Siddhartha by Herman Hesse: Book Summary

Siddhartha‘ is written by Herman Hesse, published in 1951. It is essentially a spiritual book that explores the path of self-discovery and spiritual awakening. This simple, subtle story can have a deeper meaning and a different interpretation at every stage of life. It is prudent to understand the characters and how they bring life’s experience to the forefront.

‘Siddhartha’ is the story of two friends – Siddhartha and Govinda, on their journey to find peace and understand spirituality. It is set in the time of Gautam Buddha. And, it explores the teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse pc google images

As the son of a Brahman, Siddhartha lived a prosperous life and learned from his father, to ‘become great wise man and priest’. He had the potential to become a prince amid his caste. But, Siddhartha does not wish to become one amongst the thousands of Brahmans; ‘a sheep in the herd of many’. So, he decides to join the Samanas, the half-naked and starved ascetics. Govinda decides to join Siddhartha on this spiritual path. Siddhartha’s father is saddened with this resolution but he gives in to his son’s wishes.   

With the Samanas, Siddhartha and Govinda spend substantial time learning to renounce worldly pleasures and desires. There are deep discussions between the two friends to understand the meaning and relevance of meditation and fasting. However, Siddhartha sees this path as a temporary escape from the physical world.

The two friends decide to visit Gotama (Gautama Buddha) in Jetavana, to clear their dilemma.

A man appeared, Gotama by name, the exalted one, the Buddha, he had overcome the suffering of the world himself and had halted the cycles of rebirths.”

Gotama has a profound effect on Siddhartha and Govinda. Siddhartha realizes that spiritual awakening cannot be reached by following the teachings of a certain teacher. He comprehends that Gotama received enlightenment through his own path of suffering and experience. This reasoning does not stand ground with Govinda, who decides to follow Gotama. 

The worldly pleasures await Siddhartha with the crossing of the river. He meets the ferryman Vasudeva. Siddhartha roams about and meets Kamala, the beautiful courtesan. She lures him to the worldly pleasures. He partners with a rich merchant, Kamaswami to adopt an opulent lifestyle to woo Kamala. Kamaswami and Kamala are built as two characters from whom the wisdom on the material world is imparted to Siddhartha.

To quote a conversation between Kamaswami and Siddhartha –

Everyone gives what he has. The warrior gives strength, the merchant gives merchandise, the teacher teachings, the farmer rice, the fisher fish…I can think. I can wait. I can fast.

Living this lifestyle for twenty years, Siddhartha realizes that he has still not achieved peace and returns to wandering. He meets Vasudeva, the same ferryman. Vasudeva pours his knowledge that he claims has been gained from ‘the River’. Siddhartha decides to live with this ferryman and learn from him and the river.

When Siddhartha leaves Kamala, she is expecting their child. She decides to raise the child and pampers him with a comfortable life. Later, she grants her land to the Samanas as their resting place and decides to seek Gotama, whose face and words had lured her throughout her life. Her son is unable to understand his mother’s desire to take this troublesome journey and hardships of living.

On the way, somewhere near Vasudeva, the ferryman’s hut, Kamala is bitten by a snake. Vasudeva brings her to the hut; Siddhartha recognizes her and then their son. She dies, leaving behind the young boy to Siddhartha’s care. The biological father is a stranger to the young boy, and more difficult are his ways of subsistence living for the boy to adjust to. The father-son relation is troublesome.

Siddhartha’s son leaves him for city life. The father’s heart yearns for his son. It is as if life has come to a full circle; for Siddhartha had given his father the same grief when he left home to join the Samanas. Vasudeva questions Siddhartha’s grief,

Would you actually believe that you had committed your foolish acts in order to spare your son from committing them too?

There are two occasions when Govinda meets Siddhartha – one when Siddhartha is in rich man’s attire and secondly, towards the end at ferryman’s hut. Govinda has continued to be the follower of Gotama and continues to seek peace. Siddhartha, on the other hand, crossed the four stages of living – Brahmacharya (student), Grihastha (householder), Vanaprastha (retired) and Sanayasa (renunciate). In the last meeting chanced upon with Siddhartha, Govinda cannot understand the mindless blabber of Siddhartha that is juxtaposed to the calm teachings of Gotama.

“Searching means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal.”

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