July 2 is the birthday of Hermann Hesse. The writer, poet, and painter was born in Calw, Germany, in 1877. I have written about him before and I have read a number of his novels and some of his non-fiction. But the part of his life that continues to interest me the most is the trip to India he made in 1911. It led him to begin studying Eastern religions, ancient Hindu and Chinese cultures.
His study and travels certainly inspired his novel Siddhartha, about the early life of Gautama Buddha, but it also influenced his other writing that explore an individual’s search for authenticity, self-knowledge and spirituality.
Hesse’s books were inspired by India and influenced by the inward-looking philosophy of Buddhism and theosophy. Hesse’s grandfather was a missionary who lived for many years in Tellichery in Kerala, India.
Siddhartha was more than 40 years past its publication when it had a renaissance with readers when it was adopted by the 1960s counterculture movement. It turned on a number of young people who saw themselves as the same kind of seeker as the young Gautama Buddha. It led some to embrace some form of Buddhism – or at least think they were embracing some form of Buddhism.
“Hesse didn’t live quite long enough to see what the sixties made of him, but he had seen similar cults before, and he didn’t trust them. ‘I often have cause to get a little annoyed at schoolboys reading and enthusing over Steppenwolf, he wrote, in 1955. ‘After all, the fact is that I wrote this book shortly before my fiftieth birthday.'”
Hesse’s path was not a straight one. He said early on that he wanted to be “a poet or nothing at all.” He attended a number of schools in his journey to become a writer. He fell into a deep depression at the age of 15 and attempted suicide.
“The world had caught him; pleasure, covetousness, idleness, and finally also that vice he had always despised and scorned as the most foolish—acquisitiveness. Property, possessions and riches had also finally trapped him. They were no longer a game and a toy. They had become a chain and a burden.” – Siddhartha
Hesse moved from Germany to Ticino, Switzerland. There he wrote some of his most important works, including Steppenwolf, Demain and Narcissus and Goldmund. In 1924, he became a Swiss citizen
Hesse was opposed to the Nazis as they took control of Germany and throughout the war he supported German refugees, including Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, as they fled the Nazi regime. During WWII, he wrote his last great work, The Glass Bead Game, which won him the 1946 Nobel Prize for Literature.