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THEMES

1. A QUEST

Myths, legends, and sagas of different peoples follow the theme of a hero's quest-for a precious object, such as the Holy Grail sought by King Arthur's knights, for heavenly salvation, or, as in the case of Siddhartha, for some great truth. He sets out to find the bliss of perfect understanding and unity with Atman, the creator and center of the universe.

One after another he tries and abandons the religious ways that are offered to him, and then experiences the world of pleasure and the senses. He achieves his goal, but only by steps. The first step is when he discovers that it is the world of creation-nature itself-that he must understand and embrace. The next step is his realization that it is he, himself, whom he has been trying to escape, but whom instead he must learn to know. And when at last he follows the teaching of the river, he finds a way known to hermits and mystics of all the great religions both Eastern and Western: the path to wisdom and unity with the world that lies through the patient exploration of the self.

What do you think the river is really telling Siddhartha? Is it that after he has experienced everything else in life, the only thing left to explore is his own inner world?

2. THE DISCOVERY OF LOVE

After leading Siddhartha through the great Eastern religions of Brahministic Hinduism, Samana asceticism, and finally Buddhism, Hesse at last gives him one element that belongs to no Eastern religion but is at the foundation of Western Christian belief: the element of love. Siddhartha has envied the "child-people," the ordinary folk around him, their feelings of love-for each other, for their children, for themselves and their aspirations. He acknowledges with Kamala that he himself cannot love, although Kamala is dear to him. But love comes to him at the end, as a very painful love for his son, who does not return it but runs away.


Listening to the river, Siddhartha learns to accept both the pain of love and its loss. One of the images that teach him reconciliation is that of his father, who had also loved and lost a son-Siddhartha himself. At the end, Siddhartha attempts for Govinda's sake to reconcile his belief in the importance of love with the Buddha's rejection of love. Do you find his argument convincing?

3. AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Hesse wrote that all his books were in some way autobiographical, and Siddhartha can be interpreted as autobiography thinly screened. In it Hesse revisits an India that, as he hinted elsewhere, never existed in reality even in ancient times, but it was the India he imagined, in his childhood, in his parents' house filled with Indian artifacts and in the picture books about India in his grandfather's library. As in a dream, all the features of this landscape have symbolic meaning, as do its characters. They are the figures that dominated Hesse's childhood. Siddhartha's father and the learned Brahmins represent Hesse's father and his fellow missionaries, and the Brahministic rituals symbolize the stern commands and prohibitions of their Pietist faith. Siddhartha's struggle of will with his father and his eventual escape into the forest are Hesse's escape from his parents' expectations.

Like Siddhartha's flight into the Samana struggle with the self, Hesse's flight led him into a lifelong struggle with his bourgeois background and his artistic self. Can you follow Hesse's life through Siddhartha's quest? Siddhartha's immersion in the world of the senses and pleasures was also Hesse's. The intense self-exploration by the river might be compared with Hesse's psychoanalytic experience, substituting Vasudeva (the wise old man) for the psychoanalyst. That Hesse's life story is set in a dreamlike Indian landscape and told through Indian characters is seen as one of Hesse's artistic triumphs. Siddhartha is considered by a number of Hesse scholars as his most perfect novel.

4. FINDING ONE'S OWN WAY

Siddhartha rejects first the Brahministic teachings of his father, then the self-denying practices of the Samanas, and finally the teachings of the Buddha, greatest of all teachers. At this point Siddhartha has rejected all teaching, believing that one must find one's own way. Knowledge can be taught, but not wisdom, he says. He notes that the Buddha achieved his blissful understanding not through any teaching but by way of his own patient search. Accordingly, the Buddha's teachings contain all the knowledge necessary for living a good life, but omit the secret of enlightenment, which can only be experienced, not taught.

So Siddhartha goes on alone. He discovers the beauty of nature, which in Hindu belief must be ignored because it is Maya, illusion. In Christian teaching, the world and everything in it is God's creation and therefore to be embraced and respected. But this also suggests the unity of all things, which is a Hindu concept, and the All of Buddhism, so that Siddhartha's discovery of the natural world may be a first step toward the wisdom that all life is one.

5. THE RIVER

In eight of the twelve chapters of Siddhartha a clear boundary is drawn between the spiritual and the material worlds: the river. When Siddhartha crosses it, he leaves on one side the Brahmins, the Samanas, the Buddhists-all aspects of the religious and spiritual. On the other side he plunges into the business world of the merchant Kamaswami, the sensuous world of the courtesan Kamala, and the physical luxuries and pleasures of city life. He savors all this for twenty years, and then suddenly turns away and returns to the river. Here he shares the simple life of Vasudeva the ferryman, and for the next twenty years listens to the river. The river is no longer a boundary that divides. Now it represents a unity in which past, present, and future, all people and their experiences, all aspects of life flow together. Siddhartha comes to understand that there is no conflict between the spiritual and the material, that all human experience is to be embraced, and that the only difference between ordinary people and sages is that the sages understand this unity. This is the vision that Siddhartha at last sees in the river.

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