© HHP 8/14/97
Christoph Gellner

"Between Respect and Revolt:
Hermann Hesse and the Duality of all Religion"

 Summary of the lecture held in German at the Hessetage, October 1996, in Calw, Germany.


Montagnola, January 1921: just 43 years old is Hermann Hesse, he has lived in the Tessin in Switzerland for two years now, where after the failure of his first marriage he solely wants to devote his life to writing.

For Hesse, the social-cultural revolution of the First World War meant a radical new beginning in his life and art. Torn between war, inflation and depression, Germany experienced the Zenith of enthusiasm for Asia and the Far East, which has existed since 1900. So did Hermann Hesse. He was working at his Indian legend "Siddhartha" and all his attention was fixed on the religions of India. As his parents had been involved in Pietist missionary work in India, Hesse was born so to speak under the stars of Indian religiosity.

In this year 1921, Hesse felt that his occupation with India had come into a new stage: until then he had been interested in the purely intellectual aspects, but now he felt the truly religious India of gods an temples, the colorful world of gods and demons, as the man on the street saw it. Hesse wrote: "All Buddhism now looks more like a kind of Indian Reformation, exactly as in Christianity." This must mean: a Reformation with the same fatal consequences we saw in Protestantism.

 Hesse wrote: 

    "Both reformations go through the same process: in the beginning there is a spiritualization, the conscience of the individual becomes the most important institution, there comes an end to all ostentatious cult, the class of clergymen loses it's influence, the thinking and the conscience of the individual defends itself against all authorities. Where Protestantism corrupts itself in the course of a few centuries, Buddhism draws back, giving way to new cults from the old Realms of Gods." 
In both cases, the cerebral protestant religion proved to be not viable because the reformed puritanistic belief requires a self-sacrifice of the individual, which only few can make. Believers can perform prescribed gestures and offerings, but they can't give up themselves.

Hesse knew this, as he had experienced these feelings in his origin and childhood. 

    "We lived in a world, which showed a deep distrust towards the feelings and talents of the young individual and, convinced that the human free will is essentially evil, tries to break his free will in order that he can obtain God's love and can reach salvation in Christian society."
According to August Hermann Francke's (1663-1727) "Educational Theory of Original Sin" (which in Hesse's times was accepted by many protestants as well as catholics), man's own free will was an expression of the original sin. The only way to save man is to break his own free will in childhood, before he gets strong and when compulsion becomes useless. One can only be a good Christian, if one hates oneself. Hesse: "This whole theory ruined my life and I will not accept it anymore."

However Hesse, did not give up religion at all. He looked for a form of religion which suited him. He noticed the duality of religion also in other religions, and his fascination for Asia prevented him from being prejudiced. He recognized his own fate in the Indian Sundar Singh and concluded: "For different people, there are different ways to God, to the center of the world. But the experience is always the same." At the age of 70, he wrote: " I believe, all religions are practically equally good." Religion can destroy man, but also help him. Hesse discovered this early and worked on it all his life.

But it took Hesse very long to free himself from his traumatic suffering through institutionalzed religion. Not until the outbreak of the First World War do we find traces of this aspect. Even in the novel "Beneath the Wheel", in which religion only appears as a part of the repressive educational system of the time, we don't find anything about his religious crisis.

Only after the crisis of the First World War, especially through his exposure to psychoanalysis, Hesse began to revisit his disastrous Christian upbringing in his writings.

Finally, in "Demian", he managed to "look into the chaos", as he decribed the consciousness of those darkl stirrings of the soul, which his rigid upbringing had fearfully denied to exist and had characterized as evil, rotten and forbidden. By the token of the double-faced god of Abraxas, the neurotic splitting-up of reality into "two worlds" (one light, pure, well-ordered, the other dark, miserable, smothered, satanic) should be finally reconciled with each other. Thus the radicalization of the God-problem in "Demian" is also a direct expression of Hesse's own experiences in psychotherapy, which for the first time helped him accept what he had been denied until then. 

Not only did this mean a departure from 2000 years of Christian culture. Demian's subversive Bible-exegesis in accordance with Friedrich Nietzsche and his criticism of religion and Christian ethics were revolutionary as well. Cain was no longer to be Abel's cowardly sinful brother-killer, but became a man of courage and character, daring to go his own way: the first rebel in mankind, struggling against the poisoning, pathogenic effects of religion. Cain, the first rebel against the authoritarian father-god, breaking daringly with the repressive ethics of laws and prohibitions of his fatherly home, a forerunner of those who broke with the hypocritical ethics of bourgeois-Christian virtuousness and dared choosing the risky way towards lonely individuation.

The same revolt against a disastrous, fear-driven religious upbringing and it's poisonous effects on God and relationships we find in "Kinderseele" (A Child's Soul). In this story, Hesse tells of the feelings of an eleven year old boy, who stole some figs from the room of his dearly beloved father. The boy did this to have something quite near to him, which belongs to his father. Scrupulous feelings of guilt, fear, feelings of inferiority tormented him in his loneliness. He felt torn between respect for his father and revolted against him. Thus in his daydreaming, he revolts against the cruel God of his upbringing that punished every bit of individuality, sensuality and creativity. "If I came to stand in front of Our Holy Father in Heaven, then I would not excuse myself, humiliate myself and ask Him for forgiveness. I would repent nothing- even if I would be damned and burnt."

