Read an Excerpt
From Robert A. F. Thurman’s Introduction to Siddhartha
I first read Siddhartha at the very start of the 1960s, and I can still remember the powerful inspiration it gave me. Why would a young person seeking to escape from wasp-hood at Harvard turn to India as the mother of inner exploration, when nothing in Western education would indicate that India was a source of great explorations in the quest for some transcendent truth? Clearly, Siddhartha was a model for my own journeys, for my own development of his vaunted skills at “fasting—waiting—thinking.”
Looking into Hesse’s personal life, I was astonished to discover many parallels between the troubled youth of this great psychic explorer, poet, critic, novelist, painter, and gardener who wandered the world before World War I and finally fled from the Rhineland down to southern Switzerland, and that of my own more humble and less accomplished self, hailing from Manhattan and traveling more or less on foot to India my first time out in 1961. At fifteen Hesse began to rebel against his strict Pietistic father and mother and the mission school they placed him in; he never felt comfortable in conventional German society of the time. Some of us—certainly myself, and I think Hesse, too—though born in the West, tend to wander as if doomed to exile and always feel like “a stranger in a strange land.” For both of us, forty-plus years and another World War apart, “Mother India” was a salve, a home, for our wandering spirits. Why? Is it because India’s civilization alone has had the wisdom to open itself up truly to embrace the naturally homeless? Hesse himself had this to say about India:
For example, with my Indian journey I had an unforgettable experience. At first it was a real disappointment, I returned completely downcast. But almost ten years later, as I was writing Siddhartha, suddenly the Indian memories were extremely precious and positive, and the little disappointment of earlier on was extinguished.1
Siddhartha was published in German in 1922. Its first English translation was published in 1951. Siddhartha’s quest was an important model for the whole postwar generation’s seeking of “Enlightenment in the East.” For Hesse himself, the book articulates a complex of strands in his character. It shows his rich appreciation for India conceived in a specific Western way, inherited from his missionary grandfather and parents. He says:
And this learned and wise grandfather had not only Indian books and scrolls, but also shelves full of exotic wonders, not only coconut shells and strange birds’ eggs, but also wooden and bronze idols and animals, silken paintings and a whole cabinet stuffed with Indian cloths and robes in all materials and colors. . . . All this was part of my childhood, not less than the fir-trees of the Black Forest, the Nagold river, or the Gothic chapel on the bridge.
Siddhartha is distinguished by Hesse’s consummate artistic, spiritual, and poetic sense of the high transcendent experiences and values accessible through the Indian “inner sciences” and “mind yogas.” At the same time, the book contains a certain European, world-weary cynicism and a sense of the inevitable faultiness of all religious paths. Hesse again: “At the age of thirty, I was a Buddhist, of course not in the church-sense of the word.” The book hums with Hesse’s pursuit of Christian, Tolstoyan nonviolence and the inner kingdom, all the while roiled from within by its opposite: his own driving inner violence, his volcanic sensuality, and his deep despair of fulfilling human relations—a despair that stemmed from his ambivalent struggles with his parents and his ups and downs with his first wife and three sons.
Rereading Siddhartha now, I can clearly see its influence on my decision at twenty to leave college and the study of Western literature, philosophy, and psychology, and seek a higher enlightenment in India. More than forty years later, I have gone back and forth from “the West” to “the East” so many times I can hardly tell the difference anymore, though I observe certain groups still struggling to maintain the “never the twain shall meet” sort of attitude. Having trod a little bit in both of the Siddharthas’ footprints in my own small way, I appreciate the book even more. I can now unravel the tangled threads of Hesse’s mixing of Hindu and Buddhist worldviews, his entrapment in some of the stereotyped views of “the East” that were almost inescapable for a man of his time and culture, and his romantic depiction of Buddhist/Hindu enlightenment as a kind of return to nature, a resignation to the flow of the great river of life. In spite of this creative Hindu/Buddhist mixing, I enjoy the book much more now than I ever could have in my youth.
Hesse seems to have been haunted by a keen insight into the human condition, and his work seems to mark a great turning point in the growth of a genuine European respect for the civilization of enlightenment that developed in ancient India. He himself loved nothing more than to leave hearth and home and wander south to Italy with artistic friends, the European version of a sadhu (Hindu ascetic). He slept in bed-and-breakfasts or camped alfresco, contemplated nature and art, and took a break from the routine chores of householding in northern Europe (very likely overburdening his high-strung wife with their three sons). But it was hard to wander with open mind and heart and intellect in the Europe of that time, so he also went to India and southeast Asia. His keen artist’s perception saw there that the complex fabric of the culture of India was rich enough and its weave loose enough to accommodate all manner of eccentrics, wandering here and there, always on some spiritual pilgrimage or other, seeking beauty or peace, magical energy or complete transcendence.
At this moment in my journey, I am very pleased to have the chance to introduce Siddhartha to a new generation, since I think it still has the power to inspire the seeker of higher truth. I do not pretend to evaluate Hesse’s great achievement from some higher vantage of supposed enlightenment, which I do not claim for myself. But I have put in a bit of study of enlightenment’s various forms and levels, the institutions and cultural orientations it has supported in various countries, and the high civilizations it ultimately created. And following Siddhartha’s inspiration more than forty years ago, I did make a bit of progress—just enough to know that, as elusive as it continues to be, enlightenment is still highly worth pursuing.