Hermann Hesse – The extraordinary scholar and theosophist most influenced by India

Uday Kumar Varma

Hermann Hesse

Hermann Hesse’s Journey

A Quest To Discover Self, God and Religion

I believe one religion is as good as the other. There is none in which one could not just become a sage, and none in which one could not just as easily engage in the most inane form of idolatory.

There is a spiritual connect between Germany and India, a nexus that has surfaced from time to time for no obvious reason. If Max Mueller chose to rediscover Vedas for the western world, it was no accident, but a divine inspiration without any obvious motive, academic or otherwise.

Among the other Germans who strengthened this spiritual connect, Hermann Hesse stands out with extra-ordinary eminence. For, he offered an interpretation to Buddhism, that dominated the global discourse for quite some time and still does.

Hermann was a theosophist, a philosopher who spent his life- time in pursuit of understanding religion, and whose quest was as remarkable for its intensity as it was for its passionate desperation.

Hermann Hesse spent only a few months in India but enjoys a station and a perch, both unique and extra-ordinary, few non-Indians can claim. That his maternal grand- father, a missionary had a life long association with India as also his mother, only partly explains his fascination and frustration in deciphering the true meaning of life through the experience of Buddha.

Hermann was influenced most by Plato, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche as well as the historian Jacob Burckhardt. But none influenced him as much as Indian and, later, Chinese philosophy. And although, he dabbled creditably with each form of fine arts, by his own admission, relationship to music has been more intimate and fruitful. Music, therefore, is a permanent strain ringing through each one of his creations.

Nobel Prize

Hermann was awarded Nobel prize for literature in 1946 when he was 69, and by that time most of his oeuvre had seen the light of the day and has received the encomiums, accolades and appreciation of the world at large. The Nobel was a recognition of a life- long quest, perhaps personal, but so aesthetically and beautifully universalized through his poems, novels, stories, essays, and other genre of writings. His works were so lyrical and sonorous in composition that it moved the readers as much for their originality and rationality as for the soothing music that regaled the soul while going through his journey of thoughts. In his own words, poetry was his greatest love, and becoming a poet his passioned calling in his life.

Hermann Hesse visited India only once, that too, briefly. But his ‘piece de resistance’, ”Siddhartha” presents the life of Gautam with a perspective that is both unique and unusual. ‘Siddhartha’ was published in German in 1922. Its English version came out in the US in 1935 and for most of the 60s, it was one of the most widely discussed and celebrated books. Plato, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche may have influenced him a lot but he was most influenced by India and later Chinese philosophy.

Hermann’s lifelong quest for self-realization advocated seeking and discovering one’s own path of enlightenment. Other lives can at best offer only guidance and inspiration. That he offered an interpretation of this principle in the modern context, is the singular connecting thread that defines the quest of man for himself and for his creator. Poetry and music were his true love. The lyricism, sonorous and rhythmic, overwhelmingly resonates and vibrates through his works. Please find my humble tribute to this extraordinary scholar and theosophist in the attached piece.

Siddthartha – Eine Indische Dichtung

Hermann’s name rings a pleasing and friendly note, for those in India, as he wrote a famous story belonging to the times of Gautam Buddha.  Written in German in simple lyrical style, he called his story,” Siddhartha” and offered a fresh perspective on Buddhism. The book written in 1922 and its English translation published in US in 1951, became a world-wide influence in 1960s. The first part of the book was dedicated to Romain Rolland while the second part was dedicated to his cousin Wilhelm Gaundert.

Siddhartha is a philosophical fiction. It deals with the spiritual journey of self-discovery of a man named Siddhartha during the time of the Gautama Buddha. The character Siddhartha honours the character Gotama (Gautama Buddha) by not following him in person, but by following Gotama’s example. He seemingly disrespects the Gotama, but yet is the only follower of Gotama that achieves enlightenment because he does not worship him like a god. The story is as ironical as it is revealing.

The story establishes that the path to enlightenment is a solitary one and that no person can lead another person to enlightenment. The codification of the Buddha’s philosophy such as the Four Noble Truths and The Eight-Fold path and the Pali canon are merely helpful guides. The path of each person is unknowable, and it’s up to each person to discover the way.

Indeed, such an approach later evolved as a significant tradition in Buddhism, recognised as Theravada tradition.

A Restless Seeker

Hermann was born in Calw in the Black Forest on July 2, 1877. His father, a Baltic German, came from Estonia; his mother was the daughter of a Swabian and a French Swiss. His father’s father was a doctor, his mother’s father a missionary and Indologist, who spent several years in South India. His father, too, had been a missionary in India for a short while, and his mother had spent several years of her youth in India and had done missionary work there.

Hermann’s childhood was characterised by growing up with a family of diverse nationalities, in two countries with two different people and embracing different dialects.

By his own admission, Hermann was a ‘good learner’ but not a very ‘manageable boy’ and it was only with difficulty that he ‘fitted into the framework of a pietist education that aimed at subduing and breaking individual personality.’ It is, in retrospect, possible to co-relate his independent and somewhat rebellious nature to his childhood and early youth. But having been blessed with a strong determination and generous cerebral endowments, he flourished into a thinker and a seeker. 

“The true profession of a man is to find his way to himself” and Hermann’s journey of life was a quest of self-discovery. Religion, God, Rituals, Philosophies are merely means to understand and decipher the purpose of this journey. That such quests do not terminate but perpetuate, and that is the essence of human existence, was never made more evident and conclusive than his own life.  


Hermann died in 1962, at the ripe old age 85, having lived a fulfilling life and having imparted to the world a wisdom that was both impersonal and profound. The idea of universal humanism, implanted in his thinking many decades earlier, turned stronger as he grew older. He did not find virtue in his individual comprehension and insights that enlightened him in the course of his quests, he found validation and value in everyone’s understanding without being judgmental. “It is not for me to judge another man’s life. I must judge, I must choose, I must spurn, purely for myself. For Myself alone.”, he wrote.

Reconciliation’, ‘Harmony’ and ‘Self-discovery’– these three define Hermann’s life long quest. In fact, all his work, all his endeavours and all his yearnings were intrigued by the fundamental raison d’etre of human existence. Human quests are un-ending and eternal, Herman’s quest was no exception. But the pursuit left him and through him, the world wiser on the very purpose of our existence and how we possibly can deal with religion and the find a way through its glaring and infinite contradictions. His key message largely conveys the inevitability of discovering one’s own path and while the existing wisdom may serve as a guide, the awakening and light has to be sought through individual discovery.

The sense of detachment with one’s one way of living and thinking finds few parallels in our journey of civilization. In that sense, he tried to imbibe the life’s philosophy so marvelously offered in Bhagavad Gita, and about which Hermann wrote,’ “The marvel of the Bhagavad-Gita is its truly beautiful revelation of life’s wisdom which enables philosophy to blossom into religion.”

In essence, Hwermann’s life and works embody the one eternal wisdom of ancient sages of India, “Atma Deepo Bhav”– Be your own light. That he offered an interpretation of this principle in the modern context, is the singular connecting thread that defines the quest of man for himself and for his creator.

The author, Uday Kumar Varma, a 1976 batch IAS officer of Madhya Pradesh cadre, was Secretary Information & Broadcasting, member of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) and member of the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council, a self-regulatory body for general entertainment channels. As Secretary I&B, he spearheaded the nationwide digitisation programme.

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