Hemann Hesse’s Novel Siddhartha in the Light of Vedant Philosophy  

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From time immemorial, man has been seeking the purpose of his life. Piles of books, especially on theology, have been trying to answer the questions that the man has been searching for. They have found solace in the many religious scriptures. Among many religious philosophies, Vedant philosophy is one of the most accepted and proven branch of philosophy that has helped quench the thirst of esotaric knowledge.

In this context, this article has tried to explore the use of the Vedant philosophy in Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha. In Hesse’s writings, this search is the fundamental theme, one which dominates all his works. Hesse’s search is for the true self, that which lies within and which is hidden by our bodies and minds. Hesse was an untiring seeker after this elusive self, or soul, throughout his life. His writings are an accurate reflection of his internal journey towards himself. In Vedant philosophy, earthly life is always a struggle–not for survival but for truth, for something which lies hidden by the veil of Maya, the world perceived with the senses.

Siddhartha’s Search for Ultimate Truth

Hesse published the novel Siddhartha in 1922. The novel has been translated from German to English by Hilda Rosner. The novel reveals the unquenchable thirst of the central character, Siddhartha for the indestructible knowledge and his struggle to attain Divine Wisdom – the ultimate goal of mankind. Hesse says that the core of man’s existence is to find the ultimate truth by unfolding himself and to be himself. The novel Siddhartha rests its foundation on the philosophical amalgamation of four pillars of the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavat Gita and Buddhism. Misra says, “Siddhartha is a product of a religious awareness in its ritualistic and philosophic pattern, revaluing humanity and the primitive elements in human nature” (114).

One of the most important motivating forces in human life is the ‘desire’ which drives man into actions for the realization of the desire. If man is unable to fulfil his need, restlessness sets in. Stronger the need, greater is the restlessness. Desire itself can be broadly classified into three areas viz: physical, mental and spiritual. Whether trivial or lofty, man consistently strives hard to achieve his goal. When the strong need is beyond the imperceptible, then, it is transformed into a spiritual quest. In some people this quest is predominant. “Hesse’s Siddhartha is a novel about the Soul’s journey to enlightenment and awakening” (Bhambar 53).

The protagonist Siddhartha is on such a quest for unfolding the real nature of the Self, which, according to the Hindu philosophy, is Universal Brahman and so all-pervasive. Hesse says, “Only within yourself exist that other reality which you long. I can give you nothing that has not already its being within yourself. I can throw open to you no picture gallery but your own soul”, (Baral 8). In the novel Siddhartha, Hesse expresses the ten-year old boy Siddhartha’s state of restlessness. “Dreams and a restlessness of the soul came to him, arising from the smoke of the sacrifices, emanating from the verses of the Rig-Veda, trickling through from the teachings of the old Brahmins…. Siddhartha had begun to feel the seeds of discontent within him” (Hesse, Siddhartha 5). When man begins to ruminate upon the purpose of his very existence, the real quest begins.

The inner evolution of Siddhartha into a final and complete man in a spiritual sense can be analysed through three phases of his life. The first phase is his years of preparation for his life with Vedantic scholarliness and his assiduous mastery over the tedious arts as a Samana, the follower of Jainism. The second phase is the period where he develops his aesthetic sense and skilfully masters the art of business and love, evidently leading the life of a Samsari. The third phase of his life is the years of mellow fruitfulness, where he gains maturity physically, mentally and spiritually, when he was given salvation by Vasudeva. Each phase consists of twenty years.

From the beginning of the first phase, Siddhartha’s search for the origin of the soul is evident. He hates to be an ordinary priest performing rituals, offering sacrifices and reciting mantras. His friend, “Govinda knew that he would not become an ordinary Brahmin, a lazy sacrificial official, an avaricious dealer in magical sayings, a conceited worthless orator, a wicked sly priest, or just a good stupid sheep amongst a large herd”(Hesse, Siddhartha 4). The satisfaction of Siddhartha’s biological need, maternal and paternal love and a companionate of his age are evident. He was a dutiful son and his needs were fulfilled. Though he excelled in scholarly debate, his desire for the Ultimate Knowledge was not yet quenched.

Samaveda says, “Your soul is the whole world” (Hesse, Siddhartha 7). Chandogya Upanishad says, “In truth, the name of Brahman is Satya. Indeed, he who knows it enters the heavenly world each day” (Hesse, Siddhartha 8). He was astonished that people spoke about the Self but nobody showed the way to realize It. The next stage is spiritual satisfaction, which is possible only when he realizes the Ultimate Truth. Despite his intellectual satisfaction which his arguments reveal, his quest for the Indestructible knowledge became deeprooted; so he delved deep in himself and probed towards his goal. Thus through introspection he found that detachment is the stepping stone and attachment is the stumbling block of Self-Realization. Hence he deserted his parents in order to lead a Samana life in the forest. The word ‘Samana’ literally means a Sanyasi, who renounces everything so as to achieve Self-Realization.

