation of his own still vague philosophical presentiments, a search for a school of thought in accord with his own being and responsive to his own needs. The notion of oneness accorded with his bent of thought, and as such, he quickly embraced it. As a whole, however, India's religions proved to be too reminiscent of Pietism to be acceptable to him. Her wisdom was too rooted in asceticism, too puritanical and life-denying for Hesse's liking and his needs, and too clouded by scholasticism.4 What he sought was not to be found in India but in China.

Until his own father drew his attention to Lao-Tse in 1907, and until he read Alexander Ular's translated excerpts from Tao-Te-King later that same year, and then Julius Grill's translation of Lao-Tse in 1910, Hesse had never taken any real notice of the religions of China.5 He was favorably impressed by Lao-Tse, and later in 1910 profoundly affected by Richard Wilhelm's translation of Confucius's Gespräche, the first of his series of Chinese classics in German. Hesse immediately became a passionate advocate of Chinese thought and belief. Of the many German translations of Chinese philosophy and literature that were published from 1910 to 1915, and again in the twenties and early thirties, there were few that Hesse did not read avidly and review enthusiastically. These translations did much to bolster his flagging spirits during the First World War, and they remained a source of spiritual sustenance until his death. Confucius, Lao-Tse, Dschuang Dsi, Mong Dsi, Lü Bu We, Yang Tschou, Liä Dsi, Mong Ko, and the I Ging became as much a part of Hesse's world of thought as the philosophers and religious writings of the Western world. Unlike India, China was not estranged from life, her teachings were simple and practical and not burdened by esoteric metaphysical subtleties, here life's dualities were acceptable and their poles compatible; she cultivated a wise and harmonious interplay of the spiritual and the sensual, and her thinkers suggested wisdom born of experience and tempered by humor.6 India's asceticism repelled Hesse; China's wisdom was a confirmation of himself and all he aspired to.

Hesse's progression from the severe Buddhism of India to the congenial Zen-Buddhism of Japan came relatively late in life. Until 1945, nothing in his writings suggested any acquaintance with Japanese religions and philosophies. In his Lieblingslektüre of 1945 he alludes to Zen and equates its wisdom with that of Buddha and Lao-Tse, but fails to elaborate on his remark.7 In a letter of 1947 to a young Japanese writer he reiterates his great respect to Zen, a school for both head and heart and with few equals in the Western world, but again chooses neither to account for this sentiment nor to comment upon the extent of his acquaintance with Zen.8 Hesse continued to be vague about his relationship with Zen in the introduction of his privately published pamphlet, Zen;9 he simply mentions that he had in the past read a number of articles and books about Zen. In any case Hesse's involvement with Zen did not peak until the appearance in September of 1960 of his cousin's, Wilhelm Gundert's, translation of the Bi-Yän-Lu. His preoccupation with this classic of Zen Buddhism that autumn occasioned his own Zen: a letter of congratulations and gratitude to Gundert, three poems inspired by the Bi-Yän-Lu and written in a Zen vein, and a fictitious letter ascribed to Josef Knecht and addressed to Carlo Ferromonte, in which Hesse touches lightly upon Zen and dwells on the inscrutability of the enigmatic anecdotes of the Bi-Yän-Lu. The paucity and tenor of Hesse's remarks about Japan's form of Buddhism clearly indicate that his belated discovery of Zen had no appreciable influence upon his thinking. Zen was confirmation and not new disclosure. In its emphasis upon the identity of essence and appearance, upon the uniqueness of the individual, and upon the incommunicability of enlightenment, Hesse found a Weltanschauung highly consonant with that of his Siddhartha.

It was not a temporary shift in inclination from China back to India, but an irresistible attraction to Gotama Buddha himself that persuaded Hesse to write Siddhartha. Buddhism was as questionable as ever, but Buddha the man fascinated him. He was one of history's exemplary figures, a brother to such as Christ and Socrates, and a man to be emulated. Only when his story bogged down did Hesse actually return to and steep himself in Hinduism, Brahmanism, and particularly Buddhism. What had earlier been an intellectual interest now became, in ascetic withdrawal, protracted meditation, a real spiritual encounter. Hesse's coming to grips and to terms with India in 1920 and 1921 confirmed more than altered his earlier negative appraisal of her religions. However, in his renewed grappling with Buddhism, his own view of man and life evolved and emerged sharper and clearer. The ideal human possibilities he now envisaged made it possible for him to resume Siddhartha and to write its vital last four chapters.


Laced though Siddhartha is with recondite allusions to the world of Indian thought and belief, it is anything but imperative to be an Indologist to cope with the tale. To be well acquainted with Brahmanism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, to know who Brahma and Prajapati are, what Atman is, and what Om, Maya, and Sansara signify, to be familiar with the life of Gotama Buddha and with his teachings, or to know the derivation and implication of the names Siddhartha, Govinda, Vasudeva, Kamala, Kamaswami, and Sakyamuni, can enhance a reader's intellectual enjoyment of the novel, but is unnecessary for a basic understanding of it, can be detractive, and may even be misleading. All this erudition is backdrop and not substance. The text itself provides whatever commentary is necessary. Hesse the obdurate iconoclast did not suddenly become a cheap proselytizer. He was not bent upon dissemination of information, nor upon an extolment of Buddhism and a disparagement of Christianity. Siddhartha was old wine in a new skin. As usual, Hesse was primarily intent upon coming to grips and to terms with himself and with life: a European immersed in Western tradition and plagued by the problems of Western man. It is from this point of view and in its close relationship, despite its Oriental setting, to all his other stories, that Siddhartha might best be approached.

A new way of life was proposed in Rosshalde, cerebrally explored in Demian, attempted to disadvantage in Klein und Wagner, and then to advantage in Klingsors letzter Sommer. What had become a passionate ideal for Hesse finally received its full expression in Siddhartha. Of all his protagonists, Siddhartha alone fully realizes this ideal: he lives himself, learns thereby to know himself, and ultimately experiences complete self-realization. However, this was not actual experience mythicized, but possibility rendered mythically, the humanly ideal depicted in a correspondingly ideal timeless manner.

Just as for Klein and Klingsor, life for Siddhartha consists primarily of two areas of experience: the world of the mind and thought, and that of the body and physical action. Klein is at home in neither realm, Klingsor lives in the intoxication of each, and Siddhartha exhausts both possibilities, and in their exhaustion, transcends them and finds himself miraculously in yet a third realm, that of the soul, that ultimate stage in being when the individual lives in complete accord with himself and with life, when he is finally able, fully and not just for chance moments, to experience the essential oneness and meaningfulness of it all. After his encounter with Buddha, and with his subsequent awakening to the realization that the incidental I of his senses (“das zufällige Ich der Sinne”) is no less he than the incidental I of his thoughts (“das zufällige Ich der Gedanken”), Siddhartha, the Brahmin once dedicated to ritual and speculation and the Samana once given to asceticism, leaves the realm of the mind behind him. With his affair with Kamala the courtesan and his partnership with Kamaswami the businessman, his revelling in wealth, power, and sloth, his consequent self-disgust, life's growing repugnance, and his attempt to commit suicide, Siddhartha leaves the realm of the flesh behind him. The last phase of his life begins with his return to the river, to Vasudeva the ferryman, and to contemplation. And with his encounter with his son and his last bout with anxious love and fearful concern, Siddhartha emerges transfigured, a wise saintly figure given to his fellow humans in love and service: a paradoxical self-transcendence through self-realization. The first stage of Siddhartha's life is given to his incidental I of thought, the second to his incidental I of the senses, and the final stage to his incidental I of the soul. And with this last stage, Siddhartha will have experienced all that is humanly possible: a balanced ideal to which Hesse himself aspired but which he was not to enjoy.

Siddhartha depicts two ideals, two exemplary approaches to life based upon two diametrically opposed philosophies of life. It is the story of two Buddhas: of Gotama Buddha, an Eastern ideal, and of Siddhartha, Hesse's own ideal, a Western possibility. Their lives take similar courses and each ultimately finds his peace, but their assessments of life, their goals in life, the adjustment of each to life, and the message each leaves behind him are distinctly different. For Buddha, the physical world and life in all its involvements are Maya, a transient, painful illusion; for Siddhartha, all this is the very stuff of treasured being. Buddha's goal is a release from the wheel of Sansara, from life, its reincarnations and its incessant suffering, and a quest for Nirvana, for oblivious extinction; Siddhartha's goal is life in all its temporal agony and bliss. Buddha's is a denial and Siddhartha's an affirmation of the self. Siddhartha's message is to stand in awe of the self and of life, to embrace both for what they are, and to live fully. Buddha's message is to get these things behind one just as quickly as possible.

Despite the Orient's strong attraction, Hesse remained a Westerner. He was too thorny an individualist to become part of any organized body of thought or belief, whether foreign or native. In his wary eclectic manner he took from Eastern philosophies and religions, just as he did from their Western counterparts, only that which he understood or felt and which had a bearing upon his own life. Hesse's long and intimate association with the Orient made him fully aware of the ultimate futility and folly of Western man's quest in the East for a panacean wisdom or faith. The Orient can help Western man solve some of his problems but cannot solve them for him. This he must do himself, and can best do within the framework of the Western world. In the West's too ready embrace of the East, and vice versa, Hesse plainly detected too much unavailing flight into the exotic half-known. This was the sentiment to which he gave expression in Aus einem Tagebuch des Jahres 1920, Chinesische Betrachtung (1921), and Besuch aus Indien (1922), and which he reiterated in his letter of 1947 to a young Japanese author, and in his foreword of May 1955 for the sixteen-volume Japanese edition of his works.10 Hesse had become convinced that a common heritage of timeless spiritual values and of basic truths about man and life were to be found behind the religious and philosophical trappings of the Orient and the Occident and that it was therefore superfluous to turn one's back upon the Western world. It was not for Western man to try to become a Buddhist or a Taoist, but to cultivate the Oriential art of meditation. The oneness, timelessness, and meaningfulness of life were most readily accessible in this mode of thought, too long neglected in the West. And therein lay Hesse's chief indebtedness to the East.


In Klein und Wagner, Hesse has Klein contend that time is but a figment of the mind. The astrologer of Klingsors letzter Sommer argues that time is only a deception and can be thought away just as it has been thought up. Klein experiences timelessness and the resultant oneness of all reality in his concluding euphoric reflections upon life, and Klingsor experiences this same timelessness and oneness while painting his self-portrait. These notions, merely broached in the summer of 1919, evolve into a mystical philosophy in Siddhartha. Following his attempt to commit suicide, Siddhartha becomes progressively more intrigued by the ever-changing yet never different, the ever-flowing yet always present river. At first it only puzzles him, but then further contemplative observation of its waters persuades him to conclude that there is no such thing as time. Contemplation of the river suggests only a present, no past, and no future. The river simply is. It is not a was and not a will be. It is not first here, then there, but is everywhere simultaneously: at its source, at every point along its way, and at its mouth. Contemplating himself in the manner in which he has contemplated the water, Siddhartha realizes that his very life is a river. It, too, has its source, its course, and its point of termination: birth, childhood, youth, manhood, old age, and death. So observed, his life also suggests only a present, and as such, timelessness. To contemplate life in this manner is to concentrate on essence, on the idea Siddhartha, and not just on the ephemeral manifestation of the idea, on noumenon and not phenomenon. Nor do Siddhartha's many reincarnations suggest any past or future. Siddhartha simply is. Time or timelessness depends entirely upon what the individual in his observation concentrates upon. To concentrate upon essence is to see the all synchronically and simultaneously, and to remain unaware of time. To concentrate upon phenomena is to see the all diachronically and sequentially, and to become aware of time.

Having experienced the timelessness and the implied oneness of the idea river and of the idea Siddhartha, Siddhartha proceeds a step further in his thinking as he gazes into the face of his dead Kamala. Lost in the contemplation of her countenance, he now experiences timelessness in the momentary manifestation of the idea. What Kamala was and is, is all simultaneously present before him. What he sees in his mind's eye leaves no suggestion of time. He feels only timelessness and the indestructibility of every life. Nothing is lost, nothing becomes a past. The moment or momentary manifestation is no longer a moment or momentary manifestation that will the next moment belong to a past, but is an eternity. The moment incorporates the past and the future. Was, in the sense of is no more, and will be, in the sense of is not yet, are meaningless. The moment is an eternity that reaches into the past and into the future and cancels both. That same night, contemplating himself as he had Kamala, Siddhartha experiences this same timelessness of his momentary self. Nothing was, all is. From the timelessness of his momentary self, Siddhartha now proceeds to the oneness of the momentary manifestation. If the individual at any one moment is all he ever was and all he ever will be, the momentary he is not only an eternity, but a oneness, not just a series of fragments in time but all of these things at all time. The momentary manifestation is therefore also the all, the idea; the momentary Siddhartha incorporates the idea Siddhartha. And with this conviction, Siddhartha finds full philosophical approbation for the life he has led, for his ample and intense living of the self. It is imperative to concentrate on and to experience the immediate self, as he has, for that self is the only, the whole, and the real self, and not just illusory and fleeting appearance, for phenomena is noumena.

In his ruminations, Siddhartha next proceeds from the self to life at large, from the oneness of the self to the oneness of life. About to leave for the city again in anxious quest of his wayward son, he imagines that the river is laughing at him. Peering into its waters, he notices his own image. It resembles his father. He recalls how he had forced his father to let him go among the Samanas, and how he had left never to return home. His father must have suffered what he was now suffering, and had probably died alone as he too was likely to do. His father's fate was also his. All appears to Siddhartha to be a comedy, a stupid repetition. When, together with Vasudeva, he again gazes into and listens intently to the river, he sees his father alone and mourning for his son, then himself alone and mourning for his son, and then his son eagerly pursuing his course of life, alone. Each is going his way, intent upon his goal, and suffering. The imagery still has no meaning for Siddhartha. All is still only an inane repetition. Continuing to peer at the river and listening even more intently to its voice, Siddhartha now sees a host of images, his father's, his own, his son's, Kamala's, Govinda's, the images of all those whom he ever knew or encountered, and all these faces blend and flow together, become a river hastening to its goal, become vapor, clouds and rain, and river again. Voices rise from the river, some in longing and suffering, and others in laughter, joy, and anger. The voices, in turn, blend and become one. All is a wondrous oneness, harmony, perfection. Repetition has finally become meaningful. Siddhartha now knows that each person is an integral part of the so-called past and the so-called future, that each person is a repetition of his ancestors and an anticipation of his successors, and that he is also a repetition of the human predicament, life become incarnate. All humans are therefore intimately related in a harmonious and glorious timeless oneness.

With this, Siddhartha has experienced timelessness in what appears to be time, and oneness in what appears to be multiplicity, on both the individual plane and that of life. According to this mystical mode of thought and feeling, any individual at any moment is all he ever was and all he ever will be, is what his forebears were and what his descendants will be, is what mankind was and will be, is a moment of eternity, a part and the whole. And with this philosophy, life loses its meaninglessness, aloneness its loneliness, transitoriness its painfulness, and death its fear. This is, of course, more religion than philosophy, more feeling than thought, and for Hesse in 1922 it was certainly more hope than actual experience or even conviction.


Although Siddhartha traces the course of its protagonist's life from childhood to old age—unlike any of Hesse's preceding major tales—narrative continues to be minimal, and rumination, comment, description, and dialogue prevail as usual. The story is essentially a skeletal odyssey of the mind, the body, and the soul, an accounting more than a recounting, and an evolving inner more than an outer portrait. Situations, actions, and human interaction are confined to those that reflect this inner portrait, lend new dimensions to it, or occasion changes in it.

Klingsors letzter Sommer is intuitively controlled artistry at its best. Siddhartha is conscious craftsmanship at its best. In both instances form is perfectly consonant with and completely supportive of substance. The splintered structure of Klingsors letzter Sommer is in accord with its protagonist's hectic course of life. The highly symmetrical structure of Siddhartha is consonant with its protagonist's methodical staged self-realization. Actionally and situationally, the tale is a balanced tripartite, in keeping with Siddhartha's balanced progression from the realm of the mind, through that of the body, and to that of the soul. The first four chapters are given to things of the mind and are located on one side of the ferryman's river; the next four chapters are given to things of the body and are located on the other side of the river; and the last four chapters are given to the experiences of the soul and are located appropriately at the river's edge, between life's two extremes. Until the end of the fourth chapter, Siddhartha's story is an abbreviated variation of Sinclair's childhood and youth, his questioning of traditional institutions and his eventual leaving of the trodden paths of belief; his life among the child-adults (Kindermenschen) from Chapter 4 to Chapter 8, is a temporally extended variation on Klein's belated confrontation with raw life and Klingsor's passionate last summer; and his progressive illumination in the concluding chapters is a repetition in elaborate variation of Klingsor's climactic epiphany. Siddhartha leaves Sinclair behind when he embarks upon his self-living; he leaves Klein in his wake when he elects at the last moment not to commit suicide; and he goes beyond Klingsor when he himself becomes a Vasudeva, completely in accord with the self and with life, and given to his fellow humans in love and humble service. The structural symmetry of Siddhartha's life is deliberately stressed and effectively enhanced by the structural symmetry of his tale.

The substance of the novel, Hesse's equal concern with the three areas of human experience, finds appropriate expression not only in this balanced tripartite structure, but also in the very pulsation of the tale: patterned repetition resulting in a characteristic triple rhythm. Each of the three stages of Siddhartha's life, reflective of the three realms of experience, comprises an endless series of three-beat actional patterns.

As a Brahmin, Siddhartha practises ritual and contemplation, questions it all, and then leaves the world of the Brahmins behind him. As a Samana, he cultivates asceticism, questions its ultimate value, then leaves the world of the Samanas behind him. He encounters and listens to Buddha, questions his teachings, and leaves another possibility behind him. As a young Brahmin, Siddhartha takes part in discussion, in debate, and learns to meditate. He stirs happiness in the heart of his father, pride in the breast of his mother, and love in the hearts of the maidens. But neither the love of his father, nor that of his mother, nor that of Govinda can make him happy. His intellect is not satisfied, his soul is not at peace, and his heart is not stilled. Ablutions are futile, sacrifices bring no happiness, and prayer to the gods is questionable. Three Samanas chance to appear, with dusty and bleeding shoulders, scorched by the sun, and enveloped in loneliness. Siddhartha first informs Govinda, then his father, and then his mother of his intent to join the Samanas. His father responds in silent opposition, poses three questions and makes three statements, and then gives his reluctant permission. As an ascetic, Siddhartha stands silent, smarting, and parched in the seering glow of the noonday sun until he knows no thirst or pain, stands silent, wet, and cold in the rain until his body is too numb to feel and to protest, crouches silent, staring, and motionless among thorny thickets until his blood ceases to flow, the thorns to hurt, and his body to burn. He becomes a heron, a dead jackal, and is then dismembered by hyenas and picked at by vultures, becomes a skeleton, dust, and is then blown away. It takes Siddhartha three years to conclude that this asceticism is only flight from the self, from pain, and from the meaninglessness of life. Siddhartha has three opportunities to observe Buddha before their chance encounter and brief conversation. He praises Buddha's doctrine of oneness, questions his doctrine of release, then insists that he, like Buddha, must seek his own release in his own way. Buddha for his part cautions against the conflict of words and opinions, reminds Siddhartha that many may fare better for guidance, and wishes him well. This same insistent three-beat narrative rhythm characterizes Siddhartha's life as a worldling and his subsequent withdrawal and gradual enlightenment.

Until Siddhartha, Hesse commonly resorted to double self-projections representing the actual and the possible. The protagonist was actuality and his bosom friend was possibility. In keeping with the three-beat pulsation of Siddhartha, Hesse now elaborated this favorite device. He continued to present the actual, but extended his previous alternative to three possibilities. Siddhartha is Hesse's fictivized ideal self, and Govinda, Buddha, and Vasudeva are possibilities in life. Govinda is the self-effacing, institution-oriented person Siddhartha should not become, Buddha represents a laudable but undesirable life-denying model, and Vasudeva an exemplary life-affirming ideal. And when Siddhartha becomes this ideal, Vasudeva leaves the scene, just as Demian vanishes when Sinclair becomes his ideal self.

This three-beat rhythm of the tale's substance, structure, and action is extended deliberately to its mechanics of expression. Sentences consist of sequences of three words, three phrases, or three clauses, and often of medleys of two or even all of these triads. Common nouns frequently appear in clusters of three, proper nouns often trail two appositives, and adjectival and adverbial attributives are often twice repeated or twice extended, as too are phrases and clauses, and these, in turn, frequently begin with the same word. Sentences are often arranged in sequences of three, linked by structural parallelism and/or by a common and emphatic introductory or internal word or phrase. And upon occasion even paragraphs are triadically bunched. Visually, this patterned mode of expression is akin to an ornate tapestry characterized by many twice-repeated motifs. Musically, it suggests a composition in predominant triple rhythms.

Just as in Klingsors letzter Sommer and in Klein und Wagner, and for that matter, just as in most of Hesse's tales, inner state, outer situation, and language are again harmonized. Situation reflects and accentuates state, and expression assumes a consonant flow and rhythm. The opening paragraph of Siddhartha is as illustrative of this studied technique as it is of Hesse's deliberate three-beat cadence. The peaceful river setting accords with the inner tranquillity of the Brahmins who live at its edge, and the slow flow and even rhythm of the language is in keeping with the slow and even flow of the river, with the Brahmin's ritualized daily flow of ablutions, incantations, sacrifices, and contemplation, and with the correspondingly controlled flow and rhythm of their inner lives. This desired flow and rhythm of language is largely achieved by Hesse's methodically patterned mode of expression. When all is relatively peaceful, the three-beat language pattern prevails. When Siddhartha becomes agitated, outer situation changes to accord with altered inner state, and language, for its part, assumes a rapid flow and hectic rhythm. At such times, Hesse's organized three-beat clusters yield to a confusion of longer and shorter patterns, and often to a profusion of individual words. When, with the chapter “Kamala,” Siddhartha leaves the relatively tranquil world of the mind for the bustling and exciting world of the senses, he is left agitated by expectancy. Outer situation and inner state accord and language becomes sympathetically vibrant. The protracted descriptive introduction to “Kamala” (the first two paragraphs of the chapter) begins with a slow but nervous and impatient two-beat rhythm, which becomes a rapid and exciting, uneven staccato of irregularly brief phrases in four- then five-beat rhythms coupled with a persistent two-beat pulsation. A tardy flow and an emphatic, methodical four-beat rhythm follows, then abruptly turns into a rough intermingling of two- and three-beat rhythms, which in turn, terminates suddenly in the original, pure two-beat rhythm, now become decidedly insistent and much more impatient with its uneven spurt of telegrammatic phrases. Both flow and rhythm of language are as tense and labile as inner state and outer situation: another instance of Hesse's conscious and sensitive craftsmanship.

Siddhartha is less a story than a depiction of the human condition and of the humanly ideal, and a sublime statement of faith in man and life. For his timeless concern and timeless avowal, Hesse deliberately and appropriately chose a mythic mode of narration: timeless matter in a timeless manner. Form was again consciously used to accentuate substance. Rather than the contemporary Western world, he favored a less time-bound Oriental world of a remote past. And even this removed setting is rendered more conceptual than actual. It is permitted no distinguishing geography, landscapes are evoked and not depicted, and interiors are accorded little more than simple reference. This timeless everywhere is fittingly peopled by humans more archetypal than actual, by figures almost void of any physical or psychological dimensions. Siddhartha's father is everyman's stern father, and his mother is everyman's loving mother; Kamala is the traditional enticing courtesan who relents, and Kamaswami, the traditional hard-nosed and harried businessman; the Samanas are the disillusioned ascetics of life, and the child-adults, its naïve indulgers; Govinda is the intimate friend and the seeker of comfort in institutions and dogma, Vasudeva is the saintly one, Buddha is the enlightened teacher, and Siddhartha is the iconoclastic self-seeker who achieves his goal. The representatives of human possibility are involved in formalized interaction, engage in ritualized dialogue, and their lives trace archetypal courses. Patterned narration and description, impersonalized dialogue, verbal and syntactic simplicity, and archaic imagery make for a priestly flow of elemental Scriptural language, a language rendered as timeless as the universally typical setting, personae, and action.

To recapitulate: timeless substance (the human condition) found consonant expression in timeless setting, characters, lives, and language; the tripartite nature of this substance (the mind, body, and the soul) found accordant rhythmic expression in triadic structure, action, and phraseology; and this harmonizing of substance and form was extended to a harmonizing of inner state, outer situation, and mode of expression. This is Hesse's conscious artistry in its extreme and at its best.


  1. See “Aus einem Tagebuch des Jahres 1920,” Corona, 3 (1932), 193.

  2. “I absorbed and experienced spiritual India from childhood on just as I did Christianity. … India's world of religion and poetry was certainly far more enticing than this constrained Christianity, these saccharine poems, and these prevalently tedious pastors and preachers. Here no closeness oppressed me. … I was able to let India's first messages to me sink in without resistance, and these had a lifelong effect.” “Mein Glaube” (1931), Gesammelte Schriften (1957), Vol. 7, pp. 371–372.

