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The Search for Peace
How do we find lasting peace? Siddhartha describes its main character's individual search for the answer to this question, and its author's call for peace in the world. Since its publication in 1922, the novella has endured cycles of popularity and obscurity, depending on the public's enthusiasm for its unconventional definition of peace as an individual quest that can transform society as a whole.
When Hermann Hesse first published this novella in Germany, it quickly became popular throughout Europe. Its introspective and passive protagonist appealed to readers who were traumatized by the violence and aggression of World War I, which had ended a few years before its publication. The novella became popular again after World War II, when Hesse won many prestigious awards, including the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946.
A few decades later, American readers supportive of pacifism and individualistic spirituality found resonance in Siddhartha, which was first published in English in 1951. From the late 1960s into the 1970s, a period during which many Americans protested the Vietnam War, it sold over fifteen million copies. Ironically, in spite of the novella's antimaterialism, restaurants and retailers attempted to profit from association with it. American restaurants such as Siddhartha in New York, retailers such as a waterbed store in San Francisco called Siddhartha's, and an Oriental rug shop in Berkeley called Siddhartha reflected a fascination with Hesse's novel that became an American phenomenon.
To Americans in the late 1970s, Siddhartha's search for individual enlightenment reflected a common disillusionment with authority. The Eastern philosophy explained and explored in Siddhartha appealed to readers who had lost faith in traditional Western models of spirituality. And its main character's search for peace resonated with many who protested violence as a means to preserve civilization.
For contemporary readers, the novel is a classic because of its accessible description of Buddhist philosophy for a Western audience. It still speaks to a culture that has become jaded by the empty promises of material wealth and skeptical of organized religion, and to readers intent on finding peaceful solutions to all types of conflicts.
The Life and Work of Hermann Hesse
Hermann Hesse was born in Germany to Johannes Hesse and Marie Gundert on July 2, 1877. The second of six children, Hesse demonstrated early that he was a poor student. After he tried several different schools without success, his parents finally permitted his return home in 1893. He cultivated a passion for reading in his grandfather's library and for helping at his father's publishing house. During his childhood, he frequently heard stories about the beauty of spirituality in Eastern culture from his father, who had been a missionary in India, and his mother, who was born in India to missionary parents. He apprenticed in a bookshop in 1895, where he could easily pursue his love of reading, and was drawn to the emphasis on the individual imagination in German Romantic philosophy. He published his first book of poems along with his first book of prose in 1899.
Hesse began writing Siddhartha in December of 1919 in Montagnola, a small Italian-speaking village in southern Switzerland. By the time it was finished, it would become a novella that reflected Hesse's disillusionment with the extremes of peace and war, or more specifically, with Buddhism and World War I. In his exploration of Eastern culture and philosophy, he draws most of his portrait of the character Siddhartha from his own journey to the East in 1911. With the Swiss painter Hans Sturzenegger, he traveled to Sumatra, Malaya, and Ceylon to find his own personal enlightenment. But after only a few months, he returned home, never having reached the continent of India. He was disheartened by the extreme poverty in which the people lived, and frustrated with the commercialization of Buddhism he witnessed on his journey. Through personal experience, he learned that both Eastern and Western spiritual philosophies were flawed, a revelation reflected in Siddhartha. In 1914, when World War I began, he founded Vivos Voco, an antiwar magazine. Throughout World War I, he volunteered to work with German prisoners of war in the German embassy in Bern. He expressed sympathy with Germany and a desire for German victory but protested war as well, an ambiguous stance that alienated both German nationalists and pacifists. Worn out by criticism from both groups, Hesse retreated in 1918 to an apartment in Montagnola and began writing Siddhartha.
By 1923, a year after publishing Siddhartha, he was so deeply disappointed in German politics that he moved to Switzerland permanently and became a Swiss citizen. Hesse continued to write novels and essays, and eventually won the Goethe Prize of Frankfurt am Main and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946. After such prestigious visibility, his work became immensely popular, and he became admired, as his Nobel Prize citation reads, "for his inspired writings which, while growing in boldness and penetration, exemplify the classical humanitarian ideals and high qualities of style." In spite of his declining health, he continued to write, as his work was being published in English translations in the 1950s. He died of leukemia on August 9, 1962.
Historical and Literary Context of Siddhartha
The fact that the hero of Siddhartha so closely resembles the Buddha, Siddhartha Gotama, in name and lived experience has no doubt caused many readers to wonder if Hesse began writing this as a fictional biography of the famous founder of Buddhism. It would have been extremely difficult to recount the life of a person about whom we know so little; even the dates of his birth (c. 463 B.C.) and death (c. 383 B.C.) are in dispute. Hesse decided to make Siddhartha Gotama a character in the novel, who is introduced formally in chapters three and four. He draws from historical sources in his initial description of the social reverence for the Buddha during his lifetime: "Every child in the town of Savathi knew the name of the exalted Buddha, and every house was prepared to fill the alms-dishes of the silent beggars who were Gotama's disciples." Siddhartha first recognizes him in a crowd "as if a god had pointed him out to him," as "a simple man in a yellow robe, bearing the alms-dish in his hand, walking silently." He becomes fascinated with the Buddha's serenity: "his calm face was neither happy nor sad, it seemed to smile quietly and inwardly." In the equivocal expression Hesse draws on the Buddha's face, he signifies his teaching of the middle way, or the ideal of living moderately, between extremes of wealth and poverty, happiness and sadness, attachment and detachment. His "noble eightfold path," which Hesse mentions in the same chapter, is meant to teach followers how to attain enlightenment and eventually nirvana, or the cessation of suffering.
