Siddhartha’s 100th Birthday

A century after its publication, Randy Rosenthal explores how Hermann Hesse’s classic novel “Siddhartha” came to be amidst the author’s personal struggles and search for life’s deeper meaning.

Randy Rosenthal26 July 2023
Image adapted from the cover of “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse.

Out of all works of twentieth century fiction, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha arguably turned more Westerners on to the East than any other. Originally published in German in the autumn of 1922, the novel is now 100 years old. It not only marks an important turning point in the lives of the countless readers it’s influenced, including myself, but also in Hesse’s own life.

Hesse was born in 1877 in newly unified Germany, and was raised in the Black Forest town of Calw. His grandfather and parents were Pietist missionaries who had lived in India for years, exposing Hesse to Eastern religions at a young age. He was a talented student, but at sixteen he ran away from the theological seminary where he was studying. Due to what his teachers called “a moral insanity,” he was unable to finish high school. Rather than attend university, he worked at a bookstore, first in the college town of Tübingen, and then across the border in Basel, Switzerland. As a bookseller, Hesse read voraciously. He spent his nights in bars, developing a lifelong wine-drinking habit. But he also started writing poems, essays, and short pieces of prose. In 1904, he published his first novel, Peter Camenzind, a poetic bildungsroman in the Romantic tradition. Peter Camenzind was well received and soon spread Hesse’s name throughout the German-speaking world.

Intellectually, Hesse knew he should meditate. But knowing and writing about something is very different than living it.

With moderate literary fame, Hesse quit the bookstore. He married, settled in the country, had three children, producing several popular novels: Beneath the Wheel, Gertrude, Rosshalde, and Knulp. He also wrote a steady stream of feuilletons and book reviews — his lifelong bread and butter. Despite his success, Hesse remained restless and unfulfilled. Around this time, his readings of Schopenhauer, Schlegel, and theosophy rekindled his interest in the East. Longing to connect with the legendary India of his childhood, Hesse took a trip to Asia in the summer of 1911.

He visited Sumatra, Borneo, Malaysia, and the Buddhist countries Sri Lanka and Burma, which were then part of British India. But Hesse never made it to India proper. Hating the heat and squalor, the beggars and the noise, Hesse found Asia physically oppressive and spiritually unfulfilling — perhaps because he got dysentery and was living on “red wine and opium,” as he put it in a letter. And so he ended his trip early. Yet the culture and atmosphere made a deep impression that would later surface in his best work.

Moving his family to Bern upon returning to Europe, Hesse was plagued by depression, and chronic eyestrain, which caused him severe headaches. When World War I broke out, he was a lone voice of reason and was despised for the perceived anti-nationalism of his articles. In 1916, he suffered a “crisis of nerves” triggered by the war, the sickness of his son, and the death of his father. Aged 38, Hesse entered a sanitarium near Lucerne, where he was treated with electrotherapy and Jungian psychoanalysis. He was one of the first major writers to be psychoanalyzed, and the experience hammered his mind inward, into the subconscious.

The result was the novel Demian, which Hesse published in 1919 under the pen name of its narrator, Emil Sinclair. With its combination of Greek Gnosticism, Nietzschean existentialism, and Jungian psychology, the book explored what Hesse called “the soul of Europe.” Thomas Mann later wrote that Demian “struck the nerve of the times,” and had an “electrifying influence” on “a whole generation.” After a year of praise and prizes awarded to the mysterious Sinclair, Hesse publicly admitted he was the author of Demian and became famous throughout the continent.

But as his career soared, his marriage crumbled. Hesse’s wife suffered from episodes of severe psychosis, culminating in a total nervous collapse. Leaving her in a sanatorium and his children under the care of relatives, Hesse moved to Ticino, the Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland, where he’d live the rest of his life.

Freed from all familial and social obligations, he began working on a book set in India at the time of Gotama the Buddha. During the years he wrote Siddhartha, Hesse was poor and alone. According to his biographer Ralph Freedman, his lifestyle was like “a samana in twentieth century Switzerland.” Hiking around the Ticinese Alps, wearing threadbare clothes, living on rice, milk, and macaroni, he could easily see himself as a young Brahmin searching for wisdom. He had experimented with self-deprivation and renunciation. With his eyestrain, headaches, gout, and depression, he experienced life as pain. Trying to live a more moral and meditative existence, Hesse, too, like his protagonist Siddhartha, held society in contempt. Viewing his contemporaries as mindless and materialistic, he looked upon them with haughty disdain. In a letter written just before his second marriage, Hesse told his friend Romain Rolland, “In my heart I am a Samana and belong into the forest.”