  3. Hartmann (Berlin, 3rd ed., 1903), Oldenburg (Berlin, 1881), Deussen (Leipzig, 1897), Neumann (Leipzig, 3 vols., 1896–1902).

  4. See Eine Bibliothek der Weltliteratur (Zürich: W. Classen, 1946), pp. 59, 61.

  5. For Johannes Hesse's views on the religions of India and China, see his: Guter Rat für Leidende aus den altisraelitischen Psalter (Basler Missionsbuchhandlung, 1909), 128 pp.; and Lao-tsze, ein vorchristlicher Wahrheitszeuge (Basler Missions-Studien, 1914), 64 pp. Alexander Ular, Die Bahn und der rechte Weg des Lao Tse (Leipzig: Insel Verlag, 1903); Julius Grill, Lao Tszes Buch vom höchsten Wesen und vom höchsten Gut (Tübingen, 1910).

  6. “If India had attained things lofty and stirring in its monkish renunciation of the world, then old China had achieved things no less wondrous in its cultivation of a spirituality for which the body and the mind, religion and the everyday world do not represent hostile but friendly opposites, and both come into their own. If the ascetic wisdom of India was youthfully puritanical in the radicality of its demands, then the wisdom of China was that of a man experienced, sagacious, and not unacquainted with humor, a man not disenchanted by experience and not made frivolous by sagacity.” Eine Bibliothek der Weltliteratur (1946), pp. 61–62.

  7. Gesammelte Schriften (1957), Vol. 7, p. 420.

  8. “An einen jungen Kollegen in Japan” (1947), Gesammelte Schriften (1957), Vol. 7, p. 462.

  9. (St. Gallen: Tschudy Verlag, 1961), 35 pp.

  10. Eigensinn (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1972), p. 139; Gesammelte Schriften (1957), Vol. 3, pp. 857–858, Vol. 7, pp. 268, 462–463; Zenshū (Tōkyō: Mikasa Shobō, 1957–1959), Vol. 1, pp. 5–6.

Sanjay Narasimhaiah (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6566

SOURCE: “Herman Hesse. Siddhartha: Between the Rebellion and the Regeneration,” in The Literary Criterion, Vol. 16, 1981, pp. 50–66.

[In the following essay, Narasimhaiah discusses several shortcomings in Siddhartha, writing that Hesse's novel is hopelessly deficient in enactment, frequently confusing, and that the novelist becomes a perpetual commentator instead of letting the characters define themselves.]

Herman Hesse first came to Indian attention with his Siddhartha, not as novel but in its film version. It was one of those films which drew to the cinema house even those normally indifferent to films, largely because of the title. From the starchy public school snob to the credulous film goer, almost everyone, however, thought the film had not done justice to the novel. One suspects it was a stock response in vogue to any great novel when it appeared on the screen, for it is very likely that not even a small fraction of those that saw the film had read the novel. We are not a book-reading nation. Once it was the oral tradition and today the visual has replaced everything else. Largely for this very reason an attempt should be made to assess the novel.

Now how far does Herman Hesse's Siddhartha answer to D. H. Lawrence's criterion of the novel as ‘the one bright book of life’? On the face of it what seems to threaten the novel is the exclusion or impoverishment of ‘life’, that is, as Lawrence understands life, certainly as Lawrence's great admirer Dr Leavis understands it; indeed, generally speaking, as the Western man understands it. In the first place Siddhartha does not have the canvas of Anna Karenina which takes in many things and makes for life in its totality. And then, too, it is mainly the story of an individual like Albert Camus' The Outsider and therefore as in the case of The Outsider, here too the range gets helplessly narrowed. And yet it does meet Lawrence's claim for the Novel form, namely that it is ‘a greater gift than Galileo's telescope or some body else's wireless.’ For what is lost in the horizontal life-experience is made up in the vertical; in fact the distinction of this short novel, to the extent it is a distinction, lies in its vertical opulence.

Siddhartha, the son of Brahmin parents is the protagonist of the novel. As a boy, he discussed spiritual matters with learned men, practised the art of meditation with his friend Govinda, knew how to pronounce Om silently, knew even ‘how to recognise Atman within the depth of his being, indestructible, at one with the Universe’ (p. 3). His friend Govinda knew that ‘Siddhartha would become no ordinary Brahmin, a lazy sacrificial official, an avaricious dealer in magic sayings, a conceited worthless orator, a wicked sly priest, or just a stupid sheep amongst a large herd’ (p. 4). Which explains Govinda's admiration for Siddhartha ‘the beloved, the magnificent’ and the reason why he wanted to follow him as ‘his friend, his companion, his servant, his lance-bearer, his shadow’ (p. 4). This was how he became to every one the cause of happiness though he was not himself happy. For he was convinced that his relationship with his parents or his friend Govinda ‘would not always make him happy, give him peace, satisfy and suffice him’ (p. 5). Nor would knowledge and wisdom poured by the wise Brahmins into his waiting vessel give peace to his soul because the vessel was yet to be full and complete. And for him all the Brahminical sacrifices seemed meaningless: ‘nobody showed the way, nobody knew it—neither his father, nor the teachers and wise men, nor the holy songs’ (p. 5). Hence the compulsion that ‘one must find the source within one's own self’. He asks Govinda to accompany him to the banyan tree to practise meditation, which they both do sitting twenty paces apart. But a few days later some wandering ascetics called Samanas pass through the town; they were neither old nor young, with dusty bleeding shoulders, practically naked, scorched by the sun and around them hovered ‘an atmosphere of still passion, of devastating service, of unpitying self-denial’ (p. 8). Without a second thought Siddhartha decides to join the Samanas only to discover, long after he gets into the Order, that he could never attain Nirvana as a Samana, because, he says ‘we find consolations, we learn tricks with which we deceive ourselves, but the essential thing—The Way—we do not find’ (p. 15). And the conservative Govinda pleads with him not to utter such dreadful words.

In the meanwhile word gets round that Gotama, the Illustrious one, was living in the Jetavana grove near a town called Savathi. On the way Govinda suggests that if Siddhartha had stayed with the Samanas a little longer he would have soon learned how to walk on water, to which he replies—‘let the old Samanas satisfy themselves with such arts. What I have so far learned from the samanas I could have learned more quickly and easily in every inn in a prostitutes' quarter, amongst the carriers and dice players’ (p. 14). Both Siddhartha and Govinda anxiously walk a long way in search of Gotama not merely to have his darshan but to hear his discourses. As a result while Govinda joins the Order, Siddhartha gets away from its orbit because he feels reassured that ‘nobody finds salvation through teachings’ and that ‘Gotama himself learned nothing through teachings’. Instead Siddhartha decides to ‘learn from himself, be his own pupil’.

In the second part of the novel, we read of Siddhartha's encounter with a beautiful courtesan called Kamala and his surrender to her great beauty. He apprentices himself to a wealthy businessman, Kamaswami, with a view to winning her. Day after day, week after week he comes closer to the world, becomes a part of it, becomes so indulgent in the affairs of the world that the spiritual detachment which he once practised so ardently, is now a mere memory. It is after a fairly long time that Siddhartha realises his futile existence when ‘A shudder passed through his body; he felt as if something had died’ (p. 67). And he sat all that day under a mango tree thinking of his father, thinking of Govinda, thinking of Gotama. Had he left all these in order to become a Kamaswami?’ (p. 67). And the same night Siddhartha leaves the town and never returns. His later life is spent with Vasudeva, a ferryman, who becomes, in a way, his spiritual master. It's at this stage when he had run into Kamala and his defiant son who swears at him, hurts him inordinately and goes his way nonchalantly leaving him grief-stricken, humbled, humiliated and chastened in succession that Govinda meets him and discovers in him a great awakening. This in brief is the substance of the novel.

That Siddhartha is a rebel, is evident almost throughout the novel. His quest for freedom induces him not merely to break away from his family, from a system, but also from his relationship with individuals like his friend Govinda and even Gotama, the Illustrious One, because, for Siddhartha, relationship itself is some kind of bondage or imprisonment. The rebel in Siddhartha makes him assert: ‘I can think, I can wait, I can fast’ (p. 52). It is important to note all three—thinking, waiting, fasting—are not passive but are actually highly charged with the spirit of rebellion that is, rebellion of a subtle, even superior, kind. It's unfortunate, though, that in the name of rebelling against a conventional settled life he gets bogged down in new relationships, first with Kamala and later with the world of Kamaswami. If Siddhartha desires for a relationship with Kamala it's partly because for one like him with a spiritual penchant it goes counter to the conventions of the world to make friends with a courtesan, love her and even accept her as his teacher. It is obvious that he suffers from an itch for defying and it is this spirit of defiance that makes him shave off his beard, oil and comb his hair and perfume his body. The question to ask is: Is Siddhartha a dilettante, striking new postures wanting to be different from the rest of society or does he go to an extreme in the attempt to avoid dangers of conformity as of outlawry.

In fairness to Siddhartha it must be said that his defiant attitude has no relation to his non-acceptance of the Buddha as his teacher. If he was not very curious about Buddha's teachings, it is not necessarily due to the assertion of his ego (though one can't still say he has transcended it); on the contrary, ‘he looks attentively at Gotama's head, at his shoulders, at his feet, at his still downward-hanging hand, and it seemed to him that in every joint of every finger of his hand there was knowledge; they spoke, breathed, radiated truth’ (p. 23). Nevertheless he doesn't come under the Enlightened One's Order for he is convinced that ‘nobody finds salvation through Teachings’. Buddha himself learned nothing through Teachings.

Since the novel obviously runs almost parallel to the life of the historical Buddha, one can't help recalling an instance ‘when Gautama drove forth for the last time he met a hermit, a mendicant friar. This Bhikku was self-possessed, serene, dignified, self-controlled with downcast eyes, dressed in the garb of a religious man and carrying a beggar's bowl’.1 Even though Gautama was enchanted by the Bhikku's presence, he doesn't become a lay disciple, for he believed in being a Lamp unto himself, in not looking for an external refuge but hold fast as a refuge to the Truth. Note the Buddha's advice to his disciple, Ananda—6 “… And whosoever, Ananda, either now or after I am dead, shall be a Lamp unto themselves, shall betake themselves to no external refuge, but holding fast to the Truth as their Lamp and holding fast as their refuge to the Truth, shall look not for refuge to anyone besides themselves, it is they, Ananda, among my Bhikkus who shall reach the very topmost Height!—but they must be anxious to learn’.2 Therefore if Siddhartha is going away from Gotama, the Illustrious One, it is not that the personality of the Enlightened One had no appeal for him but that the didactic aspect of Buddhism which instructed common man ‘how to live righteously and how to avoid evil’, repelled his inquiring spirit. It is his profound conviction that nobody, certainly not the Buddha, can communicate to anybody ‘in words and teachings what happened to him in the hour of enlightenment’ (p. 28). Siddhartha, therefore, goes away, let it be noted, ‘not to seek another and better doctrine, for I know there is none, but to leave all doctrines and all teachers and to reach my goal alone or die’ (p. 28). At the conclusion of his dialogue with Gotama, the Enlightened One tells him that he is a clever samana and that he knows how to speak cleverly but also warns him ‘Be on your guard against too much cleverness’. It is true in later years, this too much cleverness in Siddhartha deviates him frequently, from his goal.

Now that Govinda, who represents the conservative element in society, joins the safe and secure Order of the Buddha, Siddhartha is left alone. ‘He shivered inwardly like a small animal, when he realised how alone he was’ (p. 33). And ‘he breathed deeply and for a moment he shuddered. Nobody was so alone as he’ (p. 33). This sense of complete self-exposure in Siddhartha is itself a kind of awakening. But this awakening suffers from an inadequacy—which is in its very enactment, rather the lack of it. Probably because the awakening itself, in the first place, is not profound—not so profound as the Buddha's—whose compassion for the deformed and the diseased in the streets overflows. Note the Buddha's own words: ‘Let me rather like Dipankara, having risen to the supreme knowledge of the truth, enable all men to enter the ship of truth and thus I may bear them over the sea of Existence, and then only let me realise Nibbana myself’3 which were said in response to Dipankara's prophecy that he would become a Buddha of the name of Gautama. Buddha's exhortation to his chief disciple Ananda is memorable because he who ardently desired to attain Nirvana is found saying ‘You have no right to cross the threshold of this life till you have rescued the last blade of grass caught up in distress’. In a minor way Coleridge had experienced this kind of compassion when he was overcome with the feeling ‘He prayeth best, who loveth best / all things both great and small; / For the dear God who loveth us, / He made and loveth all.’

In both the cases, it is an outgoing passion which pulsates most naturally. Whereas with Siddhartha it is incoming and purely self-centred. Consider him saying ‘I will learn from myself, be my own pupil; I will learn from myself the secret of Siddhartha’ (p. 31). Despite the fact that there is much self-reliance which is no doubt a great virtue, it is also true that for Siddhartha, the egocentric self in him asserts itself and becomes more important than the Universe. The profundity in Buddha's awakening consists in the final breaking away from those precious links' of life man generally clings to. It is the dukkha of the world or the human condition and so the Buddha sought to get at the core of this sorrow. There is no such inner compulsion in Siddhartha; rather, it is imposed by the passing fashions of an intellectual life or from ennui. The doctrine of ‘Know Thyself’ seems thrust into Siddhartha's thoughts. At least there is not sufficient objective correlative for his dissatisfaction with himself or the world when he pronounces ‘I will learn from myself the secret of Siddhartha’. True, Siddhartha tries to know and conquer the self in him but pays little thought to the greater Self or that by which all else is known, though the term Absolute does get mentioned in the course of the novel.

It's not the approach of the kitten to the Mother Cat (Marjara Nyaya), not even that of the young ones of the monkey which cling to the mother (Markata Nyaya). The primacy of the supernatural is nowhere in question.

The beginning of the second part of the novel marks the beginning of Siddhartha's fall but that it is a fall fated to induce self-knowledge has to be conceded. It is here that Siddhartha begins to stir out of his cold self frozen by too much intellection; flesh and blood assume human passions thanks to his acquaintance with Kamala the courtesan. In accepting Kamala as his teacher, Siddhartha is at once declining and recovering—declining for the obvious reason that he falls for physical Beauty that grows ‘pale, spectre-thin and dies’ and recovering because he surrenders his own inordinate ego and self-pride and becomes conscious of the other. And yet his surrender of the self is not complete. For he asks Kamala: ‘But tell me, fair Kamala, are you not at all afraid of the samana from the forest, who has come to learn about love?’ Kamala replies ‘Why should I be afraid of a samana, a stupid samana from the forest, who comes from the jackals and does not know anything about women?’ (p. 45) and thus deflates the Samana's ego. Kamala acts not merely as a corrective to start with, but serves as a liberating force to the extent that she liberates Siddhartha from a cold spirituality in him that is more cerebral than real—cerebral because his spirituality at first is an infatuation with an idea: and not the result of a felt experience of human suffering which the Buddha experienced, if not personally, at least imaginatively.

The Buddha had rightly advised Siddhartha to be on his guard against too much cleverness. For it is this too much cleverness that makes him think: ‘his heart was not indeed in business, his real self wandered elsewhere, far away, wandered on and on invisibly and had nothing to do with his life’ (p. 57) For a long time Siddhartha had lived the life of the world without belonging to it like the dew on the lotus leaf. Even though ‘he had learned to play dice and chess and to watch dancers carried on sedan chairs and sleep on a soft bed, he always felt different from and superior to others; he had always watched them with a slightly mocking disdain, with that disdain which a samana always feels towards the people of the world’ (p. 61). Whenever Kamaswami, his business chief was troubled with business affairs, Siddhartha had always regarded him mockingly, not realising that his own mockery and feeling of superiority kept diminishing day by day. This is because he tried to live in a make-believe world. When finally he encounters reality he realises that ‘property, possessions and riches had finally trapped him, they were no longer a game and a toy; they had become a chain and a burden’ (p. 63). ‘He who staked ten thousand on the throw of the dice and laughed, became more hard and mean in business, and sometimes dreamt of money at night’ (p. 64). ‘He stood alone like a shipwrecked man on the shore’ (p. 66).

It is important, however, to notice that his present loneliness is different from the earlier one when Govinda had left him. When Govinda became a Buddhist monk, it was a challenge to Siddhartha. His utter loneliness then results in renewed energy to go forward, to explore, to find. In contrast to this the effect of the present loneliness is a feeling of ‘horror and death in the heart’ (p. 66). There is now no challenge to gather strength and go forward which does not become an ascetic in any case. He now shows a mature and graceful acceptance of life when ‘he smiled wearily, shook his head and said goodbye to these things’ (p. 67). It's almost as detached as Eliot's ‘wipe your hand across your mouth and laugh’. That's probably because his present loneliness is preceded by a human suffering in the blood with his son denouncing him and running away from him and not just in the mind as it was before. There is therefore some kind of deepening in Siddhartha. That Siddhartha's boyhood dissatisfaction with life and inquiry was rather intellectual and even superficial becomes more and more evident now that he feels lost in the affairs of the world. This is because Siddhartha let the natural urges of life pass him by and takes to a life of the spirit by self-will, unlike the Buddha and finds himself miserable and lost. It is true he lives with Kamala to whom he gives a child. But this doesn't make him a grhasta, for it is more a happening, a physiological event than a way of life.

This, anyhow, is not to say it is impossible for one to skip this stage successfully. Quite a few have achieved it, Sankara in eighth century and Ramakrishna despite the marriage (the wife becomes a veritable mother) and Vivekananda only a hundred years ago. But here Siddhartha was not ready for spiritual heights. And readiness is all. There wasn't any. There was no perception born out of real or imaginative suffering, reflection or a hopeless empathetic involvement. This is clear as we see his spirituality confined to the verbal level (which is a raw level really) where he had a fancy for discussing spiritual matters with knowledgeable elders of the village. Sad that it didn't percolate deep down into his very being. How could it, when it lacked the spiritual churning in him—it was so insufficient, the indestructible divine butter of which Ramakrishna talks hadn't really formed. For if it had, even half-formed, he couldn't have mixed and mingled so easily with the world without any resistance or struggle—the resistance and the struggle of, for example, one like Faustus whose situation is not very different from Siddhartha's at a certain stage of life. But that churning takes place now when ‘he was deeply entangled in sansara, he had drawn nausea and death to himself from all sides, like a sponge that absorbs water until it is full’ and he realises ‘he was full of ennui, full of misery, full of death …’ (p. 69). ‘He wished passionately for oblivion, to be at rest, to be dead. If only a flash of lightning would strike him! If only a tiger would come and eat him!’ And he thought ‘there was nothing more for him but to efface himself, to destroy the unsuccessful structure of his life, to throw it away, mocked at by the Gods. That was the deed which he longed to commit, to destroy the form which he hated! Might the fishes devour him, this dog of a Siddhartha, this madman, this corrupted and rotting body, this sluggish and misused soul! Might the fishes and crocodiles devour him, might the demons tear him to little pieces!’ And then ‘with a distorted countenance he stared into the water. He saw his face reflected and spat at it’ (p. 70).

It is at this stage that ‘from a remote part of his soul, from the past of his tired life, he heard a sound’. It was the sound of the holy Om which ‘without thinking he spoke indistinctly’ (p. 70). ‘At that moment, when the sound of Om reached Siddhartha's ears, his slumbering soul suddenly awakened and he recognised the folly of his action’ (p. 71). Siddhartha's sudden awakening here makes one recall the sudden awakening of The Ancient Mariner which is far more authentic despite the fact that Siddhartha's awakening is the result of a much greater sin and much intenser suffering than the Ancient Mariner's. This is so because the manner of awakening in Siddhartha through the indistinct utterance of the holy Om sounds rather inauthentic atleast for an Indian. Om is something that is eternally there in one's being and the realisation of this does not come from listening to it with the organic ear. And here, Om seems to ‘reach Siddhartha's ears’ (italics mine) and his slumbering soul suddenly awakens. This lapse, anyhow, is due to Hesse's own failure of a deep understanding of Hindu thought. One has only to consider the concluding line of The Waste Land: Shanthi, Shanthi, Shanthi, that is, in the given context. Unlike Eliot, Hesse isn't struggling to find an objective correlative to a revelation or sudden illumination. One also wonders whether the tired author did not hasten to clinch the plot and conclude somehow. Is this naive awakening of Siddhartha a technical flaw only? Or does it strain the reader's credibility as to the actual nature of Realisation of Truth? The fact, however, remains that in awakening at the fag-end of his spentout life, Siddhartha is rising from his own ashes as it were, like the Phoenix. This rising like the Phoenix is not the self-assertiveness of the Santiago kind but it is actually preceded by a total understanding of the past and the present. Note for instance, his words: ‘Now when I am no longer young, when my hair is fast growing gray, when strength begins to diminish, now I am beginning again like a child’ (p. 76) and again ‘I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices, so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment and sorrow, just in order to become a child and begin anew’ (p. 77). Still, Siddhartha is no cynic. Nor is this the agony of the Romantic. For ‘he did not grieve about it’, thanks to a certain robustness in him. He says ‘This path is stupid, it goes in spirals, perhaps in circles, but whichever way it goes, I will follow it’ (p. 77). It is important to observe that the determination we find in the words ‘I will follow it’ is far different from his boyhood determination of leaving his parents. Because earlier Siddhartha wanted the ‘path’ to follow him, wanted to learn from himself—in other words he tried to shape his fate himself. But now there is considerable amount of surrender to the Unknown, Unfathomable path. In fact, the surrender takes place to such an extent that one feels the ‘I’ in ‘I will follow it’ has almost crumbled.

Having said all this there are still certain things which must strike us as odd, fail to carry conviction, that is to an Indian. Hesse invariably goes wrong when he tries to establish a relationship between Siddhartha and the external world like the river or the abstract concept of Om. It is clear that the author doesn't know enough of the river in India. We are told time and again that the river played a significant role in the moulding of Siddhartha; that ‘never had a river attracted him as much as this one’ and that ‘it seemed to him as if the river had something special to tell him, something which he did not know, something which still awaited him. Siddhartha had wanted to drown himself in this river; the old, tried, despairing Siddhartha was today drowned in it. The new Siddhartha felt a deep love for this flowing water and decided that he would not leave it again so quickly’ (p. 80). As it can be seen the treatment of the river remains only at the level of intellection and doesn't become an experience. Howevermuch the author tries to load the river with meaning, it doesn't come home to the reader, because the river doesn't have a name, a history, a tradition, not even a legend which alone can enable the reader to participate and make it an experience. On the contrary certain words work against the river's very existence: ‘In his heart he heard the newly awakened voice speak, and it said to him: “Love this river, stay by it, learn from it”’ (p. 81). There is no authenticity in Siddhartha's ‘awakened voice’ what with the neat, concrete verbal pattern—almost the pattern of an exhortation which is indicative of the rational western mind of Hesse at work.

Yet in fairness to the author, a word or two must be said in respect of the impact of the river on Siddhartha, because, in a particular point of time in a man's life he may have gathered some wisdom. ‘Above all, he learned from it (river) how to listen, to listen with a still heart, with a waiting open soul, without passion, without desire, without judgement, without opinions’ (p. 85). Our nagging reservation still persists since the river is not particularised. Siddhartha might well have learnt this lesson from any river, any waters flowing or stagnant, even a mountain or a tree. That is what makes one think the river is not so indispensable (as the author feels, for the shaping of either the novel or the character) as for instance the sea is, in Moby Dick or The Old Man and the Sea. The river here, remains outside us, because it remains outside him. It doesn't flow in his veins and become ‘Antar-Ganga’. In other words, the internalisation of the river doesn't take place in Siddhartha. This is due to the constant authorial intervention, and at the conceptual level too.

If, therefore, Siddhartha learns to listen it is not that the river did something to him but that he must have learnt from books of the River's spiritual potency to uplift. The act of listening itself is symptomatic of transcendence, of sainthood as compared to the mere act of talking or preaching. No wonder Hopkins said ‘who would be a poet, if one could be a saint?’ Because in listening one experiences much humility, much surrendering of the individual ego, much self-effacement and above all much silence born of complete understanding in contrast to words like ‘I can think, I can wait, I can fast’. In listening also there is waiting, a lot of it really, but the growth of Siddhartha is in the gradual shedding of the ‘I’ which is a sign of maturity in him. And yet one can't say he has reached this state, let alone remained at it. Since Siddhartha's life-pattern itself, thanks to his rebellious nature, is so unconventional with too many ups and downs. He moves from the so-called spiritual to the de-spiritual and recovers again but not without soaring up and coming down. His life is very unlike the lives of Buddha, Aurobindo or St Augustine which normally have two broad phases—the first being rather yet-to-ripe and worldly and the second transformed into highly profound and spiritual.

