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SIDDHARTHA, a novel by Hermann Hesse — Book Review


The Saint Who Wasn’t

by Rayarama Das

SIDDHARTHA, a novel by Hermann Hesse; 153 pps; New Directions Books, $1.15.

SIDDHARTHA could only have been written by a European scholar, and even though the setting is India, circa the start of the 5th Century B. C., and the characters are all Indians and, in fact, even though the Message and Meaning of the book are supposed to be timeless and without designation—every line and page seems to crackle with European Heaven, European Hell, European misconceptions about both Vedic doctrine and Hindu everyday life, and above all, European cynicism regarding “reality.”

To begin with, Hermann Hesse’s conception of the Hindu era in which his characters live is straight from an encyclopedia. There are, it would seem, two streams of religious or philosophical thought through which Siddhartha wades during his lifetime: one is the polytheism of his family and the established Brahminical order; the other is the impersonal “merging” into the Absolute, dear to the ascetics. There is never a trace of Vaishnavism in SIDDHARTHA the book, nor the least tendency toward worship of one Supreme Being within the heart of Siddhartha the character. This is no small omission, for we must understand that Vaishnavism—the Devotional Service of God—has always been and remains even today the mainstream of Vedic thought.

Except for scholars. The scholars have taken Sankaracharya as the greatest thinker in Vedic history, and they have developed and lauded his theories regarding the impersonal, immutable, undifferentiated nature of the Absolute with such fervor, that the people of the West—who are, after all, at the mercy of the scholarly sect—have come to believe that Sri Sankara’s teaching is THE Hindu philosophy. Other than the sublime impersonal, the scholars see only a bewildering pantheon of “many gods,” which seems to be such an annoyance to them that they’ve never bothered to look into that “pantheon” very seriously or open-mindedly.

Beginning with F. Max Muller, and even going back before him, the prejudices and arrogances of the narrowly scholastic community have filtered out the devotional aspects of Vedic culture in bringing the Sacred texts of India to the West. And so it isn’t surprising that Hermann Hesse—who clearly is an armchair mystic—should seemingly know nothing of the monotheistic sects which form the real living core of Hindu philosophy; and it’s also not surprising that God the Person barely gets a nod in Hesse’s book. This is, however, a meter of the superficiality of the man’s “search” for Truth—and the search of Siddhartha and the search of Siddhartha’s creator can hardly be separated. Otherwise, there would be no scope in a magazine of philosophy for the review of a novel. We aren’t interested here in aesthetics, style, or even imagery. We’re simply anxious to approach the Truth, the Absolute.

Why review SIDDHARTHA at all, then? The reason is that the book has had a tremendous influence upon people young and old—but especially young—who are themselves in search of Truth, or at least of something better than hard-rock, aimless materialism. For Siddhartha the character is a searcher, a discontent, a wanderer, always anxious to find something final—peace. (And isn’t that our old friend European War-Weariness dominating Siddhartha’s thoughts? Maybe not. We all do want peace, some way or other.) And in this sense Siddhartha is very much representative of modern man, and, far more, of modern youth.

Yet the book SIDDHARTHA is not written as a probe, but rather as a dogma. The dogma? Reject all dogmas. And in this SIDDHARTHA the book fails to fulfill any meaningful purpose in human society, and fails furthermore in living up to the faith of those who may read it with the hope of finding a direction there for themselves. For although, in his wanderings, Siddhartha studies with forest mendicants, and encounters none other than Lord Buddha Himself, he rejects them all for a life of sin. The moral here may escape you, but that’s only the half of it. The other half is that the author himself never really lets us in on what Lord Buddha is teaching. There’s a great deal of talk about how He looks—holy fingers, holy hands, etc.—but hardly more than the most superficial glance at His doctrine. The same with the forest mendicants. Their teachings are refuted, but never examined. How they look we are told, and also how they suffer, but not what they believe in.

The real principle of spiritual understanding—like the pursuit, practically speaking, of any branch of knowledge—is to hear the teachings of a realized soul, an expert. Knowledge is acquired by hearing. To walk out of a classroom because a teacher doesn’t appear to be knowledgeable would be an act of awful folly. And to accept or reject spiritual knowledge because someone looks “holy,” or doesn’t, is also foolish. Yet this is as far as Hermann Hesse lets us go in understanding any philosophy but his own. Even the conversation between Siddhartha and Gotama Buddha is one-sided, and all the Buddha really gets to say is to watch out against being too clever. At least He looks perfect.

