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Siddhartha (novel)

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Country  Germany
Publication date  1922, 1951 (U.S.)
Pages  152
Author  Hermann Hesse
Page count  152

Translator  Hilda Rosner
Language  German
Media type  Print (paperback)
Originally published  1922
Genre  Fiction
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Publisher  New Directions Publishing (U.S.)
Characters  Kamaswami, Siddhartha, Siddhartha’s Father, Vasudeva, Gotama, Govinda, Kamala
Similar  Works by Hermann Hesse, Gautama Buddha books, Fiction books

Siddhartha is a 1922 novel by Hermann Hesse that deals with the spiritual journey of self-discovery of a man named Siddhartha during the time of the Gautama Buddha. The book, Hesse's ninth novel, was written in German, in a simple, lyrical style. It was published in the U.S. in 1951 and became influential during the 1960s. Hesse dedicated the first part of it to Romain Rolland and the second to Wilhelm Gundert, his cousin.


The word Siddhartha is made up of two words in Sanskrit language, siddha (achieved) + artha (what was searched for), which together means "he who has found meaning (of existence)" or "he who has attained his goals". In fact, the Buddha's own name, before his renunciation, was Siddhartha Gautama, Prince of Kapilavastu. In this book, the Buddha is referred to as "Gotama".


The story takes place in the Nepalese district of Kapilvastu. Siddhartha decides to leave behind his home in the hope of gaining spiritual illumination by becoming an ascetic wandering beggar of the Shramanas. Joined by his best friend Govinda, Siddhartha fasts, becomes homeless, renounces all personal possessions, and intensely meditates, eventually seeking and personally speaking with Gautama, the famous Buddha, or Enlightened One. Afterward, both Siddhartha and Govinda acknowledge the elegance of the Buddha's teachings. Although Govinda hastily joins the Buddha's order, Siddhartha does not follow, claiming that the Buddha's philosophy, though supremely wise, does not account for the necessarily distinct experiences of each person. He argues that the individual seeks an absolutely unique and personal meaning that cannot be presented to him by a teacher. He thus resolves to carry on his quest alone.

Siddhartha crosses a river, and the generous ferryman, whom Siddhartha is unable to pay, merrily predicts that Siddhartha will return to the river later to compensate him in some way. Venturing onward toward city life, Siddhartha discovers Kamala, the most beautiful woman he has yet seen. Kamala, a courtesan, notes Siddhartha's handsome appearance and fast wit, telling him that he must become wealthy to win her affections so that she may teach him the art of love. Although Siddhartha despised materialistic pursuits as a Shramana, he agrees now to Kamala's suggestions. She directs him to the employ of Kamaswami, a local businessman, and insists that he have Kamaswami treat him as an equal rather than an underling. Siddhartha easily succeeds, providing a voice of patience and tranquility, which Siddhartha learned from his days as an ascetic, against Kamaswami's fits of passion. Thus Siddhartha becomes a rich man and Kamala's lover, though in his middle years he realizes that the luxurious lifestyle he has chosen is merely a game, empty of spiritual fulfillment. Leaving the fast-paced bustle of the city, Siddhartha returns to the river and thinks of killing himself. He is saved only by an internal experience of the holy word, Om. The very next morning Siddhartha briefly reconnects with Govinda, who is passing through the area as a wandering Buddhist.

Siddhartha decides to live out the rest of his life in the presence of the spiritually inspirational river. Siddhartha thus reunites with the ferryman, named Vasudeva, with whom he begins a humbler way of life. Although Vasudeva is a simple man, he understands and relates that the river has many voices and significant messages to divulge to any who might listen.

Some years later, Kamala, now a Buddhist convert, is travelling to see the Buddha at his deathbed, accompanied reluctantly by her young son, when she is bitten by a venomous snake near Siddhartha's river. Siddhartha recognizes her and realizes that the boy is his own child. After Kamala's death, Siddhartha attempts to console and raise the furiously resistant boy, until one day the child flees altogether. Although Siddhartha is desperate to find his runaway son, Vasudeva urges him to let the boy find his own path, much like Siddhartha did himself in his youth. Listening to the river with Vasudeva, Siddhartha realizes that time is an illusion and that all of his feelings and experiences, even those of suffering, are part of a great and ultimately jubilant fellowship of all things connected in the cyclical unity of nature. After Siddhartha's moment of illumination, Vasudeva claims that his work is done and he must depart into the woods, leaving Siddhartha peacefully fulfilled and alone once more.