We see Siddhartha caught up in deep worldly love for his indifferent son. And this relationship makes for some complexity in him. For one is not sure whether it ties him up or liberates him. Perhaps it does both. The first genuine outgoing feeling or passion is towards his son, not even towards Kamala in Jetavana where he had himself confessed that he cannot love like ordinary men. However it is only now that his channels open up and blood begins to flow. Siddhartha moves from a frozen but neat and attractive marble-like spirituality to a full-blooded human being, when he not merely thinks like a man but feels like a man. This is not to say he harboured no love and affection for Kamala. In fact one finds a genuine compassion in him for the aged Kamala who is dying—‘she was lying on Siddhartha's bed in his hut and Siddhartha, whom she had once loved so much was bending over her’ (p. 90). The symbolic meaning that one can read into the act of bending over reminds one of a Lear-like affection welling up. But the difference lies in Siddhartha not being overcome by it, as Lear was in the final stages of the play. It is true Kamala's death disturbs him immensely; he couldn't sleep or eat rice which Vasudeva the ferryman had cooked for him. Yet there is no lasting impression left on him. Siddhartha knows that he is disturbed, knows that he couldn't sleep or eat and therefore he is not lost. But in the case of his son, he wonders if he had ‘lost his heart to anybody so much, so blindly, so painfully, so helplessly and yet so happily?’ (p. 96) despite the fact that the son hated every inch of him so strongly. Note his words—‘just to spite you, I would rather become a thief and a murderer and go to hell than be like you. I hate you, you are not my father even if you have been my mother's lover a dozen times!’ (p. 98). In weaning away from his son, Siddhartha is actually cutting off his last vein connecting it with the world of Sansara.

Siddhartha ultimately attains detachment when there is complete self-effacement which is not self-willed but spontaneous. This transparence he reaches at a stage where he gets convinced of the truth that ‘he had to strive for property and experience nausea and the depths of despair in order to learn not to resist them …’ (italics mine). Siddhartha learns not to resist because he realises ‘the potential Buddha already exists in the sinner; his future is already there’ and ‘the potential hidden Buddha must be recognised in him, in you, in everybody’ (p. 113). Siddhartha continues: ‘The world Govinda, is not imperfect or slowly evolving along a long path to perfection. No it is perfect at every moment; every sin already carries grace within it, all small children are potential old men, all sucklings have death within them, all dying people—eternal life. It is not possible for one person to see how far another is on the way; the Buddha exists in the robber and dice-player; the robber exists in the Brahmin. During deep meditation it is possible to dispel time to see simultaneously the past, present and future, and then everything that exists is good, everything is perfect, everything is Brahman. Therefore it seems to me that everything that exists is good,—death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly. Everything is necessary, everything needs only my agreement, my assent, my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me’ (p. 113). (It is important one mustn't overlook the ‘my’ here is totally impersonal). These words do intimate to us the clairvoyance of someone who has seen it all however briefly. Siddhartha has now ceased to look at life and begun to perceive it with his entire being and not just with his mind. That is, there is no gulf between the object of perception and his perceiving self, for he becomes one with the object and experiences unity and diversity—‘This stone is stone; it is also animal, God and Buddha. I do not respect and love it because it was one thing and will become something else, but because it has already long been everything and always is everything. I love it just because it is a stone, because today and now it appears to me a stone. I see value and meaning in each one of its fine markings and cavities, in the yellow, in the grey, in the hardness and the sound of it when I knock it, in the dryness or dampness of its surface’ (p. 114).

Siddhartha transcends to such an extent that in sense the word loses its significance and becomes absurd. On the other hand he feels he could love a stone, a tree or a piece of bark but he could never love words. ‘Therefore teachings are of no use to me; they have no hardness, no softness, no colours, no corners, no smell, no taste—they have nothing but words. Perhaps that is what prevents you from finding peace, perhaps there are too many words, for even salvation and virtue, Sansara and Nirvana are only words, Govinda. Nirvana is not a thing; there is only the word Nirvana’ (p. 114). It is possible too many words all around (about God and spirituality) bored, frustrated and disgusted him as long as a boy. And so he may have sought liberation from words. No wonder he desires to be Kamala's pupil as words were not her medium. And much latter Vasudeva, the ferryman becomes his teacher and as one can see, Vasudeva didn't talk words but simply was. This doesn't however mean that Siddhartha has lost faith in the word but that he detests words which are wordy, which assault and destroy the silence that hovers over every thought, feeling or thing. Consequently we find a transformation in himself from the state of ‘I can think, I can wait, I can fast’ to the present state where Govinda discovers' his glance and his hand, his skin and his hair, all radiate a purity, peace, serenity, gentleness and saintliness which Govinda, had never seen in any man since the death of the illustrious teacher’ (p. 117). In other words he is now like the veena, spontaneously vibrating music without the pulling of the string.

Siddhartha not merely achieves that clairvoyance but is potent enough to enable his friend Govinda to achieve the same and get his salvation too not through words and teachings but by ‘kissing’ knowledge on the forehead of Govinda. The experience in Govinda after Siddhartha's lips touched his forehead is almost similar to that of Yashoda who felt human kind cannot bear very much reality when her little son Krishna showed the whole universe in his mouth or that of Vivekananda's when Ramakrishna's foot was placed on his head. Govinda, here, begins to perceive the entire universe in Siddhartha's face. ‘He no longer saw the face of Siddhartha his friend. Instead he saw other faces, many faces, a long series, a continuous stream of faces—hundreds, thousands, which all came and disappeared and yet all continually changed and renewed themselves and which were yet all Siddhartha’. For Govinda, Siddhartha's face ‘had just been the stage of all present and future forms’ and Siddhartha's smile ‘reminded him of everything that had ever been of value and holy in his life’ (p. 119). The anachronism, however, is in the act of kissing on the forehead which gives away the Western sensibility of the author. Some acquaintance with the country and the people either in the Kipling way or with Buddha's life, say in the Eliot way and some sociological background might have helped to give a contextual authenticity to the situation in the novel.

A study of the life of the Buddha reveals various points of similarity with that of Siddhartha; one could almost see them moving on parallel lines although there is variation in the sequence of events. Buddha too experiences dissatisfaction with life, begets a son, leaves his home, encounters a wealthy businessman, Anāthapindika, and a beautiful and wealthy courtesan, Ambapāli, the mango girl etc. But it is important to observe that for Buddha, thanks to his apocalyptic birth, obstacles resolved themselves and quickly too. It is almost with incredible ease and speed that the Buddha converts his son Rāhula (meaning a ‘hindrance’ but who proved to be not much of a hindrance at all—at least there is paucity of information on this point), the Sakhya princes, the fierce robber Angulimāla (who not-withstanding his evil life quickly attained to Arahatta), the notorious criminals and the fierce and intoxicated elephant Mālāgir let loose upon by his own disciple and later his rival Devadatta. In addition to this the Buddha was too well guarded against ordinary physical temptation. Fortunately or unfortunately neither Anāthapindika, the wealthy businessman nor Ambapāli, the beautiful courtesan were temptations for Buddha—unlike Kamaswamy or Kamala. For at the very sight of the Buddha they got converted leaving no time for him even to wonder if they were temptations or if they represented evil. Perhaps one can explain these as the triumph of individual or racial Samskara.

Hesse's hero on the contrary encounters obstacles which in a realistic context, shorn of the apocalyptic, should make for real tension between a rare high-mindedness and the natural impulses of the heart. This seems to happen atleast once that is when his son defies him, goes away from him leaving him to his grief. Elsewhere the author rescues Siddhartha too fast and too easily. The novel is hopelessly deficient in enactment. As the novelist becomes a perpetual commentator instead of letting the characters fend for themselves. And then things frequently look confused. Translation might have made for distortions and it is possible we are evaluating not Hesse's effort but a distortion of it. Consider one small example when the translator uses ‘S’ capital where she ought to be using the small letter, as when she says Siddhartha tried to escape from the Self. Such is the peril of assessing a work in translation. Even apart from the translation the authorial interference by way of constant comment mars the novel. In other words we do not see things as Henry James says ‘happening’ before us. This, in addition to the author's own imperfect understanding of India must go against Hesse in any final assessment.


  1. Ananda Coomaraswamy, Buddha and The Gospel of Buddhism, p. 13.

  2. Ibid, p. 67.

  3. Ananda Coomaraswamy, Buddha and The Gospel of Buddhism.

Carlee Marrer-Tising (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9898

SOURCE: “Siddhartha,” in The Reception of Hermann Hesse by the Youth in the United States: A Thematic Analysis, Peter Lang, 1982, pp. 317–35.

[In the following excerpt, Marrer-Tising provides an analysis of thematic elements in Siddhartha.]

Siddhartha, the most ‘Indian’ of Hesse's works outwardly, is, in actuality, more Chinese in its solution; the setting of the story is Indian, the names of the characters are Indian, but, as will be demonstrated, the Chinese influence is ultimately the key to understanding the conclusion of the work as well as Hesse's intention. In a letter to Stephan Zweig, Hesse mentions Siddhartha and confirms the Chinese preponderance, writing: “Mein Heiliger ist indisch gekleidet, seine Weisheit steht aber näher bei Lao Tse als bei Gotama.”1 As Hesse outlines the plot, his protagonist, the son of a Brahman, becomes an ascetic; he then hears Buddha's teachings, which he rejects, going into the world where he becomes a successful businessman. Only after undergoing a period of despair—as did Sinclair—does Siddhartha seek and find the Tao.2


The first step which Siddhartha takes on his path to self-realization is to reject the Brahmanism practiced by his father because he feels the religion is incapable of teaching him how to permanently attain the Atman, the self;

It often seemed near—the heavenly world—but never had he quite reached it, never had he quenched the final thirst. And among the wise men that he knew and whose teachings he enjoyed, there was not one who had entirely reached it—the heavenly world—not one who had completely quenched the eternal thirst.3

Rather than continuing the act of washing away his sins and cleansing himself, listening to the Brahmans' discourses and so forth, Siddhartha wishes to find the source of wisdom within himself: “One must find the source within one's own Self, one must possess it. Everything else was seeking—a detour, error.”4 Siddhartha's dissatisfaction with the established religion of his family grows to the point where he can no longer participate in what, to him, is a hopeless endeavor. He breaks with his father and, accompanied by his friend, Govinda,5 joins the Samanas, a group of wandering ascetics. As Wilson states, “… this is an Outsider's decision.”6 Because of the Indian setting, Wilson continues, it does not seem abnormal to become a wandering seeker, but to the Western mentality it does:

… and would probably lead us to doubt the sanity of any of our acquaintances who decided to do the same. And yet it is a sensible, straightforward decision. A man only has need of the common sense to say: ‘Civilization is largely a matter of superfluities; I have no desire for superfluities. On the other hand, I have a very strong desire for leisure and freedom.’ I am not attempting to assert the validity of this solution for all Outsiders; in fact, the practical objection to it is that the wandering life does not make for leisure or contemplation, and it certainly fails to satisfy the Outsider's need for a direction, a definitive act.7

As Wilson predicts, the period of time which Siddhartha spends as a Samana leaves him just as dissatisfied as he had been before. After a great deal of effort, Siddhartha, indeed, becomes skillful in the Samana's techniques: “He lost his Self a thousand times and for days on end he dwelt in nonbeing. But although the paths took him away from Self, in the end they always led back to it.”8 Siddhartha is, however, doing the opposite of that which he eventually realizes will lead him to his goal;9 he is trying to lose his own self in order to discover the absolute Self, yet escaping the self—as he later realizes—is not the way to self-knowledge as he had thought while he was in the frame-of-mind described in the following passage:

Siddhartha had one single goal—to become empty, to become empty of thirst, desire, dreams, pleasure and sorrow—to let the Self die. No longer to be Self, to experience the peace of an emptied heart, to experience pure thought—that was his goal. When all the Self was conquered and dead, when all passions and desires were silent, then the last must awaken, the innermost of Being that is no longer Self—the great secret!10

When Siddhartha sees that mastery of the Samanas' methods does not bring him any closer to his goal, he explains his doubts to Govinda as follows:

‘What is meditation? What is abandonment of the body? What is fasting? What is the holding of breath? It is a flight from the Self, it is a temporary escape from the torment of Self. It is a temporary palliative against the pain and folly of life. The driver of oxen makes this same flight, takes this temporary drug when he drinks a few bowls of rice wine or coconut milk in the inn. He then no longer feels his Self, no longer feels the pain of life; he then experiences temporary escape. Falling asleep over his bowl of rice wine, he finds what Siddhartha and Govinda find when they escape from their bodies by long exercises and dwell in the non-Self.’11

Siddhartha's doubts again lead him to rejection; he and Govinda decide to leave the Samanas and go hear the teachings of Gotama, the Buddha, in spite of the fact that Siddhartha is now extremely skeptical about teachings and teachers' words.12 After hearing Gotama, Govinda and Siddhartha find that they must part company since the former decides to follow Buddha's teachings of salvation, and Siddhartha finds his initial misgivings confirmed: from a teacher he can learn nothing. He must follow his own path.13 His basic reasoning in rejecting Gotama's way is that, firstly, the salvation—the “rising above the world”14—which the Buddha promises is not in conjunction with the law of unity of the world,15 and, secondly, the secret of Gotama's experience—that which led to his enlightenment—cannot be taught to others; each must find the secret in his own way.16 Siddhartha explains his conviction to Gotama, adding:

‘You have learned nothing through teachings, and so I think, O Illustrious One, that nobody finds salvation through teachings. To nobody, O Illustrious One, can you communicate in words and teachings what happened to you in the hour of your enlightenment.’17

Gotama warns Siddhartha of the cleverness which the latter's words exhibit and leaves him to his own thoughts: “I also will conquer my Self.”18


Siddhartha now stands completely alone, having thrice rejected19 an outside source of help in reaching his goal: “Siddhartha stood still and for a moment an icy chill stole over him. … Nobody was so alone as he.”20 Siddhartha, now awakened, becomes involved in the world and in the art of love. “… Siddhartha has decided to turn from teaching to experience as a mode of learning. As he will say later in the novella, he comes to seek wisdom through living rather than knowledge through learning.21 He learns about worldly pleasures until he reaches such a point of satiety that, disgusted with his life, he turns from the realm where he has found worldly success—without, however, having truly belonged to it, as Kamala, his beloved, has long realized: “The people of the world, the ordinary people, were still alien to him, just as he was apart from them.”22 While Siddhartha is among the people of the world, he envies them their ability to love, which he, alone seems to lack:

… the anxious but sweet happiness of their continual power to love. These people were always in love with themselves, with their children, with honor or money, with plans or hope. But these he did not learn from them, these child-like pleasures and follies; he only learned the unpleasant things from them which he despised.23

In a conversation with Kamala, Siddhartha's inability to love is contrasted with the love ‘ordinary’ people know:

‘You do not really love me—you love nobody. Is that not true?’

‘Maybe,’ said Siddhartha wearily. ‘I am like you. You cannot love either, otherwise how could you practice love as an art? Perhaps people like us cannot love. Ordinary people can—that is their secret.’24

Kamala is thus not surprised when Siddhartha one day disappears. Only after having tasted and rejected both the religious practices described above, as well as active participation in worldly activities, does Siddhartha reach the point of despair necessary for him to enter the final stage of his ‘becoming,’ that which actually brings him the peace and self-knowledge toward which he has been striving all along. Siddhartha has reached this condition of despair for no other reason than the fact that he has been trying to follow a path not meant for him, even though he was, outwardly, successful in all his endeavors:

Without knowing it, he had endeavored and longed all these years to be like all these other people, like these children, and yet his life had been much more wretched and poorer than theirs, for their aims were not his, nor their sorrows his.25

The Bhagavad-Gita teaches that such action will be dangerous for the inner person: “It is better to do your own duty, however imperfectly, than to assume the duties of another person, however successfully. Prefer to die doing your own duty: the duty of another will bring you into great spiritual danger.”26 Instead of finding death at this point, as is his wish, Siddhartha hears the sacred Om, which restores his true self to him: “‘Om,’ he pronounced inwardly, and he was conscious of Brahman, of the indestructibleness of life; he remembered all that he had forgotten, all that was divine.”27


Shortly hereafter Govinda functions as a foil to show just how far Siddhartha had strayed from his goal: the former is, magically, it would seem, present when Siddhartha awakens from a deep sleep during which he is refreshed and renewed after having heard the sacred Om. Govinda does not realize that it is Siddhartha over whom he has been watching until the latter identifies himself. When Siddhartha tells Govinda that he is on a pilgrimage, the latter, amazed, states: “‘You are making a pilgrimage … but few make a pilgrimage in such clothes, in such shoes and with such hair.’”28 Govinda is, of course, referring to the appearance of a successful businessman. Siddhartha assures him that his outward appearance is transitory,29 that he has been a rich man, but is no longer; the friends then part, and Siddhartha reflects on his new situation:

Smiling, Siddhartha watched him go. He still loved him, this faithful, anxious friend. And at that moment, in that splendid hour, after his wonderful sleep, permeated with Om, how could he help but love someone and something. That was just the magic that had happened to him during his sleep and the Om in him—he loved everything, he was full of joyous love towards everything that he saw. And it seemed to him that was just why he was previously so ill—because he could love nothing and nobody.30

Reflecting on his past life, Siddhartha realizes that he has had to become a fool in order to find the Atman31 within himself, that he has had to sin in order to live again, that he is back to where he had started as a child, and yet he is filled with a great happiness.32 His inner voice again makes itself heard. That Siddhartha is now on the right path once more is later demonstrated by the reaction of Kamala, as mentioned in the previous chapter. Like Govinda, Kamala functions as a foil, making it clear to the reader that Siddhartha, not unlike Gotama, has followed his true destiny and reached his goal.33 Siddhartha, as demonstrated above, has rejected Brahmanism as it is practiced by his father, yet it is ultimately his knowledge of the sacred Om which brings him back to himself. Also, Siddhartha's insistence on fact, on experience, rather than theory, is indebted to Hinduism: “Hinduism is characterized by its emphasis on fact … It is experiential in character.”34

It now remains to take a closer look at the final phase of Siddhartha's development and to ascertain to what extent it is characterized by Eastern thinking and symbols. … Siddhartha comes the closest of any of Hesse's figures to reaching self-fulfillment during his life; in so doing he is true to his name: “‘Siddhartha’ is Sanscrit for ‘he who has achieved his goal.’”35 The goal, self-knowledge, consists of Siddhartha's recognition of the unity of all matter, which he is to learn from the river,36 as well as his consequential belief that he is not a part of the universe, but that he and the universe are one. As Casebeer points out, Hesse is thus offering two important elements to the young who are “… spiritually in tune with the ‘counter culture.’”37 The first is a belief that the universe makes sense, the second, the belief “… that the best way to realize that affirmation is to realize yourself.”38 Siddhartha, after having regained knowledge of his true self near the river, reflects:

Never had he found the voice and appearance of flowing water so beautiful. It seemed to him as if the river had something special to tell him, something which he did not know, something which still awaited him.39

He then seeks out the ferryman, Vasudeva—who proves to be a decisive influence in Siddhartha's development—hoping for a chance to start his new life at the ferryman's hut on the river: “It seemed to him that whoever understood this river and its secrets, would understand much more, many secrets, all secrets.”40 When Siddhartha contacts the ferryman and tells him of his intention, the latter replies:

‘It is as I thought; the river has spoken to you. It is friendly towards you, too; it speaks to you. That is good, very good. … The river has taught me to listen; you will learn from it, too. The river knows everything; one can learn everything from it. You have already learned from the river that it is good to strive downwards, to sink, to seek the depths.’41

This lesson of seeking the depths which Vasudeva, and now Siddhartha, have learned from the river is a concept taken from the Taoist philosophy: “The highest goodness is like water, for water is excellent in benefiting all things, and it does not strive. It occupies the lowest place, which men abhor. And therefore it is near akin to Tao.”42 Vasudeva, moreover, tells Siddhartha that the river, although a hindrance to most people on their journeys, is not an obstacle to the few who have “‘… heard its voice and listened to it, and the river has become holy to them, as it has to me.’”43 Vasudeva, in other words, has learned that the river is, indeed, more than just a physical entity. The river is the keeper and teacher of the secrets of the universe. It is noteworthy that an additional remark made by Vasudeva, i.e. his response to Siddhartha when the latter questions him about one other thing which Vasudeva says the river teaches, establishes a relationship between Vasudeva and Lao Tzu; Vasudeva, emphasizing his inability to talk or even think, states:

‘I cannot tell you what the other thing is, my friend. You will find out, perhaps you already know. I am not a learned man; I do not know how to talk or think. I only know how to listen or be devout; otherwise I have learned nothing.’44

Lao Tzu, speaking of himself, gives a description which clearly supports the contention that Hesse intended to create a parallel figure in the person of Vasudeva: “I am a man foolish in heart, dull and confused. … I alone am stupid and clownish. Lonely though I am and unlike other men, yet I revere the Foster-Mother, Tao.”45

Siddhartha remains by the river and, true to Vasudeva's prediction: “‘You will learn it … but not from me,’”46 he learns the river's secret:

… he learned more from the river than Vasudeva could teach him. He learned from it continually. Above all, he learned from it how to listen, to listen with a still heart, with a waiting, open soul, without passion, without desire, without judgment, without opinions.47

The two men continue to live side by side, talking little: “Vasudeva was no friend of words. Siddhartha was rarely successful in moving him to speak.”48 Once more, the topos of the inarticulateness of the Eastern philosophies is touched upon, and a further link between Vasudeva and Lao Tzu is established; Lao Tzu teaches the following: “Be sparing of speech, and things will come right of themselves.”49 and: “Those who know do not speak; those who speak, do not know.”50 Once Siddhartha asks Vasudeva if he has learned “… that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time?”51 Vasudeva replies:

‘Yes, Siddhartha,’ … ‘Is this what you mean? That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere, and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past, nor the shadow of the future?’52

Siddhartha confirms Vasudeva's explanation, adding:

‘That is it … and when I learned that, I reviewed my life and it was also a river, and Siddhartha the boy, Siddhartha the mature man and Siddhartha the old man, were only separated by shadows, not through reality. Siddhartha's previous lives were also not in the past, and his death and his return to Brahma are not in the future. Nothing was, nothing will be, everything has reality and presence.’53

Siddhartha has thus learned the secret of conquering time: “Was then not all sorrow in time, all self-torment and fear in time? Were not all difficulties and evil in the world conquered as soon as one conquered time, as soon as one dispelled time?”54


Having learned the above-outlined secrets from the river and having lived with Vasudeva, who serves as his model, Siddhartha begins to resemble the latter, as evidenced outwardly by the smile motif:55 “As time went on his smile began to resemble the ferryman's, was almost equally radiant, almost equally full of happiness, equally lighting up through a thousand little wrinkles, equally childish, equally senile.”56 This resemblance is a signal to the reader that Siddhartha, indeed, is now on his path to self-realization. The motif of the smile57 is also of import when Siddhartha and Kamala meet when the latter is seeking Buddha; she asks Siddhartha if he has found peace: “He smiled and put his hand on hers. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I see it. I also will find peace.’”58 The smile motif is repeated when Siddhartha and Govinda meet at the conclusion of the work:

And Govinda saw that this mask-like smile, this smile of unity over the flowing forms, this smile of simultaneousness over the thousands of births and deaths—this smile of Siddhartha—was exactly the same as the calm, delicate, impenetrable, perhaps gracious, perhaps mocking, wise, thousand-fold smile of Gotama, the Buddha, as he perceived it with awe a hundred times. It was in such a manner, Govinda knew, that the Perfect One smiled.59

The last paragraph of the story intensifies the contention that the smile is proof of Siddhartha's having reached his goal; Govinda reacts to Siddhartha as he would to the God-head, seeing in him the entirety of creation, of all that he loves and values:

Govinda bowed low. Incontrollable tears trickled down his old face. He was overwhelmed by a feeling of great love, of the most humble veneration. He bowed low, right down to the ground, in front of the man sitting there motionless, whose smile reminded him of everything that he had ever loved in his life, of everything that had ever been of value and holy in his life.60


Before Siddhartha has reached this goal, however, he had had to endure a great loss, which also serves to help him reach his goal; when Kamala dies of the snake bite while on her pilgrimage to Gotama—she has found Siddhartha instead—her and Siddhartha's son, still a young boy, remains with his father for a brief period of time. Siddhartha tries to take over the upbringing of the boy, but since the latter is accustomed to the pleasures a rich woman was able to provide him, Siddhartha's endeavors prove to be in vain. One of Siddhartha's and Vasudeva's discussions demonstrates that, in spite of the sorrow which Siddhartha feels due to his failure to reach the boy's heart, he has nonetheless applied the Taoist principles which he has learned from the river and has thus been true to himself in his actions. Vasudeva states: “‘You are not strict with him, you do not punish him, you do not command him—because you know that gentleness is stronger than severity, that water is stronger than rock, that love is stronger than force.’”61 Siddhartha's failure to grasp the concept of being free of desire62 (i. e. he desires the presence of the son he has grown to love), leads to his greatest sorrow; when the boy runs away, Siddhartha wants to go find him and bring him back. Vasudeva goes to great lengths to convince him that the boy has a right to find his own way—even if it means leaving his father—just as Siddhartha had once done as a youth. Vasudeva argues as follows:

‘… let him go, my friend, he is not a child any more, he knows how to look after himself. He is seeking the way to the town and he is right. Do not forget that. He is doing what you yourself have neglected to do. He is looking after himself; he is going his own way. Oh, Siddhartha, I can see you are suffering, suffering pain over which one should laugh, over which you will soon laugh yourself.’63

In spite of Vasudeva's admonition, Siddhartha goes after his son, but soon realizes that he cannot help the boy and that the wound of love which he feels will heal in time; he now accepts the necessity of giving up his son. “And when he felt the wound smarting, he whispered the word Om, filled himself with Om.”64 Vasudeva, having followed Siddhartha to the city, awakens him from his trance: “When he saw Vasudeva's kind face, looked at his little laughter wrinkles, into his bright eyes, he smiled also.”65 The sorrow which Siddhartha feels—and which he eventually overcomes—about his son strengthens him and helps him attain self-realization: having learned what it is to love another person so much that he can sacrifice his own desires for the well-being of that person, in this case, his son, and having overcome the resultant sorrow, Siddhartha has recognized a further aspect of the truth which the river has taught him.