After smoothly writing the early sections of Siddhartha, Hesse was stuck. For over a year, he couldn’t work on it at all. “1920,” he admitted, “was the most unproductive year of my life.” He again became deeply depressed, but after going to Zurich to be treated by Carl Jung himself, Hesse had a breakthrough and was able to start working again. In 1922, at age 45, he published Siddhartha, a novel that he said “represents the sum of my life and the ideas that I have absorbed over the course of twenty years from India and Chinese traditions.” By presenting the ancient East to the then-modern West, Siddhartha turned Hesse from an author into a spiritual leader.

And yet, despite what most people might think, Siddhartha does not necessarily promote a Buddhist way of thinking. In fact, in it Hesse presents his ambivalent personal feelings about Buddhism at the time of writing, his struggle moving beyond it. “For years,” he wrote in a 1921 letter to his friend Lisa Wenger, “I believed in Buddhist doctrine, my sole source of consolation at that point, but gradually my attitude changed, and I’m no longer a Buddhist. I now feel more attracted to the India of the gods and temples, and have just to grasp the deeper meaning of pantheism.” That is, he’s more attracted to Hinduism, the Brahmanism from which Buddhism arose.

To Hesse, the relationship between Buddhism and Brahmanism resembled that between Protestantism and Catholicism. While he appreciated “the conscientious behavior of the Protestants,” he felt “the Protestant church itself has nothing much to offer, and the various Protestantism sects nurtured the cultivation of inferiority complexes. That is also more or less how I view Buddhism.” In his letter, he goes on to explain that Buddhism “adopts a rational attitude toward the world without gods, and seeks redemption solely through the intellect. It’s a beautiful form of Puritanism, but it is also suffocatingly one-sided, and I have become disenchanted with it.”

It’s unfortunate that Hesse held these misconceptions, which many people share. Buddhists are often considered to be atheists, and Buddhism a religion without gods. But that’s not at all true. The gods are all over the Pali suttas. There are devas and brahmas galore. While the gods certainly exist within Buddhist cosmology, there’s no reason to worship them. No reason to envy them. In fact, the gods learn from the Buddha. In fact, the Abhidhamma, the third section of the Pali Canon, is said to be entirely based on an extremely long lecture the Buddha gave to the gods. More importantly, even though Buddhism is rational and logical, the Buddha repeatedly states that his teaching is not possible to understand “solely through the intellect.” He said that the Dhamma he attained is “unattainable by mere reasoning.” Though Buddhism is intellectually appealing, it can only be understood experientially.

In another letter that same year, this one to his patron’s brother, Hesse wrote about his true faith: “Psychoanalysis is not a creed or philosophy, but an experience. Analysis is only worthwhile when one is prepared to experience it fully and bring it to bear on one’s life. Otherwise, it’s nothing but a nice little game.” The same can be said about the Buddha’s teaching, which remained a “nice little game” for Hesse. Buddhism, too, is not merely a creed or philosophy, but an experience. Buddhism is most impactful when one experiences it fully, bringing it to bear on one’s life. But some part of Hesse knew this, because in a lecture delivered around the time Siddhartha was being printed, he said: “Buddha’s Way to Salvation has been often criticized and doubted, because it is thought to be wholly grounded in cognition. True, but it’s not just intellectual cognition, not just learning and knowing, but spiritual experience that can only be earned through strict discipline in a selfless life.”

