Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Book review by Teresa Friedlander, copyright 2010

There has never been a point in history when the “human condition” was universally good. Whether the enemy is our environment, each other, or ourselves, human beings haven’t found a way to eliminate suffering in the 20,000 or so years we have been on earth. Even at the height of the Renaissance, the plague swept through Europe while monarchs and bishops practiced politics by arranging for heads to be separated from bodies, villages to be sacked, and the poor to starve. And yet, there have always been a few beautiful souls who recognized that our species could be so much better than we are by being better to each other. Jesus, Mohammad, and the Buddha taught (and continue to teach) how we can find the good within ourselves, so that we might transcend the suffering and baseness of our earthly lives. The world’s great religions – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism – promise salvation, eternal rest, paradise, or enlightenment as a reward for rising above greed, hatred, vanity, lust, gluttony, and envy.

Siddhartha is the wealthy scion of an important Indian family who dutifully learns his lessons and religious practices in order that he continue his family’s Brahmin legacy. The young man typifies the person who “has it all” but one day realizes that he feels empty inside. Rather than attempt to fill his emptiness with pleasures of the body, Siddhartha decides to quit his family and his caste to go searching for a path to enlightenment. At first Siddhartha believes that ascetism will make him more holy, but after a time he realizes that denying the body is itself a form of vanity. He leaves the ascetics and joins up with followers of the Buddha. Buddhists are more accepting of the body’s physical needs, but Siddhartha finds irreconcilable logic problems in their belief system. Weary of his quest, Siddhartha succumbs to the attraction of a beautiful and demanding woman. In order to win her, Siddhartha learns how to amass riches by apprenticing himself to a successful merchant. He becomes quite wealthy and after several years of hedonism, Siddhartha realizes that he can have anything he wants and he can make others do his bidding: his life has become a game. Once again, he walks away. At the end of the story, after following a zig-zag path from one extreme to the other, Siddhartha discovers that the secret to enlightenment is within himself and that only by letting go of people, possessions, and expectations can he get there.

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), best known for Steppenwolf, published Siddhartha in 1922. As a boy, Hermann was psychologically troubled, prone to tantrums and oppositional behavior, and at times suicidal. He bridled under his parents’ strict upbringing and did not share their Lutheran faith. Hermann sought better answers to life’s mysteries and paradoxes by reading the works of great European thinkers including Arthur Schopenhauer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, and Friedrich Schiller. Because of his parents’ missionary work in India, Hermann had access to Indian artifacts, literature, and art. This fueled a fascination with that culture and an interest in Buddhism.

In 1894, at age seventeen, Hermann Hesse became an apprentice mechanic; work he found so soul-killing that he began studying spiritualism in earnest. After completing his apprenticeship, Mr. Hesse supported himself by working for a series of book stores, and began writing in his free time. His first book, Peter Carmenzind, published in 1904, was so successful that Mr. Hesse was able to live off the proceeds. In that same year, he married Maria Bernoulli and they settled in a small German town on the shores of Lake Constance.

Mrs. Hesse bore three sons while Mr. Hesse continued to write. It was during this time that Mr. Hesse began reading Schopenhauer’s works on Theosophy (religious philosophy and studies of the unknown and unknowable) which were influenced by Buddhism. As his thinking evolved, his marriage fell apart and Mr. Hesse embarked on a spiritual quest to Sri Lanka and Indonesia. While he found no answers to his questions, Hermann Hesse did find inspiration for his writing, and published Rosshalde in 1914.

During the build-up to World War I, Mr. Hesse became troubled by a growing movement of fanatic patriotism in Germany, but voluntarily enlisted in the Imperial Army out of a sense of duty. Due to poor eyesight, he was not allowed to fight and instead was assigned to look after prisoners of war. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Hesse published an essay entitled “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne” (Oh Friends, Not These Tones), decrying the nationalistic patriotism which preached German superiority and hatred of non-Germans. This essay, while important, made Mr. Hesse a pariah; he began receiving hate mail and found himself - unhappily - in the public eye. During the same period, his father died and his wife became schizophrenic. The pressure was too much and Hermann Hesse, himself, suffered a psychiatric breakdown.

Mr. Hesse’s breakdown and institutionalization coincided with the advent of psychology and psychoanalysis, and he became acquainted with Carl Jung, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud. Jung believed that within each human psyche there are echoes of a collective consciousness which make certain symbols universally meaningful and explain common thought patterns across cultures. It is as if each of us is born with memories created by our ancestors which replay in our dreams. Mr. Hesse’s experience with Jungian psychoanalysis enabled his spiritual beliefs and his quest for self-actualization to coalesce. Siddhartha and Steppenwolf, his two most famous books, describe respectively, a spiritual quest and a semi-autobiographical examination of a disintegrated personality. Hermann Hesse found the world of humans to be complex and frustrating and had difficulty making sense of life. While he felt alone in his struggles, his writing reflected the zeitgeist (spirit of the time) which had undercurrents of confusion, depression, and fear. Mr. Hesse believed that enlightenment would change the zeitgeist and thereby enable humanity to advance.

Enlightenment, according to Buddhism, is to be free from greed, hatred, and delusion, and only by achieving enlightenment can one find pure peace and happiness. But what would happen if everyone on earth suddenly achieved enlightenment? Thieves would stop stealing, wars and feuds would cease, and we would accept ourselves as we truly are. We might all join hands and celebrate our collective bliss by chanting “Om”. So far, so good. However, without greed, no one would want to work; without hatred, no one would have passion; and without delusion, there would be no art, literature, or fashion. The world of humans would grind to a halt and we would starve or freeze to death. We would, however, be experiencing a state of bliss. And then what?

There is something very satisfying about the daily struggles we must all endure, whether it is to get a bite of food, to stay warm (or cool), to find comfort, to finish a job, to make something, to sell something or simply get through another day. If we were all perfectly content in our present moment, doing nothing but being, life would be meaningless. And so, we must go on loving/hating, giving/taking, laughing/crying, birthing/dying. As long as we retain our living bodies, we are bound to life on earth and all that entails. What awaits us after death is unknown and unknowable, but most of us believe that how we conduct our lives will send our souls in one direction or another. To reach heaven or to achieve enlightenment requires giving up wealth, comfort, competition, vanity, and social hierarchies. That is a tall order for most of us.

Siddhartha spent a lifetime trying to become enlightened, learning important lessons each step of the way. It was only when he stopped trying and let go of everything that he finally understood the simple, pure beauty of enlightenment. Most of us go through life moment to moment – growing up, having children, trying to grab the brass ring, growing old, and dying. Some of us achieve a degree of wisdom, but most of us live lives “of quiet desperation”. What Hermann Hesse understood and communicated through his most important books, especially Siddhartha, was that in order to improve the “human condition” we need to act collectively to reduce suffering, and that requires that the human species become more enlightened. Whether we can, or will, depends on each and every one of us. Om.

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