A little over 10 years ago, in Calcutta, my wife and sister-in-law Paramita stumbled upon a cache of letters stashed inside a trunk in their family residence.
They were from the German author Hermann Hesse (1877–1962) to their father, the late historian Kalidas Nag, dating around the time Siddhartha was being written. In letters to other friends and acquaintances, Hesse describes Kalidas Nag, who was 31 years old when they met at the International Congress for Peace and Freedom at Lugano in Switzerland in 1922, as “a scholar from Bengal…with a brown-golden smile.” Nag in his turn compares Hesse to a “true Brahmin from India.” They became close friends. Nag sang Bengali songs for Hesse and talked of “old India.” They discussed Siddhartha extracts from which Hesse, at the insistence of Romain Rolland, read at the Lugano Conference.
In a long letter to Hesse from Paris in 1930, Nag wrote: “Siddhartha is a book which should be translated in all the European languages for here we feel for the first time the real East presented to the West and not the sentimental East of Kipling nor the romantic East of Loti.” It was not until 1951 that Siddhartha appeared in English translation, from James Laughlin’s New Directions in New York, and created a sensation in American literary circles, especially among students in colleges and universities.
Let us look at the structure of Hesse’s novel. Part One has four chapters, corresponding very loosely to the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha. Part Two has eight chapters, again corresponding loosely to the Eightfold Path recommended by the Buddha.
But that’s the skeleton. Let us look at the heart of the novel. Siddhartha, the Brahmin’s son, challenges the orthodox faith of his father, and goes on a search of self-discovery. Kamaswami, the merchant, teaches him the art of making money (artha); Kamala, the courtesan, shows him the subtleties of love-making (kama); and the Buddha presumably gives him inspiration to realize the higher values (dharma). But Siddhartha is out to achieve a very personal moksha (liberation), so he rejects them all.
At the novel’s end, on the very last page, beside the river, he has what appears to be a mystical experience of the Unity of Being, and he smiles. This smile is supposed to be the same as the serene smile of the Buddha. “He smiled peacefully and gently, perhaps very mockingly, exactly as the Illustrious One had smiled.”
To the Western reader, this may sound all right. (The German word used is spottisch, which means “mocking, scornful.”) To an Indian, it is scandalous. Even in the paragraph before this, Hesse rubs it in, using the same word: “…this mask-like smile… this smile of Siddhartha—was exactly the same as the calm, delicate, impenetrable, perhaps gracious, perhaps mocking, wise, thousand-fold smile of Gotama, the Buddha… It was in such a manner that the Perfect One smiled.”
Why does Hesse use this particular word? Perhaps he created the smile of the dissenting Protestant Siddhartha, who can only see life, even after the “illumination,” in terms of irony—a literary tool of abstraction that does not exist in Sanskrit. An Indian would feel that it was a waste of an experience. For this is not a Buddhist way, nor the Buddha’s way.
My father-in-law did not know German. He either missed or generously overlooked the telltale “spottisch” that prevents the light of the “real East” from shining at the end of the novel. But the light of the “real West”—questioning, arguing, and rationally refusing to be nirvanically serene—does indeed shine. And that makes Siddhartha a wonderful Western quest for selfhood, which has been argued is what it mostly represents.
This brings us to the layered argument—with a number of sides—of how representation of “the other” (in this case Indian) influences us. If the West exploits the East, using whatever it needs the way it needs it, what’s wrong with that? Some say that is one way of influencing. How do we expect people to understand concepts if they do not have a cultural or philosophical reference in which to place them? This is part of the steps to understanding and like any sort of deep study, things become more refined at each step. Another argument is that it is too egregious a process to undertake, and can lead to bold misunderstandings that might never be resolved. Both arguments have merit and should be considered intricate to the process.