Quest for the Self in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha

Quest for the Self in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha

This research paper intends to shed light on the journey of a discontent hero Siddhartha questioning on absolutism and universalization of ethics, principles, conventions, and religion in German Noble Laureate Hermann Hesse’s prolific bildungsroman novel Siddhartha. This paper ponders into how and why the young Brahmin boy, Siddhartha, discards all sorts of comforts, luxuries and goes back to nature in order for the self-comfort, spiritual delight, and peace. He, rejecting all kinds of existing values, norms, conventions, religions and even the family, sets out the journey towards undestined world in order to search for the self within the self and eventually gets enlightened by the earthly human experiences like pain, plight, suffering, hunger and want, passion, pleasure, love, greed, boredom, despair and hope. For him, bearing suffering is the ultimate source of knowledge and wisdom. And he also regards himself as a master of all sorts of teachings throughout his life even challenging ‘the most venerable one’ Gotama the Buddha. In order for the very proven, the researcher draws theoretical insights from the 20th-century philosopher Fredrick Nietzsche’s philosophical concept of the ‘Superman’ and ‘death of the God’.

The researcher, through this paper, attempts to portray the picture of new nobility that is the concept of Superman as Nietzsche defines.  Hesse rightly delineates the philosophical concept of Superman through his highly regarded novel Siddhartha with the conscious portrayal of the character who ponders into the question of the self and conquest self for the maturity, delight and spiritual peace of the individual and questions on the existence of the god. Thus, this research paper makes an attempt to claim that Siddhartha is an expression of Nietzschean thought of ‘Superman’ and ‘death of God’.

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As the novel of the 1920s, Hesse, in this novel, with the help of fictional characters, denies the power of soul over the body. As Julie Armstrong claims, “Inspired by Buddha, he was concerned with the individual’s inner journey to discover one’s true self and overcome suffering, by listening to one’s inner voice (70). For him, it is the body that becomes reality. Siddhartha never believed that there is God that regulates the body, even the earth. In this sense, he believes that ‘the God is dead’ in Nietzschean term though Siddhartha apparently does not declare the very idea rather he questions on existing norms, values, faiths, beliefs, and religion for the liberation of self. He is discontent and dissatisfied with the knowledge that he acquired by religion and society and questions:

What about the gods? Was it really Prajapati who had created the world? Was it not the Atman, He, the only one, the singular one? Were the gods not creations, created like me and you, subject to time, mortal? . . . Was it meaningful . . . to make offerings to the gods? . . . where was Atman to be found? (8)

Siddhartha, as above citation clarifies, questions on the existing beliefs on religion, god and the world. Siddhartha does not follow the absolutism and universalism as western metaphysics defines. Thus, Hesse makes the protagonist of his bildungsroman novel-Siddhartha achieve the Nietzschean superman status by rebelling against all gods, prophets, and doctrines asserting his individuality by following his own self.

Siddhartha, a young handsome Brahmin boy, is always thirsty for self-delight and self-satisfaction. He is the hunger of knowledge and spiritual peace. In order to delight his soul ‘Atman’ he endures much troubles, pain, plight, suffering, fear and remains discontent for the sake of his heart or will he desires to leave his house, luxuries and earthly pleasures and goes into the world of ‘Samana’, practices all the provinces in the austere Samana’s practice for three years. Although he becomes adept in the Samana way, he expresses his doubt with his intimate friend Govinda, “What now, O Govinda, might we be on the right path? Might we be closer to enlightenment? Might we get closer to salvation? Or do we perhaps live in a circle- we, who have thought we were escaping the cycle?” (21). Siddhartha grows impatient with the finding that despite he practiced the arduous Samana way of self-denial through suffering and meditation he, “was once again his self and Siddhartha, and again felt the agony of the cycle which had been forced upon him” (19) and concludes that “all the Samanas out there, perhaps not a single one, not a single one, will reach nirvana. We find comfort, we find numbness, and we learn feats to deceive others. But the most important thing, the path of paths, we will not find” (22). He finds the very suppression of normal human instincts in the name of meditation was only temporary as he becomes unable to control himself the sexual desire and bodily functions of the twenties after his dream of kissing a woman’s breast and drinking her milk. Siddhartha comes to realize that the Samana ways of life is just the illusion and a method of deceiving oneself instead of finding the true nature of his own self. He, with Govinda, insists that the denial of bodily necessity is nothing but just, “it is fleeing from the self, it is a short escape of the agony if being a self, and it is a brief numbing of the senses against the pain and the pointlessness of life” (20).

