Watching the River Flow: Siddhartha 100 Years On

“It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else’s life with perfection.”

The Bhagavad Gita

By the time I was introduced to Hermann Hesse for the first time, some 50 years ago, I had already crossed many rivers in my life. Born and partially raised in southern California, moved to Dad’s Missouri haunts, and on, because of tragic events, to the New England Home for Little Wanderers in Boston. And now, here I was a working class Lowell High School student at a summer Upward Bound program (GLUB) held at the prestigious Groton School, where maybe the young Roosevelt, alumni of the school, Teddy and FDR, first wet-dreamed of Manifest Destiny and the New Deal, respectively, from dormitory cubicles with curtains for doors.

Hermann Hesse came to me, by means of a friend I can no longer properly remember, who’d also introduced me to I Ching, and who had a propensity for lighting his farts on fire with a Bic in the basement smoking room of 100 House, during a transition period in my life — economic, educational, religious, and autonomy. The first Hesse book I read was Beneath the Wheel, a bildungsroman which depicted the Goethe-esque destruction of a promising seminary student ground to death by the soul-sapping wheels of the German educational system, his body found in the river.  The next Hesse book I absorbed was a volume of his verse, Poems. Like my start, Siddhartha: An Indian Poem, Hesse’s 1922 novel, is also a product of life transitions — both for the author’s life and as a narrative he explores after returning home to Switzerland from a “journey” to the East.

What’s more, by 1922, fin de siècle malaise and its subsequent anticipation of some ‘shock of the new’ ahead, meant that civilization itself was in transition, from the Nietzschean propositions that God Is Dead and the Will to Power is ahead (German soldiers were said to have read Nietzsche’s Zarathustra in the trenches of WWI), implying that we were on our own — and at the mercy of charismatic populists to direct the “democratic” energies of the West. Asia had its autocrats and emperors.

And 1922 was a pivotal year in a number or areas of our collective experience, featuring events that would either come back to haunt us 100 years later or presage brave new technologies and scientific visions that would alter us forever. A quick perusal of the Wiki entry for the year reveals:

The Irish Civil War and ‘the Troubles’ begin, and by year’s end Michael Collins will be assassinated; radio is introduced in the Harding White House; the international justice court is opened at The Hague; Mahatma Gandhi is arrested tried and sentenced for sedition in India; Joseph Stalin is appointed General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party; Teapot Dome scandal; Genoa Conference, with representatives from 34 countries, convenes in Italy to deal with monetary economics, in the wake of World War I; hyperinflation in Germany (by year’s end, 7000 marks to the US dollar, will bring pressure that leads to the rise of Hitler); the last hunted California grizzly bear is shot; the 9/11 revolution in Greece takes place; TS Eliot publishes The Wasteland, James Joyce publishes Ulysses, Antigone , a tragedy featuring the hubris of tyrants, by Jean Cocteau appears on stage in Paris, with settings by Pablo Picasso, music by Arthur Honegger and costumes by Coco Chanel. Sigmund Freud publishes Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego and Beyond the Pleasure Principle; Mussolini becomes PM of Italy; the Ottoman Empire is abolished after 600 years; Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Transcaucasian Republic (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia) come together to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; Mandatory Palestine and the infamous Sykes–Picot Agreement lead to the troubles there today; Nobel Prize winner  Niels Bohr’s work with atomic structures provides the first glimpse of the quantum; and,Vegemite is invented in Australia.

What a consequential year.

Hermann Hesse, in 1922, was in transition, coming off years of sturm and drang. At the beginning of World War I, he objected to the nationalistic fervor for the war and wrote a tract, “O Friends, Not These Tones,” which decried the tone of hatred the war fomented. He argued in the essay that artists had a protected neutrality:

Each day brings with it the destruction of much that all men of good will among the artists, scholars, travellers, translators, and journalists of all countries have striven for all their lives. This cannot be helped. But it is absurd and wrong that any man who ever, in a lucid hour, believed in the idea of humanity, in international thought, in an artistic beauty cutting across national boundaries, should now, frightened by the monstrous thing that has happened, throw down the banner and relegate what is best in him to the general ruin.

Hesse was made a pariah for a while for such rationalization. (It is reminiscent of the ‘fer us or agin us’ trap set for pundits of the current Russian invasion of Ukraine.)

This was a rough patch in Hesse’s life, from the end of the war to the publication of Siddhartha.  His Wiki entry notes, “a deeper life crisis befell Hesse with the death of his father on 8 March 1916, the serious illness of his son Martin, and his wife’s schizophrenia. He was forced to leave his military service and begin receiving psychotherapy.” His marriage became untenable, and he himself sought answers in psychotherapy, a pathway that led him to the world psychology (archetypes, collective unconscious) and therapeutic processes of CG Jung.

