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RELIGIOUS BACKGROUND: HINDUISM AND BUDDHISM

Siddhartha, an Indian Poem is the title Hermann Hesse gave to his story of an Indian prince in search of an understanding of his life. As a Brahmin, a member of the highest and most spiritual caste, Siddhartha is born to Hindu priesthood. While in his search, he meets the founder of Buddhism. Thus, an acquaintance with both these major Eastern religions is important to your understanding of the novel.

About 3,500 years ago (1500 B.C.) a nomadic Asian people invaded India from the northwest and settled there. They called themselves Aryans, meaning "noble," and they brought with them their language, Sanskrit, their nature gods, and their traditional literature, the Vedas, a collection of Sanskrit hymns and prayers which are the nucleus of Hinduism. In time, a more formal priestly religion called Brahmanism, with a strict system of social classes or castes, replaced the simpler early religion. The Upanishads, commentaries on the Vedas and on the nature of reality, were a later addition to the Hindu scripture. These writings teach the existence of a universal soul with which individual souls are united when they conquer the illusion of time and space, called Maya. Otherwise a soul must follow its Karma, or fate, through various lives, animal as well as human, paying for evils committed in former incarnations.


Buddhism arose in the fifth century B.C. as a reform religion, offering a more personal and individual expression than the fixed Hindu rituals of cleansings, prayers, sacrifices, pilgrimages to sacred places, and bathing in sacred rivers such as the Ganges. Its founder was a historical personage, a Prince Siddhartha (not the same as the novel's hero) who left his young family and a life of luxury to seek an escape from suffering for humanity. Enlightenment came to him as he meditated under a bo tree, and he went on to teach that to free oneself from all ties of love and desire was the path to Nirvana (literally, nothingness), meaning the escape from the cycle of endless rebirths.

His followers named him the Buddha, the Enlightened One, and his teachings began to be written down in the year of his death, 483 B.C., as the Pali scripture. Pali is a dialect of Sanskrit, thought to have been the Buddha's native speech. Buddhism reached its peak in India during the reign of Asoka and his son Mahendra, enlightened monarchs of the third century B.C. Although Buddhism did not survive as a major Indian religion, Buddhist monks spread their teachings to China and Japan, where they took root.

The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The four truths are: existence is suffering, suffering arises from desire, suffering ends when desire ends, and the way to end desire is to follow the eightfold path.

The Eightfold Path consists of: right belief, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right occupation, right effort, right contemplation, and right ecstasy. These rules made Buddhism an "ethical" religion, and its promise of release into eternal bliss also made it a "salvation" religion. Hinduism developed later forms that embodied some of these principles and also promised "salvation," meaning liberation from worldly suffering. One of the later Hindu teachings was yoga, a system of physical and spiritual exercises to hasten salvation, the reunion of the individual soul with the universal soul.

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