Hesse, Siddhartha and me

I can’t recollect the exact year but it was somewhere in the mid-1970s that I first saw a poster of the movie Siddhartha.  The fact that it featured a topless woman who was standing facing a man kneeling before her with folded hands must have been the reason that the image remained ingrained in my mind through the years.  Living in New Delhi, India at the time, I also vaguely remember all the talk of the controversy caused by the nude scene in the movie as the actors were Indians even though the movie was an English production and nudity in movies was considered unacceptable then. (When I looked up pictures of the movie on the internet recently, I found them to be pretty tame compared to stuff that you see today).

Between my memories of the movie scene from Siddhartha  and  my   accidental discovery of a  copy of the novel of the same name written by German Noble Prize winner Hermann Hesse, (based on which the movie was made),   I felt I had lived in literary wilderness  despite reading hundreds and hundreds of books. After reading and re-reading Siddartha and discussing it with a few others who have read it, I am so thankful that I discovered this masterpiece. Its message is eternal and it knows no boundaries.

Hesse wrote Siddhartha in 1922, its first English came in 1951 and since then the book has had many reprints due to the lasting interest it continues to generate among readers across the world. What  fascinates me  is, how the author, a  man born in 1877 in the Black Forest town  of Calw  in present day Germany dwells so   deeply into an eastern philosophy  and then makes the  readers question  one’s own  outlook on  life.

A misnomer among many is that Hesse’s book is the life story of the Gautama Buddha who was named Siddhartha by his parents which in Sanskrit means “one who has accomplished a goal”. Hesse’s Siddhartha too is an Indian boy born into wealth who embarks on a long journey in his attempt to understand the meaning of life.Their paths  cross at one point in the book  but then each takes his own path.

For Siddhartha, its a long journey during which he experiments with various indulgences, learns the art of business, love and lust and finally his life comes full circle in his old age with a self-discovery on what life is.

The highlight of the book is the meeting between the Buddha and Siddhartha and the conversation that follows which clearly illustrates Hess’s extraordinary acumen.

Paulo Coelho , the highly acclaimed Brazilian writer  whose  novel The Alchemist which also  follows a young man’s journey of self-discovery  wrote  an  introduction to Siddhartha  in 2008  and recalled how reading the novel  while committed to an asylum  in  1967, had a tremendous impact on his life.

“I did not know that outside the bars of my window, this book was setting alight a whole generation. In the same way it was speaking to my restless soul it spoke to many other young idealistic men and women across the west,’ Coelho wrote of his experience after reading Siddhartha.

Hesse who was awarded the Noble Prize in 1946 has no doubt inspired great many writers with his philosophical approach to life conveyed to the reader through the  protagonist in his novel Siddhartha.

The central character of British novelist W. Somerset Maugham   (1874 –  1965)  novel  The Razor’s Edge  too is a young man  who sets off in search  for the meaning of life which coincidentally takes  him to India in search of a spiritual insight into life. Reading Maugham’s novel, I could not help but compare the similarities between the two books.

If someone were to ask me which is the one  book I would keep with me  if I had to give up all my others books,  I would definitely pick Siddhartha.  Hesse’s message is powerful today as it was the day it was written 80 years ago.

Controversial nude scene from the movie Siddhartha

A poster promoting the movie Siddhartha