Toward the end of his life, Govinda hears about an enlightened ferryman and travels to Siddhartha, not initially recognizing him as his old childhood friend. Govinda asks the now-elderly Siddhartha to relate his wisdom and Siddhartha replies that for every true statement there is an opposite one that is also true; that language and the confines of time lead people to adhere to one fixed belief that does not account for the fullness of the truth. Because nature works in a self-sustaining cycle, every entity carries in it the potential for its opposite and so the world must always be considered complete. Siddhartha simply urges people to identify and love the world in its completeness. Siddhartha then requests that Govinda kiss his forehead and, when he does, Govinda experiences the visions of timelessness that Siddhartha himself saw with Vasudeva by the river. Govinda bows to his wise friend and Siddhartha smiles radiantly, having found enlightenment.


  • Siddhartha: The protagonist.
  • Govinda: A friend and follower of Gotama.
  • Siddhartha’s Father: A Brahmin who was unable to satisfy Siddhartha's quest for enlightenment.
  • The Śramaṇas: Traveling ascetics who tell Siddhartha that deprivation leads to enlightenment.
  • Gotama: The Buddha, whose Teachings are rejected but whose power of self-experience and self-wisdom is completely praised by Siddhartha.
  • Kamala: A courtesan and Siddhartha's sensual mentor, mother of his child, Young Siddhartha.
  • Kamaswami: A merchant who instructs Siddhartha on business.
  • Vasudeva: An enlightened ferryman and spiritual guide of Siddhartha.
  • Young Siddhartha: Son of Siddhartha and Kamala. Lives with Siddhartha for a time but runs away to Adan.
  • Major themes

    In Hesse’s novel, experience, the totality of conscious events of a human life, is shown as the best way to approach understanding of reality and attain enlightenment—Hesse’s crafting of Siddhartha’s journey shows that understanding is attained not through intellectual methods, nor through immersing oneself in the carnal pleasures of the world and the accompanying pain of samsara. It is the completeness of these experiences that allows Siddhartha to attain understanding.

    Thus, the individual events are meaningless when considered by themselves—Siddhartha’s stay with the Shramanas and his immersion in the worlds of love and business do not lead to nirvana, yet they cannot be considered distractions, for every action and event gives Siddhartha experience, which leads to understanding.

    A major preoccupation of Hesse in writing Siddhartha was to cure his "sickness with life" (Lebenskrankheit) by immersing himself in Indian philosophy such as that expounded in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. The reason the second half of the book took so long to write was that Hesse "had not experienced that transcendental state of unity to which Siddhartha aspires. In an attempt to do so, Hesse lived as a virtual semi-recluse and became totally immersed in the sacred teachings of both Hindu and Buddhist scriptures. His intention was to attain to that 'completeness' which, in the novel, is the Buddha's badge of distinction." The novel is structured on three of the traditional stages of life for Hindu males (student (brahmacharin), householder (grihastha) and recluse/renunciate (vanaprastha)) as well as the Buddha's four noble truths (Part One) and eight-fold path (Part Two) which form twelve chapters, the number in the novel. Ralph Freedman mentions how Hesse commented in a letter "[my] Siddhartha does not, in the end, learn true wisdom from any teacher, but from a river that roars in a funny way and from a kindly old fool who always smiles and is secretly a saint." In a lecture about Siddhartha, Hesse claimed "Buddha's way to salvation has often been criticized and doubted, because it is thought to be wholly grounded in cognition. True, but it's not just intellectual cognition, not just learning and knowing, but spiritual experience that can be earned only through strict discipline in a selfless life". Freedman also points out how Siddhartha described Hesse's interior dialectic: "All of the contrasting poles of his life were sharply etched: the restless departures and the search for stillness at home; the diversity of experience and the harmony of a unifying spirit; the security of religious dogma and the anxiety of freedom." Eberhard Ostermann has shown how Hesse, while mixing the religious genre of the legend with that of the modern novel, seeks to reconcile with the double-edged effects of modernization such as individualization, pluralism or self-disciplining.

    Film versions

    A film version entitled Siddhartha was released in 1972. It stars Shashi Kapoor and was directed by Conrad Rooks.

    In 1971, a surrealistic adaptation as a musical Western was released as Zachariah. John Rubinstein starred in the title role and George Englund was the director. Don Johnson played Matthew, the equivalent of Govinda.