Though the Buddha left behind no writings of his own, his teachings were written later by practicing Buddhists. Though he is known as the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gotama is not the only person referred to as "Buddha." Any person who has achieved "enlightenment" according to Buddhist teaching may be said to have achieved "Buddhahood" and may be called "Buddha." Buddhists call Siddhartha Gotama "Shakyamuni Buddha," derived from Shakya, the name of his clan, and muni, or "the silent one," to differentiate him from the other figures who have been "buddhas."
Because the Buddha wrote no autobiographical material, and historical fact was not valued then as it is today, the story of his life is considered a legend. According to one narrative, when Siddhartha Gotama was born, a religious visionary named Asita announced to his father, Suddhodana, that the boy would become a great leader. Hesse's fictional character shares this prediction; Siddhartha's father "saw growing within [his son] a great sage and priest, a prince among the Brahmins." Fearful for his son's safety, Suddhodana tries to protect the young Buddha from suffering so that he would not want to embark on a spiritual journey. As a consequence, the young Siddhartha Gotama grows up in an opulent world without any knowledge of poverty, suffering, or old age. As a teenager, he marries Yasodhara, who eventually gives birth to his son, Rahula. When he finally travels outside of the palace, he encounters an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and learns of the deterioration that comes with age and illness, and finally death. He begins to contemplate the fleeting nature of life and the necessity of suffering in the human experience. After seeing these three figures, he meets a holy man, who teaches him that religious life can solve the problems exhibited by the first three men.
After this revelation, Siddhartha Gotama announces to his family that he must go in search of freedom from suffering, and he leaves the palace on his own spiritual journey. After studying with Arada Kalama and Udraka Ramaputra, he leaves them dissatisfied with the fact that he has not yet learned how to release himself from suffering. He joins a group of ascetics and undergoes extreme fasting, only to become disappointed again. Finally, he decides a moderate path between luxury and asceticism is the key to a happy life. Once he becomes enlightened, others begin to follow him. He organizes a monastic community, where followers live very simply, avoiding both extreme wealth and extreme poverty, seeking a peaceful existence. Eventually he serves as an advisor to kings, and his teachings spread throughout Eastern culture. They continue to inspire many followers today, who live by the virtues of wisdom and compassion. Hesse clearly attempts to link the Buddha's values to those of his hero, whose smile at the end "was exactly the same type of smile as the quiet, delicate, impenetrable, wise, sometimes-benevolent, sometimes-mocking, thousand-fold smile of Gotama, the Buddha."
Siddhartha is a novella originally an Italian literary form with a length between a short story and a novel, focusing on a single conflict, situation, or event, and a form that became popular among German writers in the nineteenth century. But as a story about its hero's quest for individual education and enlightenment from birth to maturity, meant to teach its readers, Siddhartha is a good short example of a bildungsroman. The term comes from the German Bildung, which means "education," and Roman, which means "novel," and refers to a book that describes the personal education and maturation of a hero or heroine. The earliest example comes from the Swiss writer Christoph Martin Wieland, whose semiautobiographical novel Geschichte des Agathon (1766-67) depicts its hero's spiritual and intellectual education. There are many examples of the form in German literature: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werther (or The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1774), Ludwig Tieck's Franz Sternbalds Wanderungen (or Franz Sternbald's Wandering Years, 1798), and Gustav Freytag's Soll und Haben (or Debit and Credit, 1855) are just a few. Thomas Mann used the form in several of his works, including Der Zauberberg (or The Magic Mountain, published in 1924) and Joseph und seine Brüder (or Joseph and His Brothers, published in 1933-1942). Famous English examples of the form are Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722), Jane Austen's Emma (1816), and Charles Dickens's David Copperfield (1849-50).
Like Hesse's other novels written in the same way, Peter Camenzind (1904) and Morgenlandfahrt (or Journey to the East, published in 1932), Siddhartha focuses on a single character's struggle to find himself, and on his growth through personal experiences. Siddhartha's education consists of a series of events that cause him to grow in self-awareness. Through his story, Hesse attempts to teach readers that enlightenment can be attained without outside sources. Because he uses a European form to express Eastern ideals, Hesse deploys the form in a very unconventional way. His novella ends with the perspective not of Siddhartha but of his best friend, Govinda, who "reads" Siddhartha's face, as the narrator addresses us directly: "Not knowing any more whether time existed, whether the vision had lasted a second or a hundred years, not knowing any more whether there existed a Siddhartha, a Gotama, a me and a you...Govinda still stood for a bit while bent over the quiet face of Siddhartha, which he had just kissed and which had just been the scene of all manifestations, all transformations, all existence." Rather than communicating a clearly articulated moral message, Hesse deliberately leaves vague the revelation both Siddhartha and Govinda experience, emphasizing the point of his bildungsroman that each individual's education consists of a unique path and leads to a different place of maturity. Supplementary materials copyright © 2008 by Simon & Schuster, Inc.