Even so, like most people, Westerners and Easterners alike, Hesse found the Buddha’s teaching easier to study than to practice. “It’s not easy to practice the Indian-Buddhist form of meditation,” he wrote in another letter to Wenger. “One cannot expect a sudden flash of insight. It’s a discipline, an exercise to be repeated constantly, every day.” Intellectually, he certainly knew he should meditate. (In Castalia, his idealized province in The Glass Bead Game, “the practice of spiritual refreshment by meditation” is intrinsic to the daily life of the scholar-priests. They are dependent on “meditation as a well-spring of energy, as the ever-renewing concord of mind and soul.”) But knowing and writing about something is very different than living it. Rather than work to develop such “strict discipline,” Hesse rationalized his inability to meditate by telling Wenger, “Given the lives we lead, it’s difficult.” He was just too busy. His life had too many demands. Still, he admits his problems were due to his lack of practice: “We’re suffering because we would like to follow that path, but that is no longer possible. We’re being held back, not just by the desires and egotistical cravings of the ‘real world,’ but also by the duties and responsibilities we have assumed.” Perhaps if Hesse meditated regularly, he could have better worked with some of the suffering he experienced. But he preferred to read, write, and drink wine.

After Hesse first moved to Ticino (and just before he started Siddhartha), he wrote a lovely little book of essays called Wandering. And in the last chapter, he summarizes his personal spiritual philosophy. Someone follows the Buddha’s teaching because they want to change themselves. “But,” Hesse writes, “it is not my concern to change myself. Only a miracle could do that. And whoever seeks a miracle, whoever grasps at it, whoever tries to assist it, sees it fleeing away. My concern is to hover between many extreme opposites and to be ready when a miracle overtakes me. My concern is to be unsatisfied and to endure restlessness.”

With this in mind, it makes more sense that despite the public image of him being a wise sage after the publication of Siddhartha, Hesse’s personal life was in shambles. Siddhartha was followed by a five-year silence, during which Hesse divorced, remarried, divorced again, and continued to suffer from depression, gout, and eyestrain. He drank heavily in the bars of Zurich, now whiskey rather than wine. He seriously considered suicide, planning to shoot himself on his fiftieth birthday. Yet with more psychotherapy he was again able to achieve catharsis in writing, producing the cynical and surreal Steppenwolf (1927), the sensual and medieval Narcissus and Goldmund (1930), and the mythical and elusive Journey to the East (1932). While drastically dissimilar in style and approach, all three novels explored the Apollonian and the Dionysian duality of human nature — they also secured Hesse’s place among the greatest writers of the twentieth century.

Settling into a third marriage while the world descended into another war, Hesse spent over a decade working on his magnum opus, The Glass-Bead Game. He finished it in 1943, the very year the Nazis officially banned his books (it had to be published in Sweden). Set several centuries after our own “Age of Wars” in the utopian province of Castalia, where scholarship has been enshrined as sacred and scholar-priests are bound only by the worship of truth, The Glass-Bead Game successfully managed to synthesize the intellectual with the spiritual. A fusion of Eastern and Western culture, it earned Hesse the 1946 Nobel Prize. He lived until 1962, but never wrote another novel.

Among his many masterpieces, Siddhartha is known as Hesse’s most famous novel—or so it says on the cover of my New Directions edition. But it wasn’t translated into English and published in the United States until 1951. Championed by Henry Miller and the Beats in the Fifties, Siddhartha became something of a bible for the hippies during the Sixties and Seventies, when Hesse’s work received an explosion of acclaim far greater than anything he experienced in his lifetime.

Decades later, one of those hippies, my then-girlfriend’s mother — whose legal birth name, I kid you not, is Karma—gave me Siddhartha for my nineteenth birthday. At the time, I was all about Camus, and naively considered myself an atheist and existentialist. I knew nothing about Eastern religion, and wasn’t interested in it either. I remember reading Siddhartha, but don’t recall being particularly inspired by it. Yet over the following year, I took my first yoga class, discovered the Tao Te Ching, and read my first book on Buddhism. That summer, I was sitting on the bank of a Swiss lake, waiting to hang-glide, and for the first time crossed my legs and closed my eyes in meditation. It was for only five minutes or so, and I had no idea what I was doing. But that brief glimpse inward soon led me to the Zen Center, Vipassana, and a pilgrimage to Burma and India. Only with hindsight did I understand that Siddhartha was the catalyst for my own journey to the East—as it likely was for so many others.


This essay is adapted from The Orient Express: The Fiction that Brought the West to the East, forthcoming from Cascade Books in March 2024.
Randy Rosenthal

Randy Rosenthal

Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard University. He is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, where he focused on Buddhist Studies, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The American Scholar, and many other publications.