Wednesday, April 28, 2010


By Nicholas T. Spatafora

“Then he had fallen asleep, and
on awakening he looked at the
world like a new man.”

Writers frequently base works of fictional prose and poetry on biographical, historical, cultural and other nonfictional themes and accounts, intertextually fusing various genres. Author of Manhattan Man and Other Poems, Dr. John Lynch’s lyric “Good Friday,” for example, echoes Psalm 102:4 in the Old Testament: I forget to eat my bread (24). Poet Eileen Tabios makes frequent repetition of “This is the now. This is the now,” in "Letter to a Poet Discovering Second Wind/After Learning the Opposite of Algebra Is Transcendence," while “[inhaling and exhaling],” allusive of the Eastern concepts of existentialism and mindfulness (5. 7).

Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha is a classic example of intertextuality, a novel implicitly—and at times explicitly—alluding to the life of Siddhartha Gautama, the illustrious Buddha. The story takes place in northeastern India some five hundred years before the birth of Christ, historians estimating 563 BCE as the Buddha’s actual birth date. The characters, references and storyline are symbolic of those historical figures, places and events recorded 2500 years ago, Gautama manifested through Gotama and the protagonist Siddhartha himself, and the ferryman Vasudeva, also an allusion to Buddha as well as the wise old woman and mentor whom Gautama encountered prior to his enlightenment. Gautama’s father, King Suddhodana, is metaphorically fictionalized as the main character’s father, whose blessings he receives to take leave of his family and Brahmin heritage, whereas his wife Princess Yasodhora and son Rahula are fictionalized as Kamala and “the boy” or young Siddhartha (Hesse 122-123). As did Gautama, Siddhartha engages in various ascetic practices then abandons this life for one of the material, ultimately attaining spiritual awakening after a long and arduous journey. Buddhist doctrines such as The Four Noble Truths, The Noble Eightfold Path and Samsara are likewise referred to throughout Hesse’s work.

The plot unfolds with Siddhartha, the wise and beloved “handsome Brahmin Prince” disclosing to his friend Govinda his intention to leave home to become an ascetic, alluding to Gautama who at the age of twenty-nine abandoned his family and father, King Suddhodana, to seek a life of simplicity and self-denial on his road toward spiritual enlightenment, which he would achieve six years later. Bids his father, “If you find bliss in the forest, come back and teach it to me” (12). Gautama did in fact return to his father twelve years later. Hesse also makes direct reference to the Rig-Veda, a collection of over one thousand hymns that contain the mythology of the Hindu gods, early in the story.

Despite his lofty, stately existence, his loving family and adoration by the young Brahmin’s daughters, Siddhartha suffers emptiness and a profound yearning for spiritual truth that he knows in his heart cannot be attained by books, teachers and knowledge. Thus, after a long and obstinate silence, his father bids him his blessings to leave and pursue kinship with the Samanas, wandering ascetics with whom the protagonist seeks sojourn (12).

Siddhartha dwells among the Samanas for an undisclosed number of years, practicing meditation and self-denial while observing and feeling contempt for the adjacent material world of Samsara. Ultimately growing disillusioned and discontented, however, he decides to abandon his life as a Samana to listen to the teachings of Gotama, Hesse cleverly juxtaposing both fictional character and historical figure to further illustrate the story’s prevalent concept. Here again, the author explicitly alludes to the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths and The Noble Eightfold Path, where the main character has taken a transitory discipleship with Gotama in the Jetavana Grove (28-29):
Four Noble Truths: 1.Suffering is inherent in existence. 2. Origin of suffering is ignorance. 3. Symptoms of that existence are attachment and craving. 4. Following The Noble Eightfold Path will lead to the absence of attachment and craving and therefore suffering.
The Noble Eightfold Path: 1. Right Understanding 2. Right Thought 3. Right Speech 4. Right Action 5. Right Livelihood 6. Right Effort 7. Right Mindfulness 8. Right Concentration
The Concept of Dependent Origination: Any phenomena exists only because of another phenomena: it is a complexity of cause and effect sweeping through past, present and future times. As all things are transient (Anicca), they have no real identity (Anatta).
Rejection of Infallibility of Scriptures: Teachings should not be taken if they do not correlate with experience and praised by knowledge persons.
Anicca: All things are temporary. Anatta: Self-perception is illusory.
Dukkha: An unclear mind leads to suffering in all people. (Kornfield 28-30; Bockover)

Siddhartha, however, still maintaining the premise that the truth cannot be attained through teachers and teachings, announces to Govinda and Gotama his intention to take his leave and continue his pilgrimage. Here the reader finds evidence of the writer foreshadowing a catastrophic fate for the protagonist as a consequence of his intellectual hubris, the Enlightened One forewarning him of “too much cleverness.” After a transient stay with the Buddha, he proceeds with his quest for spiritual enlightenment (35).

