Siddhartha Analysis

  • For Siddhartha, the river is a potent symbol of his relationship with nature. Only in his communion with nature is Siddhartha able to become one with every living thing. In doing so, he achieves absolute peace and harmony, a state of nirvana that few people can attain. His spiritual journey ends when he accepts his oneness with nature.
  • Setting plays an important role in Siddhartha. When he first leaves home, Siddhartha joins the Samanas, who live an ascetic life in the forests. Next, Siddhartha moves to the big city, where he soon learns that indulgence is just as unfulfilling as denial. In the end, he returns to nature and lives in peace on the river.
  • At heart, Siddhartha is a quest story about one man's search for spiritual fulfillment. Siddhartha begins his quest as a young man traveling to remote forests, big cities, and finally to the riverside in his quest to find himself. His long journey brings him to a deeper understanding not just of the world but of his own identity.

Analysis

Critical Evaluation

One of the major twentieth century writers and an important cultural and intellectual force, Hermann Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946 for his achievement as a novelist, particularly for his masterpiece, Das Glasperlenspiel: Versuch einer Lebensbeschreibung des Magister Ludi Josef Knecht samt Knechts hinterlassenen Schriften (1943; Magister Ludi, 1949; also The Glass Bead Game, 1969). Hesse stated, “All the prose works of fiction I have written are biographies of souls.” Siddhartha, his most widely read work of fiction, is a biography of the soul in the essential sense of the term. It evokes the magical realm of the spirit in exploring the protagonist’s quest for self-knowledge and the unity of being.

Hesse called Siddhartha “an Indic Poem.” Of all his fictional works, it is undoubtedly the one most impregnated with Indian religion and philosophy. Hesse himself unequivocally acknowledged his long-standing interest in India and his preoccupation with Hinduism, Buddhism, Vedanta, and Yoga. “More than half of my life,” he stated, “I tried to come to an understanding of the Indian view of Life.” India was his family’s spiritual homeland for two generations, and he himself undertook a voyage to India in 1911 “to go back into that source of life where everything had begun and which signified the Oneness of all phenomenon.” Siddhartha was an artistic expression of his understanding of the Indian view of life, modified by his own romantic vision.

Using the historical Buddha’s life as a framework of his fictional narrative, Hesse appropriated Buddha’s given name Siddhartha for his mythical hero and endowed him with many qualities of the Enlightened One. However, he presented them as two separate figures in the novel and used the encounter between them as a catalyst to reinforce his romantic concept of the bildungsroman. Hesse believed that all knowledge must come from personal experience rather than from formal training and doctrinaire teaching. Siddhartha’s rejection of the teachings of Buddha served as a turning point in his quest, fortifying his conviction that, to attain the state of perfect enlightenment, he, too, must extinguish his ego and merge with the unity underlying the universe. That he attains his supreme destiny, Nirvana, through pure disinterested love and self-surrender is confirmed by the novel’s conclusion.

Because Siddhartha deals with themes of initiation and search for the self and focuses on the emotional, intellectual, psychological, and spiritual development of the protagonist, it can be viewed as a bildungsroman, a novel of growth and education. All the major characters, episodes, and symbols in the novel serve as important milestones in Siddhartha’s journey toward self-realization.

The predominant, all-inclusive symbol in the novel is the river. The river represents the continuum of life and time, the eternal process of being and becoming, and the constant flux in nature. It defines, divides, entwines, and merges the transitions in Siddhartha’s journey and ultimately manifests the cosmic vision of totality and timelessness that he attains at the end of his quest. Siddhartha’s vision on the riverbank leads to intuitive wisdom.

Though Siddhartha, like all great literature, has a timeless dimension, it had a profound impact on the youth culture in the United States from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. Its gospel of disinterested love appealed to the American flower children, as its emphasis on self-realization, integration, and wholeness attracted many alienated youth to Eastern religions and philosophies. Many Western youth were in rebellion against the institutionalization, growing materialism, and fragmented, scientific worldview of their own society. Written in a lucid, poetic, rhythmical, symbolic, and dignified style, Siddhartha presents the spiritual heritage of the East to the West. It came to be recognized as an important landmark in the history of East-West literary relations.

Places Discussed

India

India. Asian country in which the young Siddhartha, a tall and handsome Brahman’s son, lives and travels in his search for fulfillment. His quest for enlightenment parallels the Buddha’s legendary journeys in India: He departs his father’s house to join the Samana ascetics; after forsaking them, he goes to the city, and eventually abandons the city to become a ferryman on the river.

India, where Herman Hesse traveled in 1911 to study Eastern religions and philosophies, is the birthplace of Buddhism and its promise of enlightenment, as well as Hesse’s conscious opposition to it. Whereas Buddhism attempts to prescribe an established pattern of development, Hesse attempts to show, through Siddhartha’s journey through India, that quests for spiritual fulfillment are voyages of discovery in which each person finds his or her own path to absolute peace. The setting of India, with its nameless features, incorporates the Buddha’s legendary journeys and their accumulated wisdom, through which Siddhartha pursues his own quest for universal oneness.

River

River. Unnamed river that is the central natural element in the novel. The river functions symbolically, marking Siddhartha’s evolution. Siddhartha’s early years in his father’s house are spent on the river’s bank in a state of innocence. At the age of eighteen, Siddhartha hopes to find truth by joining the Samanas, whose prescribed truth stirs his doubts. He then crosses the river and goes to the city. Representing boundaries of time and development, the river symbolizes Siddhartha’s passage from the realm of spirit to sense and back again.

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

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

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

City

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

Historical Context

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

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

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Literary Style

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

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Literary Techniques

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

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Social Concerns

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

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Topics for Further Study

  • Research the Indo-European family of languages, of which English, German, and Sanskrit are members. How does Pali, the language of...

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Literary Precedents

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

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Media Adaptations

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

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What Do I Read Next?

  • The oldest speculative literature of the Hindus is the Upanishads, composed between 600 B.C. to 300 B.C. It is a collection of...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

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

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Bibliography

Boulby, Mark. Hermann Hesse: His Mind and Art. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967. Scholarly study of the major novels of Hesse. The chapter on Siddhartha provides illuminating information on Hesse’s Orientalism. Discusses the work “in the context of Hesse’s movement away from Buddhism” and views it as the culminating point of his art as a novelist.

Field, G. W. Hermann Hesse. Boston: Twayne, 1970. Contains a critical and analytical chapter on Siddhartha.

Otten, Anna, ed. Hesse Companion. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1977. Eight essays on Hesse’s work by various scholars. Theodore Ziolkowski’s essay, “Sid-dhartha: The Landscape of the Soul,” gives an excellent critical analysis of the novel’s Eastern background, plot structure, symbolism, and epiphany. Useful glossary and a bibliography of secondary sources in English.

Shaw, Leroy R. “Time and the Structure of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha.” Symposium 11 (1957): 204-224. A close reading of the text, demonstrating how Hesse communicates his vision of Unity through an intricate blending of form and meaning. A perceptive and illuminating analysis.

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