Siddhartha Study Guide

Published in 1922, Siddhartha is the most famous and influential novel by Nobel prize-winning (1946) German author Hermann Hesse. Though set in India, the concerns of Siddhartha are universal, expressing Hesse's general interest in the conflict between mind, body, and spirit. While people have contemplated this conflict since time immemorial, it took on a special urgency for Hesse. Psychoanalysis had exploded onto the European intellectual scene in the first decades of the 20th century, and its investigations into the fundamental well-springs of human behavior revolutionized the our self-conceptions; the sovereignty of reason was crumbling as the Id emerged supreme. As a result, a new understanding of the whole human animal had to be worked out. Also, political conflicts in the second decade let to a war in which technological inventions, monuments to human reason and ingenuity, were used to slaughter people in terrible ways. This also called for a reexamination of the relationship between the various aspects of ourselves. These two events, the emergence of psychoanalysis and World War I, then, set the intellectual and moral context in which Siddhartha was written.

Hesse endorsement of unity and pacifism in Siddhartha proved too simplistic and distant for his contemporaries, and the novel receded to the back of Hesse's growing literary corpus. It was not until after World War II that the world was ready to read Siddhartha seriously again. In the 1950's the first English translation of Siddhartha was published by New Directions, a publishing house associated with Jack Kerouac and other so-called "Beat" authors. It was not until the 1960's, though, that Siddhartha really took its place as a fixture in the American counterculture. The novel's mystical Indian setting and exhortation to "find yourself" appealed this group greatly, and the novel enjoyed 22 printings by the middle of the 1970's. The same qualities which made the book attractive to 60's counterculture, though, also tend get the book labeled as adolescent literature, a sort of Indian Catcher in the Rye. Interestingly, the novel's use of Indian religious/philosophical ideas has stirred some controversy as high schools and universities debate its value as a aid in teaching Eastern religions. As Hesse's use of these concepts is somewhat free and often Westernized, Siddhartha is now read primarily as a beautifully crafted examination of the quest for self-understanding.