The Indian subcontinent has been a place yearned for by German writers and intellectuals since the late eighteenth century. Classical Indian philosophical and religious writings came to Europe with British explorers and triggered an India frenzy that was entirely oblivious to real-life circumstances in South Asia. Travel remained too expensive for most people until the twentieth century. This made India the ideal projection surface and the idealised counter-image of rationalised, industrialised Europe.
Hermann Hesse shared his era’s enthusiasm for India. Unlike many before him – Herder, Novalis, Schopenhauer, Max Müller – he actually undertook the long journey to South Asia. In 1911, he reached as far as Ceylon, today’s Sri Lanka. Reality disappointed him. In his travel diary, Hesse self-critically noted that the Europeans’ longing for India was probably actually a form of homesickness for wholeness and spirituality believed lost in Europe.
Hesse’s novel Siddhartha, written in the tradition of a romantic enthusiasm for India, was also influential for a later phase of the India frenzy that prompted thousands of young people from Europe and the US to set off for India and Afghanistan in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of them had Siddhartha in their backpacks and were seeking an alternative in India to rationality and progress. The cultural exchange between India and Europe experienced a new heyday. In addition to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, German bands – among them the Krautrock band Embryo – also travelled to Afghanistan and India.
For the centenary of the novel’s publication, we’ve compiled essays here on the mutual reception – in literature, music, film and everyday culture – of South Asia and Germany.