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Siddhartha | Context


The Buddha

Most scholars agree that the Buddha was a real man, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived in the 6th century BCE in Nepal. His story is often interwoven with folk tales or fables, blurring the lines between history and hearsay, realism and mysticism. Gautama was a royal prince who was sheltered as a child, raised in a palace, and protected from seeing life's harsh realities. During his time in the palace, Gautama married at age 16 and had a son. In his late 20s Gautama began venturing outside his royal lifestyle, where he learned of the sufferings of others for the first time—in viewing what later became known as the "Four Passing Sights." He witnessed old age, sickness, and a rotting corpse, and also encountered an ascetic monk who urged him to adopt a similar life of self-denial. Gautama realized he could no longer be content in his pampered life, so he left behind his wife and son and went out into the world. He spent the next six years fasting, meditating, and studying the religious teachings of others to seek enlightenment. These years of extreme deprivation did not lead him to the spiritual liberation he was seeking. Gautama then chose to follow a new path: the Middle Way. This path focused on achieving balance in life, neither indulging in great wealth nor wallowing in miserable poverty, while purifying the mind through meditation.

Gautama then began a long meditation, seated beneath the Bodhi tree for many days without moving. He reviewed his life, seeking an end to suffering. Legend holds that as he meditated, he was visited by Mara, a demon who seeks to lure humans from their spiritual paths. This demon may be viewed as a personification of death, evil, or human delusion, and the ensuing struggle as a battle in Gautama's own mind. Mara first tempted Gautama with beautiful women. When Gautama resisted their charms, the demon sent a horde of monsters against him. Gautama knew these creatures could do him no harm, and their arrows turned to flowers when they attacked him. Finally, Mara mocked Gautama in the hope that he would give up his quest for enlightenment. Mara taunted Gautama that since he was alone beneath the tree, no one would witness his enlightenment, and therefore it was worth nothing. Gautama replied that the earth would be his witness. The earth trembled in acknowledgment, and Mara vanished. Gautama reached enlightenment as the sun rose, freed from his former sufferings and attachments through the purification of the mind and the attainment of knowledge. Gautama then developed and preached the doctrines of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path to help others reach enlightenment. He spent more than four decades traveling and teaching others, gaining followers wherever he went.

Hesse cleverly weaves the story of the Buddha into not one but two characters in the story: Siddhartha and Gotama. The life events of Siddhartha (the character) are quite similar to those of the historic Buddha, although Hesse takes liberties with the timeline of historic events. For example, the historic Buddha was married and had a son before leaving the palace. The character Siddhartha, though, doesn't have sex for many years after he leaves home, and he doesn't know he has a son—by his mistress, Kamala—until the boy is 11. The character Gotama represents what Siddhartha will one day become: an enlightened holy man and spiritual leader of others. By offering two versions of the Buddha in Siddhartha, Hesse plays with concepts or themes introduced in the story, such as the fluidity of time. The character Siddhartha discovers from the river that there is no such thing as time: past, present, and future all exist concurrently. Similarly, his present self (Siddhartha) and his future self (Gotama) can exist at the same time in the story.

The reader may question what is real—a concept the character Govinda grapples with in the final chapter. He has been taught that the physical world is an illusion, and physical appearances can be deceiving. In such a world, could not two versions of the same man exist at one time? The life of Gautama himself and the lines of historic fact and fable are blurred in Hesse's narrative reimagining of the Buddha's life.


The text of Siddhartha is inseparable from Buddhism, since it follows the story of the Buddha. Buddhism developed from the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. The Buddha was not a god, and, in fact, Buddhism recognizes no gods. Gautama was called "the Buddha," meaning "awakened one," a reference to his enlightenment on the nature of life at age 35. The holy man of that time period spent decades teaching others how to reach enlightenment through their own direct experience.

Buddhism is a religion of thought, though many would call it a philosophy rather than a religion because it is not a system of faith that worships a supernatural being. Rather than accepting existing beliefs or doctrines, the Buddha taught people to examine life deeply and find the truth for themselves. In the novel Gotama asks Siddhartha questions to provoke thought, rather than simply offering a lecture or teachings. The character Vasudeva, too, encourages Siddhartha to listen to and learn from a river, rather than revealing lessons to be learned from the river directly to Siddhartha. Buddhism involves understanding and practicing the teachings, rather than passively believing in them without taking action. It is about using the mind to reach deeper understanding of the human condition and to overcome suffering through conscious choice.

Buddhism incorporates the Four Noble Truths, which state:

  1. Life is suffering. This includes illness, pain, psychological suffering (anxiety, fear), and death. Siddhartha experiences many forms of suffering, including bodily suffering during his time with the Samanas (hunger, exposure to harsh weather) and emotional suffering (addiction to gambling, loss of his son).

