By Paul W. Morris
Herman Hesse’s novel Siddhartha has profoundly inspired the spiritual quest of many since it was first published in 1922. It introduced a generation of disenchanted young people in the West to eastern mysticism and contemplative practices. Interestingly, the author’s own process of self-realization was inextricably tied to the composition of the novel
When New Directions decided to publish the first English translation of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha in 1951, it could not have foreseen the enormous impact it would have on American culture. The ostensibly simple narrative—the story of a young accomplished Brahmin, Siddhartha (not to be confused with the historical Buddha), who defies his father’s tradition in favour of wandering India in search of enlightenment—appealed to the restless drifter, the alienated youth, and the political anarchist alike. Its many motifs include the outcast; rejection of authority; communion with nature; recalcitrance toward schooling; and the idea of an immanent God. Published in the US during the Cold War, Siddhartha addressed a perennial unrest and provided a new set of values for a generation disenchanted with their parents’ conservatism.
By Hesse’s own admission, Siddhartha is a quintessential Western tale cloaked in “Indian garb”. The author had chosen India as his backdrop because he was unable to address the concept of an all-pervading unity within the context of his own European Protestant heritage. But Hesse’s portrayal of India is based less on his own travels to the subcontinent and more on an imagined notion of ‘the Orient’ so prevalent in Europe during the time of the novel’s composition.
Like the Romantics and Transcendentalists who had preceded him, Hesse was not interested in accurately conveying the traditions that inspired him. (Hesse’s use of the term ‘Yogaveda’, for example, is evidence of his loose rendering of Hinduism.) Instead, he created his own exotic blend of eastern spirituality that was a synthesis of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, combined with his burgeoning knowledge of Western psychoanalysis. All this was punctuated with a staunch non-conformity that resonated with readers across generations and cultures.
Despite Hesse’s eclectic interest in the world’s religions, no other spiritual discipline—apart from Christianity—permeated his life more than Buddhism. In many of his novels, the characters became centred through developing an awareness of themselves and their behaviour with a kind of mindfulness that transcended the intellectual content of Buddhist philosophy. The author was struck by the Buddha’s “life as lived, as labour accomplished and action carried out. A training, a spiritual self-training of the highest order”. It is this discipline that we see reflected in Hesse’s writing and his own psychological struggle.
His most influential work, Siddhartha, is arguably also his most optimistic. The novel offered its readers hope for liberation in this lifetime, a hope absent in the wake of the two World Wars. There could not have been a more encouraging message available to those who sought the “Way Within”. As a result, America witnessed a Hesse phenomenon that was unparalleled for a European writer.
Yet, the odds seemed stacked against the novel ever being finished in the first place. It was only through a series of transformative experiences, wherein the author reinvented himself, that Siddhartha was born. The author’s process of self-realization was inextricably tied to the novel’s composition.
A year and a half before he would begin work on his Indian legend, Hesse awoke from a dream one rainy morning in Berne, Switzerland. He lay in a quasi-dream state, and slowly became aware of his surroundings. As he heard the rain falling softly on the roof, he was filled with great sadness and pain; the memory of a long dream had emerged from his slumber like a shadow.
Hesse would later relate the dream in his diary—he had heard two voices, both of which spoke of a profound sorrow, but it was the second voice, deeper and more resonant, that commanded: “Listen to me, and remember, suffering is nothing, suffering is illusion. Only you yourself create it, only you cause yourself pain!”
Hesse described the second voice, saying it “was itself dark, it was itself primal cause”. That Hesse should dwell so intently on a dream is no surprise. As early as 1916, following the second of several nervous breakdowns, he had undergone psychoanalysis with a disciple of Carl Jung (and would later form a close rapport with Jung himself). Hesse was well acquainted with Jung’s notion that the unconscious could access states of awareness available to the whole of humanity. He knew this voice was a response to the fundamental question of existence that had hounded him since childhood.
Until then, Hesse’s life had been a series of rebellions, from his dropping out of school at the age of 13, to his break with the tradition of his Protestant parents and their hope that he follow their missionary ambitions, to his fierce opposition of World War I. His grandfather, who was proficient in nine Indian languages and who was widely acknowledged throughout Europe as an authority on the subcontinent, encouraged young Hesse’s appreciation for the spiritual classics.
