The Forward explains why. Robert Thurman writes:
“Why would a young person seeking to escape from WASP-hood at Harvard turn to India as the mother of inward exploration. . . .I can clearly see its [Siddhartha] influence on my decision at twenty to leave college and the study of Western literature, philosophy and psychology and seek a higher enlightenment in India.”
Thurman went on to hold the Jey Tsong Khapa Chair at Columbia University, becoming a world authority among other things, Tibetan Buddhism.
That is how great the impact Hesse can have on a person.
Hesse gives his character the name of Siddhartha, the same as Gautama, better known as the Buddha. Indeed our Siddhartha actually meets the Buddha and has an interesting talk with him in the forest.
Hesse, is no novice when it comes to understanding the Buddha’s teachings, and indeed some suggest that he arrived at certain truths that the Buddha pointed to. Toward the end, Hesse explains that for the Buddha, enlightenment does not include love, but only compassion and sympathy. Hesse argues that love is the universal “cement” of unity. This it seems he came to on his own, and it mimics Mahayana form of Buddhism, a form he was at the time of the writing, unaware of.
There is a widely known phrase “if on the path of life you meet the Buddha, kill him” which I have always poorly understood until now. As Siddhartha’s best friend Govinda believes, what better way to become enlightened than to sit at the feet of the Master himself and learn from his teachings? Hesse does not believe this, and through Siddhartha explains that each path must be one’s own.
Thus we must “kill” all the theories and teachings of others if we are to attain our own enlightenment. Ironically of course, Siddhartha at one point lists all the persons who have given him guidance on his path, knowingly or otherwise. That is of course the paradox. However I think Hesse’s point is that we all will use different bits and pieces to fashion our own journey, and only that personal journey will lead to the ultimate goal.
I have read in the past twenty-five or so years a good deal of material dealing with varying aspects of spirituality. Much has been written by theologians and revered professors as well as the “enlightened” ones of Eastern training. Much of it has been instructive. None has delineated the path so well as Hesse in this marvelous work of fiction.
I would guess that most of the how-to books on meditation, on mindfulness, and so forth, while giving much practical advice, don’t do nearly as well as Hesse does in conveying the inner changes that occurs to someone actually proceeding toward peace and unity of mind.
Toward the end, Siddhartha, speaking to Govinda, who has wandered in and out of his life, but has stayed to the path of the Gautama’s teachings, cautions him. In being a seeker, it means to have a goal, and the goal can become the focal point, and thus the seeker never sees what is right before him. The goal stands in its own way so to speak. One must forget the goal, in order to reach it.
I can only urge this be read. If you read nothing this upcoming year, read this.