by Hermann Hesse
Translated by Hilda Rosner
“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.”
Siddhartha, written by the German writer and painter Hermann Hesse, was written in 1922. Originally written in German, it was first published in English in the United States in 1951.
The book remains, till date, one of the most influential novels, based in India, by a Western author. I came to know of the book a few years ago. Having a deep interest in spirituality and philosophy, it was only natural that I was drawn to this book.
If you know nothing about this book, it is easy to assume, just by looking at the book cover, that it is about the life of Siddhartha Gautam Buddha. But, surprise! It’s not. Although that does become clear in the first few paragraphs itself, I think this note is quite essential so that a few among you readers don’t get over-enthusiastic about this book just going by the title!
However, I do believe that this book is worth getting enthusiastic about…
SPOILER: The book does feature Buddha, albeit for a small, yet important, part.
“Wisdom cannot be imparted. Wisdom that a wise man attempts to impart always sounds like foolishness to someone else… Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.”
The story is based in India in the same era as of the Buddha, about a young Brahmin named Siddhartha who, dissatisfied with his existence, sets out to seek enlightenment. How, you ask? Well, he can think. He can wait. He can fast. Over the course of his life journey, he comes across myriad kinds of people and has different kinds of experiences.
SPOILER: He meets the Buddha, moves on and meets a beautiful courtesan, learns the art of lust from her. In the meanwhile, he also works for a merchant. Yes, kind of stuff you’d not expect to see a man on a spiritual journey to indulge in. Later on, he drinks, gambles and meets and lives with a ferryman. The story does not end there. But well, read the book for more.
“I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices, so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment and sorrow, just in order to become a child again and begin anew. I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide, in order to experience grace.”
Siddhartha’s quest for enlightenment goes on to demonstrate the importance of every kind of experience and every person one comes across in their lifetime. It was through each of those experiences that Siddhartha is able to achieve enlightenment at the end.
“What you search is not necessarily the same as what you find. When you let go of the searching, you start finding.”
It is heartening to know that a book set in the East, written in the 1920s, talking about spirituality and enlightenment, has amassed such a huge popularity across the world. It’s quite evident that even Western audience is able to identify with it. We all are humans, after all.
Hermann Hesse did not preach us to give up material possessions and go to the woods to meditate and seek truth, but if a narrative talking about something similar is able to connect to people across the world, even today, or especially today, it most probably does offer something of value.
Siddhartha is a short novella, spanning around 150 pages. It has a simple language—or say, the translated version that I read, by Hilda Rosner—although I should be honest and say that I found some of the repetitive phrases uttered by the main character and his friend towards the beginning, a little irritating.
Speaking of personal experience, I would not put this book in the ‘unputdownable’ category. It is possible to find it boring at times, but the message and philosophy of the book makes me glad that I stuck to it till the end.
So, she has basically taken over, at this point, and I could not be more glad to let go of the reins…
Now, you can start reading the book right here:
Of course, there are other translations available, and the readers are encouraged to seek them out and let us know what you think.
Well, that is all for tonight. We will be back, next week.