Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse’s ‘Siddhartha’ is considered by many as a literary classic, widely acclaimed for revealing to the West some really intricate philosophies of the Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism.
In terms of his background, Hermann Hesse came from a family of German Christian missionaries with links to India and grew up in a “Pietist” household. Had a penchant for the arts (music, poetry) and philosophy and throughout his life sought to evolve higher and deeper into spiritual searching and fulfillment in life.
I had heard about the book for many years but for some reason never got myself to read it. Finally decided to download the book from the internet and read it at one go through a flight. Usually I’m a very slow reader so don’t read that much or that fast, but I guess the subject matter was familiar so didn’t take much time. Just for information sake my interest in books, till now, has been mostly towards Hindu religious scriptures, which we have been exposed to since childhood in some form or the other.
Here’s my blunt and honest critique of this book, with the background of how some of its admirers/referrers (to me) have interpreted the story.
The Core Message of the Story
Siddhartha’s (the book) central surmise is that spiritual realization or fulfillment in life (or salvation, whatever you call it) cannot come out of some teachings, either scripturally or via a teacher. There is no goal (like salvation) that is to be attained, or in his words, “…Searching means: having a goal, whereas finding means: being free, being open, having no goal”. Or in other words spiritual realization is actually just finding out or realizing one’s oneness with the world (which is ever present), not some esoteric goal to be learnt and strived towards. And then he comes to the conclusion that every experience, whether spiritual or secular or sensual is a necessity in this process of ‘finding’ or ‘realizing’.
My take on the Story (in the context of how I hear people interpret it… of course I have no way of knowing how exactly the author expected the readers to interpret)
1st off I agree with his central message as written above, and the Upanishads and Bhagvad Gita or any other exhaustive Hindu religious text say the same thing, again and again, sometimes through parables, sometimes straight to the face bluntly. That the ultimate spiritual realization is not about striving to reach a goal but rather a striving to realize who or what we already are, in reality. As several of the Upanishads emphatically say, it’s like taking a veil off our eyes that was always present and which we take off once we “Realize”. So this premise is not something new as the author seems to suggest by his rejection of the sacred teachings of the Brahmanas (I’m assuming he means the Vedas and their many rules and practices) or even the Buddha. While it is true that most religious Hindus including the Brahmanas who he refers to, do get stuck with the process and steps, that doesn’t in any way mean that the teachings themselves are at fault. Siddhartha (the character) could have easily sidestepped the rules/ablutions he was being forced to practice in his early life and just taken the Texts’ core messages and he would come to the same conclusion as what he reaches in the end. Anyone who has even had a cursory look at the Upanishadic stories or the 100’s of stories in the Yoga Vasistha would realize (and Hermann Hesse was noted to be specifically reading the Upanishads during the time he wrote this book) that all these stories unequivocally say that there is ultimately no duality in the world, that everything is just One.
2nd I see two distinct biases in the author’s view, one apparent, the other not so apparent. Throughout the story one can clearly perceive the respect and primacy the author attaches to Goutama Buddha as a realized soul and how fallacious the ways of the Samanas (self-abnegating Hindu ascetics) are. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the kind of logic and views of the Buddha and his followers, that predominated the time when the Buddha was just starting out to preach his new found spiritual doctrine in the general atmosphere of the then Hindu religion being taken over by ritualistic practices of Brahmanas and the practice of sacrifices et al. And so his teachings were entirely justified. But we also have to remember that later Sri Adi Shankaracharya, with his ‘Advaita’ philosophy dealt such a body blow to Buddhism that it never gained a foothold in its country of origin after that. And Adi Shankaracharya was going into the very same religious texts that the Brahmanas had so conveniently misinterpreted for their own selfish ends and which Buddhist philosophy had cited as reason for the need of their new doctrine/religion.
