Over seventy-five years after its initial publication, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha enjoys the status of a minor literary classic. Yet, despite its continuing popularity, or perhaps because of it, an important question for those of us teaching Asian religions is whether Siddhartha has any useful role to play in our classes.
Part of me inclines against using it in the typical religions of the East or introduction to Buddhism course. As Catherine Benton points out, Hesse was profoundly disappointed with what he saw of living Asian religions during his journey to the East in 1911. While the India of his own time remained an uninspiring enigma for him, Hesse constructed his own mysterious Orient out of his literary imagination. This imaginary India, which forms the timeless mytho-poetic world of Siddhartha, owes its genesis in part to Hesse’s study of the sacred books of the East—the Vedas, Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Theravada Buddhist Suttas. Passages from The Upanishads, in particular, are quoted in the novel.