Had not his father also suffered the same pain that he was now suffering for his son? Had not his father died long ago, alone, without having seen his son again? Did he not expect the same fate? Was it not a comedy, a strange and stupid thing, this repetition, this course of events in a fateful circle?

The river laughed. Yes, that was how it was. Everything that was not suffered to the end and finally concluded, recurred, and the same sorrows were undergone.66

Siddhartha relates his experience to Vasudeva and at the same time realizes even more than before the concept of unity taught him by the river:

Disclosing his wound to this listener was the same as bathing it in the river, until it became cool and one with the river. As he went on talking and confessing, Siddhartha felt more and more that this was no longer Vasudeva, no longer a man who was listening to him. He felt that this motionless listener was absorbing his confession as a tree absorbs the rain, that this motionless man was the river itself, that he was God Himself, that he was eternity itself. As Siddhartha stopped thinking about himself and his wound, this recognition of the change in Vasudeva possessed him, and the more he realized it, the less strange did he find it; the more did he realize that everything was natural and in order, that Vasudeva had long ago, almost always been like that, only he did not quite recognize it; indeed he himself was hardly different from him. He felt that he now regarded Vasudeva as the people regarded the gods and that this could not last. Inwardly, he began to take leave of Vasudeva.67

Siddhartha, in seeing Vasudeva in this way, has moved closer to his own goal. Just as Demian leaves Sinclair, Vasudeva will soon leave Siddhartha, but before doing so, Vasudeva leads Siddhartha once more to the river, saying: “‘You have heard it laugh, … but you have not heard everything. Let us listen; you will learn more.’”68 Siddhartha concentrates on the river and learns the truth of unity as if for the first time:

Siddhartha tried to listen better. The picture of his father, his own picture, and the picture of his son all flowed into each other. Kamala's picture also appeared and flowed on, and the picture of Govinda and others emerged and passed on. They all became part of the river. It was the goal of all of them … Siddhartha saw the river hasten, made up of himself and his relatives and all the people he had ever seen. …

Siddhartha listened. … He had often heard all this before, all these numerous voices in the river, but today they sounded different. He could no longer distinguish the different voices—the merry voice from the weeping voice, the childish voice from the manly voice. They all belonged to each other: the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of indignation and the groan of the dying. They were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways. And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life. … when he did not bind his soul to any one particular voice and absorb it in his Self, but heard them all, the whole, the unity; then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om—perfection.69

It is after this episode that the afore-mentioned smile appears on Siddhartha's face: “His wound was healing, his pain was dispersing; his Self had merged into unity.”70 Vasudeva now leaves Siddhartha to his own destiny: he leaves, “… his steps full of peace, his face glowing, his form full of light.”71 Vasudeva knows that Siddhartha will no longer fight against his destiny since he “… has found salvation.”72


The conclusion of the work, as has been observed, confirms Siddhartha's self-realization. Govinda, having heard tell of a wise ferryman, decides to go see him since his own quest is still not fulfilled. He approaches Siddhartha, whom he does not at first recognize and expresses his desire to talk with him. Siddhartha, as Vasudeva had cautioned him before, cautions Govinda of the folly of words and of seeking too much, telling him that finding what one is seeking eliminates the goal altogether. In order to help Govinda, Siddhartha picks up a stone:

‘This,’ he said, handling it, ‘is a stone, and within a certain length of time it will perhaps be soil and from the soil it will become plant, animal or man. Previously I should have said: This stone is just a stone; it has no value, it belongs to the world of Maya, but perhaps because within the cycle of change it can also become man and spirit, it is also of importance. That is what I should have thought. But now I think: This stone is stone; it is also animal, God and Buddha. I do not respect and love it because it was one thing and will become something else, but because it has already long been everything and always is everything. I love it just because it is a stone, because today and now it appears to me a stone. I see value and meaning in each one of its fine markings and cavities, in the yellow, in the gray, in the hardness and the sound of it when I knock it, in the dryness or dampness of its surface. There are stones that feel like oil or soap, that look like leaves or sand, and each one is different and worships Om in its own way; each one is Brahman. At the same time it is very much stone, oily or soapy, and that is just what pleases me and seems wonderful and worthy of worship. But I will say no more about it. Words do not express thoughts very well. They always become a little different immediately they are expressed, a little distorted, a little foolish. And yet it also pleases me and seems right that what is of value and wisdom to one man seems nonsense to another.’73

This passage is central in demonstrating the reality of Siddhartha's having attained self-realization. On the one hand Siddhartha makes clear the apparent foolishness of his words, comparable to Vasudeva's (and Lao Tzu's) viewpoint; and, on the other hand Siddhartha, by way of his explanation, exhibits the attitude of one who possesses wisdom as it is described in The Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita, as evidenced by the following passages:

As a lump of salt when thrown into water melts away and the lump cannot be taken out, but wherever we taste the water it is salty, even so, O Maitreyi, the individual self, dissolved, is the Eternal—pure consciousness, infinite and transcendent. Individuality arises by identification of the Self, through ignorance, with the elements; and with the disappearance of consciousness of the many, in divine illumination, it disappears. Where there is consciousness of the Self, individuality is no more.74

(The above passage is taken from The Upanishads, the following from the Bhagavad-Gita): “Earth, stone and gold seem all alike to one who has mastered his senses. Such a yogi is said to have achieved union with Brahman.”75

When Govinda asks Siddhartha why he has told him about the stone, Siddhartha replies: “‘I did so unintentionally. But perhaps it illustrates that I just love the stone and the river and all these things that we see and from which we can learn. I can love a stone, Govinda, and a tree or a piece of bark.’”76 Govinda's mind is not completely set to rest even after talking to Siddhartha; he asks the latter to give him something to help him on his way and, reminiscent of, but in reverse to Demian's giving Sinclair a kiss from his mother before leaving him, Siddhartha tells Govinda to kiss him on the forehead. Govinda does so and experiences the following:

He no longer saw the face of his friend Siddhartha. Instead he saw other faces, many faces, a long series, a continuous stream of faces—hundreds, thousands, which all came and disappeared and yet all seemed to be there at the same time, which all continually changed and renewed themselves and which were yet all Siddhartha.77

Siddhartha, by doing nothing at all (inaction), has assisted Govinda in experiencing the concept of unity just as Siddhartha had experienced it while looking into the river.78


The last concepts to be analyzed in this discussion are those of love and service to mankind (and thus to God). According to Hesse's triadic rhythm of humanization, true humanity, including love and service, is possible only on the highest level, attainable in turn only after much effort and suffering, and the direct product of a despair which has not led to downfall but to salvation; in Siddhartha's case this occurs in the form of the recognition of unity. As was demonstrated by the river motif and the sacred Om, the concept of unity which Siddhartha has experienced is the key to his attainment of self-realization. Without love as the synthesizing element, however, unity would not have its full meaning. Siddhartha has to experience human love for his son, making him one of the ‘ordinary’ people, before he can experience universal love: “… Hesse wishes to stress in his last chapter that man's most important act in the universe is the act of love, for it is the act of ‘joining’ together that which in reality has never been apart.”79 Siddhartha is the only main character in those works by Hesse analyzed in this study to not only implicitly attain this stage,80 but to actually live in and act on this highest level long enough to have the distinction—within the framework of the story—of being a sage, one who loves and can help others.

Siddhartha is confronted with love as a strong emotional force when his son stays with him and Vasudeva for a short time after Kamala's death, as brought out above. This love does not, however, bring Siddhartha joy and happiness, but rather sorrow and trouble, since it is not returned by the boy. The feeling of love has positive aspects for Siddhartha's development in spite of, or even because of, his suffering; because he learns what it is like to lose himself in another person, Siddhartha, for the first time, feels like an ‘ordinary’ person:

… he had never undergone the follies of love for another person. He had never been able to do this, and it had then seemed to him that this was the biggest difference between him and the ordinary people. But now, since his son was there, he, Siddhartha, had become completely like one of the people, through sorrow, through loving. He was madly in love, a fool because of love. Now he also experienced belatedly, for once in his life, the strongest and strangest passion; he suffered tremendously through it and yet was uplifted, in some way renewed and richer.81

After the boy runs away, and Siddhartha has to bear the pain of loss and try to overcome desire for the son he has loved and lost, people take on a new meaning for him:

… they no longer seemed alien to him as they once had. … he shared with them life's urges and desires. Although he had reached a high stage of self-discipline and bore his last wound well, he now felt as if these ordinary people were his brothers. … These people were worthy of love and admiration …82

Only after Siddhartha learns how to reconcile his newly-gained ability to love one person with the concept of unity83 which he has learned from the river—enabling him to love the whole universe84—is Vasudeva able to leave him. It is now possible for Siddhartha to continue alone and to tell Govinda, after giving the example of his love for the stone in an effort to explain the concept of unity, the following:

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.85

When Govinda rejoins that Gotama calls such earthly love as Siddhartha has described an illusion, that he does not preach such love, Siddhartha protests, saying that this is why he distrusts teachings and words, and that Gotama's actions demonstrate love even if words obfuscate the issue:

‘How indeed, could he not know love, he who has recognized all humanity's vanity and transitoriness, yet loves humanity so much that he has devoted a long life solely to help and teach people? Also with this great teacher, the thing to me is of greater importance than the words: his deeds and life are more important to me than his opinions. Not in speech or thought do I regard him as a great man, but in his deeds and life.’86

When Govinda, having kissed Siddhartha's forehead, sees all the faces and forms in the latter's smiling face, he, too, becomes aware of the importance of love, unity and service: “He saw all these forms and faces in a thousand relationships to each other, all helping each other, loving, hating and destroying each other and become newly born.”87 Govinda is thus overwhelmed with love at the conclusion of the novella. This concept of love, as Hesse has incorporated it into the plot, while having decidedly Christian elements,88 also has aspects which correlate with both the Indian, as has been demonstrated, and the Chinese traditions. As Hsia points out, love is one of the main characteristics of the Tao: “Die Liebe ist ein nicht unwichtiger Aspekt des Tao, ja in gewisser Hinsicht sogar seine Hauptsache, denn Tao beschirmt und umfasst alle Wesen.”89 A decisive passage in Siddhartha, i. e. the above-quoted passage in which Siddhartha speaks of his love for the stone, for things as well as beings, also points to love understood as being a part of the whole (or the Tao) rather than a traditional Christian love for one's fellow man to the exclusion of things: “Siddhartha liebt den Stein, nicht weil er ein Teil der Schöpfung Gottes ist, sondern weil er Dauer und Wandlung symbolisiert, mit anderen Worten: weil er Tao ist.”90 Lao Tzu, speaking about the attributes of Tao, states: “It loves and nourishes all things …”91

In the Hindu tradition, man's goal is primarily, via the turn inward—which Hesse stresses in all his works—to recognize the Atman, or Self, within, which is at one and the same time Brahman, or the creative force of the universe. By loving and serving the God within oneself,92 one serves the universe and, necessarily, the whole of mankind. (The sacred Om is thus comprehensible as the symbol for Brahman and the Self, which is the omniscient Lord.)93


Siddhartha, as demonstrated, has fulfilled the requirements, as set up by Hesse, for genuine self-fulfillment by having learned to overcome suffering, to love and serve the whole of creation and, above all, to follow his own, and not someone else's path.94 He has rejected authority, family tradition, material success and prestige to realize his goal and thus provides a message for the disenchanted youth of the technological society. Giving up what he has, he has found peace, thus leaving the reader with a feeling of optimism. Casebeer summarizes this as follows:

Thus, as brief as the novella is, Siddhartha gives us the ideal man in the ideal plot making the ideal resolution of the apparently irreconcilable dualities of the world. The reader will never again see Hesse so optimistic as he is in Siddhartha, but it may well be that with his country destroyed, his wife insane, his family shattered, his own mind recently unhinged, Hesse never had had such need to be optimistic.95

By providing and utilizing Eastern symbols and philosophy, Hesse manages to convince many of his youthful readers that self-realization and salvation, while elusive, are, indeed, attainable if one is true to one's own destiny and follows his own, and not another's, path.


  1. Michels, Materialien … Siddhartha, p. 173. The letter was written Nov. 27, 1922.

  2. Hsia, op. cit., p. 238. This situation, comparable to that of Sinclair in Demian, again illustrates Hesse's triadic rhythm of humanization, despair being an integral part of the development.

  3. Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha. Trans. Hilda Rosner (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1951), p. 5. Hermann Hesse, Gesammelte Werke 5 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1970), p. 359. It is noteworthy that a passage from the Bhagavad-Gita contains a similar phenomenon; Arjuna is talking with Sri Krishna: “‘Krishna, you describe this yoga [i. e., the yoga of meditation] as a life of union with Brahman. But I do not see how this can be permanent. The mind is so very restless.’” From: Swami Prabhavananda, op. cit., p. 68.

  4. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 5. Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 359.

  5. Stolte, op. cit., p. 145: “Govinda hat in allem das gleiche Ziel wie Siddhartha, nur sein Weg ist ein anderer.”

  6. Colin Wilson, op. cit., p. 273.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 12. Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 356.

  9. cf. Stolte: “‘Von sich selbst wegsterben, nicht mehr Ich sein’, so heisst es bezeichnenderweise. Und geradezu unmerklich hat sich diese Verwandlung des ursprünglichen Zieles vollzogen, dass man zunächst nur an eine etwas ungenaue oder unachtsame Formulierung des Dichters glaubt, bis mehr und mehr offenbar wird, dass hierin gerade das menschlich-religiöse Problem zu finden ist. Aus Einkehr in das eigene Ich ist Flucht vor dem eigenen Ich geworden.” From: Stolte, op. cit., p. 147.

  10. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 11 Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 364.

  11. Ibid., p. 13. Ibid., pp. 366–67.

  12. Ibid., p. 18. Ibid., p. 372.

  13. Having no teacher at all goes against the Hindu practice; The Upanishads teach that a teacher's aid is necessary for the attainment of the knowledge leading to salvation: “… the knowledge that the Guru imparts will alone lead to the supreme Good.” From: Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood (Trans.), The Upanishads—Breath of the Eternal (New York: The New American Library—Mentor Books, 1971), p. 66. Siddhartha eventually turns to Vasudeva and becomes, in effect, his disciple.

  14. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 26. Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 380.

  15. cf. Beerman, who explains why Siddhartha does not become Buddha's disciple: “He is not interested in attaining Nirvana—he wants to search for a world of Becoming in which the plurality of the world of sensual perception shall give rise to Unity. Thus, Siddhartha turns away from the teachings of Buddha, unable to tolerate for himself the negativistic, life-denying character of Gautama's message.” From: Beerman, op. cit., p. 33.

  16. “To refuse Gotama is tantamount to refusing all teachers, a decision already discernible in Beneath the Wheel.” From: Boulby, op. cit., p. 136. It is very much in character for Siddhartha, the former Hindu, to reject theory in favor of experience since the Hindu tradition places emphasis on fact.

  17. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 27. Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 381

  18. Ibid., p. 29. Ibid., p. 382.

  19. It is noteworthy that, along with the triadic structure of the book (cf. Ziolkowski, The Novels …, Chapters Four and Eight), the triadic rhythm of humanization and the trisyllabic pronunciation of the sacred ‘Om,’ Siddhartha rejects three different religious sources before turning to the world of the ‘ordinary’ people.

  20. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 33. Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 386.

  21. Casebeer, op. cit., p. 35. The Upanishads teach that only verifiable truth is useful, that knowledge gained from books is secondary to wisdom gained through experience. cf. “The sage must distinguish between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is of things, acts, and relations. But wisdom is of Brahman alone; and, beyond all things, acts, and relations, he abides forever. To become one with him is the only wisdom.” From: Swami Prabhavananda, The Upanishads …, p. 42. cf. also: “… the real study in religion is first-hand experience of God.” Ibid., p. xii.

  22. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 60. Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 410.

  23. Ibid., p. 62. Ibid., p. 412.

  24. Ibid., p. 59. Ibid., p. 410.

  25. Ibid., p. 67. Ibid., pp. 417–18.

  26. Swami Praghavananda, Bhagavad-Gita, p. 48.

  27. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 72. Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 421. cf. also the following passage from The Upanishads: “Whosoever knows Om, the Self, becomes the Self.” (Swami Prabhavananda, Bhagavad-Gita, p. 51.

  28. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 75. Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 425.

  29. With this remark, Siddhartha proves his indebtedness to Hindu thought: “Matter and the body are temporary, and if one only engages himself for bodily pleasure, he is conditioned by temporary things. But if he engages in self-realization, then he is engaged in something permanent.”

  30. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 76. Hesse, G. W. 5., pp. 425–26. cf. “While the older Brahmanism postulated knowledge and Buddhism an ethical-ascetic way of life as the only means for salvation, the Gita teaches that the vital force of life is devotion or love.” Beerman, op. cit., p. 30.

  31. The Atman is, according to the Bhagavad-Gita, “… the Godhead that is within every being.” From: Swami Prabhavananda, Bhagavad-Gita, p. 37.

  32. Hesse, Siddhartha, pp. 77–79. Hesse, G. W. 5., pp. 426–27.

  33. Ibid., p. 93. Ibid., p. 442. This point is discussed in detail in chapter six of this study.

  34. Beerman, op. cit., p. 29.

  35. Zeller, op. cit., p. 103. Zeller, op. cit., p. 95.

  36. cf. the discussion on unity in chapter six of this study, as well as the discussion of the mirror motif in Demian and Steppenwolf in this chapter. Regarding the river, the relationship between it and Taoism becomes clear from the following saying of Lao Tzu: “Tao as it exists in the world is like the great rivers and seas which receive the streams from the valley.” Giles, op. cit., p. 23.

  37. Casebeer, op. cit., p. 20.

  38. Ibid.

  39. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 81 Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 431.

  40. Ibid., p. 83. Ibid. The figure, Vasudeva, is intimately connected to the river, and Siddhartha ultimately resembles him. cf. “It is to Hesse's advantage to make Siddhartha and Vasudeva almost indistinguishable: two simple, joyous old men in love with a river because their life near it has shown them the harmony in the universe.” (Casebeer, op. cit., p. 46.

  41. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 85. Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 434.

  42. Giles, op. cit., p. 26.

  43. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 86. Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 435.

  44. Ibid. Ibid. cf. “Lao Tse scheint dem Weg Siddharthas zur Vollendung so sehr Pate gestanden zu haben, dass die Vermutung nicht von der Hand zu weisen ist, die Gestalt des Vasudeva sei ein Porträt Lao Tses. … In einem Brief vom 2. 6. 1922 an Emmy Ball-Hennings spricht Hesse im Hinblick auf Vasudeva von einem ‘freundlichen alten Trottel, der immer lächelt und heimlich ein Heiliger ist’.” Hsia, op. cit., pp. 246–47.

  45. Giles, op. cit., p. 59. A further point of interest regarding this figure: Vasudeva is a name of Vishnu and means: “… that all beings abide in that supreme being, and that he abides in all beings.” From: Garrett, op. cit., p. 690.

  46. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 86. Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 435.

  47. Ibid., p. 87. Ibid., p. 436. It should be noted that Vasudeva, although not formally a teacher, does function as Siddhartha's guru to some extent. As Ziolkowski points out, the phenomenon of ‘mystical transference,’ to be explained in connection with Vasudeva's death, characterizes Vasudeva's and Siddhartha's relationship. See Ziolkowski, The Novels …, p. 153.

  48. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 87. Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 436.

  49. Giles, op. cit., p. 33.

  50. Ibid., p. 49.

  51. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 87. Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 436.

  52. Ibid. Ibid. cf. also: “All-pervading is the Great Tao. It can be at once on the right hand and on the left.” From: Giles, op. cit., p. 23.

  53. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 87. Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 436. Harry Haller learns a similar lesson in the Magic Theater, as will be demonstrated.

  54. Ibid., p. 88. Ibid.

  55. The smile is a symbol which Hesse did not borrow from the figure of Lao Tzu, as evidenced by the latter's own description of himself: “I alone am still, and give as yet no sign of joy. I am like an infant which has not yet smiled, forlorn as one who has nowhere to lay his head.” From: Giles, op. cit., p. 59.

  56. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 88. Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 437. cf. the following: “Siddhartha's smile in the preceding passage is the best example of the new dimension that we find in this novel. Here, in brief, we have the same story that we encountered in Demian: a man's search for himself through the stages of guilt, alienation, despair, to the experience of unity. The new element here is the insistence upon love as the synthesizing agent. Hesse regards this element as ‘natural growth and development’ from his earlier beliefs, and certainly as no reversal or change of opinion. In the essay ‘My Faith’ (1931) he admitted ‘that my Siddhartha puts not cognition, but love in first place: that it disdains dogma and makes the experience of unity the central point.” From: Ziolkowski, The Novels …, p. 170. The Hindu tradition, in stressing joy, provides a link between the idea of the smile as an outward expression of joy and the recognition of the self as one with the universe, i. e., unity characterized by an all-encompassing love; the following passages elucidate the relationship and interdependence of these motifs: “Only that Yogi Whose joy is inward, Inward his peace, And his vision inward Shall come to Brahman And know Nirwana.” From: Swami Prabhavananda, Bhagavad-Gita, p. 61. “The Infinite is the source of joy. There is not joy in the finite. Only in the Infinite is there joy.” From: Swami Prabhavananda, The Upanishads, p. 73. “He who sees all beings in the Self, and the Self in all beings, hates none.” Ibid., p. 27.

  57. The smile is first introduced in Siddhartha on p. 29, when Siddhartha reflects on the Buddha's smile.

  58. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 93. Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 442.

  59. Ibid., p. 122. Ibid., p. 470. cf. Ziolkowski's definition of this smile: “The beatific smile is the symbol of fulfillment: the visual manifestation of the inner achievement.” From: Ziolkowski, The Novels …, p. 171.

  60. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 122. Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 471. Siddhartha's motionlessness is in accord with the Chinese doctrine of inaction. cf. “Attain complete vacuity, and sedulously preserve a state of repose.” Giles, op. cit., p. 34.

  61. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 97. Hesse, G. W. 5., pp. 445–46. cf. the following sayings of Lao Tzu: “It [i. e., Tao] loves and nourishes all things but does not act as master. … The softest things in the world override the hardest.” From: Giles, op. cit., p. 34. “There is nothing in the world more soft and weak than water, yet for attacking things that are hard and strong there is nothing that surpasses it, nothing that can take its place.” Ibid., p. 50.

  62. Lao Tzu states that the Tao “… is ever free from desire.” From: Giles, op. cit., p. 23. The Upanishads also stress the importance of being free from desire: “When a man is free from desire, his mind and senses purified, he beholds the glory of the Self and is without sorrow.” From: Swami Prabhavananda, The Upanishads, p. 18.

  63. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 101. Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 450. Vasudeva, by his actions, fulfills the Hindu definition of a saint or sage. cf. the following passage from the Bhagavad-Gita: “An Incarnation of the Godhead and, to a lesser degree, any theocentric saint, sage or prophet is a human being who knows who he is and can therefore effectively remind other human beings of what they have allowed themselves to forget: namely, that if they choose to become what potentially they already are, they too can be eternally united with the Divine Ground.” From: Swami Prabhavananda, The Upanishads, p. 18.

  64. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 103. Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 452. Meditation in its Eastern form plays an important rôle in Siddhartha just as in Demian: by meditating, one is able to transcend the physical body and reach a state of spiritual purification otherwise unobtainable. In Hesse's terms, this state would be phase three of the triadic rhythm of humanization: “During deep meditation it is possible to dispel time, to see simultaneously all the past, present and future, and then everything is good, everything is perfect, everything is Brahman.” Ibid., p. 116. Ibid., p. 464. Referring to meditation, Casebeer reports the following: “Some SIMS members of my acquaintance refer to the experience as ‘tripping out’—the state not only has some relationship to the psychedelic experience (which will be encountered, by the way, in Steppenwolf's Magic Theater) in its quality but also seems to have some physiological connection in that psychedelic drugs interfere with its occurrence.” From: Casebeer, op. cit., p. 29.

  65. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 104. Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 452.

