Who Are You Calling Siddhartha?

This can’t be the Siddhartha I read nearly thirty years ago. If it is, I am not the same Loren I was then.

Since the book has been sitting on my shelf all that time, I’m afraid I'm no longer me. I’m finding it’s often hazardous to long-held opinions and beliefs to try to retrace old steps, and not just because I don’t have the strength I used to have.

I'm uncomfortable with Hesse’s use of the name Siddhartha and the comparison he draws between the Buddha and his central character, something that obviously didn’t bother me thirty years ago. Of course, I knew virtually nothing about Buddhism then except what I’d observed in Vietnam — not much — and in Thailand while on R&R — probably even less considering the amount of beer I drank that week.

I’m uncomfortable with an author inventing a character, a bodhisattva as it were, equal to, nay, even superior to, the original Siddhartha as shown in at the end of the novel when Govinda, who had once been Siddhartha’s best friend but had spent the greatest part of his adult life as a disciple of Gotama, sees the two as equals:

And Govinda saw that this mask-like smile, this smile of unity over the flowing forms, this smile of simultaneousness over the thousands of births and deaths-this smile of Siddhartha- was exactly the same as the calm, delicate, impenetrable, perhaps gracious, perhaps mock - big, wise, thousand-fold smile of Gotama, the Buddha, as he perceived it with awe a hundred times. It was in such a manner, Govinda knew, that the Perfect One smiled.

Siddhartha, unllke Gotama, seems able to bring Govinda enlightenment at the end of the novel.

I’m equally uncomfortable that Hesse's Buddha seems like little more than a one-sided foil to the novels hero. Here’s Gotama’s reply to Siddhartha’s criticism in their first meeting:

Let me warn you, you who are thirsty for knowledge, against the thicket of opinions and the conflict of words. Opinions mean nothing; they may be beautiful or ugly, clever or foolish, anyone can embrace or reject them. The teaching which you have heard, however, is not my opinion, and its goal is not to explain the world to those who are thirsty for knowledge. Its goal is quite different; its goal is salvation from suffering. That is what Gotama teaches, nothing else."

That’s certainly a major precept of Buddhism, but it’s hardly the only thing Gotama taught.

Surprised by this discomfort, I went searching on the net and found that it is not an uncommon concern. This Symposium on Siddhartha does a fairly good job of examining the pros and cons of using Siddhartha as an introduction to Asian culture, i.e. how accurate is his portrayal of Hinduism and early Buddhism.

I found myself particularly agreeing with Marc MacWilliams" assessment of Hesse's view of India, "While the India of his own time remained an uninspiring enigma for him, Hesse constructed his own mysterious Orient out of his literary imagination. This imaginary India, which forms the timeless mytho-poetic world of Siddhartha, owes its genesis in part to Hesse’s study of the sacred books of the East—the Vedas, Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Theravada Buddhist Suttas. Passages from The Upanishads, in particular, are quoted in the novel."

Considering its status as a classic, all of the writers went out of their way to state that they weren't challenging the value of the novel per se but rather its value as an introduction to Hinduism and Buddhism. If the novel has value, and I still think it does, it has value despite its poor representation of Buddhism.

6 thoughts on “Who Are You Calling Siddhartha?

  1. It’s been years since I read Siddhartha, and I remember being impressed but not bowled over by it, so take this as a relatively uninformed opinion expressed as two questions:

    Would Buddha be concerned about a lack of hierarchy among Boddhisatvas? Why trust a German dilettante to introduce the world to a religion and region of the world not his own?

    Just my gut reactions.

  2. Good questions.

    I suspect Enlightened is Enlightened, but it still seems a bit presumptious of a German dilettante to presume he’s enlightened.

    Didn’t he win a Nobel Prize for these, though?

  3. He did, for Siddhartha and Steppenwolf among others that Americans seldom read. But one can never fathom the Swedish Academy, and in those days, it was much less aware of non-European literature than it is today.

  4. I have a book sitting on my computer table called ‘Ein Starkes Leben’, which roughly translates into ‘A Strange Life’. It’s written in German so I haven’t yet been able to decipher much of it. The author, Ludwig Finckh, was a close personal friend of Herman Hesse when they were students in college. He was a bookseller’s son and became a writer himself, noted mostly for historical romances that were never translated into English. Finckh was apparently instrumental in the transformation of Hesse from a minister’s son into a writer of great fiction. ‘A Strange Life’ is a tale of the transformation of a young German poet into an American Civil War general. The book was written in 1935, when Hesse had already become famous and moved to Switzerland to avoid dealing with the Nazi government’s militarism. ‘Demian’ had made Hesse famous in Germany, but the theme of that story was anti-war and set in the run-up to WWI. I’m deciphering ‘Ein Starkes Leben’ because it’s one of two biographies written about Konrad Krez, my great great grandfather’s commanding officer in the Civil War. The second biography was non-fiction and written in 1988, just as the Berlin wall was coming down. That biography, still not yet translated into English, draws heavily on Finckh’s historical romance for the broad outline of Krez’s life. To the extent that there was an anti-war movement in Nazi Germany, Hesse was it, hence the Nobel prize, and he did it by resorting to eastern mysticism as a form of transcendence that appealed to people undergoing conscription. Hesse enjoyed a revival in America when his translated works became integral to America’s anti-Viet Nam war sentiment.

  5. If you are “uncomfortable”, I suggest you put a pillow behind your head and remove your shoes. I don’t see that your comfort or lack of comfort has any bearing on a discussion of Hesse’s novel.

    Let’s remember, by the way, that this IS indeed a novel, not a textbook. Hesse is clearly not attempting to explain Buddhism to us.

    Just as, presumably, there were soi-disant Christians who were offended by the Monty Python movie “Life of Brian”, which depicts the fictional life of a parallel Jesus, so, presumably, are there soi-disant Buddhists who are offended by “Siddhartha”. I think this sort of person can be dismissed peremptorily. Hesse’s parallel Buddha is a fruitful literary conceit, and that is justification enough.

    We should note as well, however, that “Siddhartha” is hardly Hesse’s final word on personal salvation. It is not, in fact, as may seem superficially, didactic (for it would then contradict itself). It does not seek to explicate an ultimate Truth or verity, but to explore a possibility. The novel itself is more like Govinda, a pilgrim, than its protagonist as depicted at the end of his life.

    About the Nobel prize: It is never awarded for a single work specifically, but it is often clearly influenced by certain late works. To the extent Hesse can be considered to have been awarded it for a single work, that work is “The Glass Bead Game”.

What do you think?