BOOK REVIEW: SIDDHARTHA–An Indian Tale by Hermann Hesse


Khidki (Window)

–Read India Initiative—

This is only an attempt to create interest in reading. We may not get the time to read all the books in our lifetime. But such reviews, talk and synopsis will at least convey what the book is all about.

    Hermann Hesse is a Nobel Laureate. The copy of the book that I read, is published, by Amazing Reads—an Imprint of India Book Distributors Ltd. The discounted price of this book in Amazon is Rs 79. The subject book is a novella of 127pages.

     I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way, we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value. It is always possible—says the author in the book.

    Before I move forward let me give you brief about the author. Herman Hesse was born in Calw, Germany on July 2, 1877 to Johannes and Marie Hesse. They came from different European cultures and were involved in missionary work in India. On account of the parental influence Hesse too, was encouraged to follow the same path, but his love for poetry drove him to spend his early years publishing poems and writing prose.

    In 1904, Hesse published his first novel Peter Camenzind, which was well received and gave him his first breakthrough. He followed this book by another one titled, ‘Beneath the Wheel. In 1904, along with the release of his first novel, Hermann also found marital bliss with Maria Bernoulli and they went on to have three children. He continued to write novellas and short stories and, in 1910, he published Gertrude, (meaning a female, derived from Germanic roots that meant “spear” and strength). Hermann Hesse, while facing a personal crisis at home, protested German fighting in the First World War that brought him a lot of criticism.

    Mirroring his own travels and experiences, Hesse wrote Siddhartha in 1922 and many more books like Steppenwolf in 1927 and Narcissus and Goldmund in 1930. His last novel, The Glass Bead Game, which was published in 1943 took the longest time to complete, following which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1946—a laurel he could not receive personally owing to his deteriorating health condition, which led to his demise on August 9, 1962.

    Hermann Hesse was deeply influenced by the boundless nature of Indian philosophy—and that inspired him to write Siddhartha one of the most widely read novels of the twentieth century.

    Siddhartha, was born into an affluent and privileged Brahmin family, and was loved by one and all. Finding himself dissatisfied with the life he is expected to lead, he forsakes his place among the Brahmins and sets out on a spiritual journey to discover nirvana—a higher state of being. This pursuit leads him through a journey of suffering, self-denial, allurement of wealth and temptations of sensuality; eventually giving up the material world at the bank of a river, where he meets a ferryman who guides him towards his ultimate destiny and shows him how achieving nirvana cannot be taught but persevered by one’s own will. Here, at the river, he stops searching and submits to the oneness of all.

    The story is set up in the ancient Indian kingdom of Kapilavastu. Siddhartha decides to leave behind his home in the hope of gaining spiritual illumination by becoming an ascetic wandering beggar of the Samanas. Joined by his best friend, Govinda, Siddhartha fasts, becomes homeless, renounces all personal possessions, and intensely meditates, eventually seeking, enlightenment.

    Later, both Siddhartha and Govinda acknowledge the elegance of the Buddha’s teachings. Govinda, hastily joins the Buddha’s order, but Siddhartha does not follow suit, claiming that the Buddha’s philosophy, though supremely wise, does not account for the necessarily distinct experiences of each person. He argues that every individual seeks an absolutely unique, personal meaning of life that cannot be presented to him by a teacher. He thus resolves to carry on his quest alone.

    Siddhartha crosses a river where a generous ferryman, whom Siddhartha is unable to pay, merrily predicts that Siddhartha will return to the river someday to compensate him in some way. Venturing onward toward city life, Siddhartha discovers Kamala, the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Kamala, a courtesan, notes Siddhartha’s handsome appearance and fast wit, telling him that he must become wealthy to win her affections so that she may teach him the art of love. Although Siddhartha despises materialistic pursuits as a Samana, he agrees now to Kamala’s suggestions. She directs him to the employment of one Kamaswami, a local businessman, and insists that he have Kamaswami treat him as an equal rather than an underling. Siddhartha, easily succeeds in that, providing a voice of patience and tranquility, which he had learned from his days as an ascetic, against Kamaswami’s fits of passion. Siddhartha gradually becomes a rich man and Kamala’s lover, though in his middle years he realizes that the luxurious lifestyle he has chosen is merely an illusion that lacks spiritual fulfillment. Leaving the fast-paced bustle of the city, Siddhartha returns to the river fed up with life and disillusioned, contemplating suicide before falling into a meditative sleep, and is saved only by an internal experience of the holy word, Om. The very next morning, by sheer coincidence, Siddhartha briefly reconnects with Govinda, who is passing through the area as a wandering Buddhist.

    Siddhartha decides to live the rest of his life in the presence of the spiritually inspirational river. He thus reunites with the ferryman, named Vasudeva, with whom he begins a humbler way of life. Although, Vasudeva is a simple man, he understands and relates that the river has many voices and significant messages to convey provided someone wants to listen to it.

    Some years later, Kamala, now a Buddhist convert, is traveling to see the Buddha at his deathbed. She is accompanied by her reluctant young son, and is bitten by a venomous snake, near Siddhartha’s river. Siddhartha recognizes her even after years and realizes that the boy is his own child. After Kamala’s death, Siddhartha attempts to console and raise the furiously resistant boy, until one day the child flees altogether. Although Siddhartha is desperate to find his runaway son, Vasudeva urges him to let the boy find his own path, much like Siddhartha did himself in his youth. Listening to the river with Vasudeva, Siddhartha realizes that time is an illusion and that all his feelings and experiences, even those that of suffering, are part of a great and ultimately jubilant fellowship of all things connected in the cyclical unity of nature. After Siddhartha’s moment of illumination, Vasudeva claims that his work is done and he must depart into the woods, leaving Siddhartha peacefully fulfilled and alone once more.

    Towards the end of his life, Govinda hears about an enlightened ferryman and travels to Siddhartha, not initially recognizing him as his old childhood friend. Govinda asks the now-elderly Siddhartha to relate his wisdom and Siddhartha replies that for every true statement there is an opposite one that is also true; that language and the confines of time lead people to adhere to one fixed belief that does not account for the fullness of the truth. Because nature works in a self-sustaining cycle, every entity carries in it the potential for its opposite and so the world must always be considered complete. Siddhartha simply urges people to identify and love the world in its completeness. He then requests Govinda to kiss his forehead, and when he does, Govinda experiences the visions of timelessness that Siddhartha himself saw with Vasudeva by the river. Govinda bows to his wise friend and Siddhartha smiles radiantly, having found enlightenment. The book ends there.

    This indeed is the true picture of life. We run after innumerous things yet we don’t find peace and enlightenment.

    It’s a very fast paced book. I did not like the construct of its sentences nor the punctuation yet the book carries a great message and a great story worth going through for which I would give it seven out of ten.   

By Kamlesh Tripathi



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