SiddharthaTeaching and learning resources for the novel Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
Siddhartha wrestles with deep and difficult philosophical issues in an incisive, memorable, and enjoyable way through the story of one man’s search for enlightenment in ancient India. As a former student of philosophy, I have an abiding fondness for this book. Highly recommended for anyone who is haunted by questions about “the human condition.”
The notes on Siddhartha included here reflect my study of and interpretation of the text, but obviously literary elements such as theme and symbolism are open to interpretation.
Because the title is so often mispronounced, I’ve included a link to a discussion about how to pronounce it by people who seem to know what they’re talking about.
Since the story is set in ancient India and has many parallels to the life of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (who actually appears as a character in the novel), I’ve linked the highly rated Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha PBS documentary here. As of this writing, it can be streamed for free with an Amazon Prime account. Critical opinion of the 1973 film based on the novel is sharply divided.
Siddhartha Study Questions
Prefatory Question: In what sense are desire and attachment the roots of human suffering? (In other words, how do our desires cause us to suffer?) Keep this question in mind as you read.
Chapter 1: “The Brahmin’s Son”
1. Describe Siddhartha. Why is he unhappy despite his great fortune in life? How does he feel about the Brahmins’ knowledge? Why does he decide to leave his Brahmin life?
2. Describe Govinda. Why is he so devoted to Siddhartha?
3. How does Siddhartha convince his father to let him become a Samana, and why does he choose this way of persuading his father? (Hint: “Siddhartha has always obeyed his father…Siddhartha will do what his father tells him.”)
Chapter 2: “With the Samanas”
1. Describe the life of a Samana. Why do they choose this kind of lifestyle? Explain the goal of their lifestyle and practices.
2. What attitude toward most people does Siddhartha develop after becoming a Samana, and why?
3. What does Siddhartha mean when he says, “What I have so far learned from the Samanas, I could have learned more quickly and easily in every inn in a prostitute’s quarter, amongst the carriers and dice players”? Why does he decide to leave his life as a Samana? (Consider his comment to Govinda that he has no desire to walk on water.)
Chapter 3: “Gotama”
1. What characteristics does Gotama have that make him remarkable? Why is his voice compared to “a star in the heavens”?
2. Why does Gotama warn Siddhartha about “the thicket of opinions and the conflict of words” and having “too much cleverness”? Why does he imply that the apparent flaw in his teachings that Siddhartha has found is not important?
3. What does Siddhartha think of Gotama? Why does Siddhartha decide not to join his followers? What gift does he think Gotama has given him, and what does he mean by this?
Chapter 4: “Awakening”
1. What does Siddhartha decide to do after leaving Gotama and Govinda, and why? Relate this decision to the title of the chapter. What feelings does he have after making this decision? In what way is his decision frightening?
2. What new philosophy does Siddhartha have about the nature of the world, and how is his experience of the world different? (Refer also to the beginning of Chapter 5.)
Chapter 5: “Kamala”
1. In what way is Siddhartha now like a child? What is the “voice” that he resolves to obey?
2. Why do you think Siddhartha rejects the young woman who propositions him?
3. Describe Kamala. How does Siddhartha’s decision to win Kamala’s favor and become her student reflect his new philosophy? Why does he say that he will never again lower his eyes when he meets a beautiful woman?
4. What is Siddhartha’s attitude toward the new world of money, material goods, and sensory pleasures he has decided to embrace?
5. How would you explain Siddhartha’s remarkable ability to attain whatever he sets out to attain? What skills does Siddhartha value, and how are they useful? (Refer also to Siddhartha’s interview with Kamaswami in Chapter 6.)
Chapter 6: “Amongst the People”
1. What is Siddhartha’s initial attitude toward business? Why is it a good attitude for a businessman to have—in what ways does it benefit Siddhartha?
2. How might the lessons Kamala teaches Siddhartha be applicable to the goal of living a good life—in other words, what moral or spiritual elements do her teachings contain?
