Siddhartha Summary

Hermann Hesse


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Siddhartha Summary

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Siddhartha is a 1922 novel by German author Hermann Hesse. Focusing on the spiritual journey of self-discovery of a man named Siddhartha during the time of the Gautama Buddha and the founding of Buddhism, it is considered one of the first novels to bring the teachings and history of Buddhism to a western audience. Originally written in German but published in English in 1951, it became extremely influential during the 1960s when cultural movements looked to the East for inspiration. The primary themes of Siddhartha include how to best understand reality and attain enlightenment through human experience, and the way every individual event in a life is part of a greater whole. Hesse, who was deeply immersed in both Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, believed deeply in these principles and this novel was his way of sharing them with the world. Deeply influential in its time, Siddhartha is still widely read and taught as an introduction to Buddhist philosophy. It has been adapted twice into film, a straight 1972 adaptation, and a surreal 1971 reinvention named Zachariah that recast the story as a musical western.

The story of Siddhartha takes place in the Nepalese district of Kapilavastu. Siddhartha decides to leave home in the hope of gaining spiritual enlightenment, and decides to become a wandering beggar of the Shramana religious sect. He is joined by his best friend Govinda as they fast, become homeless, and renounce all possessions while meditating intensely. Eventually, they get to meet and speak with Gautama, the man now known as Buddha. While Govinda is won over by the Buddha’s teachings, Siddhartha does not follow. He says that while the Buddha is wise, each person must find their own unique, personal meaning that cannot be taught by any teacher. He decides to continue his quest alone. When crossing a river, Siddhartha cannot pay the ferryman, but the ferryman predicts that Siddhartha will return one day to compensate him. Heading towards the city, Siddhartha meets Kamala, a courtesan who he thinks is the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. Although she is charmed by him, she tells him he must become wealthy to win her affections, and she will teach him the art of love then. Although he despised materialism as a Shramana, he agrees and goes to work for Kamaswami, a local businessman. Kamala insists that the businessman treat him as an equal, and Siddhartha soon proves himself a worthwhile partner. While Kamaswami is hot-tempered, Siddhartha’s even keel helps the business. He soon becomes a rich man and Kamala’s lover.

However, although he has succeeded in everything he sought, Siddhartha realizes that his luxurious lifestyle still lacks spiritual fulfillment. He leaves the city and goes to the river, where he contemplates suicide. However, a sudden vision of the holy word “Om”, sacred in Buddhism, snaps him back from the brink. The next day, Siddhartha reconnects with Govinda, who is still a wandering Buddhist. Siddhartha decides to live the rest of his life in the presence of the river that inspired him, and he reunites with the Ferryman – named Vasudeva – and the two become friends. They live a simple life together, and Siddhartha gives him the spiritual teachings he picked up over the years. Years later, Kamala, now a Buddhist convert, is traveling to see the Buddha with her young son when she is bitten by a venomous snake near the river. Siddhartha recognizes her and they reunite, and he recognizes the boy as his own son. Kamala soon dies, and Siddhartha attempts to take the boy in as his own. However, the boy is grieving and willful, and, one day, runs away from the man he barely knows. Siddhartha is desperate to find his son, and Vasudeva urges him to let the boy find his own path like he did. Siddhartha listens to the river and realizes that time is an illusion, and all his feelings and experiences are part of a greater whole. After this moment of illumination, Vasudeva tells Siddhartha that his work is done and he must now depart. He walks into the woods, leaving Siddhartha behind, alone but fulfilled spiritually.

In his old age, Govinda hears tales of an enlightened ferryman and goes to see Siddhartha, not recognizing his old friend at first. Govinda asks the elderly Siddhartha to relate his wisdom, and Siddhartha answers that for every true statement there is one that is also true. He says that language and the confines of time lead people to follow one fixed belief that does not account for the full truth. Nature works in a self-sustaining cycle and every being in it carries the potential for its exact opposite. Thus, the world must be considered complete. Siddhartha urges people to identify and love the world as complete, exactly as it is. Siddhartha then asks Govinda to kiss his forehead. When he does, Govinda experiences the same visions of time and enlightenment that Siddhartha did by the river. Govinda bows, and Siddhartha smiles at his old friend. They have both reached enlightenment.

Hermann Hesse was a German-born Swiss poet, novelist, and painter. Over a 44-year career, he wrote 20 works, the most well-known of which include Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, and The Glass Bead Game. Honored with the Goethe Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946, he was immensely popular in the German-speaking world, although the majority of his fame in the English-speaking world only came after his death in 1962. He is best known today for being the first western author to bring the ideas of philosophies of Buddhism to the readers of Europe and the United States.