Thoughts on Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

My Quick Take: I really enjoyed reading this classic and got a good dose of Eastern philosophy.


What an interesting and thought provoking slim novel this was. As you may recall, I’ve been learning about Buddhist philosophy since 2020, looking at it through a secular lens. I’ve found it to be tremendously helpful in living life, and I’ve developed a regular meditation practice. As with many writers, Hesse’s name is one I knew only by Western literature societal osmosis, given the obvious fact that there will never be enough time in a life to read or study all interesting literature or classics. But this book caught my eye because of its subject, and the moment was right to pluck it off my shelf.

The novel’s structure is simple. It follows the life of Siddhartha from adolescence to old age, journeying with him in his quest for understanding and, ultimately, Enlightenment. Perhaps I can be forgiven for thinking that this was the story of Siddhartha Gautama, who was the Buddha, but no. The Buddha is only a character in the novel though highly respected by Siddhartha. Indeed, though Siddhartha eventually realizes much classic Buddhist philosophy in his spiritual quest, he’s not a follower; rather, he realizes that each person’s road to deep understanding of life is a solitary one. No path is right or wrong, and insight is born of experience.

I liked this message. Every single thing we choose, experience, interact with, think and feel are a part of the same whole: the unity of things. Everything has vital value to our insight. Siddhartha takes a lifetime to learn this. Despite the ease of his life and spiritual practice at his family home, “Dreams and restless thoughts came flowing to him from the river, from the twinkling stars at night, from the sun’s melting rays.” He leaves his family and conventional spiritual practice to become an ascetic as a youth. He learns the importance of the only three skills he needs: “I can think, I can wait, I can fast.”

He then gives up asceticism, realizing this is not the path to enlightenment. He learns the ways of physical love in his twenties. He becomes bloated with wealth, food, drink and privilege in his middle years, but this is soul-destroying for him: “Slowly the soul sickness of the rich crept over him.” He returns to a simple life on the river, where he learns from the river itself and an elderly sage/ferryman about the true nature of being. Finally, listening deeply to the river and what it shows him, he attains bliss.

None of his experience was good or bad in the end: it was all just experience. Siddhartha learns some hard lessons, but they echo what many of us struggle with, which is why I think the book resonates even today. I don’t claim to understand the seeming mash-up of Hesse’s philosophy here, but there was a lot to identify with as I read. Some of the passages about parenthood really rang true. Siddhartha only wants to protect his adolescent son, and wants to spare him a life of suffering by holding him close, though the youth rebels. His ferryman teacher reminds him of Siddhartha’s own youth:
“Who protected Siddhartha the Samana [ascetic] from Samsara [the continuous cycle of life, death and rebirth], from sin, greed and folly? Could his father’s piety, his teacher’s exhortations, his own knowledge, his own seeking, protect him? Which father, which teacher, could prevent him from living his own life,from soiling himself with life, from loading himself with sin, from swallowing the bitter drink himself, from finding his own path? Do you think, my dear friend, that anybody is spared this path?"
The story of Hesse’s process in writing the novel is immensely interesting. He left school at age 13, broke with his parents’ Protestant tradition as a youth and was a fierce opponent of WWI. His wife became mentally ill and he had to place his three sons with others due to his inability to care for them. His study of Buddhism by way of his grandfather’s influence and visits to India, and perhaps his therapy with Jung, are clear influences. He wrote the book between 1919-22, and suffered a bout of severe depression while writing it. I have the original 1951 English translation, and the novel ended up being quite a sensation in America when it was published there. Why? Probably because of its message of rebellion, and Siddhartha’s ultimate conclusion that insight isn’t found in organized religion and spiritual teachers but rather by looking at oneself and trusting one’s experience. It is a solitary journey and unique to each of us.

In the end, the book imparts a very human, compassionate and forgiving message.
“Therefore, it seems to me that everything is necessary, everything needs only my agreement, my assent, my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me. I learned through my body and soul that it was necessary for me to sin, that I needed lust, that I had to strive for property and experience nausea and the depths of despair in order to learn not to resist them, in order to learn to love the world, and no longer compare it with some kind of desired imaginary world, some imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and be glad to belong to it.”