Book Review: Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse

This is the second book I’ve read (and reviewed) from Hesse. Admittedly, after first reading Steppenwolf early this year, I was in no rush to go further just yet – that book was enough for my mind to deal with and left an indelible impression. However, hey, Siddhartha is only 122 pages…how much of a hassle could that be?

Thankfully, this svelte novella bares little resemblance to Steppenwolf‘s hallucinogenic soul-churning. It’s a simple, spiritual tale, reminiscent in style of works I read in my late-teens and early twenties (in particular: Khalil Gibran and Jiddu Krishnamurti).

The book begins with Siddhartha, the handsome and talented son of a Brahmin family, bidding farewell to his people and homeland. Driven to plumb the depths of spiritual knowledge, he and his best friend, Govinda, decide to join a group of Samanas – ascetic nomads who drift through towns and desert alike, denouncing all possessions. At first, Siddhartha takes to the group and spends a long time mastering their philosophy until he eventually finds himself dissatisfied and conflicted by the limits of their teaching.

Breaking away with Govinda in tow, Siddhartha journeys to find a group of monks attending an open lecture by the Gotama Buddha, their spiritual leader. Hearing Gotama speak, Siddhartha begins to finally understand his path. Given an opportunity to speak privately with him, Siddhartha extols the virtue of what Gotama has stated, but tells him that the path he sees for himself cannot be found following Gotama. The Buddha is surprised and asks him to explain, to which Siddhartha reveals his revelation: that the Gotama learned everything not by following others, but by making his own path, and if need be his own mistakes.

It is at this point that he and his friend break from one another – Siddhartha decides to go into a nearby town to find his way, and Govinda, equally taken by the words of Gotama, decides to follow him as one of his faithful monks. When he reaches the town, Siddhartha finds himself indulging in the flesh and physical manifestations of the world: he falls in love with a beautiful courtesan and finds a job with a wealthy trader. Years pass, and while Siddhartha accumulates fortunes and lavish tastes, his soul begins to buckle, his demeanour sours, as he longs for the path he thought he’d found. He eventually breaks away from the town and finds himself at the doorstep of a poor ferryman – it is there that he forms his understanding of the spirit, nourished with the help of the ferryman and the voice of the river.

In the end, Siddhartha’s path is one of profound simplicity – a result of his spiritual maturity aided by the fateful intervention of those in his past. In circumstances both tragic and sublime, he attains the peacefulness he was searching for, though in ways he was unable to perceive beyond his youthful revolt.

This book is oft-described as one of the more compelling European perspectives on Indian spirituality. I found myself, for the first quarter of the book, feeling as if I was going over familiar territory – concisely written, but hardly ground-breaking stuff. It was only at the point of Siddhartha’s revelation in the face of Gotama, that the Buddha himself never followed the teachings of others save for the lessons of personal experience – thus, why should Siddhartha be a follower? – that the book grabbed me. There is something Nietzschian in this; superimposing the perceptive defiance of an individual onto a “meeting by the river” of two minds, one old and wise, the other young and daring. To see what happens to Siddhartha, in many ways symbolic of those precious few who attempt to live by their learned convictions, is what drives the reader to finish the book. I don’t think anyone will be disappointed in Siddhartha, though to what extent they are inspired is another question – one which truly depends on the mind and soul of the reader.

Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse (ISBN: 978-0811200684) is available at a friendly independent bookstore near you. Or online at any number of vendors.


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