Siddhartha’s understandability of people’s follies shows that he seeks beyond the materialistic world. He has contempt for worldly pleasures as, “they were all illusions of sense, happiness and beauty” (Hesse, Siddhartha 14). As a Samana he masters the art of overcoming hunger, thirst, pain, hot sun and cold winter. He also gains skill in the art of decreasing the heart beat to the count of zero. In short, he learns to have a complete control over his physical body, especially the five senses. However he realises that merely to go round and round in circles will not allow him to reach his goal.

Siddhartha does not lead a contented life even as a Samana. Hence he decided to move forward towards his journey and arrived at Jetavana Grove of Illustrious Buddha to learn His doctrines. In the town of Savati, Siddhartha finds Buddha with– ‘…hanging hand, and every finger of his hand spoke of peace, spoke of completeness, sought nothing, imitated nothing, reflected a continuous quiet, an unfading light, and invulnerable peace. (Siddhartha 27-28) Buddha in his preaching teaches the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path, which brings man Salvation. Siddhartha accepts the cause and effect theory of Buddha, which has not been so clearly presented by any one. But he says that no one can describe what happens during the time of enlightenment and its significance cannot be revealed.

Moreover Buddha does not follow any teaching to attain Nirvana. So Siddhartha too decides to seek Realization on his own. Siddhartha acquires confidence from Buddha that anybody can achieve the Ultimate Truth. Siddhartha, who opines that Buddha is a Self-Realized soul, says, “A man only looks and walks like that when he has conquered his Self. I also will conquer my Self.” (Hesse, Siddhartha 35).

Even though the Vedas and Upanishads, Samanism and Buddhism paved various paths to Self-Realization, nobody directed him to the right path leading to his Ultimate Goal. Despite his difficulty in trying three different ways, Siddhartha marched confidently towards his goal. He understands that “Meaning and Reality were not hidden somewhere behind things; they were in them, in all of them” (Hesse, Siddhartha 40). Hence he decides to live among people in order to unfold the mystery of the Self.

In the beginning of the second phase, Siddhartha goes from the forest to a village, where he meets the ferryman, Vasudeva, who helps him to cross the river in his bamboo raft. ‘Crossing the river’ is an archetypal symbol, which represents the movement of the quest hero from asceticism to eroticism. The crossing of the river by Siddhartha symbolizes that he enters the opposite side of the ascetic life, which is called Samsara. Indulgence in sense pleasures and attachment to the material desires are rejoiced in the life of Samsara. A man, who leads the life of Samsara, is called a Samsari. Siddhartha’s crossing of the river to Kamala’s town depicts his transmission from the control of the senses to the freedom of the senses.

In the novel, Siddhartha’s crossing of the river indicates the change of the climate of his life-cycle from winter to summer. There are two extremities similar to the extreme ends of a riverbank, which represent the austere life and the fertile life. Hence the river separates Asceticism and Samsara, which are its banks. All the sense pleasures were ostracized in the ascetic life. Thus the river contains everything within: good and bad, light and dark, joy and sorrow and so on. As the river had polar ends, it is left for man to select his path. Misra quotes in the words of Townsend, “Hesse considers art, music, poetry, meditation, and humour as eternal values, i.e., phases of the absolute, the awareness of which makes man’s striving worthwhile” (121).

As Siddhartha crosses the river with the help of Vasudeva, he meets Kamala, on the sedan chair, in the evening. She is seated below a “coloured awning” (Hesse, Siddhartha 51). Though Siddhartha learns the art of love from Kamala, the beautiful courtesan, and the art of business from the rich merchant, Kamasamy, he remains indifferent. He accepts profit calmly and laughs at loss. Though he mingles with people, he remains detached. Suffering of the people and their toil for money, pleasure and honour seem trivial to him. He gives a ridiculous laughter, when people lament over pain, suffered at deprivation and scorned one another. To show his contempt for riches, he gambles with money, house and jewellery.

Even though Kamala is a courtesan, she has the qualities of an awakened person. Despite many acquaintances and customers, she does not build any intimate bondage or relationship with anyone. Siddhartha says to Kamala, “You are like me; you are different from other people. You are Kamala and no one else; within you there is a stillness and sanctuary to which you can retreat at anytime and be yourself, just as I can; few people have that capacity and yet everyone could have it” (Hesse, Siddhartha 71-72).

This shows that only a person who has inner peace can enter the serene sanctum sanctorum of the Self at any time irrespective of worries, hatred, fear, anger, jealousy and happiness. Though Siddhartha and Kamala have spent a lot of time together, they do not love each other and do not love anyone so dearly in the world. “She surrenders her love unconditionally when Siddhartha “surrenders his male ego unconditionally. Kamala’s union with Siddhartha symbolizes this expressive mutuality, indeed the total expressive energy of the active principle of femaleness that binds them together to the orginal substance of the controlling principle of the universe, both active and passive. Siddhartha and Kamala achieve a fusion of ‘anima’ and ‘animus’ in Jungian terms, an aesthetic blend of human counter parts” (Mohan 85).


Cite this paper

Hemann Hesse’s Novel Siddhartha in the Light of Vedant Philosophy  . (2021, Jul 30). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/hemann-hesses-novel-siddhartha-in-the-light-of-vedant-philosophy/

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