The “O Freunde” essay (the title referencing Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy,” which in turn was an important contribution to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony chorale) seemed to be written by a headstrong and wayward individual (good little Lutheran) who had a vision thang going. In a letter his Ma had written his Pa, she observed willfulness that caused concern:

The little fellow has a life in him, an unbelievable strength, a powerful will, and, for his four years of age, a truly astonishing mind. How can he express all that? It truly gnaws at my life, this internal fighting against his tyrannical temperament, his passionate turbulence […] God must shape this proud spirit, then it will become something noble and magnificent – but I shudder to think what this young and passionate person might become should his upbringing be false or weak. (Wiki)

Luckily, his upbringing was just fine for a little German boy needing a good paddling. He ended up winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, so…. Such headstrong ways are clearly visible in the characterization of his later Siddhartha.

But his deepest, most inquiring inner journeys were influenced by his readings and encounters with Arthur Schopenhauer (especially the Eastern-influenced World As Will and Representation), Friedrich Nietzsche (his philology and philosophy of the future), Jacob Burkhardt (the great German historian), Indian culture and, of course, Buddhism. Freud and Jung, art and myth, and Hesse’s love of music and math (Bach) contributed lifelong schema to his developing worldview.

Hesse was introduced to Indian thought and Buddhist principles early in his life, as he was regaled with the tales of his grandparents’s missionary life in India, where his mother, Marie, spent her early life.  Hesse who pursued Lutheran mission life for a while was well-acquainted with the Buddhistic starter kit: The Middle Way, The Four Noble Truths, The Noble Eightfold Path, The four dhyānas (meditations), The three marks of existence, The five aggregates of clinging, Dependent origination, Karma and rebirth, and, Nirvana. Buddhism is centered on ending suffering, most of it caused by human desire caught up in cycles of craving and illusion that lead to bad karma and unwanted rebirth into the world. Capitalism is real bad karma, by this principle.

The name Siddhartha comes from the Sanskrit words, siddha (achieved) + artha (what was searched for), which together means “he who has found meaning (of existence)” or “he who has attained his goals.” [Wiki] The Buddha was, in his earlier princely life, Siddhartha Gautama. Hesse refers to him in the book as Gotama. The Buddha had broken away from his privileged life and father’s control after seeing suffering in the world all around him and finding the need in himself to do something about it.

The simple plot of Siddhartha begins similarly, seeing the rebellious lad resisting following in father’s footsteps as a Brahmin. Hesse describes the father’s pride:

There was happiness in his father’s heart because of his son who was intelligent and thirsty for knowledge; he saw him growing up to be a great learned man, a priest, a prince among Brahmins. (Penguin, p.12)

But Siddhartha has other plans. Like Gotama, the young Brahmin had seen troubles in his day:

…everything lied, stank of lies; they were all illusions of sense, happiness and beauty. All were doomed to decay. The world tasted bitter. Life was pain. Siddhartha had one single goal — to become empty, to become empty of thirst, desire, dreams, pleasure and sorrow — to let the Self die. No longer to be Self, to experience the peace of an emptied heart, to experience pure thought — that was his goal. (p. 20)

He leaves home, joined by his good friend Govinda, to seek Enlightenment among the Samanas, a group of wandering ascetics.

Siddhartha “had engaged in debate with Govinda and had practised the art of contemplation and meditation with him.” (p.12) They had already addressed many of the most profound questions about the Self and Atman and existence. After three years of limited progress among the Samanas, they split up after they come across the Buddha’s ascetics and Govinda decides to join The Illustrious One. Siddhartha breaks his friend’s heart when he tells him he has to go his own way, without teachers. There is a poignant tete-a-tete between the Buddha and Siddhartha, as the latter explains his decision. Here is the scene depicted in the 1972 film version of Hesse’s book:

Siddhartha comes to the Ganges river. Vasudeva, an old boatman, tells Siddhartha secrets of the river, its beauty and truths uttered, as he ferries him across, and predicts that they will meet again one day.

Siddhartha then hooks up with a courtesan named Kamala, who teaches him all the moves of tantric pleasure. Again, from the 1972 film, their first meeting promises to open up the doors of heady sensuality and carnal knowledge:

To help him pay for her erotic services, she finds him a job assisting Kamaswami, a businessman, through whom he becomes, over many years, rich, famous, fat-headed and dead inside. His long relationship with Kamala begins to lose its luster. He thinks one lucid morning,

Did he still need her — and did she still need him? Were they not playing a game without an end? Was it necessary to live for it? No. This game was called Sansara, a game for children, a game which was perhaps enjoyable played once, twice, ten times —but was it worth playing continually? Then Siddhartha knew that the game was fɹnished, that he could play it no longer. A shudder passed through his body; he felt as if something had died. (p. 71)

They agree in a bedroom chat that given their detachment from life neither is capable of real love. Indeed, Siddhartha reckons only the poor may have such a disposition to it. Siddhartha leaves her, she, tearfully saddened by their end, doesn’t get to tell him she’s preggers.

