One of my very favorite books is the work of the Nobel prize winner, Hermann Hesse, a German-Swiss author and poet. SIDDHARTHA, set in India, is the inspiration for Hesse’s search for an answer to his quest.
Born in a German village in 1877, he was the son of Protestant missionaries who took him to India as a very young boy. As he grew in that vast country, his mind was filled with questions about the meaning of life. In his own words, he declared himself to be ill with Lebenskrankeit, life’s sickness. Unsatisfied by his surroundings and Christian background, Hesse went on a personal quest to find an answer to the meaning of life.
Siddhartha is the result of that quest. Hesse sought the peace and tranquility which he saw among the Brahmans in India.
He was bitterly opposed to Germany’s entry into World War I and in protest, he left Germany and moved to Switzerland where he began the writing of this beautiful novel.
Siddhartha is the story of a young boy brought up in a wealthy Brahman family in India, enjoying every luxury but not satisfied with them. Together with his friend Govinda, he left the luxury and comfort of Brahman life and became a beggar, wandering through forests and small villages in search of the meaning and purpose of his life.
During his wandering, he met the Buddha, Gautama, who befriended him. But not satisfied to be only a disciple of the Buddha, he mapped out a course of his life in pursuit of his personal destiny. He was tortured by his inability to find meaning in life.
His marriage to a wealthy courtesan, Kamala, added to his emotional conflict. He abandoned family life and riches and once again became a wanderer in search of truth.
He saw the Brahmans and admired them for their love and blind loyalty. For Siddhartha, these people lacked for nothing except one thing…. the awareness and understanding of the unity and the meaning of life.
Nothing could satisfy him until he could solve the puzzle of life’s meaning. In the flow of a river, he found tranquility but nevertheless he rebelled against his fate.
The wise men among the Buddha’s followers tried to guide him and to provide answers for him, but Siddhartha rejected the advice of others in order to seek and to discover the answer to his quest personally. He sought his own Nirvana.
Hesse’s novel, published in 1922, was immediately an international best seller and was translated from the German to other languages where it was read around the world. It appealed in particular to younger readers, to university students, who were seeking answers and directions for their own lives, and who identified with self-conflicts and the beauty expressed in the novel.
The book is written in the style of biblical prose and its simplicity is immediately enchanting for the reader. It is one of the great literary works of the 20th century and Hesse is regarded as one of the outstanding literary authors in the German speaking world.
Only in Germany was his novel banned by the Nazis who despised him. As a lover of all humanity, Hesse spoke out all of his life against anti-Semitism. His third wife was Jewish.
The Swiss honored him with a Ph.D and the world acclaimed him as he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946.
In many ways, SIDDHARTHA resonates with the feeling expressed in the Hebrew daily prayer book’s shacharit (morning) service. It too asks questions about the meaning and purpose of life but, unlike Siddhartha’s quest for a personal answer, our siddur defines clearly the response to the questions.
THE QUESTIONS: “Master of the universe. It is not because of our righteousness that we offer our prayers before Thee, but it is because of Thy great compassion. What are we? What is our life? What is our goodness? What is our righteousness? What is our helpfulness? What is our strength? What is our might? What can we say before Thee, Lord our God and God of our fathers? For all the heroes are nothing before Thee, famous men as if they never existed, wise men as if they lacked knowledge, intelligent men who lacked understanding. Most of the things they do are worthless and the days of their life are vain in Thine eyes. Man is not above the beast and all is vanity”.
THE ANSWER: “But we are Thy people, the people of the covenant, the children of Abraham Thy friend, to whom Thou made a promise on Mt. Moriah. We are the descendants of his only son, Isaac, who was bound on the altar. We are the people of Jacob whom Thou named Israel and Jeshurun because of Thy love for him and Thy delight in him.
Therefore it is our duty to give thanks to Thee, to praise and to glorify Thee, to bless and to make holy Thy name and to offer thanksgiving unto Thee. We are happy ! How good is our destiny, how pleasant our lot in life, how beautiful our heritage ! Happy are we who morning and evening, twice daily, proclaim:
SHEMA YISRAEL ADONAI ELOHENU ADONAI ECHAD. HEAR O ISRAEL, THE LORD OUR GOD, THE LORD IS ONE.
Blessed be the name of his glorious kingship forever and ever”.
Hermann Hesse might have taken a theme from the Jews in his quest for an answer to the meaning and purpose of life. Regrettably, he never found the answer to his personal quest.