Essay Topics for Siddhartha


Select one of the topics below to write your analysis essay on Siddhartha. Carefully examine each topic before finalizing your topic.

  1.  Examine the process of synthesis as it relates to Hesse’s contact with Jungianism and relate its thematic influence in a selected novel.

  2. River Image in Siddhartha
  3. How does Siddhartha’s life with the Samanas condition him for his process of self-recognition?
  4. How does Siddhartha’s life with the child-like people condition him for his process of self-recognition?
  5. How does each of Siddhartha’s three stages of life contribute to his achiving Nirvana, or enlightenment?
  6. Discuss how the terms Samsara, Nirvana, and Om have inside of the novel Siddhartha.
  7. Molnar states,”[Siddhartha] has to travel in two directions: he has to explore the interior regions of the spirit in their full range and the exterior expanse of the world in all its aspects before he settles at the place where the two realms touch and he comes to identify with the absolute unity that governs them both.” (83) How does Siddhartha unite the two realms in the end?
  8. Interestingly, Siddhartha is the actual given name of the historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama). In Hesse’s novella, the fictional protagonist, Siddhartha meets the historical non-fictional Buddha referred to as Gautama in the story and rejects his teaching (Siddhartha XXV). So, this tale marks both a parallel and a diversion of the traditional story of the life of the Buddha. It is both a recreation and variation of the preserved account of the life of Siddhartha Gautama (Siddhartha XXVII). Both Siddharthas (Hesse’s protagonist and Siddhartha Gautama) were born as princes, had every material desire fulfilled, but left that life to become forest ascetics (Siddhartha XXVI). After this point, however, the stories split; where the Buddha continued on his spiritual journey, Siddhartha enters the secular or worldly life of the senses. In the end, though, they both end up at the same goal.It is true that the historical Buddha, as well as Hesse’s character Siddhartha, comes from a Hindu background. It is important, however, to not conflate the traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism because they are vastly different. Ponlop Rinpoche states, “The Buddha’s teachings were not compilations from previous traditions; they were not putting together bits of Hindu tantra, Brahmanism, and so forth, as some have claimed. The Buddha would teach spontaneously from his wisdom…” (Ponlop 24). It is with this understanding and intention that we will approach the Buddhism within Hesse’s Siddhartha.
  9. it is apparent that Hesse’s working with eminent psychiatrist Carl Jung was the catalyst for his being able to resume his writing. After working with Jung for a short time, a man that he said impressed him very much, he was able to complete the novella in the following year (Siddhartha XX). It is thought to be due to Jung’s influence that Hesse came up with his formulation of the three stages of becoming a person: “first innocence; then despair; and, finally, downfall or salvation,” written by Hesse in a 1932 essay entitled “A Bit of Theology” (Tusken 99). Clearly, we can see this pattern in the character arc of Siddhartha. Molnar describes it as, “the mystic experiences the stages of his life as guideposts that point in the direction of the absolute unity from which they derive their relative value” (Molnar 83).
  10. Enlightenment is not “overcoming” the world or transcending it. In actuality, the Buddha purposed (after experiencing directly) that there doesn’t exist an independent (remember that all things are inter-connected) self that could transcend anything (Kohn 45). Enlightenment is simply waking up to the way things actually are. This does not indicate any sort of overcoming, but instead, a clearing away of the obscurations that prevent us from seeing reality directly.
  11. There are two levels of enlightenment in Buddhism. The first, the Hinayana (smaller view) has as its goal the realization of selflessness, or the absence of the ego. The basis for this school is that there exists no entity that could be identified as the “self”. What we conventionally refer to as “I” is really a compounded formation of reducible parts. There is no single thing that exists that can be identified as a self. Each part can be broken down further and further ad infinitum. The second school, the Mahayana (larger view) holds the position that not just the self, but everything in the entire universe has as its basis this quality of emptiness (that is, emptiness of an independent existence). Modern science is now corroborating this view expounded by the Buddha over 2500 years ago; that nothing exists independently of anything else, and at the smallest level of sub-atomic particles lies not building blocks of matter, but a web of particles and waves constituting a webbed universe of Oneness (Capra 68). Pervading all of existence and at the heart of all space and phenomena is tathagatagarbha, or buddha-nature, the luminous and wisdom-filled quality that is our true nature (Gampopa 50). This is what we wake up to upon enlightenment.
  12. …breaking free of our attachment to the ego that causes all of our suffering.
  13. Looking ahead to the end of the story, it is “only by his ability to say ‘yes’ to the entirety of phenomenal existence does Siddhartha lend valid expression to his love of the absolute, to his ‘eternal thirst,’ and in doing so, he attains his goal” (Molnar 86).
  14. Looking ahead to the end of the story, it is “only by his ability to say ‘yes’ to the entirety of phenomenal existence does Siddhartha lend valid expression to his love of the absolute, to his ‘eternal thirst,’ and in doing so, he attains his goal” (Molnar 86).
