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The Oriental Imagination in ‘A Passage to India’ and ‘Siddhartha’

The Oriental Imagination in ‘A Passage to India’ and ‘Siddhartha’

By Piyush Kumar

Edited by Namitha Sadanand, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist

Edward Said’s essay ‘Orientalism’ marked the shift in literary perceptions of Western works set in the East and also provided a new framework to analyze literary texts. A close inspection of the two novels ‘A Passage to India’ and ‘Siddhartha’ both written prior to Said’s work shows how this holds true. In this essay, I will seek to compare the Orientalist approach of both E.M.Forster and Hermann Hesse and try to emphasize that these texts were primarily meant for Western audiences and their perceptions.

‘A Passage to India’

‘A Passage to India’ basically seeks to question whether a Briton and an Indian can ever be friends under British colonial rule. The narrative technique employed by Forster is intricately connected to the themes and symbols that he projects.

The work is a projection of Western notions of logic and order onto a ‘pre-modern’ society characterised by haphazardness, disorder and chaos. It is to be noted that E.M Forster tries to bring Indians up to the level of the British by striking a relation through ‘mutual respect, courtesy and intelligence’. The notion of India as a ‘muddle’ is a clear indicator of the colonial notion of ‘the Other’ and is also promoted as a justification of British colonialism.

The portrayal of characters is also indicative of that. Aziz, the Indian doctor, is shown as a person who cares more about emotions, talks with less clarity compared to the British and is impulsive. He can be contrasted to Cyril Fielding, who is the epitome of everything that is best in the British. Throughout the novel, it is their friendship that constitutes the backbone of the narrative. Aziz is plagued by an inferiority complex to the British. On one hand, he appreciates certain modernising influences they brought in and on the other hand, he feels the pinch of oppression that he himself undergoes at the hands of the British, particularly, at the hands of Major Callender.

The healthy relationship between Fielding and Aziz in the first part of the novel has been interpreted by many scholars as Forster’s liberal humanism: ‘that British rule in India can be successful only if the British and the Indians could develop an attitude of mutual respect, courtesy and are guided by intelligence[1]. We must note here that Forster is implicitly trying to say that Indians are better off if they are governed by someone else; and by their nature, are incapable of self-governance- a subtle political message of the novel.

The perception of India as a ‘muddle’ and also as a ‘mystery’ is handled carefully by Forster. For Godbole and Mrs. Moore, India is a ‘mystery’. Here we can see how the Orient is ‘exoticised’, to borrow a term from Said. The reverberation of each and every sound within the cave is heard by Mrs. Moore as ‘baum’, which symbolises how India is something incomprehensible for the Western mind. The unfortunate event at Marabar caves (the description of the landscape is another attempt at ‘exoticisation’) is a subtle indication that the British better stay away from exploring the complexities of India. Mrs. Moore is able to comprehend the Hindu conception of ‘unity of things’. However, this also means negation of reality as explicated in ‘ancient Hindu thought’(clearly bringing out the author’s one-sided perspective) and this ‘spiritual apathy’ is a cause for Mrs. Moore’s death. The ‘ordeal’ which Adela Quested goes through is also projected as if it is something that the location has brought unto her. Her naivity is excused for by the idea that India is a puzzle that cannot be cracked.

Ronny Heaslop’s character is also portrayed to suit the British interests. Though he is rude and condescending in his attitude towards Indians, he is so because of the ‘flawed colonial administration system’ and its historical and surveillance modalities[2]. The free-spirited, independent thinker in him has conformed to the herd mentality of the colonial administration. So, we can see how Forster also plays a key role in the Western imagination of the Orient as ‘baffling’ and ‘chaotic’.


‘Siddhartha’ by Hermann Hesse was written in 1922, at a time when post World-War I Europe was beginning to get disillusioned with western values. The need for a regenerative ideology forced Hesse to look towards the Orient where he thought Western civilisation in its decadence, could find a rebirth. ‘Siddhartha’ is essentially a Western work set in an Oriental background according to Robert.C.Conrad.[3]While Buddhism (from which the message of the novella is inspired) negates life, the protagonist Siddhartha affirms life in all its manifestations. The novel also fits into a recognizable pattern of Western literature, the archetype of the isolato.

The reason why Hesse looked towards the Orient has historical roots. ‘German Orientalism’ unlike its British and French counterparts, did not engage in knowledge creation for consolidation of authority mainly because they did not have enough territory in the Orient. On the other hand, they were interested in the professional analysis of ancient Oriental texts. German scholarship of Oriental civilisations began towards the close of the eighteenth century. The profound nature of the Assyrian, the Sumerian and the Indian civilisations did considerable to the Graeco-centric conception of the ancient world that Western Europe had.

German Orientalism had two sources: one, the presence of Islam, in the Holy Land as well as along the long border that the Holy Roman Empire (later the Habsburg empire) shared with the Ottoman empire-which helped in forming their own identity through the perception of the ‘Other’. Secondly, the arrival of Sanskrit texts in Europe in the late eighteenth century and the challenging of the historical veracity of the Old and the New Testaments. Indologists and Philologists were appointed in various universities and as Said says, ‘the Orient becomes a vocation’. These scholars were mainly anti-bourgeois and provided powerful critiques of Eurocentric values and almost ‘decentred’ the West. They viewed Orient as a source of wisdom and rising nationalism across Europe led to a scramble for a part of the Oriental legacy. At this point of time, we can see how ‘Indo-European’ is replaced by ‘Indo-Germanic’ in the works of German scholars. They were very instrumental in the creation of the ‘Aryan myth’ which tried to search for the Teutonic roots of the German nation.

Hesse’s parents were themselves missionaries in India and his grandfather, Herman Gundert, a prominent Indologist. His grandfather’s views may have had a significant impact upon him. Also, at the time this book was written, Hesse had to provide his message through a medium that does not have anything to do with the decadent West. This may be one of the reasons why he decided to communicate a Western idea to a disillusioned Western audience with an ‘Oriental garb’.


Hesse and Forster are indisputably, two of the greatest writers of the last century. However, their work smacks of Western prejudices and illogical preconceptions about the ‘exotic’ and ‘baffling’ nature of the East. The conflict between the East and the West is set to increase as an increasingly globalised world is bound to bring increasing interactions between different civilizations and cultures.


  1. Said, Edward, ‘Orientalism’, London, Penguin, 1977
  1. Marchand, Suzanne, ‘German Orientalism and the Decline of the West’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol.145, No.4 (Dec. 2001), pp. 465-473
  2. Cohn, Bernard. S, ‘Colonialism and its forms of knowledge: The British in India’, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press,1955,pp.3-15

[1]Beer, John. A Passage to India: Essays in Interpretation, Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes &Nobles Books,1986,pp.22-35

[2]Cohn, Bernard. S, Colonialism and its forms of knowledge: The British in India, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press,1955,pp.3-15

[3] Conrad, Robert C. “Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, Eine Indische Dichtung, as a Western archetype”

The German Quarterly 48.3 (1975):358-69

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