‘… when he did not listen to the sorrow or laughter, when he did not bind his soul to any one particular voice and absorb it in his Self, but heard them all, the whole, the unity; then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om – perfection.’
Hermann Hesse’s Long Summer
Podcast: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
Siddhartha (1922)
Hermann Hesse
In Summary

Siddhartha leaves home, journeying through many religious paths in search of enlightenment, refusing to settle for the wisdom of others.


The first half was easy to write: the weary wanderings, the long, incessant struggle, the sheer nausea of youth. These chapters were closer to autobiography than to fiction, with his own rebellion, angst and unrequited religiosity spilling onto every page. They say you should write what you know, and Hermann Hesse knew this lifestyle better than most. It was only the later chapters – as his characters began to attain inner peace – that challenged him. As his titular protagonist, Siddhartha, wound his way to spiritual enlightenment, Hesse found himself stepping into the unknown, writing about a celestial world he could not see, in a language he could not comfortably speak. Isolating himself from society, Hesse tiptoed around Nirvana for years, fighting to find a way in, eventually crafting a character conflicted enough to bear his own image.

With a history of poor mental health and a suicide attempt, it is understandable that Hermann Hesse – a Nobel Prize winning author – would both long for and lack transcendence. Perhaps it is precisely this dual tendency that made his book so relatable in the 1960s. The comfortable wisdom of Mum and Dad, of church, state and society, were all starkly contrasted by the lonely wolf of Hesse’s Siddhartha, who ventures out on his own, questioning the confident teachings of the pack. Set in India during the 5th century BCE, Siddhartha travels multiple paths – even meeting the Buddha in person – yet he never seems fully content. While he finds salvation in the end, it is only after a long and winding road, with few, if any, easy answers. Though Hesse published the book in 1922, it seems to have taken another world war for the West to appreciate its anxious yearning, with Siddhartha resonating more during the upheavals of the ’60s than in the roaring ’20s, helping to launch the new spiritual movement.


Central to the narrative is the unique journey of the individual. The story begins with Siddhartha leaving his father in order to forge his own path to enlightenment. Joining the Samanas (a group of wandering ascetics), Siddhartha denied himself every indulgence, taming the self through fasting, thinking and waiting. Yet he soon exhausted the lessons of the Samanas, leaving to chase after rumours of an enlightened teacher known as the Buddha. Upon finding him, he admits that the Buddha is truly a ‘holy man.’ Yet he cannot fully accept the Buddha’s teachings, precisely because they are the teachings of another: ‘That is why I am going on my way – not to seek another and better doctrine, for I know there is none, but to leave all doctrines and all teachers and to reach my goal alone – or die.’ Leaving the Buddha, he falls in love with a wealthy courtesan, becoming wealthy himself in order to woo her and spending many years in worldly comfort. Yet this, too, was the teaching of another, for he learnt the bodily ‘pleasure of love’ from the woman. Departing for the last time, Siddhartha settles into the life of a poor ferryman, learning only from the wisdom of the river. Though he later discovers he has a son by the courtesan, the boy wants nothing to do with him. Siddhartha longs to leave the river and impart his wisdom to the child but soon accepts that he must let the boy go – just like his own father let him go – to find his ‘own path.’

Siddhartha comes to believe that ‘Everything that is thought and expressed in words is one-sided, only half the truth; it all lacks totality, completeness, unity.’ Words rationalise reality, dissecting it into constituent parts while losing sight of the unified whole. Thus, while the words of others can help us see in part, only personal experience can enable us to enter into the wholeness of reality. Although the Buddha’s teachings were the best Siddhartha had ever heard, they were inevitably lopsided: ‘When the Illustrious Buddha taught about the world, he had to divide it into Samsara and Nirvana, into illusion and truth, into suffering and salvation. One cannot do otherwise, there is no other method for those who teach. But the world itself, being in and around us, is never one-sided.’

What the river taught Siddhartha was that time is also one of these lopsided truths. While the water is ever changing, the river itself remains the same, revealing that time and eternity are united. Thus, ‘the dividing line that seems to lie between this world and eternity, between suffering and bliss, between good and evil, is also an illusion.’ While each part of Siddhartha’s story may seem to have occurred at distinct times, they are all true simultaneously. Every step of the journey was equally holy, eternal and necessary; he had to deny himself with the Samanas and also indulge himself with the courtesan; he had to transcend the world but also learn to love it; he had to learn from others but also find his own path. (‘Everything is necessary… It was necessary for me to sin… I needed lust…’) In this sense, the Buddha and Siddhartha – along with their teachings – are in fact one as well, for all ‘apparent contradiction’ is resolved in eternity. All is one; no teaching is wholly false, no wanderer is truly lost, no act is ever unnecessary.


Hesse writes not as a knowing Master but as one of us; another anxious soul, tossed and turned, weary yet unable to sleep, longing yet for what remains unknown. While poetic flashes of truth occasionally shine from heaven, they do so through a thick storm, and he feels he has earned them for having waded so thoroughly through the fog. This conflicted, existential mindset is echoed in the book’s content.

Part novel, part philosophical treatise, Siddhartha is a genuine attempt to wrestle with Buddhism in light of a more romantic view of the individual, love and nature. Hesse raises questions that many likely struggle with, refusing to settle for easy answers or quick catharsis, pushing through to a reconciliation that simultaneously subverts and fulfils the wisdom of the Buddha. Those outside of Buddhism might find this an interesting way in, while those already in might find it an opportunity for honest reflection.

Further Reading By This Author

Hesse published numerous works of fiction and poetry that explore similar spiritual ground to Siddhartha, foremost of which are his ever popular The Steppenwolf, Demian, Narcissus and Goldmund, and The Journey to the East.

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