Friday, 19 April 2013

Book Review: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
In a noisy and glaring world like ours it can be very difficult to discover the right way. There is so much to distract us from what is really important in life, including our vocation. Those who are lucky find the right bend soon, others take longer, and some keep searching until the end. Books can give us a little bit of guidance or at least consolation. I decided to review one of them today and picked Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.

Hermann Hesse was born in Calw in the Black Forest, Germany, in July 1877. The son of Christian missionaries in India was sent to boarding school in Germany, but couldn’t adapt to the strict discipline and left before graduation. In addition, he suffered from bipolar depression already from a young age. Hermann Hesse wrote many poems and novels like Peter Carmenzind (1904), Demian (1919), Siddhartha (1922), Steppenwolf (Der Steppenwolf - 1927), Narcissus and Goldmund (Narziß und Goldmund - 1930) and The Glass Bead Game (Das Glasperlenspiel - 1943). In 1946 Hermann Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and his writings keep being much liked by readers worldwide until today. Hermann Hesse died in Montagnola, Switzerland, in August 1962. 

The novel Siddhartha was published in German already in 1922, but the first English translation didn’t come out before 1951. The story is set in ancient India at the time when Buddha found enlightenment under the Bodhi tree and made his teachings. In fact, the novel’s title as well as its plot remind of the life of Buddha who was born as Siddhartha Gautama, Prince of Kapilvastu. Also Hermann Hesse’s protagonist Siddhartha starts into life as a privileged child although not of an Indian king, but of a Brahmin. Growing older he finds his life empty of meaning and leaves home to seek enlightenment. In his quest Siddhartha is accompanied by his childhood friend Govinda who idolizes him. During their travels as wandering and begging ascetics they meet the Buddha – called Gotama in the novel – and listen to his teachings. Govinda decides to follow the way of the Buddha as a monk, but Siddhartha doesn’t get from him the answers that he is looking for. He continues his quest and falls in love with the beautiful courtesan Kamala. In order to please her, Siddhartha gives up his life as an ascetic and becomes a successful businessman. But neither his life with Kamala nor all the luxury that he revels in can satisfy him in the long run. Eventually, he gets restless again and leaves his comfortable home. Siddhartha is tired of life and longs for death. When he meets the ferryman Vasudeva who seems fully at peace with himself, he decides to stay with him and to learn the trade of a ferryman. Siddhartha also learns to listen to the river and its infinite wisdom, but life has yet another important lesson in store for him. 

The story of Siddhartha is told in Hermann Hesse’s usual poetic language that, after ninety years, feels a bit antiquated compared to modern German, but it doesn’t impair the beauty of the text and even less its message. The whole novel tells of the writer’s profound knowledge of Buddhism and Hinduism. The Four Noble Truths as well as the Eightfold Path can be found along the way, but also the three stages of Hindu life – student, householder, and recluse – are there giving the story a natural frame and grip. 

Life is a constant quest of understanding reality. We all know it and Hermann Hesse elegantly put this universal knowledge into a story around the Buddha without writing his fictionalized biography. I enjoy Siddhartha very much every time I read the novel. I always find a new aspect of life in it that had escaped me so far. It’s a book that shows how important it is to go on. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse is a highly recommendable book for everyone with an antenna for the spiritual.


  1. Great review! I read this not terribly long ago and, despite the fact that I would not define myself as religious, or spiritual, I could really identify with someone who spends their life learning and evolving. Siddhartha's continuous quest for knowledge and his ability to see when he's learned all he can about something and find his way to his next life's lesson really appeals to me.

    1. That Hermann Hesse managed to write this book without slipping into the plainly religious or spiritual is one of the aspects of this books that I like best, Joanne. Thanks for your feedback and opinion!

  2. This is a great book. I read it in college. Great review of it!

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