Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha” turns 100

When it was released, the German author’s spiritual novel barely received attention. Only decades later would “Siddhartha” inspire millions to ask themselves about the meaning of life. Siddhartha chronicles the spiritual journey of a young man who bears the same name as Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama). Hermann Hesse’s fictional novel is set in Kapilavastu (modern-day Nepal) in the 6th century. The protagonist Siddhartha is the son of a wealthy Hindu priest, a Brahmin, the most prestigious caste in India. While the Holy Scriptures can tell him a lot about the soul and immortality, he wants to find out if there are humans who actually live these teachings. Inspired by the Buddha, who gave up an entire kingdom, Siddhartha also bids farewell to his life of luxury and embarks on a journey with his best friend, Govinda, with the goal of discovering the meaning of life. Vision of a “Spiritual” India Hesse’s novel was nourished by what was then a highly idealized and romanticized Western perception of India as a spiritual center, despite the country’s numerous colonial invasions. In the present, this phenomenon is expressed, for example, in the continued enthusiasm for yoga or bestsellers like Eat, Pray, Love, filmed with Julia Roberts in the lead role. In the time of Hesse, India was explored and traveled by the so-called “Indologists”, who further promoted this idealization. “This was rooted in German Romanticism, the classical India of the Vedas and Romantic Hinduism,” explains Jyoti Sabharwal, professor of German at the University of New Delhi. Hermann Hesse traveled to India in 1911. Like his main character, Siddhartha, this was a spiritual journey for the German writer. Despite having been raised as a Protestant in Calw, in the German state of Baden-Württemberg, India seemed to him the most suitable country for this search for the meaning of life, says Germanist Martin Kämpchen, who is currently researching in Santiniketan, India, and has published several books on Hesse and the European Indologists. For Hesse, love for India was not a fad, but a defining theme of life. His mother was born in Kerala, in southern India, where her father worked as a Lutheran missionary. During that time, Hermann learned Malayalam, a language spoken by over 37 million mainly in southwest India, and wrote a vocabulary and grammar book. The Birth of Siddhartha When Hesse left, he planned to visit Java, Bali, Sri Lanka, and southern India. From there, he wanted to return to Europe by ship. However, a serious stomach ailment prevented him from going from Indonesia to India. The trip was as fascinating as it was disappointing, explains Kämpchen, because he didn’t find the idealized version of India he had hoped for (for Hesse, Indonesia and Sri Lanka were part of India). According to the researcher, Hesse was convinced that “the real India can be found in its philosophy, its asceticism, its deep reflections on life”. Like many German Romantic thinkers, he believed that Eastern philosophy would save Western societies from their spiritual death. And it is precisely this notion that he tried to capture in his novel. Therefore, Siddhartha idealizes a form of asceticism based on Hinduism and Buddhism, and deals with the search for an absolute or eternal truth, which Hesse himself also sought. A Counterculture Book When Siddhartha was released in 1922, it didn’t immediately become a big hit. Some critics even considered it sentimental kitsch. According to Sabharwal, who has done extensive research on Hesse, the author only achieved worldwide fame many years later, after being published in Hilda Rosenau’s English translation. It became particularly popular after the 1968 movements in Europe, North America and Asia. Siddhartha became a cult book for the Woodstock generation, who spoke out against the Vietnam War and their parents’ conservative views on values ​​and sex. “It became a counterculture novel of the 60s and 70s all over the world,” says Sabharwal. Siddhartha in India The work was included in the curriculum of institutes of Germanistics at Indian universities shortly after its publication in 1922. The first Institute of Germanistics was established in 1914 in the West Indies at the University of Pune. Sales also increased in India when the English version was published. In 1972, a film adaptation by American director Conrad Brooks was released, whose main actors were Indians, such as Shashi Kapoor, Simi Garewal and Romesh Kapoor. Since the founding in 2005 of the Hermann Hesse Society of India in Thalassery, the city where his mother was born, the book has experienced a new sales boom: Siddhartha has been translated into several Indian languages, including Malayalam, Punjabi, Gujarat, Urdu, Bengali. and marathi. Questions of spirituality remain relevant Siddhartha is a novel that every generation can identify with, says Sabharwal, a journey “from the individual to the self, about finding one’s place in the world.” Dealing with the story of the prodigal son, although it is set in ancient India, many young people who feel confined by society find themselves in it. The 1960s and 1970s were also turbulent times in India, particularly because of the anti-authoritarian, left-wing Naxal movement. This was one of the reasons why Hesse’s book became popular among Indian students. But even 100 years later, Sabharwal is convinced that he still shows his readers ways to understand the meaning of life. “He will always be relevant. The novel raises questions of timeless relevance, because the protagonist, Siddhartha, is an outsider who seeks the meaning of life in society.” Finally, Siddhartha represents the human search for answers to the great mysteries of life: why are we here? Where did we come from and where are we going? Martin Kämpchen agrees: “Spiritual issues are always relevant and never lose their relevance because they are not tied to a specific point in human history. In that sense, they are timeless, and so is Siddhartha.” Author: Manasi Gopalakrishnan

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