  15. ollowing his decision to leave the “child people” Siddhartha begins to have thoughts that are more in line with Buddhist philosophy, “too much knowledge had hindered him….He had been full of pride, always the cleverest…always the knowledgeable and intellectual one, always the priest or the sage. His ego had hidden away in this priesthood, in this pride” (Siddhartha 87). Siddhartha is finally realizing that his ego has been the problem all along. It sure took him a long time to figure that out. This is generally one of the first things that are taught in Buddhism, it is a way of “unmasking ourselves, our deceptions of all kinds” (Path 4). It is not even that the ego itself is the problem. It is only our attachment to it, the way we relate with it as if it were a solid, permanent, independently existing thing (CTSM 127). This realization of how this clinging to the ego causes suffering doesn’t make the clinging stop or the problem go away.
  16. When Siddhartha was learning love from Kamala and business from Kamaswami, he referred to the people of the world with the derogatory term “child people” (Siddhartha 57). Siddhartha called them child people because their concerns were petty, their interests unimportant, and their understanding of the world inadequate. But, later on after leaving the worldly people behind and discovering himself alone and starting all over once again, Siddhartha is “like a child” himself, but now the word child is used in a positive way (Siddhartha 53). The idea of being in the world as a child is not about being naive or underdeveloped intellectually. It implies seeing the world in a fresh way, not being trapped by a conceptual web of ideas that prevent us from experiencing the freshness of each moment (Suzuki XIV). Siddhartha seems to think it is good when he is like a child, but it is bad when others are.
  17. Again during this second epiphany at the river following his departure from Kamala and the townspeople, Siddhartha once more thinks he has awakened. He again feels transformed. When he wonders what has taken place inside of him, he asks, “Was it not his ego, his small, proud, anxious ego with which he had fought for so many years, which had always defeated him, always returned[?] Was it not this which had finally found its death today, here in the forest, on this lovely river?” (Siddhartha 87). As was mentioned previously, it is doubtful that what actually happens is the eradication of the ego, but instead, our clinging attachment to it. For in the next paragraph, Siddhartha states that a new Siddhartha was born and full of joy (Siddhartha 88). If there were actually no ego at all, then there would be no Siddharthas of any kind. Siddhartha is a name, of course, a concept. It is hard to imagine what an entirely egoless being would look like in terms of how she would function in the world. Buddhism makes efforts to avoid these pitfalls of language. Alan Watts said, where “Buddhism differs from Hinduism is that it doesn’t say who you are, it has no idea, no concept” (Watts 6). The focus is on experience rather than concepts. Molnar recognizes, “that these abstract and seemingly remote ideas do not have to be accepted on faith” (Molnar 83). The emphasis is how we live in each moment and how we relate with other people. But, at the end of the day we’re still going to have a name, and bills, and the relative world to relate to. And if we are not blindly attached to our ego and mistaking it for a solid reality, and begin to see things as they are, we may find that we are much less prone to self-inflicted suffering. In the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha’s first set of teachings, he explained that suffering is caused by trishna, a Sanskrit word that is translated to English as clinging, or grasping, and not ego (Ray 261). That the goal of Buddhism is to kill the ego, besides the fact that it is hard to explain what that could even mean, is one of the biggest misconceptions of this path.
  18. An interesting example of how relating with concepts changes with the Buddhist approach is in the different treatment of God(s) in Hinduism versus Buddhism. Hinduism is resplendent with Gods of all sorts. It is much closer to Christianity than Buddhism in this respect. Brahma is known as “God the Creator,” and is joined by Vishnu and Shiva as the Hindu Triumvirate (Yogananda 186). Buddhism, on the other hand, posits that God is just another concept. As Joseph Campbell said, “God is a metaphor for the unexplainable phenomena in the universe” (The Hero’s Journey). It is not a denial of God, it is a denial of the validity of the question that ends with a conceptual answer. For this reason, Buddhism is considered non-theistic rather than atheistic.
  19. This is a non-theistic tradition: the Buddha gave up relying on any kind of divine principle that would descend on him and solve his problems. So taking refuge in the Buddha in no way means regarding him as a god. He was simply a person who practiced, worked, studied, and experienced things personally. With that in mind, taking refuge in the Buddha amounts to renouncing misconceptions about divine existence. (HOB 93)Buddhism emphasizes personal experience rather than belief. The difference is in some sense subtle, because Buddhism isn’t flatly denying the existence of God(s), only the validity of concepts.
  20. It seems that Siddhartha is coming closer to this line of thought during the last stage of his journey at the river with the ferryman Vasudeva. The river becomes his most profound, and non-conceptual teacher, the water is “running and running, constantly running, and yet it is always there, was always and forever the same, and yet new every instant!” (Siddhartha 89). The sound of the river is not an idea, it is non-verbal, yet, as Vasudeva remarks, “the river knows everything, one can learn everything from it” (Siddhartha 92). How is it that the river knows everything? Perhaps it isn’t the river specifically that knows anything, but, it is that when the ego or self is drowned out by an experience of being totally with the phenomenal world, sans distinctions of this and that, here or there, we are able to touch in with a deeper wisdom of the world as it is.