Profoundly unhappy, and in despair of ever finding Enlightenment, Siddhartha attempts to drown himself in the river, but fails. It’s as if the river just won’t let him drown. He collapses on the shore and lays asleep when Govinda, among Buddha’s ascetics walking by, rests by the “unknown” man as he sleeps on the river bank to protect him from harm. When Siddhartha wakes the two recognize each other and share wisdom notes:

…It seems to me, Govinda, that love is the most important thing in the world. It may be important to great thinkers to examine the world, to explain and despise it. But I think it is only important to love the world, not to despise it, not for us to hate each other, but to be able to regard the world and ourselves and all beings with love, admiration and respect.’

‘I understand that,’ said Govinda, ‘but that is just what the Illustrious One called illusion. He preached benevolence, forbearance, sympathy, patience — but not love. He forbade us to bind ourselves to earthly love.’ (p.116)

They separate again.

A rejuvenated Siddhartha comes across Vasudeva again and becomes his assistant ferryman. Then, one day, Kamala, accompanied by Siddhartha’s child, comes across their path, on their way to attend the Buddha’s rumored imminent death; she’s bitten by a snake and dies, leaving their rebellious son in Siddhartha’s care. Young Siddhartha runs away to be free, and his dad reluctantly lets him go. Too old to continue, Vasudeva leaves Siddhartha, sailing away on the river. Then Govinda, recognizing Siddhartha again during a ferry ride, re-befriends him and becomes Siddhartha’s co-ferrier. Peace, Enlightenment, and fade.

As I previously indicated, the above is a basic outline. The long title for the book says it all: Siddhartha: An Indian Poem. It’s a lyrical, deeply personal narrative. The book carries many essential themes, including life as Journey; reconciling the appetites of mind and body; the one and many river; eternal recurrence; amor fati; the essentiality of love; the nature of suffering and things we can do to alleviate it; and, the structure of the Self.

All of these themes were mighty important back when I was a teenager feeling my oats, looking to be free and in love with Love. My generation was really the 70s and Hesse’s work helped heal some of the lesions of the 60s brought about by the war and White House criminality, race riots and domestic terrorism and general unease with the System.  Lennon would famously sing, in the song “Revolution,” You tell me it’s the institution / Well, you know / You’d better free your mind instead. And that’s the beauty of Hesse’s writing: It transcends the banal politics of aggressive youthful cries for change met with old, entrenched indifference. You can go on a journey (many journeys and trips) and come back changed by the experience of relativism regarding all things micro and macro, man.

So what is Hermann Hesse’s legacy in America 50 years removed from its heyday in the 70s and 100 years after its publication? In his introduction to the Penguin edition of Siddhartha, Paul Coelho may have the best read of its continued importance:

Its simple prose and rebellious character echoed the yearnings of a generation that was seeking a way out of conformity, materialism and outward power. In a world where we could see the many lies of governments and the incapacity of leaders to propose a real alternative, Siddhartha emerged as a symbol; the symbol of those who seek the truth — their own truth. Hesse sensed — decades before my generation, and surely for the generations to come — this unrest, this intrinsic necessity of youth to unravel its path, the necessity we all have to claim what is truly and rightfully ours: our own life.

This truth about who owns our lives has never been more important under a global surveillance state and heading toward an AI future with the nature of the Self never more uncertain.

Siddhartha provides a lesson in the differences between times; to know that the unplugged 20s and, to a lesser extent the 70s (no Internet) still allowed for life space and time to grow into an -ism comfortably, although it should be kept in mind that the pursuit of -isms is largely a bourgeois pursuit unlikely to see folks with two or three jobs to get by finding time for.  Today, we live away from placidity and our mental lives almost entirely online. We take short cuts to make room for data to satisfy our insatiable infomania. More often than not today, we eschew the hard yakka of full Buddhistic pursuit for the breathing exercises of meditation and mindfulness, allotting ourselves strict time slots to practice the Om. Nirvana on the half-shell. Of the three major literary works published that year by Hesse, TS Eliot’s Wasteland, and James Joyce’s Ulysses, arguably Hesse’s novel has stood the test of time best among ordinary educated people than the far more erudite requirements of Eliot and Joyce. Siddhartha is a practical book, in addition to being a poem.  It is immensely enjoyable, still thought-provoking, and I highly recommend it.


For those interested in reading or downloading Hermann Hesse’s works further, I recommend the material found at the Internet Archive, the web’s public library. The collection there includes:

Siddhartha, Penguin Edition (2008) with Paul Coelho introduction

Siddhartha text and audiobook (recommended) from ThoughtAudio (2016)

Siddhartha film version (1972)

Zacharia (1971), a Siddhartha film version, western musical, with Don Johnson

Buddha (1961), a Chinese language drama with subs, gives insight to Chinese production values

The Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha (2010)

The Wayfarers Song Lyrics and Music

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.