  66. Ibid., p. 107. Ibid., p. 455. cf. also the following: “The truly wise mourn neither for the living nor for the dead.” From: Swami Prabhavananda, Bhagavad-Gita, p. 36.

  67. Hesse, Siddhartha, pp. 108–09. Hesse, G. W. 5., pp. 456–57. Vasudeva, in accordance with Lao Tzu's explanation of the doctrine of inaction—i.e., the sage, occupied with inaction, conveys instruction without words (Giles, op. cit., p. 33.)—helps Siddhartha comprehend a higher reality by doing, on the surface, nothing.

  68. Ibid., p. 109. Ibid., p. 457.

  69. Ibid., pp. 110–11. Ibid., pp. 457–58.

  70. Ibid., p. 111. Ibid., p. 459. Because this study does not concern itself with the stilistic aspects of the translations of Hesse's works, no mention has thus far been made of occasional inaccurate or questionable—in the researcher's opinion—renditions of the passages presented. In the case of this passage, however, an exception will be made. The phrase ‘Seine Wunde blühte’ which is translated ‘his wound was healing,’ should have been translated as ‘his wound was flourishing,’ while the passage ‘sein Leid strahlte,’ translated as ‘his pain was dispersing,’ should have been translated ‘his pain shone’ or ‘his pain radiated.’ The translations as they are in the English version mislead the reader into thinking Siddhartha is in the process of forgetting or overcoming his wound, while it was Hesse's intention to show that he was finally confirming it with all its pain; Siddhartha is now accepting life with its good side and its bad, its happiness as well as its sorrow, and is growing stronger for the experience. The emphasis is thus on the confirmation of, not the subduing of, pain. Siddhartha can now concentrate on the laughter of the river (cf. p. 111, resp. p. 459) rather than his sorrow, as evidenced by the smile which is now on his face.

  71. Ibid., Ibid. cf. “The Sage is … luminous but not dazzling. From: Giles, op. cit., p. 56.

  72. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 111. Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 459. This passage, like the one in footnote 240, is inaccurately translated. A better rendition, one which also is truer to the Eastern flavor of the book, would be: ‘… who understands perfection …’ cf. also Boulby: “Siddhartha, now ‘seeing’ and thus united with the One, bids farewell to the departing Vasudeva, now Sri Krishna leaving this incarnation: ‘Radiant he departed’ …” From: Boulby, op. cit., p. 150.

  73. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 117. Hesse, G. W. 5., pp. 464–65. cf. “‘A person is said to be established in self-realization and is called a yogi (or mystic) when he is fully satisfied by virtue of acquired knowledge and realization. Such a person is situated in transcendence and is self-controlled. He sees everything—whether it be pebbles, stones or gold—as the same.’” From: Bhaktivedanta, op. cit., p. 34.

  74. Swami Prabhavananda, The Upanishads, p. 88.

  75. Swami Prabhavananda, Bhavagad-Gita, p. 64.

  76. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 117. Hesse, G. W. 5., pp. 465–66.

  77. Ibid., p. 121. Ibid., p. 469. Govinda also sees in Siddhartha's face “… all present and future forms …” (p. 122, resp. p. 470.) A parallel passage, indicating a similar concept of unity and timelessness, is in the Bhagavad-Gita; it is spoken by Sri Krishna and reads as follows: “There was never a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor any of these kings. Nor is there any future in which we will cease to be.” From: Swami Prabhavananda, Bhagavad-Gita, p. 36.

  78. cf. Lao Tzu: “Conveying lessons without words, reaping profit without action,—there are few in the world who can attain to this.” From: Giles, op. cit., p. 34. Regarding Govinda, the meaning of his name may be an indication that Hesse intended to imply a further mystical transference, i. e., from Siddhartha to Govinda, which would ultimately lead to Govinda's own realization of perfection, and thus, like Vasudeva and Siddhartha, he would have the ability to help others attain the same; the name Govinda is one of the names of Sri Krishna and means ‘Giver of Enlightenment.’ (cf. Swami Prabhavananda, Bhagavad-Gita, p. 32.

  79. Casebeer, op. cit., p. 47.

  80. Sinclair, the protagonist of Demian, as the conclusion of the work implies, will eventually become like Demian, his mentor. Harry Haller reaches the third stage in Hesse's triadic system for only brief moments; Joseph Knecht reaches his goal through death, and so forth.

  81. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 99. Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 448.

  82. Ibid., pp. 105–06. Ibid., p. 453.

  83. Having learned that everything and every creature is a manifestation of the creative force—in Hindu terms, Brahman—one learns to love the Self alone rather than individual manifestations of it. cf. “‘Where there is consciousness of the Self, individuality is no more.’” From: Swami Prabhavananda, The Upanishads, p. 88. cf. also: “This Self, which is nearer to us than anything else, is indeed dearer than a son, dearer than wealth, dearer than all beside. Let a man worship the Self alone as dear, for if he worship the Self alone as dear, the object of his love will never perish.” Ibid., p. 80.

  84. “… to Hesse the most important fact about each one of us was not our individuality but our relationship to the whole universe.” From: Casebeer, op. cit., p. 25.

  85. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 119. Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 467. cf. “A man should not hate any creature. Let him be friendly and compassionate to all. He must free himself from the delusion of ‘I’ and ‘mine.’ He must accept pleasure and pain with equal tranquillity. He must be forgiving, ever-contented, self-controlled, united constantly with me in his meditation. His resolve must be unshakable. He must be dedicated to me in intellect and mind. Such a devotee is dear to me.” From: Swami Prabhavananda, Bhagavad-Gita, p. 99.

  86. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 119. Hesse, G. W. 5., p. 467. cf. the following: “Und während Buddha gelehrt hatte, dass der Mensch sich aller Gefühle, aller Bindungen an Menschliches entäussern müsse, weiss der weise gewordene Brahmanansohn am Ende, dass der rechte Sinn eines Lebens und seine rechte Erfüllung im Göttlichen nur dann die letzte Lösung bringt, wenn sie nicht jenseits, sondern diesseits, innerhalb des Menschlichen und seiner Bindungen geschieht. Dieses Innerhalb und Diesseits, diese Bindung im Menschlichen, ist die Liebe.” From: Stolte, op. cit., pp. 154–55.

  87. Hesse, Siddhartha, p. 121. Hesse, G. W. 5., pp. 469–70. Ziolkowski states: “… as Govinda looks into Siddhartha's face at the end, what he perceives is no longer the landscape of the soul, but rather: the soul as landscape. Siddhartha has learned the lesson of the river so well that his entire being now reflects the totality and simultaneity that the river symbolizes. As in a painting by Marc Chagall or in Rilke's poem ‘The Death of the Poet,’ the landscape is actually reflected in Siddhartha's face. He has reached fulfillment by affirming the totality of the world and by accepting it as part of himself and himself as part of the development of the world.” From: Ziolkowski, The Novels …, p. 169.

  88. Much of the secondary literature recognizes only the Christian aspect of the concept of love in Siddhartha, one example being the following: “… the book's doctrine of love is not Indian at all, but Fransiscan, or at the very least Christian.” Boulby, op. cit., p. 152. cf. Hsia: “Doch die Hauptsache für Siddhartha ist die Liebe. Sie ist für viele Interpreten—zuweilen auch für Hesse selbst—ein ausschliesslich christliches Element. Doch hat das Christentum, obwohl die Botschaft Christi zweifellos eine Botschaft der Liebe ist, durchaus nicht das Monopol auf sie.” (Hsia, op. cit., p. 247.)

  89. Hsia, op. cit., p. 248.

  90. Ibid.

  91. Giles, op. cit., p. 23.

  92. cf. the following: “Perform every action with your heart fixed on the Supreme Lord.” (Swami Prabhavananda, Bhagavad-Gita, p. 40.) “Do your duty, always; but without attachment. That is how a man reaches the ultimate Truth; by working without anxiety about results. … Your motive in working should be to set others, by your example, on the path of duty.” Ibid., p. 47.

  93. cf. Swami Prabhavananda, The Upanishads, p. 18.

  94. The text stresses the importance of following one's own path; the three figures who actually reach their goal of self-realization, Siddhartha, Gotama, and Vasudeva, all attain it by taking different paths, independent of any organized body of teachings.

  95. Casebeer, op. cit., pp. 53–54.

David G. Richards (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2810

SOURCE: “From Demian to The Glass Bead Game: Themes and Variations,” in The Hero's Quest for the Self: An Archetypal Approach to Hesse's Demian and Other Novels, University Press of America, 1987, pp. 105–11.

[In the following excerpt, Richard examines Hesse's idea of unity in Siddhartha, and asserts that it is an intellectual construct not based on personal experience.]

In Siddhartha it is the river that serves as a symbol of the pleromatic fullness and synchronistic timelessness of the unconscious. Unlike Klein, who must actually drown himself to be reborn, Siddhartha is saved from drowning by the illumination that comes to him in the sound of the holy syllable “Om.” The “terrible emptiness in his soul” that causes him to contemplate suicide is itself a symbolic death. The sacred symbol reestablishes his contact with “all that he had forgotten, all that was divine” and fills his soul again with the fullness he soon comes to recognize in the river, just as he had previously seen his empty soul reflected from the water as “a horrible emptiness” (GS.3.682–83 [Gesammelte Schriften, collected work, 1957] ). Siddhartha's rebirth takes place in deep sleep at the foot of a tree next to the river: “What a wonderful sleep it had been! Never had a sleep so refreshed him, so renewed him, so rejuvenated him! Perhaps he had really died, had drowned and been reborn in a new form” (GS.3.684). Whereas the former Siddhartha had not been able to love, he now “loved everything; he was full of joyous love towards everything he saw” (GS.3.688). As a child again, he is ready to begin a new life, which he does with the ferryman Vasudeva.

Siddhartha recognizes that his life is timeless like the river, which is “everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, in the current, in the ocean, in the mountain, everywhere, at the same time” (GS.3.698). Not only does the man contain the child and all the experiences that have made him, but the child also contains the man and all he will become. The concept of fate contained in Demian and other novels is based on this insight: one must follow one's inner voice or fate to a predestined goal. The emptiness and despair Hesse's heroes usually experience along the way is the result either of having departed from their true paths or of having reached a transitional phase between stages of development. The solution in both cases is death, either real or symbolic, followed by a renewed attempt to advance or by rebirth into the next stage of development. Siddhartha and Govinda are not sure whether this process is cyclical or spiral, that is, whether it includes progress or not.

The cycles of an individual's life recur on a collective level and are repeated through the generations, as Siddhartha learns when his son rejects and leaves him, just as he had once left his father: “Siddhartha looked into the water, and images appeared to him in the flowing water: his father appeared lonely, mourning for his son; he himself appeared, lonely, he too bound to his distant son with bonds of longing; the son appeared, he too lonely, the boy, eagerly dashing along the burning path of his young wishes; each one aiming at his goal, each one obsessed by his goal, each one suffering. The river sang with the voice of suffering; it sang longingly; longingly it flowed toward its goal” (GS.3.719). The images in the river combine with others to form a complex web of interrelationships within a single whole, of which Siddhartha, too, is a part. Once he realizes the unity of all things, he ceases to fight against his destiny and finds the peace and wholeness he had admired in the godlike Vasudeva.

Siddhartha conveys this unitary vision to his visiting friend Govinda, not through words, however, for every word is one-sided and only expresses half the truth, but through an act of love. He tells Govinda to kiss his forehead. As his lips touch Siddhartha's forehead, Govinda experiences Siddhartha's vision: he sees hundreds and thousands of faces coming and going, yet all are Siddhartha. He sees people involved in various acts. He sees animals of all kinds and various gods:

He saw all these forms and faces in a thousand relationships to each other, each helping the other, loving it, hating it, destroying it, giving birth to it anew. Each was a desire to die, a passionate, painful confession of transitoriness. Yet none died; each was merely transformed, was continually reborn, continually received new faces, without any time existing between one face and the other—and all these forms and faces rested, flowed, begat themselves, swam along and flowed into each other, and something thin, unsubstantial, yet real was continually drawn over all of them like thin glass or ice, like a transparent skin, a shell or form or mask of water, and this mask smiled, and this mask was Siddhartha's smiling face that he, Govinda, was just now touching with his lips.

Govinda recognizes “this smile of the mask, this smile of unity over the flowing forms, this smile of simultaneity over the thousand births and deaths” as being exactly the same as the smile of Gotama, the Buddha (GS.3.731–32). Again, the process through which Siddhartha finds or forms the symbol that mediates between thesis and antithesis, between consciousness and the unconscious, may be identified with the Jungian transcendent function.

The basic pattern of Siddhartha's development is analogous to Sinclair's, though his starting point is more advanced and the nature of his quest more elevated and spiritual. He has achieved a balance between the two worlds in him, the father's and mother's, but he is restricted in his development by conventions and the inertia of the status quo. He must go his own way and allow his own destiny to unfold. Under the guidance of holy men he leads an ascetic and spiritual life, until he realizes that he cannot learn about himself from others. One is transformed by the teachings and doctrines of others into a mirror of those teachings. Siddhartha therefore rejects his teachers, as Sinclair does Pistorius, in order to become an individual and find the self he had been fleeing.

At this point he sheds his youth, as a snake sheds its old skin, and becomes a new person. He sees the world as if for the first time and finds it beautiful and strange: “Here was blue, here was yellow, here was green; sky flowed and river, woods stared and mountains, all beautiful, all mysterious and magical; and in the midst of it, he, Siddhartha, the awakening one, on the way to himself” (GS.3.647). The yellow and blue he sees are the colors of Sinclair's heraldic sparrow hawk, the colors symbolizing consciousness and the unconscious. The addition here of green, the synthesis of yellow and blue, anticipates the union of these opposites in the transcendent function of the self. This unity is also implied by the “flowing sky and river.” Whereas Siddhartha had been taught to dismiss the world and the self as illusions, he now discovers the reality, even divinity, that is in all things: “Meaning and being were not hidden somewhere behind things; they were in them, in everything” (GS.3.647).

The reborn Siddhartha contemplates returning to his father, but realizes that he cannot return home. He experiences the same icy chill of loneliness and despair that Sinclair does when he leaves home and that the hero of “The Difficult Path” does on the mountain peak. Hesse had to leave his hero at this critical point beyond which he himself was not yet able to proceed. He realized, “not for the first time, of course, but more forcefully than ever, that it is absurd to want to write something one has not experienced. In that long pause during which I had abandoned Siddhartha, I had to catch up on a bit of ascetic and meditative life before I could once again really feel at home in the world of the Indian spirit, which had been sacred and congenial to me from the time of my youth.”1

Renewed contact and long conversations with his cousin Wilhelm Gundert, a professor and missionary to Tokyo, is presumed to have been decisive in helping Hesse end this most uncreative period of his life, but his analysis with Jung was surely even more important. The second part of Siddhartha actually contains less of the spiritual world of India than does the first part, in which Siddhartha lives with the Samanas and listens to Gotama, the Buddha.2 The change in emphasis between parts from the spiritual to the sensual is anticipated in a dream: when Govinda asks why he left him, Siddhartha embraces and kisses him, but Govinda has become a woman, “and out of the woman's gown swelled a full breast at which Siddhartha lay and drank; sweet and strong tasted the milk from this breast. It tasted of woman and man, of sun and forest, of animal and flower, of every fruit, of every pleasure. It made him intoxicated and unconscious” (GS.3.652). Reminiscent of Sinclair's painted images, this dream anticipates a change in development, in this case the enantiodromian reversal that is initiated by Siddhartha's meeting with the courtesan Kamala. Not until he has learned all he can from the life of the senses is he ready to leave everything behind and experience the rebirth with which this discussion began.

There is no indication in Hesse's subsequent works that he had actually experienced the unitary state of consciousness he describes in Siddhartha. On the contrary, he begins Guest at a Spa (Kurgast) by identifying knowledge of the antinomies and bipolarity as the “wisdom of age,” and he introduces himself as a “solitary man from the family of the schizophrenics” (GS.4.9–10). The critical polarity is again the familiar opposition between nature and spirit: “all the motions of natural life are transitory and beautiful,” he informs us, “but the spirit (Geist) is imperishable and boring. At this moment I reject it and do not regard the spirit as eternal life but as eternal death, as rigidity, infertility, and formlessness that can only become form and life by giving up its immortality. … the spirit must become body and soul in order to be able to live” (GS.4.31).

Hesse's defense of unity as a concept, a belief, an ideal, rather than as something empirical, supports the assumption that the conclusion of Siddhartha is an intellectual construct not based on experience: “Indeed, I believe in nothing in the world as deeply and no other idea is as sacred to me as that of unity, the idea that everything in the world is a divine unity and that all suffering, all evil only consists in the fact that we individuals no longer perceive ourselves to be inseparable parts of the whole, that the ego takes itself too seriously” (GS.4.63; emphasis added). The individual has the possibility, through either knowledge or grace, to abandon the ego or, in Jung's terminology, to dissolve the persona and merge with the unity Hesse equates with God or the Mother, the unity we have found to be identical in some instances with the collective unconscious and in others with the totality represented by the Jungian self as the imago Dei and complexio oppositorum, i.e., as a synthesis of consciousness and the unconscious. In Hesse's view, mergence with this unity is death; separation from it, rebirth. He can therefore refer to the promising possibility of his death as a sick patient and to his rebirth as a cured one.

We must not lose sight of the never extinguishing possibility that his condition will change, that his being will be converted to a new denominator. … If we view the patient Hesse with shaking of heads and consider him ready for death (reif zum Untergang), let it not be forgotten that we cannot believe in departure in the sense of destruction, but only in the sense of transformation, for the foundation and matrix of all our ideas, hence also of our psychology, is the belief in God, in unity—and unity can constantly be restored, even in the most desperate case, by means of grace or knowledge. There is no sick person who could not become well and enter life again through a single step, even though it be the step through death.


Hesse was convinced by the time he wrote Guest at a Spa that only such figures as Jesus, Buddha, and some saints ever achieved a true and lasting state of unity and selfhood. For the rest of mankind, entering a unitary state is a brief occurrence that accompanies periodic renewal and rebirth. If he were not constantly aware of this unity as an indestructible balance or compensation to which he can return when necessary, Hesse confesses, he would not have the courage to exercise the critical, analytical faculties that separate him from it. “The more I expose myself and dare to proceed on the one side, the more relentlessly I criticize, the more flexible I am in yielding to my moods,” he writes, “the more brightly shines the light of reconciliation on the other side. If it were not for this infinite, constantly fluctuating compensation, where would I get the courage to say a single word, to pass judgment, to feel and express love or hate, and to live a single hour?” (GS.4.87). He derives similar satisfaction from his relationship to the two poles of his being and from the possibility of oscillating between them:

My relationship to the so-called ‘intellect’ (Geist), for example, is exactly the same as that to eating and drinking. Sometimes there is nothing in the world that attracts me so strongly and seems so indispensable to me as intellect, as the possibility of abstraction, of logic, of ideas. Then again, when I'm full of that and need and desire the opposite, all intellect nauseates me like spoiled food. I know from experience that this behavior is considered to be arbitrary, unprincipled, even illicit, but I've never been able to understand why. For just as I must perpetually change between eating and fasting, sleeping and waking, I must also constantly oscillate between naturalness and intellectuality, between experience and Platonism, between order and revolution, between Catholicism and the spirit of reformation.


Guest at a Spa concludes with the important and often quoted statement as to how he would treat the two poles if he were a musician:

If I were a musician, I could easily write a two-part melody, a melody that would consist of two lines, of a double series of notes and tones that would answer each other, but that in any case would stand in the most intimate and lively interplay and reciprocal relationship in every moment and at every point in the series. And everyone who knows how to read music could read my double melody, could for every tone always see and hear the opposing tone, the brother, the enemy, the antipode.

He tries to achieve the same effect with words, but always without success. If anything gives his works tension and forcefulness, it is the intense effort to accomplish the impossible. “I want to find an expression for this duality; I want to write chapters and sentences in which melody and countermelody would be visible simultaneously, in which every variety would always be accompanied by unity, every jest by seriousness. For life exists for me only in the fluctuation between poles, in the back and forth between both the supporting pillars of the world.” “This is my dilemma,” he says in conclusion. “Much can be said about it, but it cannot be solved. I will never succeed in bending the two poles together, in writing down the two-part song of life's melody. Nevertheless, I will follow the dark command from inside me and will have to make the attempt again and again. This is the spring that drives my little clock” (GS.4.113–115).


  1. Quoted by Siegfried Unseld in Hermann Hesse: Eine Werkgeschichte (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1973), p. 89.

  2. Hesse pointed out in a letter to the critic Rudolf Schmid that Siddhartha is a “very European book, despite its milieu,” and that it is based far more on the individual and takes the individual far more seriously than any Asian doctrine does. He would even go so far as to say that “Siddhartha is the expression of my liberation from Indian thought.” (Quoted in Unseld, Hermann Hesse: Eine Werkgeschichte, p. 88.) Elsewhere he wrote: “I wanted to present in my Indian legend only those inner developments and states I had really known and really experienced myself” (Ibid., p. 90), which points more to recent events, including his analysis, than to the life he supposedly had to “catch up on” and renew.

Eugene L. Stelzig (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5953

SOURCE: “Ticino Legends of Saints and Sinners,” in Hermann Hesse's Fictions of the Self: Autobiography and the Confessional Imagination, Princeton University Press, 1988, pp. 173–87.

[In the following excerpt, Stelzig discusses Siddhartha in terms of authobiography, biography, life and art, and the subjectivity evident in modern literature.]


Hesse began his “Indian legend”1 in the winter of 1920; the writing proceeded rapidly, and by spring, he was halfway through Part 2, when he bogged down in the “By the River” chapter. For a time it seemed that the book would be consigned to his collection of unfinished works, but after a painful hiatus of nearly two years, he tackled it anew, and by May 1922 Siddhartha was finished. What had been the obstacle? One explanation is that Hesse, like many artists, experienced a letdown after a spell of intensive work, for, as he laments in the journal he kept to fill the void of not working on the novel, after the sustained creative high of 1919, 1920 turned out to be “certainly the most unproductive [year] of [his] life.”2 Another reason for the prolonged cold spell is that in the second part of Siddhartha, Hesse was reaching, as it were, beyond his confessional shadow: “My Indian poem proceeded splendidly so long as I composed what I had experienced: the mood of the young Brahmin who seeks wisdom and who torments and mortifies himself. But when I had come to the end of Siddhartha the sufferer and ascetic, and wanted to write about Siddhartha the victor, the yea-sayer and master, I couldn't proceed any further.”3

His remedy to this dilemma was at once ingenious and simple: to try and enter imaginatively into and make his own the states of mind he wished to portray in his protagonist. He succeeded in this project to the extent that he managed to bring to a conclusion his most popular “wisdom” book. Yet the catch in his presentation of Siddhartha the “yea-sayer” is that—as with nearly all attempts to formulate religious and spiritual truths—what is intended to be most edifying turns out to be inexpressible save through clichés. As a witty passage in his 1920–1921 journal reveals, Hesse was quite aware of what might be called the Polonius dilemma of proffering words of wisdom:

There is nothing more difficult than being a father confessor or spiritual guide. When some poor person has told me his story, I can't at bottom say anything else except, “yes, that is sad, as sad as life frequently is, I know it, I too have experienced it. Seek to bear it, and if nothing at all helps, drink a bottle of wine, and if that doesn't help either, know that there is the possibility of putting a bullet in one's head.” Instead of this I seek to produce my consolatory arguments and life-wisdoms, and even if I actually know a few truths, at the instant one utters them aloud and dispenses them as medicine for an actual and immediate sorrow, they are a bit theoretical and hollow, and suddenly one seems to oneself like a priest who seeks to console his people and at the same time has the wretched feeling that he is doing something mechanical.4

Hesse's attempt to experience in some measure the spiritual development he wished to portray in the last third of Siddhartha led him consciously to re-immerse himself in a world that had been one of the donneés of his childhood—Indian religion and culture, as it had been available to him through his missionary parents and his deeply learned, Sanskrit-speaking grandfather Gundert. In the essay “My Belief” (1930), Hesse reminds us that “my father, mother, and grandfather had not only a rich and fairly thorough knowledge of Hindu forms of belief but also a sympathy, though only half admitted, for those forms. I breathed and participated in spiritual Hinduism from childhood just as much as I did in Christianity.”5 Hesse's renewed study of “the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the discourses of the Buddha” in what Mileck calls “a profound spiritual experience”6 was, however, not the only way out of the impasse of 1920–1921, for as he acknowledged, the Chinese spiritual tradition, chiefly in the form of Taoism, had a significant impact as well on the last part of Siddhartha. Finally, even if the novel's exotic setting and hagiographic style do not readily suggest it, psychoanalysis is also a powerful if invisible influence. Freedman has stressed the importance of Hesse's sessions with Jung in early 1921 in helping him to get out from under his literary paralysis, because these may have facilitated “the idea of interior space in which temporal strife is displaced by a transcendent vision.”7 And near the conclusion of his 1920–1921 journal, Hesse summarizes “the path of healing and development” that enabled him to complete Siddhartha: “next to the Asiatic teachings (Buddha, Vedanta, and Lao-Tzu)” it included as well “psychoanalysis … not as a therapeutic method … but as the essential element” of a new world view.8

If Hesse's turn to the East in Siddhartha is a natural extension of his childhood and his family background, it was also reinforced by the Orientalism in vogue at the time he began work on the novel, and which was due in part to the popular Travel Diary of a Philosopher (1919) by Count Keyserling, whom Hesse in a review of 1920 praised as “the first European scholar and philosopher who has really understood India.”9 In his own journey to India a decade earlier Hesse had failed, as he admitted to Romain Rolland in 1923, to get beyond “the charm of the exotic” and to enter into “the world of the Indian spirit”—in fact, the only item of his miscellany, From India: Sketches of an Indian Journey (1913), that he still considers valuable is “a curious little tale [‘Robert Aghion’] which at that time (1911) gave me much pleasure.”10 In striking contrast to his earlier tourist-venture, Hesse's fictional journey to India in Siddhartha is an inward and spiritual one that largely eschews picturesque surface and exotic effects in order to explore the sinner-saint polarity within him through the geographic symbolism that Ziolkowski has definitively analyzed as “the landscape of the soul” and “the projection of inner development into the realm of space.”11

Questions as to the extent and significance of the Oriental influence on this novel, and the related issue of the Indian (Hindu and Buddhist) versus the Chinese (Taoist) components, are difficult to answer, particularly since most Western critics (myself included) simply do not have the necessary expertise to address it authoritatively, and since scholars and critics with an Oriental expertise are understandably prone to overstating the case by taking a part for the whole.12 In this regard Hesse's ample pronouncements over the years about his intentions in Siddhartha are not always helpful, for they can furnish, like the Bible, support for radically differing viewpoints and interpretations. Nevertheless, in my view the gist of these (when considered in the context of the novel) justifies the conclusion that even though the “Eastern” influence is important, the book as a whole expresses a fundamentally Western outlook. Indeed, I would suggest that one of the wonderful ironies of Siddhartha's enthusiastic reception by the American counterculture and student generation of the 1960s is that in the guise of Eastern religion these young readers were taking in, unbeknownst to them, an essentially Western creed.