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Due to the very decisive way of Samana life, he realizes that nobody can teach the true self and says, “Nobody would obtain salvation by means of teaching” except the self (38). He moreover reflects the reason that:

It was the self I wanted to free myself from, which I sought to overcome. But I was not able to overcome it, I could only deceive it, could only flee from I, hide from it . . . I was afraid of myself, I was fleeing from myself! I searched Atman, I searched Brahman, I was willing to dissect myself and peel off all of its layers, to find the core of all peels in its own interior, the Atman, life, the divine part, the ultimate part. But I have lost myself in the process. (43-44)

He even rejects the holy teaching of Gotama, the Buddha along with all sorts of religious teachings arguing, “Neither Yoga Veda shall teach me anymore, nor Atharva Veda, nor the ascetics, nor any kind of teachings. I want to learn from myself, I want to be my student, want to get to know myself, the secret of Siddhartha” and embarks in his own way in order to win his heart and the world by the self-divinity and wisdom by the self” (44).

Siddhartha eventually comes to realize that the best way of searching the self is to follow the true nature of his own self. That is to looking inwardly within the self as Siddhartha states, “only a person who has succeeded in reaching the innermost part of his self would glance and walk this way” believing that he himself is the master of the self as Nietzsche views (40). The very idea of conquering own self in front of the holy man Buddha is Hesse’s manifestation of individualism as Baumann asserts Siddhartha’s denial of all sorts of teachers and teaching except finding and conquering his own self as, “the most impressive manifest of Hesse’s individualism in the face of enlightened Buddha, Siddhartha reveals that he does not want to become a Buddhist but to become a Buddha himself” (18).  This denial to follow ‘the greatest’ and ‘venerable’ the Buddha also proves that Siddhartha has been embarking through a Nietzschean philosophical way of life.

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Siddhartha courageously faces all sorts of situations as it is to experience the earthly reality. He celebrates the corporal world for maturity and self-acknowledgment that is too for searching the meaning in the periphery of the real world. Again, being discontent he enjoys the Sansaric life rejecting the very spiritual and ascetic way of life and goes to experience the material world. He becomes the Samana lover of Kamala-a courtesan woman, Kamaswami – a trader and businessman, and finally of Vasudev – a ferryman. He goes through all these material world experiences in order to find the true self of the inner insight as Hesse writes, “now he saw that the secret voice had been right, that no teacher would ever have been able to bring about his salvation. Therefore, he had to go out into the world, losing himself to lust and power, to women and money, had to become a merchant, a dice-gambler, a drinker, and a greedy person” (109). The very idea of gaining knowledge from the prior world is the notion of Nietzschean superman. As Nietzsche argues the ‘Superman’ or ‘overman’ is always believes his own inner instincts and voice and experiences the world as he desires. He establishes own values and philosophy to guide the self that is what the central character Siddhartha does in this novel opposing the existing religious norms and conventions. So, he eventually proves that physicality is inevitable for the quest of the self and inner wisdom.