  2. People cause their own suffering through desire (craving) or aversion (the wish to avoid something). In both cases people wish to control their life experiences by either bringing something toward themselves or pushing something away. Siddhartha's suffering is mostly caused by desire. He desires to conquer his Self, leading him to join the Samanas and endure three years of physical suffering. He later desires to embrace his Self, prompting him to become a merchant and immerse himself in worldly concerns. His luxurious, empty life becomes so unbearable he even thinks of drowning himself. He also desires to keep his son safe at his side, and suffers immensely when the boy runs away.

  3. People can end suffering by giving up actions or thoughts that cause suffering. This end of suffering is called Nirvana, a state of peace, joy, and the conquering of desire. Happiness is possible by overcoming desire and living one day at a time. Giving up expectations of how life or people "ought to be" is also important in ending suffering. Siddhartha takes a step toward ending his suffering when he leaves his unhappy life as a merchant behind. He achieves enlightenment after releasing his desire to rescue his lost son, accepting his life the way it is.

  4. Following the Eightfold Path leads to awakening (enlightenment) and the end of suffering. The Eightfold Path, also called the Middle Way or Middle Path, is aimed at moral behavior, mental development, and gaining wisdom. It includes virtues such as Right Speech, Right Livelihood, and Right Mindfulness. This path helps people overcome conditioned responses and self-imposed limitations in order to see their true nature, which is always present. This true nature, or "Buddha nature," can be defined as divinity or pure consciousness, free of the individual's mind or ego. It is at the core of all people. It can also be called the Atman, a term Siddhartha frequently uses in the story. For Siddhartha, the Middle Way falls between various extremes in living. His life of spirituality and learning as a Brahmin contrasts with the worldliness and physicality he experiences as a merchant and Kamala's lover. Pleasure and self-indulgence (life with Kamala) contrast with pain and self-denial (life as a Samana). By experiencing these opposite ways of living, Siddhartha gains wisdom and can more clearly see his own true nature. He is simply one man who is no more or less important or holy than any other person in the world. Similarly, through experiencing love and loss, he develops compassion and love for others.

Indian Culture

Many aspects of Indian culture are present in Siddhartha:

  • Caste/class: The Indian caste system has historically separated people into various social classes. Brahmins (priests) are at the top, followed by Kshatriya (warriors and rulers), Vaishyas (merchants and land owners), and Shudras (farmers). At the bottom are the "untouchables," which include indigenous tribes and people who perform certain types of work such as fishermen and street sweepers. Siddhartha's act of giving up his privileged Brahmin status in order to become a dirty, wandering ascetic would have been seen as unthinkable to many, if not most, around him.

  • Asceticism: India has a long tradition of ascetics, people who practice austerity or self-restriction as a means to salvation or enlightenment. Such ascetics seek to control the mind and body through practices such as meditation, yoga, fasting, and the renunciation of worldly pleasures and wealth. Known as Shramana in Sanskrit, this type of person is represented in Siddhartha by the wandering Samanas. At the time the Buddha lived, the Brahmins generally disapproved of the Shramana due to differences in belief. The Shramana believed that social rank was irrelevant in the quest for spiritual enlightenment and that anyone, regardless of caste, could achieve salvation. This didn't sit well with the Brahmins, who belonged to the highest caste and often lived in relative wealth and privilege. The Brahmins were the traditional religious authorities, while the ascetics were seen as upstarts who challenged existing practices. Siddhartha's departure from the Brahmin lifestyle would have been difficult enough for his father to accept. In particular, his decision to join the Samanas would have been doubly painful, as the ascetics were effectively the rivals of the Brahmins.

  • Pleasure Gardens and Courtesans: The wealthy or privileged in India and elsewhere in the East often created large gardens as a display of money and status. Sometimes these gardens served as retreats where upper-class women could enjoy time outdoors without being exposed to the dangers or unpleasantness of public spaces. Such gardens were also spaces for meditation, socializing, parties, picnics, and even meeting lovers.

    Courtesans, or high-class prostitutes, were an accepted part of society so long as they behaved themselves in public. A courtesan entertained clients of rank, wealth, and high status, and she could often become quite rich through her profession. (In fact, historical Indian tax records from the 1800s list many courtesans as wealthy landowners in the highest tax bracket.) A courtesan was generally more educated than the typical female, and she presented herself as a pleasant, entertaining, sophisticated companion. Courtesans were considered to be versed in the art of making love, and they entertained in their own homes, rather than walking the streets in search of clients as do stereotypical prostitutes.

    In Siddhartha Kamala represents this class of woman. She is a financially independent landowner with her own luxurious pleasure garden that serves as a haven from the outside world. Kamala turns away the penniless Siddhartha with a laugh and will consider him as a client only once he has gained wealth and status. When Kamala chooses to become a devotee of the Buddha, her pleasure garden is readily accepted as a donation to him and his monks. There is no stigma attached to the garden simply because it has been owned by a prostitute.
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