The ‘not so apparent’ bias comes from the author’s upbringing in a western Christian family. Here’s what I mean by that. One of the biggest differences between western (I mean not their origin but which religion predominates there, viz., the Abrahamic religions in the west) and eastern religions is the concept of what happens after death – Between ‘this is the only birth and God will come 2nd time to redeem those who died and are waiting, AND the concept of reincarnation and rebirth in a continuous cycle until soul realizes its unity with the world’. The 4 Ashramas of Hindu life, Brahmacharya (student), Grihasta (householder), Vanaprasta (retired) and Sannyasa (renunciation) should not only be looked at from the perspective of one lifetime but also from the perspective of the fact that Hindusim believes in reincarnation/rebirth. It is said in the scriptures that the lifespan of human beings in the 4 Yugas (Satya, Treta, Dwapara and Kali in that order) gradually declined from multiple 100’s of years in Satya yuga to mere 60-80 years in Kali Yuga. So could it be that the whole concept of the Ashrama system was written with the initial yugas in mind? If so then in the present context (when we are said to be in the last cycle of yuga) how does the Ashrama timeline play out? I would go so far as to posit that the 4 ashramas, given the much reduced time span of human life, now play out over multiple births (given we simultaneously believe in rebirth as well) and the last ashram being the toughest and longest one can happen in the person’s subsequent birth after a quick pass through the initial three ashrams.
So when the author writes a story about a Brahmana named Siddhartha who says at one point “I needed sin, lust and vanity…(and all other experiences of the 3 Ashrams)” to overcome resistance to world and in order to love the world, many people interpret that to mean that lust, sin et al are vital in the process of realization and conveniently indulge in them throughout their lives. And often in secular life these same people will advise those who restrain themselves, to give in to their urges and lead a bacchanalian life, using this previous premise and example to justify their arguments. What they don’t realize is that the person (who maybe a monk or maybe retired or maybe somewhere in between or close) might have already experienced them early in this birth or even in a previous birth. As the character Siddhartha asserts so strongly at one point, ‘…we simply do not know at what stage of evolution the soul is at any point in time!
And this is where I feel the author makes a critical mistake (or maybe deliberate, I don’t know) in the way he portrays a wandering mendicant/ascetic who, while being a monk gives in to his sensual instincts and goes on to experience physical/material pleasures just to get the raging desires out of the way (as like a learning experience, really!!!) while on his path to realization. The point the author misses in his interpretation of the Hindu scriptures and how the Ashrama system works is that by the time a person has reached the stage of being a monk, he has mandatorily experienced whatever that has to be experienced of the other previous three Ashramas, either in this birth or in his previous birth. That is the subtle concept behind the Ashrama system. By reversing and twisting the cycle and making his monk character to go back and enjoy sexual pleasures (and the author describes the ‘acts’ in pretty graphic detail… you might as well read up on more ‘well known’ texts on such things if you are really so interested, instead of relying on Siddhartha & Kamala to show you the way!), he is showing a complete ignorance about how an individual progresses in his path towards ‘Realization’ of his own Self.
All in all, the author has managed to dive very deep into the core of Hindu philosophy and has given some brilliant thoughts but has messed up on some other key points, either deliberately or out of ignorance. And that kind of taints his vision to a large extent. If anyone really wants to dive super deep, and I mean real deep (without needing to read some crass activities in between) into the intricacies of how the world operates and what is Self/God Realization, then try reading up on one of the primary Upanishads, or a commentary of the Bhagavad Gita (Gyaneswari Gita, they say, is a classic) or my personal favorite, The Yoga Vasistha. Hinduism as a religion is unique in having voluminous tomes of books/texts to every aspect of a person’s secular as well as spiritual life, to whet everyone’s appetite. So the great Indian sages of yore, when they seriously start talking on ‘Realization’ as a concept, they are wise enough to understand that they are talking about the very end of the process of a soul’s journey to know itself, so they justifiably keep the so called secular/material stuff out of the way in order to facilitate clarity of understanding by the reader. Hermann Hesse, has unfortunately missed that important point in this particular piece of writing of his.