Continuing on his way, Siddhartha resolves to learn about his Self rather than purge it, discarding his metaphorical previous life of abstinence and detachment for one of the flesh, the material—Samsara. He embraces the world about him, loving a woman, fathering a son, indulging in vices, dealing with merchants and acquiring wealth. An untold number of years later, Siddhartha is ultimately driven to despair, despite his affluence, reminiscent of the unknown preacher in Ecclesiastes: ”vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:2).

Emotionally devastated and on the brink of suicide, Siddhartha takes refuge under a cocoanut tree by a river bank, Hesse alluding to the Niranjana River and Pipal Tree where Gautama historically achieved enlightenment. He realizes “Om,” the “word of words,” the glorious paradoxical perfection of life’s trials and tribulations. He falls into a deep sleep, analogous to the Buddha’s forty-five day meditation, and “awakens” rejuvenated, synonymous to Gautama’s awakening (89-90).

After a brief reunion with the friend of his youth Govinda, Siddhartha encounters Vasudeva, a wise old ferryman, Hesse making analogy to a wise old woman whom Gautama historically met shortly before his enlightenment. Vasudeva similarly becomes his mentor, along with the river, personified as a teacher, yet merely a reflection of his inner being, his Self (102-105).

It is eleven years later, and Siddhartha encounters his love of long ago Kamala, who presents to him a child moments before her death. The boy, reminiscent of the Buddha’s only son, is reunited with Siddhartha as were Gautama and his son twelve years after he had renounced him to seek enlightenment. Siddhartha cherishes the boy, and the two of them abide in the hut of Vasudeva (111-124).

Time passes, and Siddhartha’s son grows resentful of his father, seeking the material life of Samsara in which he had been raised. He abandons his father, and Siddhartha once again experiences despair. He now suffers the loss of his son, exemplary of the Buddha’s Concept of Dependent Origination. “Had not [Siddhartha’s] father also suffered the same pain that he was now suffering for his son?” (132).

Siddhartha continues to mourn the loss of his son when he once again realizes “Om,” perfection, that all which befalls us is perfect and necessary for Self-Actualization—Divine Will. It is at this phase of the storyline that Siddhartha’s quest for spiritual enlightenment is achieved. Having witnessed this awakening, Vasudeva “[goes] into the ‘unity of all things,’” alluding to Parinirvana, Buddha’s moment of chosen passing in 483 BCE (134-137).

In the final chapter of the story, Siddhartha, now fully enlightened, is once again reunited with his friend of long ago Govinda, to whom the truth is revealed through a kiss on the former’s forehead, symbolic of the Eastern theology concept of “oneness”:
[Govinda] saw many faces—which all came and disappeared and yet all seemed to be there at the same time and which were all Siddhartha…Each one was a passionate, painful example of all that is transitory. Yet none of them died, they only changed, were reborn, continually had a new face: only time stood between one face and another. (150)

Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha is in fact the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the illustrious Buddha from present day Nepal, juxtaposed among three characters—Siddhartha, Gotama and Vasudeva—and delving further into the novel and its concepts, one can surmise that the subtle and explicit references that Hesse makes to Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, his life and family indeed imply a work of fiction based on fact. In studying Siddhartha, one truly embarks on a pilgrimage to the Buddha and an understanding of life itself.


Works Cited
Bockover, Mary I. “The Dao of Confucianism, Daoism, and Chinese Buddhism.” Humboldt State Univ. 25 Dec. 2007. Web. 22 Aug. 2009.

Hesse, Hermann. Siddhartha. New York: Bantam Books, 1971. Print.

Kornfield, Jack. Teachings of the Buddha. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1996. Print.

Lynch, Jack. Manhattan Man and Other Poems. New York: Reed and Quill Press, 2008. Print.

Tabios, Eileen. “Letter to a Poet Discovering Second Wind (or, After Learning the Opposite of Algebra Is Transcendence)” Web. 30 Nov. 2009.


Nicholas Todd Spatafora is an educator at Joseph Pulitzer Intermediate School in Jackson Heights, Queens and an English Professor at the City University of New York. He holds two graduate degrees from Hunter College in New York City and has enjoyed a successful career in education spanning twenty three years. Contemplating a life in Catholic ministry, he attended Cathedral Preparatory Seminary in New York. The author is a member of the Tao Society in Tai Pei, and prior affiliations include the Religious Society of Friends and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. He and his wife Hsiaochen (Judy) reside in Flushing, New York.

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