Hermann Hesse on Seeking & Finding

by Neriman Kuyucu

In his novel Siddhartha, the German Swiss writer Herman Hesse (1877-1962) tells the story of Siddhartha and his close friend Govinda who are on a quest towards spiritual awakening and self-realization. Hesse’s ninth novel, published in German in 1922, is directly inspired by Indian philosophy.

It’s been a while since I read the novel, but my thoughts about seeking new beginnings the past weekend reminded me of a particular scene that takes place towards the end of the novel. As I was having coffee this morning, I decided to look up and re-read Siddhartha and Govinda’s reunion as old men. Revisiting the end of the story has only led to more questions. So, here I am.

“The Magic of the Book”

In the first half of the novel, the two friends travel in the ancient Indian city Kapilavastu to find and speak with Gautama, “the Enlightened One.” If you’ve read the novel, you’ll remember that after they do, Govinda joins the Buddhist order, and Siddhartha decides to become a ferryman. He thus spends the rest of his life around the river, his spiritual anchor. Towards the end, Siddhartha and Govinda reunite and the following scene takes place:

“[Govinda] arrived at the river and asked the old man [Siddhartha] to take him across. When they climbed out of the boat on the other side, he said to the old man: “You show much kindness to the monks and pilgrims; you have taken many of us across. Are you not also a seeker of the right path?”

There was a smile in Siddhartha’s old eyes as he said: ‘Do you call yourself a seeker, O venerable one, you who are already advanced in years and wear the robe of Gotama’s monks?’

‘I am indeed old,’ said Govinda, ‘but I have never ceased seeking. I will never cease seeking. That seems to be my destiny. It seems to me that you also have sought. Will you talk to me a little about it, my friend?’

Siddhartha said: ‘What could I say to you that would be of value, except that perhaps you seek too much, that as a result of your seeking you cannot find.’

Most of us spend our time “seeking”; seeking happiness, seeking the Truth -whatever that may be–, seeking love, seeking validation, seeking comfort and security, and more. But it doesn’t necessarily occur to us that we may be “seeking too much.”

In fact, we rarely ask: What is it that we are seeking? What does it even mean to “seek” and “find”?

In the novel, Govinda asks the same question. Siddhartha explains:

“When someone is seeking, it happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he is only thinking of the thing he is seeking, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. 

Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal. You, O worthy one, are perhaps indeed a seeker, for in striving towards your goal, you do not see many things that are under your nose.”

There are various ways in which Siddartha’s words can be perceived. One way I read his reflection centers on restraints and limitations that we put on ourselves while “seeking.”

Siddhartha highlights the limitations of the concept of time, truth, faith, love, happiness, self — and whatever else we are seeking– as a monolithic construct. In other words, when we “seek,” we may have a fixed notion of what we’re seeking, which paradoxically may set us back.

Siddhartha’s meditation also leads to another question, a crucial one:

What happens after we seek and find?

The paradox of seeking and finding itself is difficult to grasp; as I continue to think about it, I’m interested in what you think.

What does it mean to “seek and find”? Does the act of finding negate the process of seeking?

16 thoughts on “Hermann Hesse on Seeking & Finding

  1. Great and thought provoking read. I find myself asking this question, in a world where “seeking” is perceived as “progressing” – and without it, we we don’t grow. Is it better to find and show gratitude? Loved it

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This a very interesting question thR you ask! When reading Siddhartha I had so many questions running helter skelter across my mind. For one if we don’t seek something will we be that eponymous frog inside a well but if we do seek will we ever be happy for the goal will constantly keep changing and shifting, never ending our search and will that then make us happy? Perhaps, it is being aware of the ever changing goal, to be happy in the process, and subconsciously seeking than zeroing in our consciousness into that elusive goal. What we have now, was what we wished for in the past. What we may have in the future will be a result of what happens now, consciously and subconsciously. May be that realisation can make it easier

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is it: “it is being aware of the ever changing goal, to be happy in the process, and subconsciously seeking than zeroing in our consciousness into that elusive goal.” As I get older, my perception of “seeking” that which will make me happ-ier and finally content has changed drastically, and what you say here describes the shift so well.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. As we grow older and see things unfold before us, we learn so much and our thought process keeps changing, new facets are added, old ideas are removed. It is an ever learning process.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post! The idea of “seeking” vs “finding” really resonated with me, as I’m currently searching for a job, and am so focused on this goal that I find it hard to meaningfully concentrate on much else. The quotes that you selected here are really moving. I’ve never read Siddhartha, but now I think I’d like to 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I always appreciate your thought-provoking posts. Your query evoked one of my favorite passages from Herman Melville’s magnum opus, Moby-Dick. While on tranquil seas, Captain Ahab ponders the journey of discovery: “There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause: through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more?” (Chapter 114) In short, do we ever stop seeking and discovering? Cheers. Alex


  5. Oh no, I see you moderate your comments, and I’m glad because in my last comment I accidentally copied and pasted a link to my google form, I’m so sorry!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I LOVE Hesse, but I have the feeling that I read Siddhartha at the wrong time. I will try again. My favorite is Narcissus and Goldmund. That being said, Demian is a special book. And I found an recording of passages from Steppanwolf on vinyl. I love hearing the reading in a voice different from my own. Wow. Great stuff – all of it.


  7. Lately, I’ve been grappling with the last question too: “What happens when you seek and find?” I think we eventually realize that it was not the be-all-end-all. Now we seek something more. That journey becomes a vicious cycle that keeps us trapped in misery.

    On the other hand, we can find something because we don’t get blinded by what we seek. And we can discover a lot about ourselves in the process… including whether the reasons for pursuing a goal are still relevant. If they’re not, we can drop it and move on to something better (for us).

    I would love to know your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Vishal, thanks for your note. Your reflection resonates with me. I’m not sure if there is ever an end to seeking more; it is human nature. But perhaps, we can indeed tame that urgency by trying and not getting blinded by what we seek. I do think that it takes wisdom and reflection to get where you’re suggesting. Here’s to hoping. -Neri


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