The plot of the book is simple if perplexing: Siddhartha has a restless impulse to fulfill himself, and, feeling that he’s exhausted the store of knowledge that his father and home-town teachers can give him, he sets off into the forest with a band of wandering ascetics. After some time, this life also seems to be leading him nowhere, and so he leaves the ascetics to go to see Gotama Buddha, Whose reputation is at this time stirring all India. But one look at the Buddha (looks count for everything here, please remember), and Siddhartha knows that he can only gain wisdom through his own experience. In a chapter which is oddly entitled “The Awakening,” Siddhartha leaves the Buddha, and then wanders off into—sin. Yes, having come to the conclusion that he’s every bit as good as Lord Buddha, Siddhartha sinks into worldliness. There’s no mention of the Buddha falling into worldliness, and the reader is left to wonder where any equality between these two can exist.

After a life of sensuousness, in which he accomplishes nothing, Siddhartha realizes how low he has fallen, and leaves this situation too. He comes at length to a river, and to a ferryman who has apparently reached perfection by listening to the gurgle of the waters. Here Siddhartha stays, and here he too reaches “perfection.”

Throughout this book, beginning with the last sentence of the very first paragraph, Siddhartha is constantly having “awakenings,” as the author calls them. Immediately afterward, however, Siddhartha drops like a torpedo into sin and nonsense—”Sansara.” What passed for an awakening to Herr Hesse was clearly his own invention. That first paragraph says, for example, that the hero “Already … knew how to recognize Atman within the depth of his being, indestructible, at one with the universe.” Casually, just like that. Again this is a display of the author’s ignorance of the science of the Absolute, for Atman is Self, and Siddhartha at this point is only a boy, and hasn’t even yet begun his search for himself.

Nor, as he rolls into full gear, does he ever really succeed in his quest. Leaving the Buddha, with that assumption of equality between them (a pretension never once mitigated by a tinge of humility throughout this book), Siddhartha goes, not to heaven, but to a harlot’s bed. He falls into sin, and here the philosophy of Hermann Hesse really begins to reveal itself. Like Rasputin, he seems to have felt that sin is good for a man. As good as virtue, anyway. At the end, fully enlightened, Siddhartha says (among a great many other unfortunate things): “… it seems to me that everything that exists is good—death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly.” “…It was necessary for me to sin, … I needed lust, … I had to strive for property … in order to learn to love the world … to leave it as it is, to love it and be glad to belong to it.”

Yes, you’re better off just looking, just staying at the surface, if you want anything “holy” out of this. For, to follow this philosophy through, we must assume that sinfulness teaches us—after some time, of course—to “love the world.” But, according to the great Teachers whom Hesse is aping, loving the world was the very cause of sin—and neither the one nor the other has ever been highly esteemed by the Buddha, Lord Jesus, Lord Chaitanya, or any other sacred Teacher of validity. What’s more, by Herr Hesse’s definition, we should assume that Adolf Hitler—the greatest sinner of our time if ever there was a sinner—was really our greatest saint, the world’s number one lover. Too bad we didn’t know it at the time.

The idea that one can come to wholly accept the world exactly as it is, and live peacefully in this way, was not new with Hermann Hesse. Nor has the failure of such a philosophy in practical terms discouraged increasingly more men—today especially—to accept this doctrine. Yet this is a concept of life which must ever be wholly intellectual, for one who actually did accept everything would have nothing to say to anyone; and if that were so, books like SIDDHARTHA would never have come into existence, and we’d never have heard of such a philosophy in the first place.

To help the world, to live happily in this life or any other, to live at all, one must act, and action means discrimination between this and that, up and down, left and right, good and evil. Those who have no capacity to discriminate because of a lack of knowledge or of real values on the Absolute platform, have two choices to make: they can go with things, or pretend that it’s all illusion. From the latter. Siddhartha goes to the former state of consciousness, and readers of the book may find themselves at a loss to figure out whether anything was accomplished after all.

Indeed the (again ludicrously one-sided) dialog between Siddhartha and his lifelong friend Govinda at the end of this book is an item-by-item refutation of every principle of religion, morality and spiritual life ever handed down by the great Teachers of Mankind. If such a philosophy of sin, laissez-faire, and atheism (“[I had] to learn to love the world, and no longer compare it with some kind of desired imaginary world, some imaginary vision of perfection …”) is popular and sells a lot of copies in an age when God is reputed to be dead (He certainly was for Hesse) and when moral decay is rotting human civilization like an unchecked cancer. no one should be surprised.

But popularity doesn’t certify Truth, and the intelligent reader should reject the rampant speculations and back-and-forth enlightenments—as well as the life of sin-virtue—which the book SIDDHARTHA recommends. Siddhartha may have come to love the world, but he certainly never reached knowledge of the Absolute or of himself, for his creator never had such knowledge to imbue him with. Yet there is an Absolute Truth, an Absolute Knowledge, a Supreme Person—and it is unfortunate to say the least that so many people are deluded into wasting their precious time sentimentalizing over a specious display such as this, rather than take up the real study of God as it is found in the Scriptures Hesse so blithely refutes. If only he would have studied them first. Who knows that he mightn’t have had an “awakening” or two himself.

Rayarama Das Brahmachary

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