Perhaps a better way to address the complex matter of the Eastern versus the Western aspects of Siddhartha is to describe it as Hesse's mid-life examination of the foundation of his religious beliefs in an undogmatic formulation of his deepest intuitions that draws on three great spiritual traditions: the Christian, the Indian, and the Chinese. Here Siddhartha points to a core experience that resists neat or easy definition. Hesse's statement in 1958 that he sought in this book “to discover what all faiths and all forms of human devoutness have in common”13 assumes a cross-cultural and transconfessional basis of religion, a premise consistent with the three-tiered scheme of humanization outlined in “My Belief” (discussed in the last part of Chapter III). The path of Siddhartha, which leads from the self-will of the second stage to the serene faith of the third, reflects Hesse's own struggles as much as his aspirations toward a higher harmony. Hesse's belief that there is a greater coherence to his career is evident in his insistence that—despite the palpable differences of style and setting—Demian and Siddhartha are “by no means contradictions, but segments of the same way”: Demian “stresses the process of individuation, the development of the personality without which no higher life is possible,” whereas Siddhartha is concerned with “the other side of our task and destiny … the overcoming of our personality and our being pervaded by God.”14

The path of Siddhartha's self-realization—which, as Ziolkowski has shown, in some respects resembles that of Demian's Sinclair15—indicates both Hesse's assimilation of as well as his critical self-distancing from the Indian element. As Hesse wrote to Stefan Zweig in a revealing statement, “it was only when … this Indian element began to be no longer important to me that it became possible for me to represent it, just as I am always able to represent only that which in actual life is taking leave of me and departing.” Even if Hesse affirms that the Indian “garb” is more than a mere “costume,”16 Siddhartha obviously bears his author's psychological features. His Sanskrit name, which is also the legendary one of the Buddha, means something like “he who has found the goal,” and is ironically appropriate, for Siddhartha can only reach his goal by rejecting the Buddha's teaching of the Eightfold Path and by attending instead to the Buddha's living example of following the voice within, which in Hesse-Siddhartha's view is what brought Gotama his enlightenment under the Bo tree. Therefore it is not surprising that Hesse the perennial Protestant also characterized his book as “the expression of [his] liberation from Indian thought” because this “very European book, despite its milieu” takes the concept of individuality “much more seriously than any Asiatic teaching.”17

Hesse's autobiographical meditation on the spiritual core of all religions can also be read as his further and belated attempt at a reconciliation with his father, an idea first developed by Ball, who notes that Hesse's new closeness to his father during the latter's last years turned into admiration and love after his death in 1916.18 While Freedman qualifies Ball's terse conclusion that “in Demian the father is missing, in Siddhartha the mother” with the more balanced view that both aspects “seemed to exist side by side in Hesse's imagination as he settled into his Indian book,”19 the new ascendancy of the father world is evident in Siddhartha's series of guru and guide figures. While the novel by no means excludes the mother world, which is suggested by Kamala and the realm of the senses (Samsara), the unresolved father-son conflict of Hesse's youth is now transposed and spiritualized through a set of strategic rejections of father figures. With the possible exception of Siddhartha's confrontation with the head Samana, these are respectful partings-of-the-way without any of the overt resentment and even contempt that burden most of the father-son relationships in Hesse's writings up to Siddhartha. Now the legend of self-will is presented with a delicate but masterly touch: unlike Sinclair, who seeks repeatedly to flee back into the Eden of childhood and whose weak self continues to rely on strong guides, Siddhartha makes a definitive break at the beginning of the novel with the tradition of his family, and appreciates early in his quest that he must reject all gurus to find himself. That, incidentally, is why Govinda, Siddhartha's friend and early disciple who depends on mentors as a roadmap to salvation, is still searching at the end of the book. He may well represent, as Field has suggested, “passive Oriental acceptance,”20 but he is also the type of the perpetual follower who can never find the proper rhythm of his own life.

In the stately modulations of its lyrical and liturgical prose Siddhartha develops with synoptic clarity the stages of its hero's spiritual development from the exemplary “Brahmin's son”21 of the opening to the smiling saint of the conclusion. Hesse's paradigmatic patterning is everywhere evident: more so than any of his previous alter egos, Siddhartha—true to his name—achieves his goal; in his life's pilgrimage, the polarities of sinner/saint, mind/nature are symmetrically balanced and mediated by the unifying symbol of the river. Hesse's new maturity is also evident in the balance of objectivity and empathy with which both the roles of father and son are presented, and in the wry but pervasive humor that seems to have eluded most of his critics—this, after all, is a wisdom book in which even the River Mystical is known to laugh at an apprentice saint.

Surely the influential Augustinian model of conversion and the genre of the saint's life (with which Hesse was familiar because of his long-standing interest in the Middle Ages and Saint Francis, about whom he had written a poetic biography) must have helped him frame the hagiographic vita of Siddhartha.22 Thus what sometimes seems in Demian like a series of chaotic transformations is unfolded in Siddhartha as a coherent progression. The earlier novel's “light” and “dark” worlds are now two landscapes separated by the river, and the hero's life is both a geographic and spiritual journey that culminates in an experienced unity of self and world. However, if Hesse's saint reaches the third level of humanization, his life is also characterized by the Romantic-existential sense, to borrow Kierkegaard's title, of “stages on life's way.” The experience of “awakening,” so important later in The Glass Bead Game, depends on a periodic self-renewal symbolized by the age-old trope of the snake shedding its skin (37). The informing dynamic of Siddhartha's life, “awakening,” though marked by a feeling of utter aloneness and “icy despair” (41), differs from Klein's existential Angst, because it is a function of higher self-realization. It is a proleptic force, as Siddhartha realizes when at the end of Part 1 he decides not to return home to his father. Moreover, in this novel the diachronic succession of identity stages is countered by a synchronic perception of the atemporal totality of the self, which is in turn posited on the larger unity of the cosmos.

Siddhartha's “awakening” is already implicit in his dissatisfaction with the Brahminic faith of his forebears as a viable way “toward the Self, toward Atman” (6). His subsequent adolescent confrontation with his priestly father over his decision to join the wandering ascetics, the Samanas, is an ironic rescripting of the young Hesse's active and not-so-successful rebellion into a successful passive resistance (6–7). Unlike the adolescent Hesse, and like Demian, Siddhartha uses his uncanny self-control to master others. Thus the identity crisis of Hesse's youth is transformed into an amusing episode from which the son emerges victorious, but which also shows the figure of the father as compassionate and dignified. Siddhartha's subsequent rejection of the ascetic-Samana ideal as a “flight from the Self” that can be achieved with less trouble, as he explains to Govinda, by the ox-driver “asleep over his bowl of rice wine” (17), is his second step away from external authority figures and toward himself. Like his earlier departure from home, his parting with the Samanas turns on a sly assertion of his self-will, in a scene whose humor has a satiric edge when Siddhartha hypnotizes the head Samana and forces him into fawning acquiescence.

Siddhartha's subsequent encounter with the Buddha—who shares with him not only a name, but a similar vita—is the final exercise of his Eigensinn against the figure whom he recognizes instantly as the greatest of all teachers and saints (“Never had Siddhartha esteemed a man so much, never had he loved a man so much,” 28). Yet he refuses to subscribe to Gotama's doctrine, raising instead, in this subtly comic encounter, objections to the Buddhist gospel of the Eight-fold Path to Nirvana, because he knows now that the road to enlightenment simply cannot be taught: the one thing the Buddha's teachings do not contain, as Siddhartha points out like some forward sophomore, is the incommunicable secret of “what the Illustrious One himself experienced” in the hour of his illumination (34). The youthful critic then concludes his Protestant rebuff of the Buddha with the assertion that he must judge for himself, which earns him the well-deserved reprimand, “you speak cleverly, my friend. Be on your guard against too much cleverness” (35).

Siddhartha's “awakening” in the last section of Part 1 cuts specifically against the grain of the Buddha's teachings, for it is his entry into the maternal sphere of nature and the senses that marks the emergence of a radically this-worldly self. A psychoanalytic passage from the “Journal 1920–1921” throws some light on Siddhartha's sudden volte face: “All heroic demands and virtues are repressions … In fact, virtues, like talents, are a sort of dangerous if at times useful hypertrophy, like goose livers grown to abnormal size.”23 Like the later Goldmund's flight from the monastery, Siddhartha's transformation is one from the austerities of the father world to a life of pleasure whose focus is the courtesan Kamala. And like Klein's passionate transports after his meeting with Teresina, Siddhartha's “awakening” is the revelation, not of a transcendent meaning, but of one immanent in the everyday world. The lyrical meditation below may have an “Indian” cast, but its larger drift should be familiar to anyone acquainted with the epiphanic mode in English literature from Wordsworth to Joyce:

He looked around him as if seeing the world for the first time. The world was beautiful, strange, and mysterious. Here was blue, here was yellow, here was green, sky and river, woods and mountains, all beautiful, all mysterious and enchanting, and in the midst of it, he, Siddhartha, the awakened one, on the way to himself. All this, all this yellow and blue, river and wood, passed for the first time across Siddhartha's eyes. It was no longer the magic of Mara, it was no more the veil of Maya, it was no longer meaningless and the chance diversities of the appearances of the world, despised by deep-thinking Brahmins, who scorned diversity, who sought unity. River was river, and if the One and Divine in Siddhartha secretly lived in blue and river, it was just the divine art and intention that there should be yellow and blue, there sky and wood—and here Siddhartha. Meaning and reality were not hidden somewhere behind things, they were in them, in all of them.


Siddhartha's childlike and unreflective immersion in the world of the senses on the other side of the river brings him a sexual awakening through an encounter with a teacher that is just as stylized and replete with gentle humor as his earlier confrontations with male preceptors. The poem that earns him his first kiss from Kamala throws his earlier spirit-exercises into a wonderfully ironic light:

Into her grove went the fair Kamala,
At the entrance of the grove stood the brown Samana.
As he saw the lotus flower,
Deeply he bowed.
Smiling, acknowledged Kamala,
Better, thought the young Samana,
To make sacrifices to the fair Kamala
Than to offer sacrifices to the gods.


It is characteristic of Hesse's light touch in this novel that the young man who has just abjured all teachers should now seek out a new mentor—but one who teaches not any dogma, but engages her new pupil in a protracted practicum in the Kama Sutra. And unlike many of Hesse's earlier protagonists who prove misfits in Cupid's school, from Giebenrath who almost falls down the cellar stairs at Emma's advances, to Sinclair's pallid cult of Beatrice, Siddhartha proves an apt student. In the fictions of his middle period Hesse may still stereotype sexual relationships through Romantic spectacles, but at least his confessional personas are now a far cry from the neurasthenic virgins of his early fiction—a fact that no doubt reflects his changed outlook and lifestyle after his move from Bern. Indeed, Hesse's request to a friend to return his copy of the Kama Sutra, because he “needed it very badly, as soon as possible”24 may stand as a humorous footnote to the Kamala sequence in Siddhartha.

Siddhartha's immersion in worldly pleasures can be no more than a way station, for Hesse's aim is to show that, as he wrote in 1921, “the highest toward which humans can aspire” is the most advanced degree of “harmony within the individual soul.” Hesse saw this issue in both religious and psychological terms, as evident in his gloss, “who achieves this harmony has at the same time what psychoanalysis would call the free disposability of the libido, and that of which the New Testament states, ‘everything is yours’.”25 In Siddhartha this “harmony” is more effectively conceived than it was with the Abraxas symbol of Demian, as the dialectical integration of antithetical aspects of the self. Siddhartha has learned that the road of asceticism is a dead end; now he has to learn that the same holds true for the contrary path of sense-indulgence. In the four segments from “Kamala” to “By the River,” Hesse the moralist demonstrates the old lesson, preached from many a Christian pulpit, that the pursuit of sense pleasure is in the end destructive of the very wonder and delight it first occasioned in us. Siddhartha has awakened to the innocent senses, only to lose himself in the headlong pursuit of hedonism under the combined tutelage of Kamala (kama = love) and the merchant Kamaswami (“Master of this World” = materialism). What began in naive joy ends in “By the River” in suicidal disgust and surfeit of the greedy round of pleasure. Siddhartha has succumbed to “the soul sickness of the rich” (78) and has lost “the divine voice in his own heart” (76)—something symbolized by his dream of the dead songbird, whose actual release by Kamala is a metaphor of his renewed “awakening.”

Having experienced the extremes of self-denial and self-gratification—this noble spirit, after all, does nothing half-heartedly—and discovered that each is a cul-de-sac, Siddhartha is ready for the greater synthesis adumbrated in the third part of the novel. It should not surprise us that the Hesse who in the “Journal 1920–1921” contrasted Augustine's religious with Rousseau's secular Confessions should, in his depiction of Siddhartha's turn from the corrupt pleasures of the world (Samsara) to a saintly life (symbolized by Vasudeva, the Ferryman), follow the well-known Augustinian model of a right-angle turn from sin to salvation. In fact I may not be straining too far if I discern a further parallel between Siddhartha's life and Augustine's: just as the young Augustine pursued false systems and practiced erroneous arts before finding the true faith—as a follower of the Manicheans, as a professor of rhetoric, and as a student of neo-Platonic philosophy, all of which nevertheless contributed something essential to the saint's final identity—so Siddhartha looked into three different teachings (as Brahmin, Samana, and Buddhist) that proved inappropriate to his needs but that were instrumental in shaping his final outlook. In any event, after rejecting the suicidal impulse that Klein succumbed to, Siddhartha experiences yet another “awakening” to a higher self. Now the metaphor is literalized as he wakes up from a deep and healing sleep to a new awareness synonymous with the basic message of Christianity: “he loved everything, he was full of joyous love towards everything he saw. And it seemed to him that was just why he was previously ill—because he could love nothing and nobody” (94). Cured of his self-hatred and despair, Siddhartha has become again “like a small child” (95) and is ready, like the dying Klein, to enter into the kingdom of heaven—or, to invoke the Chinese equivalent that is just as relevant to the last third of Siddhartha, into the mystery of the Tao.

Even a cursory examination of Taoist sayings will reveal basic similarities with the religious ideas of the last part of Siddhartha. We know that Hesse's interest in the Chinese tradition and particularly the figure of Lao-Tzu dates back to at least a decade earlier, when he characterized the Tao Te Ching as a “fashionable book” in Europe for the “past fifteen years.”26 His renewed interest in Taoism may have been stimulated by his father's pamphlet (published in 1914, the year before his death) on “Lao-Tzu as a Pre-Christian Witness to the Truth.” In 1919 Hesse published in the first issue of Vivos Voco (a journal he co-edited for a short time after the war) “Tao: A Selection of the Sayings of Lao-Tzu” from a new translation of the Tao Te Ching.27 Two years later he epitomized Lao-Tzu's Tao as “the quintessence of wisdom,” and in 1922 he described Siddhartha as a work in “Indian garb that begins with Brahman and Buddha and ends with the Tao.”28 In the light of these avowals Hsia's conclusion that Vasudeva and the river are both versions of the Tao, and that, moreover, the former is also “a portrait of Lao-Tzu” seems plausible.29 The impact of Taoist ideas on the latter portion of Siddhartha is most discernible through the imprint of Lao-Tzu's model of the wise man: the belief in the complementarity of opposites based on an underlying unity, the stress on a life of extreme simplicity, the heuristic use of humor and wit, the lack of a systematic doctrine, the ideal of non-action (Wu Wei) and silence (which, like Wordsworth's “wise passiveness,” is not mere passivity), the paradox that in striving too hard for enlightenment we are blinded, and the idea that wisdom cannot be formulated.

The central meditative emblem of Siddhartha is the most apt and natural image of the river. Siddhartha's devotion to it (when he joins Vasudeva as his fellow ferryman) is based on his discovery of the age-old paradox, “the water continually flowed and flowed and yet it was always there; it was always the same and yet every moment it was new. Who could understand, conceive this?” (102). Hesse's invocation of this long-standing trope (from Heraclitus and Confucius30 to Wordsworth's Prelude and Thomas Wolfe's Of Time and the River) of flux and permanence, the temporal and the timeless, shows that he is capable of varying the expressive range of his favorite metaphors: water, which in his fiction typically functions as the token of the mother world, now signifies, as Ziolkowski has shown, “the natural synthesis” of “the familiar polarity of spirit and nature.”31 It is also to Hesse's credit that once he has demonstrated Siddhartha reaching the point, under Vasudeva's silent tutelage, of being able to hear the holy Om in the many voices of the river, he resists an easy “happy end,” for Siddhartha must now suffer the trials he once imposed on his father when he left home to follow the Samanas.

Here there is a real autobiographical symmetry to the book's design, for if at the beginning Hesse identified with “the Brahmin's son” striking out on his own, in “The Son” (117) he identifies with the grief of Siddhartha the father—and by extension, with that of his own father—at the revolt of a headstrong child. With his depiction of “the festering wound” of Siddhartha's anxiety about his recently discovered and now prodigal son (left to him by the dying Kamala), Hesse shows suffering as a humanizing force (a “Western” and Romantic idea) as well as an instance of the cosmic rhythm of recurrence (a mystical and “Eastern” motif). We may read the poignant and ironic passage below as Hesse's confession of his belated reconciliation with a father with whom the middle-aged author is now able to sympathize:

One day, when the wound [of his son's flight] was smarting terribly, Siddhartha rowed across the river, consumed by longing, and got out of the boat with the purpose of going to town to seek his son … The river was laughing clearly and merrily at the old ferryman. Siddhartha stood still; he bent over the water in order to hear better. He saw his face reflected in the quietly moving water, and there was something in this reflection that reminded him of something he had forgotten and when he reflected on it, he remembered. His face resembled that of another person, whom he had once known and loved and even feared. It resembled the face of his father, the Brahmin. He remembered how once, as a youth, he had compelled his father to let him go and join the ascetics, how he had taken leave of him, how he had gone and never returned. Had not his father also suffered the same pain that he was now suffering for his son? Had not his father died long ago, alone, without having seen his son again? Did he not expect the same fate? Was it not a comedy, a strange and stupid thing, this repetition … of events in a fateful circle?


When Siddhartha first crossed this river, Vasudeva had prophesied that “everything comes back” (49). Now, as Siddhartha experiences this with a perplexed resentment of which the old ferryman is the sympathetic onlooker, Siddhartha is suddenly rewarded with an intuition of the simultaneity of all being that Hesse seeks to render in a lyric-epiphanic prose that parallels Klein's final illumination, including the metaphoric conversion of water into music as a symbol of a higher unity beyond the reach of language:

He could no longer distinguish the different voices [of the river] … They all belonged to each other … They were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways. And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life.


The mystical note developed in Klein's ecstatic drowning is now further amplified in Siddhartha's spirit-hearing of “the great song of a thousand voices” merging into “one word: Om—perfection” (136). In this religious experience of higher self-realization, Siddhartha's individual identity merges into cosmic unity: the metaphysical ground of self and world are one and the same; to reach the one is to touch the other. The icon of such a self-surrender, or unbecoming—the problematic goal of Hesse's final phase—is already introduced here in Vasudeva's “going into the unity of all things” with a radiant smile and “a form full of light” (137) that we shall encounter again in the dying Music Master of The Glass Bead Game nearly two decades later.

Obviously the final hagiographic glimpses of Vasudeva and Siddhartha are at a far remove from the fractured reality of Hesse's actual life and experience, something implicit in the shift of the concluding “Govinda” section from the point of view of the enlightened saints to that of the forever-frustrated seeker.32 After the metaphysical uplift of “Om,” the reappearance of Siddhartha's old “shadow” and friend brings the novel back down to the second level of humanization and the world of unreconciled oppositions that is Hesse's true habitat. In addition to restoring the dialectical tension between faith and despair, salvation and seeking, the episode of the final encounter between Siddhartha and Govinda recaps the basic themes of the book: seeking precludes finding, loving the world is more important than understanding it, words fail to grasp the nature of reality. Yet Hesse is able to lighten these didactic concerns with the presence of humor, as the hapless Govinda, who earlier failed to recognize Siddhartha in the man of the world (when he guarded his sleep by the river) now fails again to recognize his friend in the saint. Govinda's need for a dogmatic faith typifies the hopeless quest of this mental traveler, for as Siddhartha teases him, “you do not see many things that are under your nose” (140).

Yet despite its ironic and light touches, the sermon of the concluding chapter cannot rise above the contradictions inherent in its logic, something that makes Hesse's most popular wisdom book a problematic achievement: it aspires to communicate wisdom even as it maintains that “wisdom is not communicable” (142); it seeks truth knowing full well that “a truth can be expressed and enveloped in words if it is one-sided” (143); it maintains that “time is not real” when the form of the novel, both as narrative and as print, is a mode of temporality. Moreover, the sentence about the unreality of time, already entertained by Klein, is reversible by the very law of the identity of opposites proclaimed in Siddhartha and elsewhere in Hesse (“in every truth the opposite is true,” 143): time, indeed, is most real, a contrary sentence already vividly dramatized as the fear of death that fuels Klingsor's Last Summer, in many ways the stylistic and thematic counter-fiction to Siddhartha.

True, the concluding transformational sequence of the river, the parable of the stone, and Siddhartha's farewell kiss to Govinda is an impressive stylistic experiment in suggesting the greater unity of being. Asserting that time is not real, however, is ultimately only a verbal solution to the existential dilemma of our being irremediably in time, something Siddhartha had earlier recognized “by the river”: “He had died and a new Siddhartha had awakened from his sleep. He also would grow old and die. Siddhartha was transitory, all forms were transitory” (100). To extrapolate from the perception of eternal transitoriness and flux (what Goethe in the title of a famous poem calls “Permanence in Change”) that temporality is an illusion is not a logical move but requires a metaphysical leap of faith. Hesse was willing to take the plunge with a poetic prose that invokes cosmic plenitude and omnipresence through the rapid accumulation of myriad “flowing forms … of simultaneousness” in Siddhartha's “mask-like” smile of enlightenment (151). Seen in this light, the paean of presence of Siddhartha's closing pages is Hesse's attempted escape, with an Eastern and metaphysical fiction, from the ecce homo of the Klingsor confession and the existential dilemma of our being in time and history that we Westerners have been painfully afflicted with since at least the eighteenth century and the rise of Romanticism.


  1. AB, 45, letter of April 6, 1953.

  2. “Journal 1920–1921,” AS, 130.

  3. “Journal 1920–1921,” 119.

  4. “Journal 1920–1921,” 129–130.

  5. MB, 177.

  6. MB, 176; Mileck, 160.

  7. Freedman, 225. As Freedman notes (224), we know next to nothing “about the content of these sessions,” save that Hesse found them very trying.

  8. AS, 146.

  9. MATSID1, 112. See also Ziolkowski, 146–147.

  10. GB II, 56, letter of April 6, 1923.

  11. Ziolkowski, 161.

  12. For such specialized yet illuminating readings of Siddhartha in terms of its Indian and Chinese elements respectively, see Adrian Hsia, Hermann Hesse und China: Darstellungen, Materialen, und Interpretationen (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1974), 237–248; and Vridhagiri Ganeshan, “Siddhartha und Indien,” MATSID2, 225–254.