It was his grandfather’s love for India that convinced Hesse, a decade after his mentor’s death, to travel there in 1911 in an attempt to reconcile his family’s missionary tradition with his own rebellious spirit. His exposure to Indian culture, Buddhism in particular, would colour much of his later work, but this journey did not satisfy his spiritual longing.
In 1919 Hesse escaped to Montagnola, a small village in the foothills of the suburban Swiss Alps, where he would reside for the rest of his life. Forced to commit his wife to an asylum after her rapid descent into schizophrenia, he was unable to provide for his three sons and regretfully placed them under the care of friends.
Hesse emerged from this crisis to experience one of the most creative years of his life. In December 1919, he began composing Siddhartha. The writing came easily at first, and he completed Part One in the early months of 1920. Then, nothing.
He confessed to a friend: “My big Indian work isn’t ready yet and may never be. I’m setting it aside now, because I would have to depict a next phase of development that I have not yet fully experienced myself.” Part One is concerned with Siddhartha’s unrest, his questioning mind, from his refusal to follow his father’s Brahmanical tradition, to the path of the wandering ascetic and ultimately, to the contemplative way of the Buddha.
These chapters had, according to Hesse, “proceeded splendidly”, informed by his own suffering. But for Part Two, Hesse had to contend with the protagonist’s triumph, whereby Siddhartha finally attains enlightenment. Conceiving such a solution to his character’s suffering was impossible, however, as long as the author remained dissociated from his own inner being.
If not for Hesse’s unrelenting determination for self-discovery, Siddhartha would surely have been abandoned. In July 1921, Part One was published independently without a proper ending. Through his close work with Jung during these years, Hesse confronted his dislocation from society to complete his own journey. And he discovered an appreciation for the Buddha’s teachings. Of course, Hesse’s sympathy for Buddhism was not solely responsible for his eventual catharsis; Buddhist thought had been just one component of his general awareness of Asian religions in vogue at that time. But the influence that the Buddha’s teachings had on Siddhartha is unmistakable.
As Hesse began to understand the subtleties of practice that moved him out of his acute depression, he wrote: “…if we allow Buddha to speak to us as a vision, as image, as the awakened one, the perfect one, we find in him, almost independently of the philosophic content and dogmatic kernel of his teaching, a great prototype of mankind. Whoever attentively reads a small number of the countless ‘speeches’ of Buddha is soon aware of a harmony in them, a quietude of soul, a smiling transcendence, a totally unshakeable firmness, but also invariable kindness, endless patience.”
Resuming work, Hesse quickly completed the eight chapters that comprise Part Two. By May of that year, it was finished: Hesse’s Siddhartha—whose name in Sanskrit means ‘he who has found the goal’—comes to rest in a middle way just as Hesse himself discovers his own way out of depression.
The author’s understanding of Buddhism has its finest expression toward the end of the novel, when Siddhartha quietly meditates on the movement of the river: “He had died and a new Siddhartha had awakened from his sleep. He also would grow old and die. Siddhartha was transitory, all forms were transitory.” In October 1922, the novel was published in its entirety.
Hesse was not completely satisfied with the finished work; he doubted that he had “reformulated for our era a meditative Indian ideal of how to live one’s life”. But a few months before the novel’s publication, an Indian professor from Calcutta, who had seen his finished work, impressed upon the author the imperative that Siddhartha “be translated in all European languages, for here we face for the first time the real East presented to the West”. Encouraged, Hesse wrote to a friend expressing hope that the novel appears in English, “not for the sake of the English themselves but those Asians and others whom it would vindicate”.
Hesse said of sacred literature: “The very oldest works age the least.” This sentiment may be applied to Hesse’s Siddhartha as well, which is as relevant today as it was in the 1920s in Germany. Indeed, Siddhartha has served, in koan-like fashion, to wake millions from their delusions, to inspire, challenge and remind, as Hesse’s dream-voice had done, that “suffering is nothing, suffering is illusion”.
Excerpted from the introduction to Hermann Hesse s Siddhartha (Shambhala Publications), copyright C 2001 by Paul W. Morris, originally published in the Summer 1999 issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Paul W. Morris, a former editor at Viking Penguin and Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, is currently the co-editor of www.KillingTheBuddha.com and the Director of Special Projects at BOMB Magazine. His work has appeared in numerous anthologies and periodicals. He lives in Manhattan.
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