Wednesday, 15 December 2010
Hermen Hesse’s Siddhartha is supposed to be one of the most read novels in the 20th century, but I had never spotted it on the bookshops in Dubai or India. So I leapt at it when I saw it in the classics section of Barnes & Noble in Pennsylvania during my recent trip there. I had picked it up for my daughter though, not for myself. I had read the book years ago and for some reason I had always thought that I remembered it too well.
But I was mistaken. Back in Dubai when I started flipping through the pages I realised what a remarkable book it was. All the more because it was written much before Indian philosophy became fashionable and familiar in the West.
Published in the 1920s in German and translated into English in the early 50s, Siddhartha became intensely popular in the West during the Swinging Sixties and afterwards. At the heart of the novel lies the spiritual quest of a young man named Siddhartha, a Brahmin boy who is dissatisfied with the ritualistic life led by his father and other elders. He leaves home and spends months with wandering ascetics who have attained extraordinary mental and physical powers, some of which are now imbibed by him. But the true seeker that he is, it means nothing. What he wants is the annihilation of the “I”, the ego.
At this point he hears about Gautam Buddha, who he hopes will be the answer to his quest. But when Siddhartha comes face to face with Buddha, he realises even the great master can’t lead him to enlightenment and that he had to find his own path.
In the period that follows, Siddhartha falls in love, earns money and becomes a typical householder. Only when old age creeps on him does he again feel the urge to seek the Truth. What Hesse tries to show is that self-denial and instruction alone don’t lead to enlightenment. What matters is learning through one’s own experience.
If you can plough through the awkward translation and keep yourself focused on the narrative then Siddhartha is illuminating. The author’s grasp of Hindu philosophy and its ultimate quest – the destruction of ego and self-realisation – is impressive.
Ironically, Hesse himself never set foot in India. His love for India was derived in his childhood through his father and grandfather, who worked in India as missionaries. Later he read the German philosopher Schopenhauer (who maintained that the world is a mere reflection of our consciousness), and the Gita is said to have made a lasting impression on him. At the same time he was also deeply influenced by Buddhist philosophy. The cumulative effect of all this can be seen in a highly nuanced but instructive Siddhartha.