This post was inspired by a recent group conversation in which someone said Siddhartha by Hesse was their favourite novel and someone else replied that Siddhartha was not fiction, but their life.
Siddhartha had influenced me somewhat as an impressionable teenager, though I identified more with Hesse than his famous character, specifically the difficult filial relationships that he struggled with and which moulded him as a writer. When I named one of the main characters in my first novel The Reengineers Siddharth, the quintessential seeker whose name means ‘he who has realised his true self’, the name was more inspired by Hesse’s character than the spiritual teacher after whom the character was named.
Spirituality and self-realisation are unique to each person as we all have our distinct paths. I have compiled here a list of ten novels that examine this most private and intense of all quests. I have not considered ancient literature, and I have skipped certain bestselling novels that are categorised in this genre, labelled ‘spiritual pop’ for what appear to be good reasons. This is a list of novels with the premise of the main character seeking the meaning of existence, not always because they are unhappy with their lives but as they want to find the truth of the self.
1) Franny and Zooey by J D Salinger (1961)
A connected short story and novella both of which mainly consist of long conversations, this is a study of two highly intelligent siblings questioning their place and purpose in what appears to be a ‘phoney’ world. The need for self-expression in life and art without egotism is explored, and the answer that everything is a form of prayer and everyone is a form of God combining concepts from Advaita Vedanta, Christianity and Buddhism, makes this a worthy and enlightening read for a spiritual seeker.
2) The Razer’s Edge by Somerset Maugham (1944)
One of the most stark depictions of the spiritual search, The Razor’s Edge follows the journey of Larry Darrell, a pilot traumatised by his experiences in the first world war who sets out to find the meaning of life and after extensive travelling and many adventures, finds enlightmentment through the guidance of a wise spiritual master in India, where he learns about the Advaita philosophy. Maugham’s genius ensures that this book on spiritual awakening can also be read as a work of fiction complete with a set of memorable and realistically flawed characters.
3) Mr Sampath by R K Narayan (1949)
Though the plotline of Mr Sampath is driven by the shenanigans of the eponymous printer, the main character of the story is Srinivas, the writer and editor of the weekly journal The Banner from whose viewpoint the narrative unfolds. Srinivas is a mild-mannered intellectual who ambles his way through life without any high ambition until a firm and not unkind rebuke from his brother leads him to start The Banner. Srinivas observes the world and the people around him from a detached viewpoint, and his gentle and philosophical reflections will find echoes with armchair seekers who wonder about the purpose of it all as they go about their daily lives.
4) The Celestine Prophecy: An Adventure by James Redfield (1993)
Despite the thin plot that merely serves to share Redfield’s theories on new age spirituality, this parable of a novel highlights an important aspect of the spiritual path, which is the dynamics of psychic energy and how the need to own and control energy is at the source of all conflict, between individuals or countries. Happiest are they who realise that this energy lies within them as each of us are connected directly with the source.
5) Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (1922)
Hesse’s novel narrates the story of Siddhartha, a fictional seeker who was a contemporary of Buddha, and experiments like Buddha did with various spiritual practices in a struggle to find enlightenment, including a tryst in the material world as the associate of a rich businessman and the lover of a beautiful courtesan, and eventually finds what he had been searching for. The message that stands out is how each seeker must follow their individual path and cannot be guided beyond a point by another person.
6) Elegance of The Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (2008)
One of the two main characters of The Elegance of the Hedgehog is twelve year old Paloma Josse – a twenty-first century version of Siddhartha who seeks meaning in life beyond her posh life in a Paris luxury apartment, and finds the answers through her connection with the conceirge Renee on how life is about the ‘the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It’s as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never.’ I adore this novel for its many exquisite quotes on life, beauty and art which have made me wish more than once that I knew French to read it in the original version.
7) The Comforters by Muriel Spark (1957)
I spent over six months reading every piece of literary criticism I could find about The Comforters, while writing my master’s thesis on it in 2017. Muriel Spark’s first novel explores the question of free will vs destiny as both individual and spiritual seeker. Does the seeker undertake the quest because they are meant to do so, or do they choose to do it? The novel examines this through the story of Caroline Rose, a writer who finds that she is being written into a novel. While the ending conveys one answer, it is interesting to observe how Spark examined the same question over and over again in many of her successive novels and Loitering with intent (1981) conveys how the writer had finally become the author not only of her own life but the world around her.
8) Teddy by JD Salinger (1953)
I have included this short story here as it has the depth of any novel on the theme. Teddy can be read as a study in the writer’s craft of characterisation, narrative structure, and effective dialogue. It can also be read as a sophisticated picturisation of a wise child who is aware of the world at both material and spiritual levels and is dispassionately moving on his path towards the ultimate goal of self-realisation. It offers a simplistic explanation of Advaita Vedanta philosophy.
9) Candide by Voltaire (1759)
Voltaire’s delightful satire brings home one of the most important revelations that every seeker eventually finds in their journey – ‘we must cultivate our garden’. Despite everything that he endures on his adventures, Candide find happiness and fulfillment in the end through work which keeps the three evils of boredom, vice, and poverty at bay.
10) The Reengineers by Indu Muralidharan (2015)
This novel was based on my experiences of overcoming a decade of clinical depression, and how I survived and thrived over this condition. Smothered by his overbearing parents, the main character Chinmay plans to kill himself and reflects on the meaning of life, when he finds that he is himself a character in a novel and thereby had no option of freewill, until an incident makes him realise that he can be the author of his life, as well as the hero. Framed as a story within a story which write each other into being, the novel also contains a fictional self-help section of practical tips to survive depression while working in the corporate world.
What are your favourite works of fiction on this theme? Feel free to share them in the comments.