3. Describe Siddhartha’s priorities, attitude toward business, and treatment of others. Relate this process to the title of the chapter. What bothers him about the way he is living? In what sense does he feel that he and Kamala are different from other people, and what exactly does he mean by this?
Chapter 7: “Samsara”
1. How does Siddhartha change after years of life as a merchant, and why? What does he envy about other people? What is “the soul sickness of the rich”? Why does Siddhartha become so deeply attracted to gambling?
2. What does the dead bird in Siddhartha’s dream represent? What does he realize is the source of the happiness he has sometimes felt? Why does he decide to leave his life as a merchant?
Chapter 8: “By the River”
1. What saves Siddhartha from killing himself, and what does it represent? How is his long, dreamless sleep symbolically significant?
2. How is it symbolically appropriate that Siddhartha again finds himself at the river after leaving his life as a merchant? How is it significant that instead of crossing the river, he stays at the river this time?
3. What conclusions does Siddhartha come to about the reasons for his strange path in life? In what sense has his “Self” died, and what has made this possible?
Chapter 9: “The Ferryman”
1. Describe Vasudeva. Why do you think he welcomes Siddhartha as his assistant?
2. What does it mean to be a good listener? Why is listening spiritually profound, and how is it helpful? (Refer also to Chapter 11.) Why do you think Vasudeva is “no friend of words”?
3. What do you think it means that “the river knows everything”? What is ironic about most people’s attitude toward the river?
4. What lessons does Siddhartha learn from the river, and what things does it symbolize?
5. What do you think “emanates” from Siddhartha and Vasudeva that compels some people to talk with them? Why do you think they are not recognized as wise men by the seekers who come looking for them?
6. What change do you think Kamala sees in Siddhartha’s eyes?
Chapter 10: “The Son”
1. Describe Siddhartha’s son. How does Siddhartha treat him, and why? Why do you think Siddhartha “prefer[s] the sorrow and trouble of his love rather than happiness and pleasure without the boy”?
2. What insight does Vasudeva offer Siddhartha about why Siddhartha’s way of trying to win him over only makes the situation worse? What does he think of Siddhartha’s desire to teach and protect his son, and why?
3. What do you think makes Siddhartha fully realize and accept that his desire to protect his son is foolish?
4. What important role does Siddhartha’s son play in the novel? How is it appropriate that he leaves Siddhartha and does not return, and how is it ironic that Siddhartha tries to keep his son with him? What theme(s) do you think this expresses? (Refer also to the first few pages of Chapter 11.)
Chapter 11: “Om”
1. How has Siddhartha changed, and how does this change make enlightenment possible for him?
2. In what ways is being a good listener closely related to enlightenment?
3. Why do you think Vasudeva chooses this particular time to leave Siddhartha and go off to his death?
Chapter 12: “Govinda”
1. What does Siddhartha tell Govinda about the nature of seeking, and what does this imply about the nature of enlightenment? Why do you think this lesson is so difficult to learn?
2. Why do you think Siddhartha says that “wisdom is not communicable”?
3. Why does Siddhartha think that time is an illusion and that “everything that exists is good”?
4. What is the difference between what most people call love (what even Gotama refers to as love) and the love that Siddhartha feels is “the most important thing in the world”?
1. Why do you think Siddhartha never even considers the possibility of going back to his family?
2. What is primary conflict in the novel, and how is it resolved?
3. “A true seeker could not accept any teachings; not if he sincerely wished to find something. But he who had found, could give his approval to every path, every goal; nothing separated him from all the other thousands who lived in eternity, who breathed the divine.” Discuss how this quote succinctly expresses some of the book’s ideas about enlightenment.
4. In Chapter 8, Siddhartha thinks of his former life as “that soft, well-upholstered hell.” What does this description reveal about the nature of “hell” for someone seeking spiritual salvation or enlightenment?
5. Why is Siddhartha’s long journey necessary before he can achieve enlightenment, and what things does this suggest about the nature of enlightenment?