  13. GW, vol. 11, 50.

  14. GB II, 48, letter of February 3, 1923.

  15. Ziolkowski, 153.

  16. GB II, 52, 55, letters of February 10 and March 12, 1923.

  17. GB II, 96, letter of June 18, 1925.

  18. Ball, 147–151.

  19. Ball, 151; Freedman, 217.

  20. Field, 81.

  21. Hesse, Siddhartha, trans. Hilda Rosner (New York: Bantam, 1971), 3. Subsequent citations of the novel are of this edition and translation and will appear in the text.

  22. Cf., Boulby has emphasized that “Siddhartha discloses finally and unmistakably the significance of hagiography, of the saintly vita, as a formal conditioning factor in Hesse's work,” 152.

  23. AS, 137.

  24. MATSID1, 98, letter of February 23, 1920.

  25. GB I, 468, letter of March 23, 1921.

  26. MB, 385–386.

  27. Freedman, 217, MATSID1, 86–91.

  28. GB I, 480 (letter of November 11, 1921); MATSID1, 152, letter of February 1922.

  29. Hsia, Hesse und China, 240, 246.

  30. Hsia cites the Confucian saying, “thus like this river everything flows on day and night without cease” (Hesse und China, 244).

  31. Ziolkowski, 166–167. Hans Jürg Lüthi's claim that the river represents the mother world that is otherwise absent in the novel (Hermann Hesse: Natur und Geist [cited in Chapter IV, note 20], 68) misses the mark twice, because the mother world is symbolized not by the river but by Kamala and the world of the senses.

  32. Boulby has drawn attention to the “very interesting … change of [authorial] standpoint” (157) in the last chapter.

Bryan A. Bardine (essay date 1993–94)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3914

SOURCE: “Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha as Divine Comedy,” in University of Dayton Review, Vol. 22, No. 2, Winter, 1993–94, pp. 71–79.

[In the following essay, Bardine explains his view that Hesse's Siddhartha should be categorized as a divine comedy, evidenced by the fact that the work contains all eight characteristics of divine comedy suggested by Eugene R. August.]

Comedy has always been more difficult to define and pin down than tragedy. Part of the difficulty may be that comedy is, by its very nature, more protean than tragedy: comedy often takes delight in breaking the rules. Moreover, tragedy has been so memorably described in The Poetics that Aristotle may have unintentionally molded the shape of tragedy through the ages. There are different kinds of tragedy, to be sure, but they are usually variations of a similar theme and form. Perhaps because Aristotle's treatise on comedy has been lost, comedy was left free to develop in numerous ways. In any event, comedy can range from the slapstick to the sublime, from the misadventures of Don Quixote to the mysticism of Dante.

The fact that Dante named his poem the Commedia indicates that comedy ranges far beyond the narrow confines of “funny” material that most people think of as comic. Challenging this popular notion of comedy as a narrow, second-class art form are the writings of Northrop Frye, Suzanne Langer, and others. Works like Anatomy of Criticism and Feeling and Form have explored the broad range of comedy and have greatly extended our critical understanding of comedy. Today, few informed readers balk at the suggestion that The Odyssey is as much a comic work as The Odd Couple.

Few critics, however, have explored in great detail the sublime end of the comic spectrum. This is partly due to the idea Eugene R. August suggests in his article “The Only Happy Ending: Divine Comedies in Western Literature,” that “Divine comedies frequently have been disparaged for not being ‘true’ tragedies, or they have been distorted to fit some accepted tragic pattern” (86). August attempts to show that divine comedy is an individual category and has certain dominant characteristics that differentiate it from both comedy and tragedy. Throughout the article August discusses the tenets of divine comedy and gives examples from western literature to support his belief. One work that he does not consider is Hermann Hesse's classic novel Siddhartha. Siddhartha's membership in this divine comic “club” is obvious and essential because the novel contains each of August's eight characteristics of divine comedy.

Divine comedies, according to August, “project their own non-tragic vision of the human condition” (85). This “non-tragic vision,” while separating divine comedies from tragedies has failed to gain a serious critical following because too many scholars still believe that a tragic conclusion is the highest form of art. The comic aspect of divine comedy, while in part referring to humor, still predominantly refers to the positive conclusion of the story. Also, August says that the “idea that comedies can also possess high seriousness, can depict humanity above the average, can mediate a worthy vision of reality is still foreign to many minds” (87). Siddhartha, while displaying some humorous aspects, relies mainly on these more serious tenets.

Concurrently, divine comedy refers to the usual connection between the human and the supernatural at the conclusion of the literature. It may also show characters coming to a greater understanding of themselves by a spiritual transformation that comes through personal experience. In any case, the divine comic heroes, while struggling and experiencing some tragedy, rebound and strengthen themselves from some newly found knowledge—normally attained through an intervention with some supernatural or otherworldly force.

August's first characteristic for divine comedy is that it “possesses the traditional comic action which moves from bad fortune to good fortune, from calamity to harmony” (91). Within Siddhartha's plot this characteristic exists as well. Throughout the novel many of Siddhartha's problems and calamities are within himself; he is always searching for spiritual perfection and continuous growth. When his soul is not at peace, he experiences pain and suffering, and it is at these times that he searches for his true voice. This happens several times during the novel. The first occasion on which Siddhartha experiences this type of bad fortune is at the outset of the plot when he realizes he is unhappy. The narrator says:

Siddhartha had begun to feel the seeds of discontent within him. He had begun to feel that the love of his father and mother, and also the love of his friend Govinda, would not always make him happy, give him peace, satisfy and suffice him … his intellect was not satisfied, his soul was not at peace, his heart was not still.


Clearly, Siddhartha is at a crossroads in his young life. He wants to find the source of Atman, which is the innermost essence of an individual, and he has realized that his parents' and religious teaching have done as much as possible to help him reach this goal. They just are not enough. He decides to become an ascetic monk so he can (he thinks) move closer to finding Atman. When he joins the Samanas he believes that his troubles will end, and the strict self-denial that the Samanas practice teaches him a great deal, but again he longs to learn more and decides to leave the monks after three years.

As Siddhartha is leaving he speaks to Gotama, the “Illustrious One,” and tells him the problem he is having with the great one's teaching:

But there is one thing that this clear, worthy instruction does not contain; it does not contain the secret of what the Illustrious One himself experienced—. … That is why I am going away—not to seek another and better doctrine, for I know there is none, but to leave all doctrines and teachers and to reach my goal alone—or die.


Again, Siddhartha experiences a difficult time, uncertain about the future, but knowing the importance of discovering the Inner Self. He feels lost, and a sense of “icy despair” sweeps over him after he leaves the grove of the Illustrious One. He is alone, but there is still a strong feeling of independence in him—a hope and knowledge that his decision is the right one. This hope carries him through other difficult times. He will experience other setbacks and calamities in his search for the Atman, but each time Siddhartha experiences a harmony within himself which enables him to move closer to his final goal. This feeling of despair in Siddhartha displays part of the misfortune that August discusses in his first characteristic.

The second characteristic that August sees in divine comedies is that “the opening calamity of a divine comedy always involves an estrangement between the human and the divine; the final harmony always involves their joyous reconciliation” (91). In Siddhartha much of the estrangement between the human and divine occurs within Siddhartha himself; he demonstrates this estrangement through his unhappiness and lack of contentment. At the beginning of the novel before he decides to become an ascetic he questions his religious beliefs and wonders if his search for Atman is moving along the right path:

And where was Atman to be found, where did he dwell, where did his eternal heart beat, if not within the Self, in the innermost, in the eternal which each person carried within him? But where was this Self, this innermost? … Nobody showed the way, nobody knew it—neither his father, nor the teachers and wise men, nor the holy songs.


Soon, Siddhartha decides he must leave his present life to search for Atman through the ascetic method of self-denial and pain. With this decision he is surrendering his past associations with his family and his teachers and giving up the way of living he had grown up with. Further, with this decision he severs himself from much of the religious tradition that he has grown up with—the sacrificing, the cleansing baths, and the praying to the gods. He chooses to do this, to separate himself from his former religious life, because as he says, “One must find the source [of Atman] within one's own Self, one must possess it. Everything else was seeking—a detour, error” (7). So, this separation from the religious life of his youth is done with the belief that by doing so he will find Atman—the innermost peace.

Although Siddhartha rejects his earlier religious beliefs, he seems to become one with the All, the Atman, in Govinda's vision of his smiling “mask” at the end of the novel. This movement from a naive spirituality to an informed one marks a reconciliation between the human and divine because by understanding the Self more completely Siddhartha is able to understand God more completely as well. The narrator of the novel gives the reader a glimpse of Siddhartha's increased understanding of Self when he says:

Within Siddhartha there slowly grew and ripened the knowledge of what wisdom really was and the goal of his long seeking. It was nothing but a preparation of the soul, a capacity, a secret art of thinking, feeling and breathing thoughts of unity at every moment of life … knowledge of the eternal perfection of the world, and unity.


The idea of “eternal perfection” reminds the reader of divine understanding that can be within a person such as Siddhartha who has devoted himself to finding ultimate wisdom. Furthermore, “eternal perfection” embraces the belief that both God and the true Self of man are everlasting.

August's third tenet of the divine comic mode is that it arouses, then purges feelings of fear and pity, “but it achieves its own effect by a reversal which transforms them into relief and joy” (93). Siddhartha experiences these four emotions at various times during the novel. At the outset of the story he is confused and wondering whether his life's path is correct—he is afraid that his life thus far has not accomplished anything. The narrator tells the reader,

But Siddhartha himself was not happy … there was yet no joy in his own heart. Dreams and restless thoughts came flowing to him from the river, from the twinkling stars at night, from the sun's melting rays. Dreams and restlessness of the soul came to him. …


Clearly, Siddhartha is thinking about his life and trying to decide what to do next. Does he stay in his village to become a great leader for his people and be unsatisfied with his inner Self? Or should he move on and give up the only life he has known to find this inner Self? He chooses the latter and the rest of his life is an on again-off again search for the Atman. Finally, however, he comes to a great understanding of life and teaching and knowledge through his relationship with Vasudeva and the river.

As in some other divine comedies, Siddhartha does not experience an outward show of joy or relief, but rather his “joy and relief” are displayed through an inner peace and knowledge that he has come to gain through his life and search for the Self:

From that hour Siddhartha ceased to fight against his destiny. There shone in his face the serenity of knowledge, of one who is no longer confronted with conflict of desires, who has found salvation, who is in harmony with the stream of events, with the stream of life, full of sympathy and compassion, surrendering himself to the stream, belonging to the unity of all things.


Siddhartha, after gaining this knowledge and wisdom, has come to a clear understanding of life. He is joyful in the sense that he is finally in harmony with life and with his inner Self, but this joyfulness is expressed more in his harmony with life and his sympathetic and compassionate attitude. Rather than an outward display of emotion, Siddhartha's purging of fear has come through his heightened understanding and experience of life.

August's fourth characteristic of divine comedy is that “the divine comic hero is initially marked as being unfortunate, as enduring exile or some other adversity … divine comedy presents its hero as a flawed or unfortunate person who achieves greatness. … the divine comic hero rises to an eminence that is truly godlike” (94). The first part of this characteristic exists throughout Siddhartha in the numerous trials that Siddhartha experiences during his quest of discovery for the Atman. Each time he decides to change the path his life takes is a new lesson in some type of adversity. He must deal with the loss of family, friends, and youthful religious belief when he joins the Samanas; he must endure being without Govinda and teachings of any kind to guide him upon leaving the Samanas. Further, he must live without his money, good food, nice clothes, and women when he leaves the town to put his life back in order, and he must give up his constant seeking in order to find his true destiny when he becomes a ferryman and lives with Vasudeva.

Siddhartha believes that he is flawed and incomplete because he cannot find his inner Self. He can never be a complete person in his own mind until he can be at one with the Atman. The greatness that he achieves is his ability to understand not only himself but also the world around him. He is able to take in the best part of each of the different sections of his life, and finally, when he lives on the river with Vasudeva his knowledge and his searching are complete when he listens to the river. In doing so he hears all the voices in his past, and he sees the goals he has accomplished in his life. It is as if the river has tied together his life more clearly so he can understand it better. Through this he comes to a better understanding of the world:

They [voices of the river] were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways. And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life.


When Siddhartha is able to hear all of these voices together he is listening to Om—perfection. That is when he achieves the greatness in his life. Further, it is because so few people in the world are able to do this—Siddhartha knew of only two: Gotama and Vasudeva—that it is a godlike quality. Having this knowledge makes Siddhartha a great sage and revered elder to all of humankind. This connection with the gods and within himself enables Siddhartha to achieve a divine comic greatness that few other characters in literature approach.

The fifth characteristic of divine comedy that August defines is that the “principal strength of divine comic heroes is a humbled awareness of their human limitations. Paradoxically, by recognizing their humanity, divine comic heroes achieve godlikeness” (94). This tenet refers to Walter Kaufman's idea of humbition (94). The word is a “fusion of humility and ambition, a quality ‘which involves a sense of one's limitations, accompanied by the aspiration to rise to a higher level of being’” (94). Siddhartha shows this combination at different times during the novel. For instance, even at the conclusion of the story when he is talking to Govinda he realizes he is not perfect. He says, “Listen, my friend! I am a sinner and you are a sinner” … (143). Clearly, Siddhartha realizes that he is not a completely virtuous individual, but rather he sins and has gone against the laws of life. At the end, Govinda sees that when Siddhartha smiled, “the Perfect One” has smiled. Siddhartha becomes truly godlike in Govinda's final vision of him. Further, as Ernst Rose comments in his book Faith from the Abyss,

Siddhartha's experience of mystic union does not lead to spiritual aloofness, for man can never wholly divest himself of the earth, he is never ‘wholly saint, nor is he ever wholly sinner.’ Siddhartha's way leads to humble, Christian charity. In all his awareness of the infinite realm of God and the universe, he remains a simple ferryman and farmer.


Rose correctly sees the correlation between Siddhartha's earthly life and his growing spiritual union with God. Even though, by the end of the novel, Siddhartha has come to a clear understanding of his inner Self along with God's role in his life, he has not attempted to make himself better than the other people he sees in life. He lives a simple, devout life.

His ambition is demonstrated throughout the novel whenever he decides to change the path of his life. Each time he does this it is for one purpose: to gain a better understanding of his inner Self. The continuous transformations that he puts himself through enable him to reach his ultimate goal, and these transformations show the ambition and drive that motivates Siddhartha to reach his goal. This combination of humility and ambition enables Siddhartha to be considered in much the same way as his mentor Vasudeva is by Siddhartha himself. As Siddhartha speaks to Vasudeva he sees the Godlike qualities in him. The narrator says:

As he went on talking and confessing, Siddhartha felt more and more that this was no longer Vasudeva, no longer a man who was listening to him. He felt that this motionless listener was absorbing his confession as a tree absorbs the rain, that this motionless man was the river itself, that he was God Himself, that he was eternity itself.


Vasudeva is at complete peace within himself, and Siddhartha is trying to attain this oneness. By confessing to Vasudeva, Siddhartha is not only showing his humility, but also he is moving closer to becoming like Vasudeva. Finally, at the conclusion of the novel he reaches this deified state when Govinda refers to him as the one “whom many considered to be a sage”(139). Also, Siddhartha's Godlike qualities surface as he instructs Govinda on how to become one with the inner Self. Siddhartha's instruction reminds the reader of Christ speaking to and teaching his apostles. Even though this similarity seems odd in a book primarily about Eastern religion and thought, it should be remembered that the author wrote the novel coming from a predominantly Western religious tradition.

August's sixth characteristic of divine comedy is that the “divine comic hero is marked by an ability to suffer, to endure some form of death, and to be reborn” (95). Siddhartha easily moves through this transformation during the novel. As noted earlier, he suffers because he cannot find the Atman in the beginning of the novel. As the story progresses, his suffering becomes greater and more intense while he lives in the town. He becomes dependent on gambling, money, and greed.

And whenever he awakened from this hateful spell, when he saw his face reflected … grown older and uglier, whenever shame and nausea overtook him, he fled again … fled in confusion to passion, to wine, and from there back again to the urge for acquiring and hoarding wealth. He wore himself out in this senseless cycle, became old and sick.


His suffering and destructive lifestyle are evident here. It is not until he finally leaves the town that he nearly experiences death.

He wants his suffering and decadent lifestyle to come to an end. The narrator explains that Siddhartha “wished passionately for oblivion, to be at rest, to be dead” (87). He nearly drowns himself until the Om, his old inner voice which had faded away during his materialistic life in town, resurfaces and awakens his ambition for life. He brings himself out of the water after hearing the Om and sleeps: upon rising a change has taken place:

Never had a sleep so refreshed him, so renewed him, so rejuvenated him! Perhaps he had really died, perhaps he had been drowned and was reborn in another form. … But this Siddhartha was somewhat changed, renewed.


This rebirth and change continues in Siddhartha for the remainder of the novel. Never again does he lose touch with his inner voice, and his ambition and striving that were once stifled by greed and lust are never weakened again.

The seventh characteristic that August discusses is that “Although humorous elements may exist in divine comedy (just as they may exist in tragedy), the dominant tone of divine comedy is a serious one, as in tragedy” (96). Throughout Siddhartha the mood is predominantly serious and very calm. George Wallis Field says in his biography of Hermann Hesse that “The mood evoked by Siddhartha is that of serenity, of a poetic, exalted world on a higher plane” (82). Field's explanation of the tone of the novel gives it a serious and relaxed feeling. Further, by discussing the tone in terms of an “exalted world on a higher plane” Field is connecting the story and the actions of Siddhartha with the divine. Clearly, this description moves the book closer to divine comic consideration. Actually, the tone of the novel is very consistent. Rarely, if ever, is the mood anything but serene and calm. It is very difficult to find many humorous actions in the story.

The final characteristic that August sees in most divine comedies is that they normally have a mentor/guide who possesses some wisdom that the hero lacks. The mentor assists the hero in the journey by imparting knowledge to the hero that he did not have before meeting the mentor. Siddhartha does not have one guide, as can be seen in other divine comedies, but rather he has several. His mentor through his early years is his father and the Brahmin teachings that he grew up with. Next, he is guided by his Samana monks and their beliefs, and he then listens to what Gotama spoke to him about and carries that with him on his journey. Kamala taught him about sensual love and lust, while Kamaswami informed him about the business world and what he needs to survive in the city. Finally, and most importantly, he learned from Vasudeva the art of listening to the river; from the river he was ultimately able to get in touch with his inner Self—his own perfection. Obviously, Siddhartha learned from each of the aforementioned guides, but he was able to use his acquired knowledge from each to move in some way closer to his goal.

The idea of a divine comic category of literature is a new and still developing thought. Unfortunately, not many critics and scholars have paid much attention to this type of literature. To be sure, it has its own characteristics which distinguish it from both comedy and tragedy. Although it is closely related to each genre of literature, it is still unique in its structure and characteristics. Hermann Hesse's classic journey of discovery, Siddhartha, definitely deserves membership into the association of various masterpieces of western literature that August discusses in his article “The Only Happy Ending: Divine Comedies in Western Literature.” It maintains each of the tenets that August discusses, and in so doing rates as one of the clearest examples of divine comedy yet written.

Works Cited

August, Eugene R. “The Only Happy Ending: Divine Comedies in Western Literature.” Bulletin of the Midwest Language Association. 14 (Spring 1981): 85–99.

Field, George Wallis. Hermann Hesse. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1970.

Hesse, Hermann. Siddhartha. Trans. Hilda Rosner. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1951.

Rose, Ernst. Faith from the Abyss: Hermann Hesse's Way from Romanticism to Modernity. New York: New York University Press, 1965.

Rudolph P. Byrd (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5661

SOURCE: “Oxherding Tale and Siddhartha: Philosophy, Fiction, and the Emergence of a Hidden Tradition,” in I Call Myself an Artist: Writings by and about Charles Johnson, Indiana University Press, 1999, pp. 305–17.

[In the following essay, Byrd explores how Charles Johnson—American author and scholar who won the National Book Award in 1990 for Middle Passage—was influenced by Siddhartha in writing his novel Oxherding Tale.]

Charles Johnson has written a searching introduction to the Plume edition of Oxherding Tale, originally published in 1982, in which he carefully sets forth the genesis and publishing history of his second novel. This edition of Oxherding Tale is the first instance in which Johnson, within the framework of introductory or prefatory remarks, has chosen to reflect upon the processes, both hostile and nurturing, undergirding the writing of a particular work of fiction. Given the novels that bracket Oxherding Tale, Faith and the Good Thing (1974) and Middle Passage (1990), respectively, it is significant that Johnson chooses to begin this much welcomed public reflection upon the setbacks and advances of literary production with Oxherding Tale. There are, I believe, certain motivations for Johnson's decision to bring, as it were, his enlarging readership into his confidence.

Oxherding Tale is perhaps the most widely taught and admired of Johnson's novels, and the author regards it as his “platform” book (xvii). He adds that platform is a “playful reference” to The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, a canonical work in Zen Buddhism. Oxherding Tale is Johnson's “platform” book in the sense, as he writes in the introduction, “that everything else I attempted to do would in one way or another be based upon and refer to it” (xvii). As the pivotal work of fiction that constituted the greatest challenge in intellectual and artistic terms, Oxherding Tale had far-reaching influence on Johnson's subsequent fiction. For example, in Oxherding Tale Johnson begins his exploration of the physical and metaphysical nature of slavery within the framework of Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism. Beyond the painful and patent fact of chattel slavery, in what other ways, ruminates Johnson in Oxherding Tale, can we be enslaved? This is the central question in this metaphysical slave narrative whose title-page, Johnson notes, bears the imprint of the “Taoist symbol for a man travelling on the Way” (xvii). Further, and related to this systematic exploration of the various species of slavery within the framework of Eastern philosophy, the Allmuseri, a fictional African clan, is a defining presence through the character of Reb, the Coffinmaker, in Oxherding Tale, but a dominant presence through the character of Ngonyama in Middle Passage. Plainly, in these and other ways Oxherding Tale has had a profound impact upon the content and intellectual concerns of Johnson's subsequent fiction. It is for this reason that he has taken such pains to reconstruct the context and process of Oxherding Tales's composition and publication.

Certainly, Johnson's foray into literary criticism is, in some sense, a response to certain personal and historical exigencies; that is, a desire to make his own past as an artist visible, coherent, and accessible. Being & Race: Black Writing since 1970 (1988), Johnson's only book of literary criticism, is, in part, an earlier and extended elaboration of this desire. Johnson's more recent and much welcomed public reflection springs, however, from yet another source. There is in his introduction a desire to assess and weigh the aesthetic value of Oxherding Tale in relationship to his other novels. And, in my view, Oxherding Tale remains the work of fiction in which Johnson's artistic and intellectual vision is most fully realized. While Faith and the Good Thing and Middle Passage are unified, coherent, and complex works of art, there is, I believe, a degree of depth, strangeness, and power in Oxherding Tale that is unequaled in the other novels. Johnson himself holds a similar view of the value of his “platform” book. In comparing Oxherding Tale with Middle Passage, the novel for which he was awarded the National Book Award in 1990, Johnson writes that his prize-winning third novel “contains only a fraction of its predecessor's complexity” (xvii). Johnson's candor and lack of sentimentality regarding the artistic achievement of his novels is unusual and admirable. As an artist, it is evident that the value he assigns to a particular work is linked neither to encomia nor to prestigious literary prizes, but rather to his own independent evaluative standard. It seems that Johnson, like Jean Toomer in the writing of Cane, and Gabriel García Márquez in the writing of One Hundred Years of Solitude, wrote his most important and influential work of fiction to date early in his artistic career.1

In 1975, Johnson undertook the difficult but meaningful work of writing his most highly esteemed novel with, in his words, “absolutely no encouragement” (xiii)—neither polite interest from colleagues nor advances from publishers. This spite work, for in one sense it is plain that Johnson embarked upon this ambitious literary experiment in defiance of his detractors, would take five years to complete. Of the many writers whose works sustained and influenced him during the long and lonely period of Oxherding Tale's composition, Johnson acknowledges an intellectual debt to Herman Melville, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, and most importantly Hermann Hesse. Of the several writers mentioned in the introduction to the Plume edition of Oxherding Tale, Hesse's influence is the most profound.

While Johnson read and studied all of the novels by the German writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, Hesse's Siddhartha (1951) exercised a decisive influence on Oxherding Tale. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to assert that Siddhartha, in the conceptualization of Oxherding Tale, occupies a position of co-equality with The Ten Oxherding Pictures by Kaku-an Shi-en, a foundational work of Zen Buddhism, and the conversion and slave narratives of American and African American literature.

In what specific ways can we discern the imprint of Siddhartha upon Oxherding Tale? As an artist who is self-consciously creating a distinctive body of work that reflects the influence of a range of literary ancestors, what did Johnson imbibe from his immersion in the fictional universe of Hesse that has endowed Oxherding Tale and the other fictions which so forcefully emanate from it with their particular intellectual cast and trajectory? These are the central questions I wish to explore within this essay.


