An Evaluation Of Hesse’s Portrayal Of India’s Caste System

1322 words - 5 pages

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…the flesh fell away from his cheeks and thighs…the nails got long on his fingers, and from his chin grew a dry, scruffy beard” (11). In the time the novel took place, a Brahmin did not subject himself to those burdens because he had already struggled for illumination and earned the privileges associated with the priestly Caste. By living previous lives full of virtue, Siddhartha was on the threshold of unity with Brahman and would not have risked plummeting to the bottom to start all over again on a whim of how to achieve enlightenment. The notion of a Brahmin lowering himself to a less valuable social rank ran completely contrary to the Caste System.

The second contradiction in the novel came when Siddhartha ascended from a shramana to a merchant. In this part of the novel, Hesse achieved accuracy in portraying the Caste System, but still included the inaccuracy of interaction between Castes. When Siddhartha noticed Kamala in her pleasure garden, “he saw a very bright, very tender, very intelligent face, a bright red mouth like a fig newly broke open, eyebrows that had been trained and painted into lofty arches, dark eyes, intelligent and alert, a pale long neck emerging from a green and gold mantle, and pale...

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