  21. More than anything, Siddhartha realized, was that the river taught him how to listen, “with a silent heart, with a waiting, open soul, without passion, without desire, without judgment, without opinion” (Siddhartha 94). That is to say that he was able to rest in the present moment without adding onto it with projections or additional commentary.
  22. his contrasts sharply with how Hesse presents Siddhartha’s path. He has his awakenings or epiphanies at times of being lost in thought reflecting on his experiences. Meditation is scarcely mentioned at all in the story. He goes as far, during his first awakening experience, described at the end of Part One, by stating, “What am I to do at home, in my father’s house? Study? Sacrifice? Cultivate meditation? All that is gone now; none of that lies on my path now” (Siddhartha 38). It is this type of statement that is troublesome, because of its direct contradictions to all Buddhist practice and traditions, and its potential to be misleading to someone who is interested in understanding the basic tenets of Buddhism. It is true that Siddhartha is a fictional novel and should not have to bear the burden of adhering to every accurate teaching of the Buddha, but the fact remains that many thousands of people in the past sixty years have been introduced to the Buddha and his teachings by this book. Therefore, it is important that people realize that it has several inaccuracies regarding traditional Buddhist practice and philosophy, so as not to be misled by its contents.
  23. It is true, however, that one still has to make the leap, so to speak, herself. The teacher can point out the way, tell you which bridges are out, which roads are full of traffic, etc., but the student still has to make the journey. The wise ferryman, Vasudeva, says as much when Siddhartha is struggling with the wish to help his own son, “And can you shield your son against samsara?…What father, what teacher could shield him from living his own life, soiling himself with life….Do you really believe, dear friend, that anyone at all is spared this path? (Siddhartha 106). But this does not negate the importance of the spiritual guide, “in following the path it is very much necessary to have a personal relationship with a teacher” (Path 39). We cannot progress and make the journey along the spiritual path without a teacher; the teacher is the proof that the teachings work and the spiritual guide serves as the one who can make it possible for us to follow in her footsteps (HOB 70). Furthermore, without a spiritual guide one risks making misinterpretations along the path, or straying from it entirely (as Siddhartha did in the beginning of Part Two) (Gampopa 70). The lack of emphasis on the practice of meditation and the denial of the importance of a teacher are probably the two biggest flaws with Hesse’sSiddhartha from a Buddhist philosophical viewpoint. Even when speaking with Govinda in the last chapter of the book Siddhartha states that, “teachings mean nothing to me” (Siddhartha 127). But, earlier, in the same conversation he has said that he has had many teachers, Kamala, Kamaswami, Govinda, and “most of all I have learned from this river and from my forerunner, Vasudeva the ferryman” (Siddhartha 123). So, seemingly, the enlightened Siddhartha at the end of Hesse’s tale contradicts himself by stating that teachings mean nothing to him, but at the same time if he hadn’t learned from the river and had Vasudeva to guide him along the way, he would have never emerged from the depths of samsara.
  24. The river, with its ten thousand simultaneous voices, speaks the sacred sound of om (Siddhartha 95). What is the significance of using a river as Siddhartha’s primary teacher? The thread that runs through all of the linked phenomena in existence is an undifferentiated consciousness that is accessible to each of us, not when we die and dissolve back into the void from which we came, but while we are alive through a transformation of consciousness that spiritual practice provides as a conduit. The image, Campbell explains, is of a pond that is rippled by the wind. The pond, through the waves, reflects broken images. The individual ego identifies itself with one of the fragments on the water. When the consciousness is transformed, the waters are again still, and we are back to a single perfect image. This is our true selves and this everyone else’s true selves also (Mythos).
  25. Toward the end of the story Hesse is still using more terminology and philosophy from Hinduism as opposed to Buddhism. As mentioned previously, Siddhartha is the given name of the historical Buddha. Presumably Siddhartha’s journey is meant to reflect Buddhism more than Hinduism. Yet, in the final pages, Siddhartha is still seeing Brahma, the God of Creation, in the faces of the people on board his ferry (Siddhartha 114). This mirrors Hesse’s own life in that he never abandoned, throughout his life’s journey, the idea of God; “Hesse’s affirmation of such a divine principle within the individual remained constant throughout his life” (Stelzig 73). At this point in the novel, Siddhartha still speaks, in decidedly Hinduistic terms, of his conceptual soul, and the oneness of all things.
