Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

I recently discovered Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha on a back shelf of a dim Phnom Penh book store. A second hand copy, the book is scattered with a previous reader’s underlining. It’s always interesting to see what others have found worth noting in a novel, especially a meditative novel like Siddhartha. However, while part of me is itching to know what someone else thought was important, another part is wary of becoming distracted by already highlighted sentences. Part of me wants to come to a novel fresh, without expectations. It’s for the same reason that I don’t read reviews of films I’ve watched until I’ve had a chance to write out my own thoughts. I’m too easily swayed, sometimes, by the opinions of others.

All of that being said, there was one line highlighted by the mysterious first reader of this copy that very much resonated with me:

There shone in his face the serenity of knowledge, of one who is no longer confronted with conflict of desires, who has found salvation, who is in harmony with the stream of events, with the stream of life, full of sympathy and compassion, surrendering himself to the stream, belonging to the unity of all things.

The last part in particular (“surrendering himself to the stream, belonging to the unity of all things”) brought me back once again to Virginia Woolf’s idea of life as a cohesive whole, made up of many individual moments. Much like a stream, which is always moving and changing with water, yet at the same time is steady and whole and connected. It is this idea that I really liked about Hesse’s novel.

Siddhartha is a fairly short volume (about 150 pages in translation) and relatively easy to read. The writing is beautifully simple, which I think is necessary when you’re tackling subject matter as grand as the search for universal truth. Siddhartha tells the story of a young Brahmin man living in India at the time of the Buddha. This young man – Siddhartha – is on a quest for meaning, and is determined to find it not in the teachings of others but in his own experience. The novel follows Siddhartha from boyhood to old age as he searches for truth: a stint with roaming ascetics, a meeting with Gotama (the first Buddha), and a period as a rich man surrounded by people, love, and wine.

There is (not surprisingly) a lot of contemplation in this book, and little dialogue, and I found my mind wandering at times. It is simply written and yet at the same time dense with beautiful and timeless ideas; the kind of ideas that need pondering. It is certainly a book to be read regularly throughout life.

One of the ideas from Siddhartha that struck me is the way everyone is always striving for peace. We are all in a way constantly searching for happiness, but so few of us find it. Siddhartha, however, in the end finds peace in a simple place – in the appreciation of experience, of recognising the bigger picture and seeing life as a series of goals and successes. He gets out of the cycle, and sees the unity and the beauty of life’s bits and pieces drawing together. He appreciates the moments, but also the way they connect to each other. And this is where his peace comes from.

It was also nice to read that even Siddhartha is overcome by the power of love (when his son leaves Siddhartha cannot stop thinking of him, and hurts, wishing he would return). It made me realise that all the feelings we have as humans – while they might not always be peaceful – are a normal part of experience. And that eventually they will lead us to peace, in some way.

Siddhartha was first published in 1922. The novel was originally written in German, and was translated into English in the 1950s. Soon afterwards Siddhartha gained popularity in the United States. Herman Hesse grew up in a missionary household and found himself in the midst of a religious crisis as a teenager, an experience that is reflected in much of his writing. Other novels by Hesse include Steppenwolf and Magister Ludi for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1946. My copy of Siddhartha was translated by Hilda Rosner.

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