Of the several points of convergence between Siddhartha and Oxherding Tale, structure and intellectual concerns are preeminent. Like Siddhartha, Oxherding Tale is a novel in two parts in which compression is the operative word. Both are densely layered works, Oxherding Tale even more so than Siddhartha, in which arcane knowledge constitutes the core concern. As artists, Hesse and Johnson are engaged in an experiment whose objective is to join philosophy and literature. While I will have more to say about this shared intellectual endeavor later in this essay, for the moment I would like to emphasize the centrality of Buddhism for both novels, although Johnson extends his zone of inquiry to include Hinduism and Taoism.

In addition to sharing structural and intellectual preoccupations, Siddhartha and Oxherding Tale are both historical novels. Hesse's emphasis is upon an historical figure, while Johnson's emphasis is upon an historical era Siddhartha, Hesse's questing and questioning protagonist, is in many ways the fictional counterpart to the Buddha himself, who, according to scholars, was Sakyamani Gautama, born in India in the sixth century B.C.E. Like Gautama, Siddhartha is a member of the Indian élite, a Brahmin born to luxury and power. Hesse writes that the “handsome Brahmin's son” was expected to become a “great learned man, a priest, a prince among Brahmins.” “Love stirred in the hearts of the young Brahmins' daughters when Siddhartha,” writes Hesse, “walked through the streets of the town, with his lofty brow, his king-like eyes and his slim figure” (3–4). Inevitably, Siddhartha, like Gautama, becomes disillusioned with his privileged existence. Both men discover that an existence framed by temporal realities is meaningless. After encountering a group of Samanas, peripatetic renunciates, “lean jackals in the world of men” around whom “hovered an atmosphere of still passion, of devastating service, of unpitying self-denial” (9), Siddhartha makes the fateful decision to leave his father's palace and to join them. While his commitment to the Samana's life of self-denial is genuine and deep, Siddhartha remains dissatisfied. He does not discover in ascetism the much sought after release from samsara, or the cyclical nature of existence. In these particulars, Hesse remains faithful to the fragmented history in which Gautama, the Buddha, is enshrouded.

Hesse introduces, however, a significant variation in a novel based in large measure upon the life of Gautama. While Siddhartha's life corresponds in many ways to the life of this historic figure, Hesse's protagonist is not, it seems, the Buddha. Doubtless anticipating the injunctions and denunciations from scholars and practioners of Buddhism, Hesse creates the character of Gotama, who is called “the Illustrious, the Buddha” (120). While Siddhartha recognizes that Gotama is a holy man, for never had he “esteemed a man so much, never had he loved a man so much,” he does not, like his friend and companion Govinda, become a disciple of Gotama, whose name and divine attributes recall Gautama. While respectfully acknowledging the patently enlightened state of the “Illustrious One,” Siddhartha apprehends the flaw in the otherwise flawless teachings of Gotama. The teachings do not contain, so the Brahmin's son asserts in conversation with Gotama, “‘the secret of what the Illustrious One himself experienced’” at the moment of enlightenment (34). While the teachings or doctrine are important, individual effort is more important in attaining moksha, or release from samsara. In his artful reconstruction of aspects of the life of the Buddha, Hesse illustrates one of the fundamental tenets of Buddhism. And in the process, he avoids the censure of the purists who would doubtless find the freedom of the artist in the domain of history problematic, and he invests his novel with the dramatic tension and conflict so essential to its sense of unity and coherence.

While Hesse is engaged in a selective retelling of the life and experiences of the Buddha, Johnson is engaged in a selective reconstruction of an epoch through the creation of a fictionalized antebellum slave narrative. The narrator of this metaphysical slave narrative is Andrew Hawkins, who assumes the identity of William Harris by the novel's conclusion. In contrast to Siddhartha, Johnson's questing and questioning narrator is a mulatto fugitive slave in whose life we apprehend patterns that recall the lives of such fugitive slaves as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. Hawkins's dense narrative is the vehicle for a journey whose destination is not Hesse's fabled East, but the world of the antebellum South of Spartenburg, South Carolina. Like Arna Bontemps's Black Thunder, Margaret Walker's Jubilee, Ernest J. Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada, Octavia Butler's Kindred, Toni Morrison's Beloved, Sherley Anne Williams's Dessa Rose, and most recently John Edgar Wideman's The Cattle Killing, Johnson has created a fictional universe set in motion by the paradoxes and actualities of slavery in a purportedly democratic republic.

“Although nearly anything you said about slavery could be denied in the same breath,” muses Andrew Hawkins in a state of freedom, “this much struck me as true: the wretchedness of being colonized was not that slavery created feelings of guilt and indebtedness, though I did feel guilt and debt; nor that it created a long, lurid dream of multiplicity and separateness, which it did indeed create, but the fact that men had epidermalized Being” (52). This important passage, which is an example of the fine writing everywhere in evidence in Oxherding Tale, is a kind of expansive synecdoche in which we apprehend the various ways in which slavery has shaped the life and sensibility of Andrew Hawkins.

Certainly, Hawkins feels “guilt and debt” because he fails to realize the important goals to which he had committed himself when setting out from Cripplegate to Leviathan: to earn enough money to purchase his own freedom as well as that of his father George Hawkins, his stepmother Mattie Hawkins, and his betrothed Minty, all of whom make certain sacrifices in order to make his slave existence endurable. Certainly, Hawkins is immersed in a “lurid dream of multiplicity and separateness,” for with the exception of the friendship he establishes with Reb, Leviathan's Coffinmaker, he remains, for significant periods, either a sexual slave or a fugitive slave seeking meaning and safety in a culture and economy that would deny him, at every turn, such fundamental needs of human existence. And in Hawkins's use of the rich and resonant phrase epidermalized Being is expressed the ultimate paradox of slavery in a democratic republic which values, theoretically, the humanity of each individual. The sole objective of slavery in the United States, and more specifically the slavery so deeply entrenched at Cripplegate and Leviathan, was the grotesque reduction of human beings into matter, into chattel for personal profit. In the writing of this historical novel, Johnson remains faithful to his artistic goal of fully illustrating the dispiriting actualities which supported and advanced this capitalistic enterprise.

While masterfully reconstructing aspects of an enterprise and an epoch, Johnson, in contrast to Hesse, destabilizes our expectations of historical fiction by writing against the conventions of this genre. The many instances of modern colloquialisms, the decision to place Karl Marx in dialogue with a transplanted New England abolitionist during a visit to a slave plantation, and the veiled and droll exchanges on political correctness and Affirmative Action are all instances in which Johnson exhibits a certain irreverence for conventions that presumably govern the writing of historical fiction. These calculated interpolations in a discourse centering upon the uses of history in fiction are occasions when Johnson advances an alternative view of history and the historical process; that is, neither is remote or static, and both are powerful forces shaping contemporary existence.

While the imprint of Siddhartha upon Oxherding Tale is discernible in such important domains as structure and genre, the influence of this German novel upon this American novel is also discernable in the patterning of experience and the ineluctable variations which this artistic process inspires. During the period in Siddhartha's life when he returns to his Brahmin existence, he develops a relationship with Kamala, the beautiful and wealthy courtesan skilled in the art of love. Hesse writes that Siddhartha “learned many things from her wise red lips” (66). A patient teacher with wide experience and high standards, Kamala, whose name recalls Kama, the deity who reigns in the sensuous realm of the Buddhist cosomology, lovingly initiates Hesse's disillusioned Brahmin into carnal mysteries. Impressed by the skill and sensitivity of her young and able student, Kamala remarks to Siddhartha after a session of sex: “‘You are the best lover that I have had. … You are stronger than others, more supple, more willing’” (73). Shifting now to Oxherding Tale we observe a fascinating variation. Again, after a session of sex of the most histrionic kind, Flo Hatfield, the sovereign of Leviathan and Kamala's fictional variation, remarks to Hawkins, her sexual slave: “‘La, Andrew, you are the best servant I have ever had. … You are the most willing to learn, the most promising’” (64–65; first emphasis mine).

While there are striking similarities in the language and situation between these corresponding episodes in Siddhartha and Oxherding Tale, Johnson's variations underscore the ways in which his artistic and intellectual concerns differ from those of Hesse. While Flo Hatfield shares Kamala's devotion to carnal mysteries, the sovereign of Leviathan is not motivated by love, which becomes the dominant force in Kamala's relationship with Siddhartha, but predictably by power. It is significant that Kamala describes Siddhartha as the “‘best lover’” she has had, while Flo Hatfield describes Hawkins as the “‘best servant’” she has ever had. Of course, servant is a genteel synonym for slave, and Johnson, through the fevered and narcoticized coupling of Hatfield and Hawkins, is able to explore a range of novel, complementary, and paradoxical themes: the domination of the slave by the master and, conversely, the peculiar domination of the master by the slave; the sexual exploitation of the slave by the master and the sexual exploitation of slave men by their masters; the slavery of the body and the slavery of the spirit. Unlike Hesse's Kamala, who renounces her life as a courtesan, Flo Hatfield remains a slave to sexual desire. As the Coffinmaker remarks to an incredulous Hawkins, Flo Hatfield is “‘a slave like you'n me’” (62). In this masterful inversion, slavery for the sovereign of Leviathan ironically assumes the form of an erect black phallus.

Along with the provocative metamorphosis of Kamala into Flo Hatfield, Johnson accomplishes other variations while also honoring Hesse's example and influence. In contrast to Flo Hatfield and Andrew Hawkins, the affectionate coupling between Kamala and Siddhartha produces a son. The discovery that he is a father inspires in Siddhartha a series of reflections and preoccupations regarding his proper relationship to his son. Sadly, Siddhartha's son rejects him as well as his contemplative existence. Ironically, he chooses instead the Brahmin existence that Siddhartha himself has rejected. The relationship between fathers and sons is also a central theme in Oxherding Tale. There is the ambivalence between George Hawkins and Andrew Hawkins which is registered in Andrew's rejection of his father's reductive racial theories. Further, there is the violence which so mangles the filial ties of the fathers of Ezekial Sykes-Withers and Horace Bannon. Finally, there is the great gulf of silence between Reb, Leviathan's Coffinmaker, and his doomed son Patrick.

While the dynamics between fathers and their sons is an important theme in Siddhartha and Oxherding Tale, so also is the theme of male friendship. In Siddhartha this theme is concretized in the deep friendship between Govinda and Siddhartha, and later between Siddhartha and Vasudeva, the ferryman. Correspondingly, in Oxherding Tale, there is a powerful friendship between Reb and Andrew Hawkins, which possesses both an avuncular and paternal cast. While Johnson shares Hesse's interest in male friendships, a defining characteristic of such novels as Narcissis and Goldmund and Damien, Johnson is also interested in exploring the basis for the failure of such important relationships, as evidenced in George Hawkins's betrayal by the philanderer Nate McKay. In fine, the world of men and the concerns that define this world are patterns central to both Siddhartha and Oxherding Tale. In Hesse's novel this pattern is reflected in the male world of the Samanas and their collective goal of asceticism and transcendence; in Johnson's novel this pattern is reflected in the fraternity of the slave men of Leviathan and their shared nihilism or “absence of life-assurance,” which is counterpoised against the spiritual powers of Reb and the resilience of Andrew Hawkins. Above all, Hesse and Johnson are artists deeply interested in exploring the tensions between selfhood and manhood, between enlightenment and certain stultifying forms of masculinity. While these male friendships are metaphors for the human capacity for self-development, these friendships also suggest the very positive potentialities that exist among androcentric communities and relationships. Crucially, Johnson's meditations in this vein are, in contrast to Hesse's, explicit and deliberate, and they anticipate by many years the current and marked interrogation of masculinities. In the study of the construction of masculinities, Oxherding Tale is a canonical text occupying the place of Toni Morrison's Beloved in the study of the construction of femininities.


In these fictional worlds determined to a large degree by male interests, men are both competitors and allies, assassins and the vehicle for moksha or release, liberation, and enlightenment. It is to this last shared pattern in Siddhartha and Oxherding Tale, male friendships as the vehicle for moksha, that I now turn. In Hesse's classic, moksha is achieved within the framework of two powerful male friendships. In the first instance of this expansion of consciousness, Vasudeva is the catalyst for Siddhartha's achievement of enlightenment. In providing comfort to Siddhartha, who is pained by the failed relationship with his son, Vasudeva gently encourages his friend to merge his thoughts with the great river upon which they have been ferrymen. Completely trusting Vasudeva, Siddhartha's “wound” or grief over his son's repudiation of him becomes the path to a revelation as he listens to the “many-veiled song of the river,” and studies the images flashing across the river's undulant surface:

Siddhartha tried to listen better. The picture of his father, his own picture, and the picture of his son all flowed into each other. Kamala's picture also appeared and flowed on, and the picture of Govinda and others emerged and passed on. They all became part of the river. It was the goal of all of them, yearning, desiring, suffering; and the river's voice was full of longing, full of smarting woe, full of insatiable desire. … They all belonged to each other; the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of indignation and the groan of dying. They were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways. And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life. When Siddhartha listened attentively to this river, to this song of a thousand voices; when he did not bind his soul to any one particular voice and absorb it in his Self, but heard them all, the whole, the unity; then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om—perfection. … From that hour Siddhartha ceased to fight against his destiny. There shone in his face the serenity of knowledge, of one who is no longer confronted with conflict of desires, who has found salvation, who is in harmony with the stream of events, with the stream of life, full of sympathy and compassion, surrendering himself to the stream, belonging to the unity of all things.


Having performed the ultimate service as ferryman and friend in aiding Siddhartha to cross one realm of consciousness into another, Vasudeva departs, a luminous figure, in order to complete his own journey “into the unity of all things.”2

Siddhartha closes with Siddhartha, now the ferryman, performing the same revelatory function for Govinda, who is on his way to the funeral of Gotama, the Buddha Siddhartha once acknowledged as a holy man but who, unlike Govinda, he refused to follow as a disciple. After renewing their friendship, Siddhartha launches into a critique of the dangers of yielding to dogma and the so-called “wisdom which a wise man tries to communicate” (142). It is worth nothing that Johnson mounts a similar critique of teachers and dogma in the character of Ezekial Sykes-Withers, who is a slave to reason. Siddhartha's strong views on this subject set off a wave of anxiety, doubt, and suffering in Govinda, who throughout his life has been the follower, not the leader, the disciple not the teacher. Attuned to the upheaval within his friend which is registered so clearly in his countenance, Siddhartha, in a gesture of tenderness and regard that corresponds to the gesture made by Vesudeva during a corresponding crisis, invites Govinda to kiss him on the forehead. Surprised by this request, Govinda “was compelled by a great love and presentiment to obey him; he leaned close to him and touched his forehead with his lips. As he did this,” writes Hesse, “something wonderful happened to him”:

He no longer saw the face of his friend Siddhartha. Instead he saw other faces, many faces, a long series, a continuous stream of faces—hundreds, thousands, which all came and disappeared and yet all seemed to be there at the same time, which all continually changed and renewed themselves and which were yet all Siddhartha. He saw the face of a fish, of a carp, with tremendous painfully opened mouth, a dying fish with dimmed eyes. He saw the face of a newly born child, red and full of wrinkles, ready to cry. He saw the face of a murderer, saw him plunge a knife into the body of a man; at the same moment he saw this criminal kneeling down, bound, and his head cut off by an executioner. He saw the naked bodies of men and women in the postures and transports of passionate love. He saw corpses stretched out, still, cold, empty. He saw the heads of animals—boars, crocodiles, elephants, oxen, birds. He saw Krishna and Agni. … And all these forms and faces rested, flowed, reproduced, swam past and merged into each other, and over them all there was continually something thin, unreal and yet existing, stretched across like thin glass or ice, like a transparent skin, shell, form or mask of water—and this mask was Siddhartha's smiling face which Govinda touched with his lips at that moment. And Govinda saw that this mask-like smile, this smile of unity over the flowing forms, this smile of simultaneousness over the thousands of births and deaths—this smile of Siddhartha—was exactly the same as the calm, delicate, impenetrable, perhaps gracious, perhaps mocking, wise, thousand-fold smile of Gotama, the Buddha.


Hesse's novel closes with Govinda's achievement of moksha. Honoring the powerful symmetry that endows his novel with unity and force, Siddhartha is the vehicle for Govinda's release from samsara.

In the final chapter of Oxherding Tale, a chapter significantly entitled “Moksha,” Andrew Hawkins, like Siddhartha and Govinda, achieves release from the double yoke of slave life and samsara, or the slavery of human existence. The vehicle for Hawkins's release—that is, his ferryman—is Reb, Leviathan's Coffinmaker, and Horace Bannon, the Soul-catcher. In his asceticism and the practice of non-engagement, Reb embodies the values so central to Buddhism and Taoism. Through the practice of non-engagement and the extinguishing of desire, fear, and ego, Reb successfully eludes Horace Bannon, the Soulcatcher. Reb's seamless flight into freedom has profound consequences for both Hawkins and Bannon. Honoring a promise he made to Hawkins and Reb—“‘If Ah ever meet a Negro Ah can't catch, Ah'll quit!’” (116)—Bannon renounces his vocation of assassin and slave catcher. In so doing, Hawkins, unlike his father George Hawkins, is spared a painful death at the hands of Bannon. Reb's example of asceticism and self-sacrifice has far-reaching and concrete consequences in the world of slavery: Reb is a free man; Bannon is a reformed man; and Andrew is a free man. Interestingly, the tripartite configuration of male friendships in Siddhartha—Govinda, Siddhartha, Vesudeva—is invoked and in part preserved through the shifting and complex relationship among Reb, Hawkins, and Bannon. Through his practice of non-engagement, Reb secures Hawkins's liberty; in his final metamorphosis into the Hindu God Krishna, Bannon is the vehicle for Hawkins's achievement of moksha:

I waited for the Soulcatcher's explanation, my gaze dropping from his face to his chest and forearms, where the intricately woven brown tattoos presented, in the brilliance of a silver-gray sky at dawn, an impossible flesh tapestry of a thousand individualities no longer static, mere drawings, but if you looked at them long enough, bodies moving like Lilliputians over the surface of his skin. Not tattoos at all, I saw, but forms sardined in his contour, creatures Bannon had killed since childhood: spineless insects, flies he'd dewinged; yet even the tiniest of these thrashing within the body mosaic was, clearly, a society as complex as the higher forms, a concrescence of molecules cells atoms in concert, for nothing in the necropolis he'd filled stood alone, wished to stand alone, had to stand alone, and the commonwealth of the dead shape-shifted on his chest, his full belly, his fat shoulders, traded hand for claw, feet for hooves, legs for wings, their metamorphosis having no purpose beyond the delight the universe took in diversity for its own sake, the proliferation of beauty, and yet all were conserved in this process of doubling, nothing was lost in the masquerade, the cosmic costume ball, where behind every different mask at the party—behind snout beak nose and blossom—the selfsame face was uncovered at midnight. …


Andrew Hawkins's achievement of moksha constitutes the climax of Oxherding Tale; this is the moment, the linchpin around which all thought and action in the novel revolve. Similarly, in Siddhartha Govinda's achievement of moksha also constitutes the climatic scene. While there are striking correspondences in language and imagery, the central difference is that Govinda and Siddhartha's dual achievement of moksha is beautifully translated into Hawkins's double release from the dual yoke of slavery and samsara. In this elegant instance of compression, Johnson, once again, exhibits an admirable degree of independence as an artist while concurrently honoring his own artistic intentions; that is, the very careful charting of his protagonist's achievement of both liberty and enlightenment. The result is that Andrew Hawkins, who at the novel's conclusion assumes the identity of William Harris, is the first protagonist in American literature to achieve moksha.


The very deep imprint of Siddhartha upon Oxherding Tale should, by now, be quite evident, as well as the manner in which Johnson has maintained, through his masterful inversions and variations, the independence of his own artistic vision. While it is clear that Siddhartha occupies, as I asserted earlier, a position of co-equality with The Ten Oxherding Pictures and the conversion and slave narratives in the conceptualization of Oxherding Tale, in what other ways does Hesse, through his achievement in Siddhartha, influence Johnson's artistic choices? I now return to the second question driving this inquiry into Johnson's expanding fictional universe.

I would like to suggest here that Hesse's Siddhartha provided Johnson, during a period in his artistic development when he was most receptive to experimentation, with a model in art that he could adapt to meet his own developing intellectual and artistic ambitions. As an artist who is also a trained philosopher, Johnson found Hesse's integration of philosophy with fiction intriguing in the extreme. Clearly, Johnson regards Siddhartha as a beautiful book, a compelling book, and his admiration of it is reflected in the pages of Oxherding Tale. Hesse's example in Siddhartha not only provided Johnson with an artistic framework within which to address particular questions regarding a particular artistic project, but the German author and his masterpiece also provided Johnson with the path, and the means, to imagine an artistic tradition within which Faith and the Good Thing, Oxherding Tale, Middle Passage, and Dreamer could be situated and explained.

This rich tradition in letters is called philosophical black fiction, the elements of which Johnson has set forth in his essay “Philosophy and Black Fiction.” In general terms, Johnson defines philosophical black fiction as art which interrogates experience. More specifically, it is a fiction that is first and foremost a mode of thought and a process of hermeneutics. It is also a fiction which works to suspend, shelve, and bracket all presuppositions regarding African American life. With this bracketing accomplished, African American experience becomes, Johnson theorizes, a pure field of appearances within two poles: consciousness, and the persons and phenomena to which consciousness is related intentionally. Drawing upon a range of philosophical systems, the writer of philosophical black fiction describes how these phenomena appear and observes that black subjectivity stains them with a particular sense. The principal themes of this fiction are, among many, identity, liberation, and enlightenment. Intent upon the liberation of perception, for the reader and the writer, philosophical black fiction produces what Johnson terms “whole sight”; that is, the calculated projection of a plurality of meanings across a shifting and expansive symbolic geography of forms, texts, and traditions.

This twentieth-century tradition in African American literature begins with W. E. B. Du Bois's The Quest of the Silver Fleece and includes Jean Toomer's Cane, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Richard Wright's The Man Who Lived Underground and The Outsider, James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, Cyrus Colter's The Hippodrome, Gloria Naylor's Bailey's Cafe, and Samuel R. Delany's The Mad Man. To date, these are the writers who, in my view, comprise this hidden tradition in twentieth-century African American literature which Johnson has aptly termed philosophical black fiction. Inaugurated and dominated by male authors, this tradition of adapting complex philosophical systems—Platonism, Eastern Philosophy, Continental Philosophy, Christianity, and psychoanalytic theory—to construct a coherent fictional universe seems to be, with the exception of selected novels by John Gardner and Rebecca Goldstein, the sole province of African American writers.

Of the many writers in this dynamic tradition, Johnson is the only writer trained in philosophy. Moreover, he is the most self-conscious in terms of his stated goals of employing diverse philosophical systems to examine questions which have a moral cast, and which also endow his explorations of African American life with originality and force. The conceptualization of this emerging tradition reflects Johnson's commitment to combine his artistic goals and impulses with his broad intellectual interests while endowing the American novel with greater depth and force. Clearly, such a tradition was nurtured by Johnson's reading of Toomer, Wright, and most especially Ellison. The foundational writer, however, the writer whose skillful combining of philosophy and literature provided Johnson with both the impetus and the model, is Herman Hesse. One of the foundational texts in this evolving and hybrid tradition which Johnson has named and significantly increased through the force of his own imagination is, as I have argued, Siddhartha.


  1. Dreamer promises to occupy an important place in the philosopher/novelist's expanding canon, thus potentially altering his present estimation of Oxherding Tale.

  2. For commentary on the “doctrine of inner realization” or enlightenment, see Suzuki. There are fascinating correspondences between the ways in which the Buddha, Hesse, and Johnson describe this expansive state of consciousness.

Works Cited

Hesse, Hermann, Siddhartha. 1951. New York: Bantam, 1971.

Johnson, Charles. Oxherding Tale. 1982. New York: Plume, 1995.

———. “Philosophy and Black Fiction.” Obsidian 6 (1980): 55–61.

Suzuki, D. T. “Zen as Chinese Interpretation of the Doctrine of Enlightenment.” Essays in Zen Buddhism. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1961. 39–117.

Further Reading

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Buber, Martin. “Hermann Hesse's Service to the Spirit.” In A Believing Humanism: My Testament, 1902–1965, pp. 70–79. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967.

Major twentieth century philosopher, Buber, compares and contrasts Hesse's works as parts of a series, with central consideration given to the position of the spirit in each.

Casebeer, Edwin F. “Siddhartha: The Completed Hero.” In Hermann Hesse, pp. 23–54. New York: Warner Books, 1972.

Presents Siddhartha as the best introduction to studying and understanding the life of its author.

Additional coverage of Hesse's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 17–18; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 11, 17, 25, 69; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 66; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied Authors, Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; European Writers; Exploring Novels; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 6; Reference Guide to World Literature; Something about the Author, Vol. 50; and World Literature Criticism.

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