Like so many of Hermann Hesse’s other novels, Siddhartha too is quite short, but it’s anything but rushed, underdeveloped, and simplistic. Hesse was an absolute master at honing in on major, big-picture events and transforming them into profound episodes that feel much longer, and pulling the reader right into the story as though s/he’s personally experiencing it right alongside the protagonist. His novels wouldn’t feel the same if he fleshed out all the events between the episodes he chose to focus on. The books would be far longer, but they wouldn’t have the same impact.
Siddhartha was written over two major periods from December 1919–May 1922, and various newspapers published some of the chapters from August 1920–July 1922. The complete novel was published in October 1922.
In Ancient Nepal’s Kingdom of Kapilavastu, a much-belovèd, spiritually-inclined young man named Siddhartha longs to leave home to forge his own path to enlightenment, try to figure out the mysteries of the Universe, and learn as much as he can about all things spiritual and religious. Towards this end, he begs his father to let him join the samanas (ascetic sages) in the woods.
Siddhartha’s father, a Brahmin, feels it beneath himself to speak angry and violent words, but he’s nevertheless extremely indignant to hear this request. However, Siddhartha won’t be deterred that easily, and remains standing in the same place through the entire rest of the day and all of the night.
Finally, Siddhartha’s father realizes his mind is made up and that he’s already mentally gone. He gives his blessing for Siddhartha to leave with his best friend Govinda.
Siddhartha is like a sponge, soaking up all the wisdom from the samanas, and learning how to live with barely any possessions and no money. But as much as he’s spiritually grown, Siddhartha still feels he’s missing out on other important lessons, and wonders if perhaps no one will reach Nirvana, since they’re just going around in a circle instead of ascending upwards.
One day, the illustrious Buddha comes through town, and Siddhartha and Govinda eagerly, reverently go to meet him. Govinda is so inspired by Buddha’s teachings, he decides to become one of Buddha’s monks.
Govinda doesn’t want to lose his oldest and dearest friend, and begs Siddhartha to join him in becoming a Buddhist. Nothing he says or does convinces Siddhartha to change his mind, but right after Govinda leaves to become a novice monk, Siddhartha encounters Buddha in the garden.
Siddhartha showers Buddha with loving, respectful words, highly praising his Four Noble Truths, Noble Eightfold Path, Middle Way, and other key philosophical teachings. With the utmost respect, Siddhartha says he’s afraid if he becomes a monk, Buddha’s teachings and his love for Buddha will become his ego and a new idol to worship. He’s also determined to find his own unique path to enlightenment.
Siddhartha wanders alone through the forest for awhile, and begins a new chapter of his life when he takes a ferry across the river into a town which very much appeals to him. In this town, he meets a beautiful courtesan named Kamala, who promises to teach him the art of pleasure once he smells sweet, shaves, cuts his hair, wears nice clothes and shoes, and has money.
Siddhartha eagerly obeys these commands, and soon reinvents himself as a very successful merchant under the tutelage of Kamaswami. For many years, Siddhartha lives in Kamaswami’s mansion and becomes his second-in-command in the business. Though Siddhartha isn’t a naturally-inclined businessman, and he cares less about things like rice, wool, or even money, he has a lucky touch, is eager to learn all he can, and cares about his customers and clients on a personal level.
Siddhartha also becomes Kamala’s lover, and learns all about sensuality, love, and pleasure from her.
After twenty years, Siddhartha tires of this superficial city life and hectic rat race, and decides to return to the forest. He contemplates suicide by the river, but is pulled back to the desire to live by the holy sound of Om. Siddhartha then falls into deep sleep which powerfully reinvigorates him.
When he awakens, he finds Govinda, who doesn’t recognize him after so many years, and with such a changed appearance. Govinda is overjoyed when his old friend reveals himself, even if they can’t be together for very long.
Siddhartha decides to spend the rest of his life by the river, which he loves and adopts as a teacher. His prayers come true when he meets the same old ferryman, Vasudeva, who joyously welcomes his friend.
Through constant communion with the all-knowing, soul-penetrating river, and all the experiences he’s had throughout his life and continues to have after coming to the river, Siddhartha finally reaches his own personal enlightenment.