Fredrick Nietzsche has taken the self in border sense as he defines it in terms of body, freedom, maturity, will or desire to overcome pain and sufferings learning through the material phenomenon and its experiences. However, his focal point is the maturity of the body and self-realization. In the same manner, Professor Robert C. Solomon asserts that “For Nietzsche, the ultimate value is life itself” (38). So, here the researcher argues, for him, self-consciousness or self-realization and inner will to overcome the earthly pain and suffering is possible only through the inner longs or will to power of listening to the voice of the self. In the same token, in Hesse’s Siddhartha, the self is defined in terms of Atman and the enlightenment of the individual which is closely linked to the maturity of the individual.

Siddhartha the central figure of this novel is an ‘enlightened’ one in Hesse’s term whereas ‘Superman’ in terms of Nietzsche. Indeed, he remains discontent for a long period of his life. He overcomes through pain, suffering, greed, emotions and the like along with the hunger of knowledge and wisdom what he wanted to acquire. For the very reason, he eventually returns back to the forest and the river where there was an old widow ferryman Vasudev. That is the returning towards the spiritual world again abandoning the Sansaric life and his nearest one. In this sense, he seems to be a stubborn person who only sees the world through own lance and follows own path of life believing that Self is not the God rather it is an encompassing organized guiding principle remained in the inner psyche of an individual as a vehicle for all aspects of human activities as the renowned philosopher as Nietzsche believes. Stokes insists, “Nietzsche wanted the individual to acquire, what the existentialists would later give him, the power to be master of his own destiny” (147). He further quotes that, “In his philosophical work Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche makes his Zarathustra proclaim that ‘dead are all the gods: now do we desire the Superman to live” (153). Nietzsche, in this term, believes in no traditional theological system and their morality concepts of all-powerful gods are worthwhile in this modern world of reason. For him, to come out from the troubles and sufferings by the self-struggling is the hero or the real Superman. According to Leon Trotsky, “‘the supermen’ freed of all social and moral obligations they lead a life full of adventure, happiness, and joy” (8).  Siddhartha, in this novel, too follows the very way of wisdom from the freedom and acknowledging the pain plight suffering emotions greed and happiness throughout his life.

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In this regard, the researcher, hereby claims that Hesse, in this novel, rightly delineates the Nietzschean philosophical insights: ‘death of the God’ and ‘Superman’, fictionalizing the characters and setting the story in 6th century BC in order to reveal the tormented psyche of the modern people particularly of the West after the WW I and their quest for the peace and spiritual delight. The very concept of ‘Superman’ and ‘the death of God’ also shows the paradigm shift from the conventional belief system. In this respect, Hesse here by contemplates the modern world view that the personal acknowledgment and experience of the world is prior to the self for personal delight and spiritual satisfaction. Therefore, like the Nietzschean superman, Siddhartha is also never satisfied with the prior knowledge. He keeps on questioning in each and every step of life subverting the existing truths believing that there is no absolute and transcendental truth. Siddhartha, not by any teacher and teaching, gains the earthly truth rather by experiencing the material world he overcomes suffering, pain, greed and compassion following his own-inner insight what he was questing for throughout his life. The more he undergoes the experience of the material world, the more he becomes stronger than the previous self.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Julie. Experimental Fiction: An Introduction for Readers and Writers. London:          Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2014.

Baumann, Gunter. “Hermann Hesse and India.” Hesse Page Journal. The University of Santa      Barbara. Nov 2002.29 Jan 2016. Web.

Hesse, Hermann. Siddhartha: An Indian Tale. New Delhi:Mahaveeer Publishers,2008.

Mileck, Joseph. Hermann Hesse: A Pictorial Biography. New York: Farrar            Publications.1997. Web.

Solomon, Robert C. “Fredrick Nietzsche on Nihilism and the Death of God.” No Excuses:             Exestentialism and the Meaning of Life Virginia: The Great Courses Corporate Head        Quarters, 2000.

Stokes, Phillip. Philosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers. New York: Enchanted Lion Books,   2006.

Trotsky, Leon. “On the Philosophy of the Superman.” Vostochnoye Obozriene Dec           1990.Web.


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