Shengren – Chapter – Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946. Like Goethe, Hesse promoted Oriental thought in Germany. His most popular novel, Siddhartha – Eine indische Dichtung (1922), tells the story of young Siddhartha on his journey to sagehood. The subtitle “Eine indische Dichtung” (An Indian fiction), has been wisely omitted in the English translations, where it is just Siddhartha. Hesse felt obliged to call it a Dichtung (fiction), because Indian sages and sagehood are fantastic and almost unbelievable things to the German ear. In order to avoid misunderstandings on behalf of his German readership, Hesse stressed the fictitious and spiritual nature of his Siddhartha and other stories throughout his career.

Here some statistics: In the original Siddhartha – Eine indische Dichtung (1922), the noun Weisen was used 14 times (or 29 times when the adjective weise is included). Still, Hesse equally often used the biblical Heilige 26 times (or 39 times when the adjective heilig is included). The word Buddha appeared 54 times, but more like a name than a concept. Most Germans believe there is just one Buddha, Siddhartha, when in fact there are many. The word Erleucht(ung) (enlighten[ment]) appeared seven times; it is a translation of the Sanskrit word bodhi. Gott (God) appeared six times (or 29 times when the adjective gött(lich) [god-like] is included). Again, the idea of holiness never leaves the Germans. Brahman appeared 73 times, and Atman appeared 16 times, two Sanskrit terms that Hesse had no other choice but to adopt; he probably felt they are truly un-German, so there was hope. Lehre (teaching) appeared 100 times.[1] This all shows that Hermann Hesse taught the Germans some unfamiliar Indian expressions but not without an equal amount of familiar biblical terms: He promoted the term Buddha for the highest spiritual being, yet he refrained from using another important concept, bodhisattva, and instead employed a German translation for it: der Erleuchtete (the enlightened one). Blending different cultures this way was absolutely his intention: “Mein Heiliger ist indisch gekleidet, seine Weisheit steht aber näher bei Lao Tse als bei Gotama”[2] [My saint is dressed as Indian, but his sagacity stands closer to Laozi than to Gotama). Thus his writings proved novel enough to arouse curiosity and familiar enough to cause sympathy: the German readers had no real acquaintances with Buddhahood, yet the lot of the holiness of a ‘God in miniature’ produced sympathy. The novel described Siddhartha’s becoming of a sage. The sage in the story attained wisdom through every action and event that happened to him; the sum of his experiences and the lessons drawn became his sagely wisdom.

Kamakshi Murti, an expert on German orientalism, called the German Hesse an “Oriental seer”[3] and noticed strong autobiographical elements in most of his other novels: Peter Camenzind (1914), The Prodigy (1906), Steppenwolf (1927), and The Glass Bead Game (1943): Hesse’s work is indeed full of “occidental vitality and enlightenment”. The spiritual writer travelled to India, but skipped China. Regardless, in his Chinesische Betrachtung (2001)[4] Hesse saw the antiquity of China as one of its greatest, irresistible strengths (over its foreign invaders):

Ich bin tief überzeugt, dass selbst bei einer Unterwerfung doch mit der Zeit der chinesische Geist über den japanischen siegen wird. In allen schönen, stillen, tiefen, passiven Tugenden (die jetzt in Europa wenig geschätzt werden, mit denen China aber sechstausend Jahre alt wurde) ist China überlegen.[5] [I am deeply convinced that even if China is subjugated [by Japan], over the time the Chinese spirit will conquer the Japanese one. In all the beautiful, tranquil, deep, and passive virtues (which are now valued very little in Europe, but which have been cultivated in China for six thousand years) China is superior.]

I think what Hesse was referring to in the above quote was – he certainly read the Dao Dejing – similar to what Laozi had in mind when he said: 故大邦一下小邦,则取小邦 (When a large country submits to a small country, it will adopt the small country).[6]One of the underlying moods in Hesse’s writings is the eerie feeling that there is something out there, foreign and overwhelming, which weights greater than his own German culture. The size of one’s culture matters; Hesse travelled the Indian subcontinent – he got the idea. Thus he managed to hint at a humanity that was beyond any narrow German comprehension; even though for now European scholarship tried hard to make us believe those Eastern traditions are all merely expansion ground for Greek and Latin vocabulary.

[1]Hesse, 1922

[2]Hesse, 1970

[3] Murti, 2001

[4] Hsia, 1976, p. 79 ff.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Chinese Text Project, Laozi, 61