But once he was free from these complexes of guilt and ethics, Hesse could begin to appreciate the belief in a Christian God again. "Devotion and trust are the same thing," he could write now. 

    "Trust is for the simple, healthy innocent man, the child, the savage. People like us had to struggle for trust. Trust in yourself is the beginning. No belief can be gained by chastity, guilt, bad conscience: all these efforts are for gods who are far from us. The God we have to believe in, is in ourself. Those who deny themselves, can't believe in God."
This is a religion of fearless trust, as source of psychic health, inner balance, personal maturity and ability to love. Therefore, Hesse was primarily interested in religion as source of self-realization: religion as a possibility to accept life totally, far from all ethical limitations. Hesse: "This is what every Christian will find in all religions."

What typifies Hermann Hesse's thinking and writing is the search for integrity and unity, which he found in C.G. Jung's depth-psychology and primarily in the manifestations of Eastern spirituality. Until today, the search for the realm where everything individual, all phenomenons of difference end into a unifying alliance of all creatures is what we look for in Zen, Yoga and similar meditation methods.

As a writer, Hesse nowhere put this clearer than in his Indian legend "Siddhartha", in which he tried to formulate the Indian-meditative ideal and the old Asian teachings of the divine unity of all creatures for our time and in our language. Hesse connected these thoughts with a love for all creation, but this love for all creation exists in the old Indian texts no more than in vague indications. Logically, Hesse's "Siddhartha" ends up neither in the sign of Buddhist ascesis, nor Hinduist insight (world=maya=appearance), nor in the dedication to the Taoist polarity of life, but rather in Christian tradition. 

Siddhartha's devotion to love is founded in the insight into the eventual identity of individual and universal self, as it is written in the Upanishads: "Tat twam asi"´(= that art thou). Hesse: "I can love all creatures, as they are my equals. Therefore I can love them." This harmony with divine integrity enables Hesse to love his neighbor freely, without being forced by others. Because love only comes when we can act without external compulsion, spontaneously, opening ourselves to the insight that all men and things are equals. In his "Kurgast" (Guest at the Spa; Spa Visitor) he writes: "If you can take the Proverbs in the New Testament not as commands, but as expressions of an uncommon knowledge of the secrets of our souls, then the wisest word ever spoken is: "Love your neighbor like yourself." The essence of every soul, which the Indian calls "Atman", is equal to all people. "And those who consider this to be the norm of all life are united with the universe, with God and act from the unity with Him." Thus, we would rather speak of a mystic than of an ecclesiastical Christianity, that Hesse now bears witness of.

But, as Siddhartha says, no teaching will bring us salvation. Consequently, he leaves all teachers and tries to find his goal alone. Later Hesse recognized: "Siddhartha does not emphasize intellect, but love; Siddhartha rejects the dogma and prefers the experience of unity. This can be seen as a return to Christianity, as a truly protestant feature." In this respect, in the noncompromising rejections of any patron from outside, Gautama Buddha was also a protestant.

Also in the "Glass Bead Game", the master musician tells the young Knecht not to seek and even wish for a perfect doctrine, but to pursue perfection of himself. "The deity is in you, not in the concepts and books. Truth is lived, not taught." Consequently, Hesse's "Glass Bead Game" again tells us about the revolt of an individual, finding his truth far from all truths and religions. 83 year old Hesse wrote: "For the majority of people it's very useful to belong to a church or a religion. He who takes his own way first finds loneliness and longs to get back to collectivity. But at the end of his journey he will discover that he joined a new great, but invisible community, which binds all peoples and religions. He gets poorer in dogmas and nationalities, and gets richer by the brotherhood of geniuses of all times, nations and languages."

However, in Hesse's "Glass Bead Game", and in the "Morgenlandfahrt" (Journey to the East), we find words like "respect", "piety", "willingness to serve" that undeniably remind us of Pietism. Hesse postulates a morality, based on willingness to serve, on self-sacrifice, the wish to bear responsbility - all these concepts are found in the Pietism of his childhood. "My parents and grandparents considered life to be borrowed from God, and they would not just try to have a life of fun", Hesse writes. This impressed him deeply.

Hesse's work is about criticism and religion, respect and revolt, individuation and adaptation. His life moves between these extremes. And these extremes mark Hesse's lifelong discussions with religion, which he experienced at a young age in it's duality. Hesse found his way to religion by a radical rupture with tradition, finding his way back through a synthesis with the religions of India and China.

Thus he became a religious person, but in a way that we can hardly grasp. This might be a proof of his modernity.

 (This summary was contributed by Hajo Smit, Breda. Netherlands)


Posted on August 14, 1997 using Netscape.
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