    English translations

    In recent years several American publishers have commissioned new translations of the novel, which had previously been impossible because of copyright restrictions. In addition to these newer translations, Hilda Rosner's original 1951 translation is still being sold in a number of reprint editions put out by various publishers. The newest translations include:

  • Rupa & co, a translation by Hilda Rosner.
  • Modern Library, a translation by Susan Bernofsky, foreword by Tom Robbins, translator's preface (2006).
  • Penguin, a translation by Joachim Neugroschel, introduction by Ralph Freedman, translator's note (2002).
  • Barnes & Noble, a translation by Rika Lesser, introduction by Robert A. Thurman (2007).
  • Shambhala Classics, a translation by Sherab Chödzin Kohn, introduction by Paul W. Morris, translator's preface (1998).
  • Dover Thrift Edition, translation by Stanley Applebaum, Introduction and Glossary anon. (1999)
  • Musical references
  • The 1972 Yes song "Close to The Edge" from the Close to the Edge album was inspired by the book.
  • Nick Drake wrote the song "River Man" (sample) and is the second listed song from Nick Drake's 1969 album Five Leaves Left, remastered and released as a single in 2004. According to Drake's manager, Joe Boyd, Drake thought of the song as the centre piece of the album.
  • Jerry Cantrell has a song called "Siddhartha" on his Degradation Trip double album.
  • Andrew McMahon of the bands Something Corporate and Jack's Mannequin has the quote "the river is everywhere" tattooed on his wrist and is currently working on a clothing line called River Apparel.
  • The Hot Water Music song "Sunday Suit" contains the line "Siddhartha style, I'll choose a path of open minds".
  • Pete Townshend's song "The Ferryman" was written for a modern production of Siddhartha in June 1976.
  • The Slovenian rock band Siddharta was named after the novel.
  • The Sons of Champlin wrote a song entitled "Swim" (1973) which was inspired by the novel.
  • Ten Mile Tide wrote a song entitled "Siddhartha" which provides a musical version of the novel.
  • Ralph McTell wrote the song "The Ferryman" also based on the novel for his 1971 album You Well-Meaning Brought Me Here.
  • Atmosphere's Sad Clown Bad Dub II album contains a song entitled "The River", believed by some to inspired by the novel.
  • The Canadian composer Claude Vivier wrote a piece in 1976 for large orchestra called Siddhartha which was inspired by the book.
  • The song "All This Time" by Sting includes references to Siddhartha.
  • Inspired by the novel, Swedish singer/songwriter J.C. Schütz wrote the song "Don't Fight The Flow" in 2012 for his fifth album Love This World, an album full of references to Buddhism.
  • The song "The Samanas" written by Doyle Bramhall II refers to the journey of the Samana in this book.
  • A California-based band, King Kai has a song titled "Siddhartha" off their first EP ...Up to No Good
  • Other cultural references
  • Fred Mayer published the photographic essay "Homage to Hermann Hesse and his Siddhartha", which is based on Hesse's novel.
  • In its broad strokes Siddhartha; the nobleman who becomes a beggar and achieves enlightenment after becoming a ferryman, bears a striking resemblance to Gustave Flaubert's retelling of "The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitalier" in his 1877 work, Three Tales.
  • In Parks and Recreation, Chris Traeger, a speed reader, said, "One time I read all of Siddhartha at a traffic stop."
  • The April 1, 1985 issue of "Sports Illustrated" featured an article about Hayden Siddhartha "Sidd" Finch, a baseball savant who could throw a baseball 168 miles per hour, and like Hesse's central character was a man in search of enlightenment. The article was an April Fools' Day joke authored by George Plimpton, although with no notice of that fact published in the magazine, many people assumed the story was true.
  • In season one of Veronica Mars, episode 19 ("Hot Dogs"), movie star Aaron Echolls (Harry Hamlin) is seen reading Siddhartha on the couch while his two children, Trina and Logan, speak with him.
  • In season two of the 2014 TV series The Flash, in the 11th episode ("The Reverse-Flash Returns"), Hunter Zolomon (Teddy Sears) is seen reading Siddhartha on a park bench.
  • In the Season 7 finale of Shameless on Showtime, Fiona Gallagher finds a copy of Siddhartha in her dead mother, Monica's, belongings. Fiona is seen reading the book throughout the episode and recites an unheard excerpt at Monica's funeral.
  • References

    Siddhartha (novel) Wikipedia