An Evaluation of Hesse’s Portrayal of India’s Caste System in Enlightenment, Siddhartha

An Evaluation of Hesse’s Portrayal of India’s Caste System in Enlightenment, Siddhartha

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In his novel Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse used the story of a young Indian Brahmin searching for insight to explore different means of achieving inner peace. Siddhartha attempted to use both asceticism and the life of the wealthy to experience illumination. He fluctuated from rich to poor multiple times before he reached enlightenment. However, Hesse did not always accurately portray the most essential piece of Indian culture—the Caste System—perhaps because he wanted to appeal to a western audience that had little knowledge of the system. Siddhartha, who lived in the Indian Caste of priests, would not have been able to move between social ranks in the manner Hesse portrayed.


The first contradiction of the Caste System arose when Siddhartha left the priestly class of Brahmins to join the shramanas. As a Brahmin, Siddhartha would not have even wanted, much less be permitted, to join the lower ascetics. Siddhartha’s father granted permission for his son to join a lower class, an unlikely scenario in the strict norms established by the Indian Caste System. The father told Siddhartha, “‘you will go off into the forest and become a shramana. If you find happiness in the forest, come back and teach me happiness. If it’s disappointment you find, then come back and we shall again make sacrifices to the gods together. Now go and kiss your mother, and tell her where you’re going’” (Hesse 10). A man who had spent hundreds of lifetimes building up good karma did not want to throw it away by joining the ranks of those who were now paying for their previous lives of sin and corruption. When Siddhartha began his life as a shramana, “he wore only a loincloth and an unstitched, earth-colored shawl. He ate only once a day and never cooked food…t...


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...kepticism of how a dirty ascetic would succeed in the world of merchants and business. The second part of the novel, like the first, also fails in its notion that Siddhartha would have been able to move between Castes like someone in western society would. In the third section of Siddhartha the haughtiness of those belonging to upper classes was accurately rendered. Once again, however, moving down from the merchant Caste into poverty was barred in Indian society. Throughout his work, Hesse came to portray the same accuracies and the same inaccuracies of the Caste system. In order to appeal to western readers he included the inaccuracy of free movement between social classes but still remained accurate in how he portrayed the stifled level of interaction between different Castes.



Works Cited

Hesse, Hermann. Siddhartha. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2000. Print.

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