The Pilgrim’s Progress: An Analysis of the Journey to Self-Discovery in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha

Article Posted in: Research Articles

Paper by Parvathy N and Rajeesh Rajkumar
Published in Volume IV, Issue XXXVII, February 2018


Travel in the younger sort is a part of education and in the elder a part of experience.

                                                                                    Francis Bacon.

The sacramental journey towards self-realization and self-purification has always been a rite of passage in the Indian culture. The journey which concurrently allows the ‘pilgrim’ to both evade and experience the divine is profoundly elucidated in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. The paper attempts to explicate how the work coalesce the outwards (physical) and inwards (spiritual) journey in Siddhartha’s quest for self-discovery.

Keywords: Pilgrim, Self-realization, Self-discovery, Journey.

Pilgrimage has been a phenomenon of literary interest for over centuries may it be Odyssey’s adventurous quests for glory, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Cervantes’s Don Quixote or the contemporary narratives including Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage or Robin Sharma’s The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. Yet in these fictional narratives, the physical part of the actual travelling is more or less a path towards spiritual self-realization and understanding. In cultural anthropology, theoretician Victor Turner has interpreted the idea of pilgrimage as a transition from the familiar to the ‘other’ and back. This familiar realm is often a structural space, according to Turner, while the unknown anti-structural other provides an escapade from the normal mundane structures of life. It is this space of ‘in-betweenness’ as  Arnold van Gennep aptly puts it that brings about a transition in the otherwise familiar path of life. Pilgrimage has always been a part of the Indian culture since time immemorial. It is the penultimate phase of a man’s life when he forsakes all the burdens and commitments he held on as a grihasthashrami and moves on to embrace the life of a vanaprasthi, which he spends travelling around the holy places. The main motive of these travels is indeed I quest for the meaning of life and soul only after attaining which they can finally achieve the highest order of spiritual state for a human being-the sanyasa. These passage rites are often initiated through the person’s decision to break away from his familiar space followed by his entrance into the ‘in-between’ or liminal phase, which brings about a great distortion in his life. The man may return to his familiar space but it will never be the same person. His physical paths may echo the man he was but the psychological path he had taken is way different than the one he initially took. The experiences that they come across in the phase of liminality can be beyond the normal understandings of life and nature. It is varied for each pilgrim but the final moment of enlightenment, of extreme peace and happiness, will be the same. But it is this liminality that makes the pilgrimage worthwhile. German author Herman Hesse’s 1951 novel Siddhartha is one such work that delves deep into this varied paths of liminality that but eventually leads to enlightenment. The novel traces the spiritual journey of Siddhartha who similar to his namesake, Gautama Buddha, before he embraced the said title, sets along a journey or more aptly a pilgrimage of self-discovery. Breaking away from the usual conventions of pilgrimage, Siddhartha sets off at a very young age being thoroughly dissatisfied with the education he had procured. He believed in experiencing everything before he could embrace them. Thus he set along with his friend Govinda to join a band of wandering saints called Samanas hoping their lifestyle would help him achieve enlightenment.

I shall no longer be instructed by the Yoga Veda or the Aharva Veda, or the ascetics, or any other doctrine whatsoever. I shall learn from myself, be a pupil of myself; I shall get to know myself, the mystery of Siddhartha.” He looked around as if he were seeing the world for the first time.

Siddhartha’s experience with the Samanas was something close to van Gennep’s concept of Communitas where the entire group of Samanas, now Siddhartha included go through a similar experience and as a result feel united. He wandered along with them both physically and intellectually. He learned from them the art of living outside his body. He insights and instincts rose above that of an ordinary human being and could now survive without food, water and transport his self into other beings. Siddhartha was not satisfied by these achievements though it inculcated in him three habits he became to cherish throughout his life.

I can think. I can wait. I can fast.

He was dissatisfied because even the oldest Samana had yet not achieved enlightenment and that pushed Siddhartha to move on to the next phase which took him to Gautama Buddha.Both Siddhartha and Govinda was entranced by the divine serenity that enveloped Buddha and Govinda immediately joined the order of Buddha. Buddha’s path to enlightenment was advocated through the idea of cause and effect and the belief in the idea of the whole world as one. Siddhartha could not accept the idea of being able to express or teach the experience of a person at the exact moment of enlightenment.

Wisdom cannot be imparted. Wisdom that a wise man attempts to impart always sounds like foolishness to someone else … Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.

He resolves to carry on with his journey-both physical as well as his spiritual quest. It is in this turn that he encounters the person that was to change his life in the later phase of his life. He crosses the river to the gratitude of Vasudeva, the ferryman. He then encounters Kamala, a beautiful courtesan who completely alters the young ascetic who detested all materialistic pursuits and transforms him into a worldly man. His encounter with Kamala is an important milestone in his spiritual quest for it a reversal in the normal pilgrimage wherein the pilgrim gives up his material life for the spiritual one. Siddhartha, on the other hand, delves into the material life –the conscious understanding of which actually became an important stepping stone in his path towards enlightenment. With Kamala, he learns about love and bodily pleasures and his works with Kamasami taught him the nuances of business. Years into that life, Siddartha understands that he had completely forgotten his original path and in utter desperation, he leaves them all behind and return to the very same river which he had crossed to climb aboard the material life. He was filled with suicidal thoughts and was saved by an internal experience of the holy chanting of aum.

I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices, so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment and sorrow, just in order to become a child again and begin anew. I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide, in order to experience grace.

Siddhartha learns the ultimate truth about life and soul with Vasudeva and the river. Vasudeva had learned everything through the river and he advises Siddhartha to listen to the river for it holds within itself every knowledge of self-realization and self-discovery Siddhartha had been searching throughout his life.

Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time?” That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.

‘In Hesse’s novel, experience, the totality of conscious events of a human life, is shown as the best way to approach understanding of reality and attain enlightenment—Hesse’s crafting of Siddhartha’s journey shows that understanding is attained not through intellectual methods, nor through immersing oneself in the carnal pleasures of the world and the accompanying pain of samsara. It is the completeness of these experiences that allows Siddhartha to attain understanding’. Hesse thus successfully coalesces the internal and external journey Siddhartha undergoes implying the universal ideal that the external journey is indeed an important step in the liminal phase towards enlightenment.

Introduction to the Authors:

Parvathy N and Rajeesh Rajkumar are post graduate students from Maharajas College, Ernakulam,Kerala.



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