Siddhartha – Hermann Hesse | Book Review

Written by Siddhartha Krishnan . 5 Min Read

First published in 1922 (in German), Nobel prize winning author Hermann Hesse’s ninth novel Siddhartha is a book that has stood the test of time. I have heard a lot about this book over the years. It first caught my eye, as a teenager, when it was languishing in my father’s bookshelf, and I was being introduced to Buddhism in my history classes. Then I heard of a movie adaptation of it from the 70s, during my college days, which starred some famous Indian actors. And most recently it’s been popping up regularly on the Amazon page, which could be a result of my recent searches. Whatever it is, I can safely say that the book called out to me, and that I started reading it on the day of Buddha Purnima felt like divine providence. But after a bit of introspection, it was understood to be a conspiracy by Amazon.

Despite the divine calling, to assume that I have understood everything that the book had to offer would be foolish because a book on self-discovery, spanning a life time of its protagonist, is bound to mean different things to different people. Also, an understanding of what is being told will depend on the reader’s own life experiences and the stage of life the person is in. This could be the reason why I was hesitant to read it all this while. But this could also be the reason why the book is considered a classic.

It is difficult to review a book like this because you can’t really disagree with what is being said. Unlike other works of fiction, the truth isn’t blended or cloaked in something sinister or magnificent. It is said as it is, making it feel like a self-help book or a book of philosophy. Moreover, what is being said is so profound that you don’t have an option but to be an attentive student.

Written in a lyrical style, this novella is meant to take you on your own path of self-discovery through the journey of a brahmin boy named Siddhartha. Born during the time of the Buddha, Siddhartha just like his namesake, renounces his privileged life, but then goes on to live several lives; that of an ascetic, a rich merchant, a lover, an ordinary ferryman and a father before the great realization happens to him. The lyrical style suits the narrative because the writer is trying to find beauty in the suffering. It is through this road of suffering that the protagonist finds his enlightenment. The following quote from the book explains this point,

“I have experienced on my body and on my soul that I needed sin very much, I needed lust, the desire of possessions, vanity, and needed the most shameful despair, in order to learn how to give up resistance, in order to learn how to love the world, in order to stop comparing it to some world I wished, I imagined, some kind of perfection I had made up, but to leave it as it is and to love and to enjoy being a part of it”.

Like the above quote, much of the learnings are shared through conversations that Siddhartha is having either with himself or someone or something he considers dear to him. The prose is replete with metaphors and the pace is intentionally slow to induce a meditative state within the readers.

The Buddha’s story is a fascinating one. It resonates with millions across the world, and although our stories may not be as impressive as his, we do associate with the ideas of renunciation, detachment, transformation and self-discovery. These ideas are universal and timeless. And authors in the past and in the present have harnessed the power of this story to create their own remarkable works of fiction. Robin Sharma’s “The Monk who sold his Ferrari” and Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist” comes to mind in this regard. However, for me, Hermann Hesse’s masterstroke, was to let the story unfold during the time of the Buddha, so much so, that Siddhartha even has a conversation with his namesake. This I felt not only made this story timeless but also credible to readers who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in philosophy.

This is a book that readers will go back to, as and when they have new and transformative life experiences, bitter or sweet. There are several quotes in this book that will take newer meanings as you progress in life. The quote that stayed with me at this point in my life was,

“Knowledge can be conveyed, but not wisdom. It can be found, it can be lived, it is possible to be carried by it, miracles can be performed with it, but it cannot be expressed in words and taught.”

Siddhartha Krishnan is the author of Two and a Half Rainbows – A Collection of Short Stories. He is also an enthusiastic blogger and, on his website, www.whatsonsidsmind.com, he regularly puts out his essays, articles, travelogues and movie reviews.

 

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4 Thoughts

  1. A favourite of mine, too. I’ve always been a fan of Hesse and really like most of his work. Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, and Narzis and Goldmund are probably his best, in my opinion.

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