Siddhartha Themes
by Hermann Hesse

Siddhartha book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Siddhartha Themes

The main themes in Siddhartha include self-discovery, individuality, and timelessness. 

  • Self-discovery: Siddhartha's relationship with nature opens him up to new spiritual experiences, allowing him to feel that he is one with the world.
  • Individuality: In his youth, Siddhartha decides to leave home to forge a new identity for himself, realizing that he must discover truth for himself rather than relying on his father’s wisdom. 
  • Timelessness: When Siddhartha reaches enlightenment, he recognizes that time is an illusion and can experience past, present, and future at once.

Download Siddhartha Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The single theme of the novel is Siddhartha’s search for unity, which is identical with his search for the true nature of the self. He cannot find either by rejecting the world, but neither can he take the opposite route and indulge the senses. He must indeed embrace the world, but only when he is able to experience it sub specie aeternitatis, in its essential form. He must come to know that the individual self, the Atman, is identical to the universal self, the Brahman, although by the end of the novel the terms have shifted. He has, even while remaining an individual, become indistinguishable from the universal nature of the Buddha.

To attain this enlightenment, the most important lesson he learns is the ability to be passive, to wait and listen. If he can cease his own small willing and striving, he can learn to embrace the great contradictory harmonies of the world. He can, in his own person, reconcile all the strife of opposites; he can overcome the illusion of time and thus experience the myriad, diverse forms and events—past, present, and future—as a simultaneous present, and hold them in a quiet serenity which accepts and loves everything, seeing no fault.

Hesse’s great image, in which the whole meaning of the novel is contained, is the river. Siddhartha is reborn as he sleeps by the river’s edge, and he resolves to stay there and learn from it. Vasudeva has spent a lifetime ferrying travelers across the river (in Buddhist thought, enlightenment is said to be the knowledge which goes “to the other shore,” and the sage is the one who steers the boat). The river symbolizes life. It is from the river that Siddhartha learns that time has no existence. The river is everywhere at the same time; it flows on forever and has neither past nor future. Siddhartha realizes that this quality is also true of human life and that suffering takes place only within that false mental construct which is called time, yet which has no reality.

Siddhartha hears all the different voices of the river and discerns all the forms it contains. He sees his own past and all the people he has known. He also sees the insatiable desire which drives all life toward its goal. Yet he also knows that every act is necessary and good; every thing and every creature contains the Buddha-nature within it, and that all goals are reached, after which life changes its form and continues. When he hears the ten thousand voices of the river together at the same time, he realizes that none is separate from any of the others, and when he does not try to attach himself to any one particular voice, the sound of the river becomes a great song, the music of life in its eternal perfection. Armed with this knowledge, he can love and respect all creatures.


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Siddhartha contains four prominent themes, all of which are related to a discovery of Self. The first of these, the father-son theme, would strike most the readers as familiar — perhaps even in their own personal lives. Although Siddhartha admires and loves his father, an orthodox Brahmin, he knows he cannot rely on his father's wisdom but must seek his own way to truth. Siddhartha is, therefore, a conventional rebel within his family. He knows that no one — not even his learned father — can lead him to find his true Self. He calls into question the effectiveness of his father's attempts at cleansing away guilt by frequent...

(The entire section is 2,159 words.)