The novel “Siddhartha” is about the spiritual path of a young man named after the Buddha. Hermann Hesse’s story takes place in 6th-century Kapilavastu (now in Nepal), the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha.
Siddhartha, the protagonist, is born into an affluent family of Brahmins or Hindu priests. Even though the scriptures provide answers about the soul and its immortality, Siddhartha is eager to encounter individuals who embody this reality. Inspired by Buddha, who gave up his kingdom, Siddhartha abandons his lavish lifestyle and embarks on a quest with his closest friend Govinda to discover the purpose of life.
The concept of religious India
Hesse’s fable about the Brahmin child seeking redemption was based on a common conception of India held by Indologists or Western academics studying India at the time. Hermann Hesse, like them, had a romantic view of ancient, spiritual India. This was founded on German Romanticism and ancient India of the ‘Vedas’ and Romantic Hinduism.
In 1911, when he journeyed to India, Hermann Hesse was on a spiritual search, much like his protagonist Siddhartha. Despite his strict Protestant upbringing in Calw, Baden-Württemberg, in southern Germany, India appeared to be a natural choice for him.
His mother was born in Kerala, South India, during one of Hermann Gundert’s trips there. In addition to learning Malayalam, the Protestant Christian missionary also authored a lexicon and a treatise on Malayalam grammar.
Hesse embarked on his tour in 1911 to see Java, Bali, and Sri Lanka, followed by a trip to southern India and a return voyage to Europe. He was left bedridden by a terrible stomach disease after seeing the Indonesian islands and had to abandon his intentions to go to southern India.
Hesse’s tour left him both awestruck and dissatisfied since the author could not locate the idealised picture of India on his travels to Indonesia and Sri Lanka (which, in Hesse’s perspective, were part of India). This sensation dissipated gradually.
Hesse finally thought that genuine India consisted of its philosophy, asceticism, and profound life reflection. As did the German Romantics, he felt that Eastern philosophy would remedy the issues of spiritual decline in Western culture.
He intended to include this concept in his work, which advocated a sort of asceticism in the Hindu and Buddhist tradition. This ideal also represented Hesse’s pursuit of ultimate truth.
When “Siddhartha” was released in the fall of 1922, it was not quite a flop, but it did not gain instant popularity either. Literary communities in Germany considered it romantic and twee to a certain extent.
Decades later, once Hilda Rosenau’s English translation of the novel was released, it gained worldwide acclaim. The book gained popularity due to the student movement that began in Europe in the 1960s and expanded to North America and parts of Asia.
It achieved cult status among the Woodstock generation, who opposed the Vietnam War and their parents’ traditional values. On a worldwide scale, it was a work that became the novel of the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s.
“Siddhartha” joined other hippie classics such as “The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead” (1964) by Timothy Leary, “The Way of Zen” (1957) by Alan Watts, and “On the Road” (1957) by Jack Kerouac.
Siddhartha in India
Departments of German Studies in Indian institutions began adding “Siddhartha” to their reading lists immediately after its release in 1922. The first German Studies department in India was established in 1914 at the University of Pune in western India.
Following the release of the English edition, sales increased in India as well. The 1972 film adaptation of the book was also very successful. The English-language film was directed by American director Conrad Brooks and featured Indian actors Shashi Kapoor, Simi Garewal, and Romesh Kapoor.
Since the establishment of the Hermann Hesse Society in Thalassery, Kerala, in 2005, the number of translations of the work has exploded. “Siddhartha” has been translated into various Indian languages, including Malayalam, Punjabi, Gujarati, Urdu, Bengali and Marathi.
Siddhartha is a book that may be related to any age. It is an individual’s voyage into the self, a quest for one’s position in the world. The prodigal son myth, set in ancient India, depicts any generation disillusioned with the prevailing cultural conventions.
With the development of the anti-state, leftist Naxal uprising, the 1960s and 1970s were difficult times for Indian student politics, and as a result, “Siddhartha” resonated with Indian readers.
Even a century from now, the book will provide a method to comprehend the purpose of life. It will be relevant forever, even on its bicentennial. People will find significance in the issues posed since Siddhartha, the protagonist, is an outsider who observes society and his life from a distance and travels beyond or outside of it to discover purpose.
In other words, “Siddhartha” illustrates the unending spiritual search for solutions to life’s fundamental issues. Spiritual concerns are always pertinent and never out of date since they are not tied to a certain moment in time. In this regard, they are timeless, and the timeless nature of ‘Siddhartha’ provides them with continued importance.