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The Historical Context of “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse: How the Fictional Siddhartha Compares to the Historical Buddha

Jennifer Wilber is an author and freelance writer from Ohio. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and English.

The primary goal of both the fictional Siddhartha and the historical Buddha was to attain enlightenment.

The primary goal of both the fictional Siddhartha and the historical Buddha was to attain enlightenment.

Siddhartha and the Historical Buddha

Many great works of literature draw from real-life historic events and actual people to tell a story, and the classic novel Siddhartha is no different. While Siddhartha and Gotama, the Buddha, are separate characters in Hermann Hesse’s book, the historical Buddha’s name was actually Siddhartha and there are many parallels between the Buddha’s life and the life of the fictional Siddhartha in the novel. Though Hermann Hesse took many creative liberties in his retelling of the Buddha's story, many events in the story are based on real events in the life of the historical Buddha.

In Hermann Hesse's novel, Siddhartha gave up the life of a prince to follow the Buddha's teachings and seek enlightenment.

In Hermann Hesse's novel, Siddhartha gave up the life of a prince to follow the Buddha's teachings and seek enlightenment.

A Life of Luxury

In the book, Siddhartha is the son of a Brahmin, which is the highest social class in Hindu Society. This is similar to the historical Buddha, who was a prince. They both left their fathers’ houses to seek the path toward enlightenment, though in Hermann Hesse’s book, Siddhartha left when he was still a boy. The historical Buddha left for his journey toward enlightenment when he was 29 and already had a wife and kid, whom he left. Both Siddhartha and the Buddha left their old lives of luxury to become wandering monks and to lead an ascetic life, which means they abstained from all forms of indulgence. Both the fictional Siddhartha and the historical Buddha believed that a simple life devoid of worldly pleasures would help them to reach enlightenment faster. After nearly starving to death, the Buddha began to reconsider his ascetic lifestyle, much like Siddhartha did when he left the Samanas in the novel.

Siddhartha left the life of a solitary monk to be with Kamala. He then left her to return to his journey to seek enlightenment.

Siddhartha left the life of a solitary monk to be with Kamala. He then left her to return to his journey to seek enlightenment.

Second Time’s the Charm

In Hermann Hesse’s novel, Siddhartha leaves a life of luxury twice, while the historical Buddha only had to leave such a life once, for he was never tempted by worldly luxuries again after he first left his old life behind. After Siddhartha left the Samanas in the book, however, he met Kamala and became her lover. He gave up his simple life and traded it for a life of luxury with Kamala. Eventually, the fictional Siddhartha realized how pointless this type of life was, yet again, and left Kamala without saying a word. This is much like how the historical Buddha left his wife a child when he went to look for enlightenment. Later, the fictional Siddhartha would find out that Kamala had his son after he left. When Siddhartha left Kamala, he thought about drowning himself in the river. The real-life Buddha may have almost drowned as well while he was starving to death before he decided that asceticism was meaningless.

You can never step in the same river twice.

You can never step in the same river twice.

All Roads Lead to Nirvana

Eventually, Siddhartha in the novel became enlightened. This parallels the life of the historical Buddha, who is said to have attained nirvana, or enlightenment. Whereas the real Buddha traveled to spread his teachings after attaining enlightenment, in the novel, Siddhartha just continued his simple life as the ferryman. The specific details of how the real Buddha and the fictionalized Siddhartha attained enlightenment do differ. Siddhartha in Hesse's novel found enlightenment while he was living near the river, whereas the historical Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment while sitting under a tree in a state of deep meditation.

Water has spiritual implications in many cultures and belief systems.

Water has spiritual implications in many cultures and belief systems.

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Art Imitates Life

While there are many similarities between the book Siddhartha and the life of the historical Buddha, the Hermann Hesse took quite a few creative liberties with his novel. In the book, Siddhartha and the Buddha are separate characters, even though the historical Buddha’s life paralleled Siddhartha’s life in the story in many ways. Both figures set out on a quest to attain enlightenment and both went through many similar trials and tribulations while on their quests.

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© 2018 Jennifer Wilber

Comments

Brian Leekley from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on June 14, 2018:

Hermann Hesse is one of my favorite authors. I read Siddhartha in college. Your article, Jennifer, has helped me get a better understanding of it.

Elijah A Alexander Jr from Washington DC on June 13, 2018:

The differences in the two does not negate the life of an enlightenment seeking monk. As one I've discovered there is the need for some "worldly pleasures" since all things has a purpose and are to be indulged and abstained from according to an ecological order.

I wear the name "NatureBoy" because it means "I'm living environmentally with one foot and socially with the other" as "the virgin birth" prophecy of the Christ required of him. I prefer environmental living over civilized but to sit under a tree or by a river doesn't provide a wide enough verity of the opposite to determine their purpose which enlightenment is all about, it transcends judging and works to delete all "judgmental adjectives" out of their vocabulary.

I appreciate that you didn't judge either but made an objective observation between the two. Take "the real Buddha travelled to spread his teachings after attaining enlightenment, in the novel, Siddhartha just continued his simple life as the ferryman" for instance. To ferry others across the water is symbolic. Water is a symbol of knowledge without ending with an "S" in most cases, the ferry is the means of navigating the knowledge and the Buddha is the person doing it. It doesn't mean he never left the river because for one to remain stationary and only engage in conversation with other seekers they would loose their vision, as so many "Gurus" do, and fall into the trap of comforting the flesh.

The path of enlightenment is like walking a tight rope, the rod of the walker symbolizes holding on to good and evil simultaneously so as to not be drawn by either and fall into either abase.

Thank you for your well written objective presentation.

Aloha

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