6. Describe the ancient Indian society in which Siddhartha lives as it is portrayed in the book. In what ways is it different from modern American society, and in what ways is it similar?
7. One of the most distinctive characteristics of the novel’s plot is its use of coincidence. Why do you think Hesse chose to structure the story in this way, and what theme(s) does it suggest?
8. Describe the style of the narration—the narrator’s diction, sentence structure, dialogue, descriptions, and use of literary devices. How is it an appropriate style for the story?
Questions © 2006 C. Brantley Collins, Jr.
Notes on Siddhartha
Veil of Maya: the sensory world; individual phenomena; perception of physical and temporal separation
- Considered to be an illusion that distracts people from seeing and understanding true reality, the underlying unity of all things
- All suffering is a result of existing in this state of illusion
Samsara: the cycle of rebirth caused by a failure to pierce the veil of Maya and achieve Nirvana
- Also used in the novel to refer to the illusory world of phenomena and the spiritual state of those who are trapped in that world)
Nirvana: enlightenment; a state of inner peace and contentment caused by the extinguishing of desires and passions
- Implies the end of suffering through freeing the mind from attachment
- Considered “the highest happiness,” a kind of transcendental happiness different from temporary joy or pleasure
- Literally means “extinction” or “extinguishing”
- One who has achieved Nirvana will escape the cycle of rebirth
The Self: individual soul; sense of separate, individual identity that leads to attachment, desires, suffering
Atman, the True Self: the Self that is common to all living things, the “World Soul”
Brahman: the “unchanging, infinite, immanent and transcendent reality that is the Divine Ground of all being in this universe” (Wikipedia)
Brahmin: a educated person of the highest caste; usually a priest
Themes and Motifs
- Suffering as an inherent part of the human condition; the desire to escape suffering as central
- The importance of patience and acceptance: letting things happen naturally instead of trying to force them to happen a certain way
- The need to find one’s own path: enlightenment cannot come simply from accepting the teachings of others
- Selfless love vs. selfish love
- The futility of seeking; the immanence and omnipresence of the sacred and the beautiful
- The necessity and inevitability of suffering, foolishness, immorality, etc.
- The cyclical nature of life; repetition of all things; death and renewal
- Time as an illusion; separation as an illusion
- Contradiction/paradox: seeking is both necessary and futile; sin is both bad and good
- The limitations of language: enlightenment can only be felt, not taught
- Appearance vs. reality
- Enlightenment: not a path or a goal, but a constant realization
- Corrupting effect of power and materialism
The river: illusion of time, unity of all things, freedom; boundary between worlds; cycle of repetition and renewal; spiritual self-reflection
- paradox: constantly changing, yet constantly the same
- perpendicular movement of current (as opposed to seekers’ movement in the story) symbolizes realization of what is always there, the illusion of time?—the goal is in the present, not the future
- connection to the River Styx?
Bodhi tree: patience; eternality
Ferryboat: physical body (vessel of soul on journey to enlightenment?)
Ferryman: spiritual mentor, teacher, guide
Om: unity of diverse things
Groves/gardens: the sensory/sensual world and its pleasures, but also life and renewal
Stars: guides/mentors; profound loneliness; spiritual freedom, independence, and superiority
(Falling) leaves: the opposite of stars; people who aren’t spiritually independent
Inner voice: guiding instincts about one’s spiritual needs
Breasts/breast milk, figs, lotuses, perfume, spices, lips: sensuality and sensory pleasures
Bird: the voice of the soul (the inner voice)
Birth/awakening: spiritual renewal or reinvigoration
Death: spiritual change; the passing away of desires
Sleep: oblivion; death; preparation for spiritual renewal or change
Dreams: deep-seated desires and instincts
Wheel: change; transitoriness
Children: openness, energy, lightheartedness, humor sense of wonder, freedom, innocence, simplicity; wisdom as opposed to knowledge
Notes © 2006 C. Brantley Collins, Jr.