  26. Strange as it seems, and though it has a tendency to be misinterpreted as nihilistic, it would be more accurate in Buddhism to say that everything is zero, rather than everything is one. The Buddha discovered that all phenomena are composite particles and that nothing exists independently of anything else (Garfield 211). When you look at a person, or anything else for that matter, there is no identifiable substance visible or otherwise, that can be pointed to as essentially existing. You can continue to remove the composite parts from the person, or chair, or anything, and at what point does it cease to be what we have conceptually named it? Any distinction between any two things in the entire universe is ultimately arbitrary. This is not to say that there is nothing, and nothing at all exists; it just means that nothing exists independently of anything else, and so all phenomena is empty (Sanskrit: shunyata) of an inherent existence. For there to be one thing, that one thing would have to exist, and since there is no one thing that cannot be further reduced, everything is zero. But, again, lest we are inclined to view this as nihilistic, being empty of self-existence, means to be full of everything (Hanh 10). The popular contemporary teacher of Zen Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh, explains that in a sheet of paper we can see the tree, the sunshine, the soil, the rain, the logger, and everything that went into its becoming a sheet of paper (Hanh 4). The same with people, and with everything else: to be empty of a single separate existence means to be full of everything that has ever happened in the history of the universe. Everything that has ever happened had to happen for each present moment to be exactly how it is. That totality, inherently empty yet utterly full, is who we really are and what we are waking up to on the spiritual path that was laid out by the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, over 2500 years ago.
  27. In a moment of deep despair the river laughed at Siddhartha. It laughed at the foolish way he, as we all do, perpetuate the cyclic nature of the suffering of samsara. He looked overboard at his reflection in the water, and saw his father’s face (Siddhartha 115). An older man now, who had left his father’s home never to return, Siddhartha’s own son had now run away from him as well. Siddhartha now realized that his son, defiantly refusing to follow Siddhartha’s ways had left his home, just as Siddhartha had once done to his own father. Somewhere, on some iPod among the undifferentiated sea of ten thousand voices, Cat Stevens sings, “he’d grown up just like me/ my son was just like me.” The momentum of samsara is powered by the familiar, but also oft misunderstood, term karma. “Everything not fully suffered, not fully resolved came again: the same sorrows were suffered over and over” (Siddhartha 115). The situation that we currently find ourselves in is the result of our past actions; every cause has an effect, and this is what is meant by karma (Taming 63). The result of this karma is the suffering of samsara. The good news is that there is always a choice in the present moment (Taming 63). Everything that has happened in the past has led up to this moment, and because of this there is a propensity to continue to act in a certain way, but it is possible in the present moment to make a choice that will result in better karma in the future. Good and bad karma are not necessarily moralistic in nature. In Tibetan, to give an example, the words gewa and migewa that are translated as virtue and non-virtue are distinguished by actions that lead towards the end of waking up to reality or take one further away from it (Taming 69). At enlightenment one no longer accumulates karma and is freed from the suffering of samsara.
  28. Siddhartha’s final moment of realization, his irrevocable moment of true enlightenment comes at last as he receives his most profound teaching from the river. Hesse’s prose builds into a crescendo of flowing dharma. In the river Siddhartha saw the faces of his father, himself, his son, every person he had ever known, he saw all people flowing on, laughing, crying, good and evil, flowing and accomplishing goal after goal (Siddhartha 118):Everything together was the music of life. And when Siddhartha listened attentively to this river, listened to this song of a thousand voices, when he did not listen to sorrow or laughter, when he did not enter them with his ego, but listened to all of them, heard the wholeness, the oneness- then the great song of the thousand voices consisted of a single word, which was “om”: perfection.
  29. In Buddhism it is the teaching of one taste. With the practice of one taste one regards everything that happens, whether good or bad, with the same flavor, never moved from the state of equanimity (Ray 173). When one no longer identifies with the forms within the space, but rather the space in which these forms rise and fall, then it is possible to experience the absence of the illusion of the separate self and the reality of the inter-connected beingness that is all permeated by all, and our true and ultimate nature.
  30. Herman Hesse’s effort to explore new frontiers of spiritual thought and boldly attempt to write his own version of the story of the Buddha deserves to be applauded. Despite its deficiencies, Siddhartha is an intriguing tale of lyrical prose that blew open the imaginary doors that separated the rich spiritual and humanistic traditions of the East and a ripe audience of seekers in the West. It seems, though, that considering his published letters, autobiographical writings, and body of literary work, that Hesse should not be considered an authoritative figure on Eastern religion and philosophy. This interest appears to have been more of a passing fancy rather than an in-depth study. In this essay we have explored Hesse’s childhood and upbringing, made connections between his youth and his later interests that led to his eventual authorship of his celebrated novella Siddhartha.

Writing a Critical Summary

Notes on Writing a Critical Summary

A critical summary must include the following-

  1. A central idea of the passage ( a combination of main points in your own words, no minor details)
  2. A sequence events (who what, when and how and even why) that show thought progressions and illustrate your central idea
  3. Use transitional words to connect events

A critical summary should not include

  1. Personal opinions and thoughts
  2. small details
  3. lengthy direct quotations
  4. unclear and generalized statement of an event

A reader needs to walk away from a critical summary-

  • the writer’s views on the passage what the most important points are.
  • How you derive at your central idea
  • Gain a full understanding the main events of the passage ( who, what, where , how and why)
What is a critical summary? A summary is a short—but thorough—objective restatement of the main idea and key points of a passage. A summary may mention examples the author used to illustrate key points. Personal opinions and thoughts, as well as small details of the passage, do not belong in the summary.

 Why write a summary?

Writing a summary will help you to fully understand and remember what you read. It also is a useful guide for responding critically to the material in your own writing.

Stages of Summary Writing

First reading:

As you read, look out for to the main idea and points.

Second reading:

Divide the passage into thought progressions (looking at paragraph divisions will help you to identify these stages). You may indicate each new progression by using brackets in the margins, or highlighting.

Underline or highlight main ideas and terms.


Write a summary sentence for each thought progression.

Thesis statement:

Write a summary of the entire passage that is one or two sentences long and includes the main idea of the passage (the who, what, where, how, and when).

  • For a “persuasive” passage, this should include the author’s conclusion.
  • For a “descriptive” passage, this should include what is being described and its important characteristic(s).

First draft:

Combine your thesis statement with the one-sentence summaries of each thought progression. Take out repetitious parts—use as few words as possible. Take out minor details, or rewrite them in more general terms.

Third reading:

Make further adjustments by comparing your summary to the passage.

Final draft:

Check to see that transitions between sentences are smooth, and make sure the summary is coherent as a whole. Lastly, check grammar, spelling and punctuation.