The Sublime Surrender of Hermann Hesse

1. A Thief Enters the Kingdom

In RamaDharma One we saw that the key to spiritual development is a process of inner surrender, which is also called bhakti in the East. In The Secret of the Gita we showed that it’s a marvelous shortcut to the depths and ecstasies that can otherwise be attained only by years of difficult and complex practices.

Testimonials to the power of spiritual surrender can be found not only in the Bhagavad Gita but in the scriptures of every great religion. But to demonstrate that it goes deeper even than religion itself, let’s quote from a literary source, a novella by Herman Hesse titled Klein and Wagner. It’s a fictional dramatization of what would now be called his mid-life crisis. Hesse’s marriage had been on the rocks for years; he finally separated, and the biggest regret was leaving his three sons, whom he dearly loved. He moved from Germany to Italy, and in the course of a year went through a spiritual rebirth. His protagonist Klein is semi-autobiographical in a literal sense, for the other half is a dark inversion of the real-life scenario: Klein has left his wife as a thief in the night, having embezzled money from his firm; and his agonized inner conflict over this is surely an accurate rendering of what the author actually suffered.


The fugitive has taken a train to Italy, and lies sleepless in a hotel room tormented by a compulsive tide of memories and guilt. The thick fog of the mental landscape is suddenly penetrated by brilliant flashes of insight from what seems like a higher benevolent source. Klein begins to grasp the falsity of the man he always imagined himself to be, projecting his own flaws and weaknesses onto others to maintain the pompous illusion of a righteous self. The “good omniscient understanding” quickly sinks back into the murk, but now Klein knows it exists and struggles to recapture it. It was like a light and like a voice ~ in fact, “It was God’s voice, or else it was the voice of his truest, innermost self, beyond all lies, apologies, and farces.”

The next evening at an outdoor concert Klein notices that a lovely young blonde girl is joyfully transported beyond herself when she dances. He equates this with the spiritual elevation he had just experienced. This impression is confirmed when they make eye contact as she leaves the dance floor, and they undergo a moment of shared rapture. Later they get acquainted and have a long soulful talk, despite the difference in their ages.

As he walks alone afterwards, Klein finds that the world around him is illuminated by the same divine light that came only briefly before. The commonplace surroundings and passersby seem all of a fairy tale, strange and achingly beautiful. In most accounts of such spontaneous awakenings, the experiencers tell of unalloyed ecstasy, deliverance from their normal state of suffering into pure spiritual bliss. Klein indeed feels “voluptuous delight”, yet there is still an undercurrent of pain. His vision is beatific, yet he says: “There was deep suffering everywhere, [even though] God was everything. Yes, all this was God….”

Suddenly he is engulfed by a torrent of memories, reliving the emotional impact of everything weighty he ever experienced, like a life review at the moment of death. He feels like he’s on the verge of madness, but finds a solid ground on which to tread in this new psychic landscape: “The thing was to be receptive, to hold yourself in readiness; then all things, the whole world, could enter into you in an infinite parade… And then you possessed the world, understood it, were one with it.” The “ray of illumination” stays with him as he wanders about, and hence “order and meaning appeared in the chaos, creation began, life and relevance leaped from pole to pole.” The people he encounters all react positively to him, especially children, and he thought: “I have become a child again. I have entered the Kingdom of Heaven.”


“Every life is God’s exhale. Every death is God’s inhale.” ~ Hesse, Klein and Wagner. Image credit:

2. The Bitter Dregs

Alas, a misadventure causes the light to wink out and Klein is plunged again into disharmony and torment. Now he feels like a castaway on a rough sea, helplessly roiled along through crests and troughs. In desperation he seeks the girl, Teresina, and finds her at the nightly dance. They indulge in some pastimes, and mutually discover themselves to be in love ~ passionate, fervid, and fraught with ambiguities. For Klein, as they caress “it would have been impossible for him to distinguish pleasure from pain. Even his desire, his hungry longing for embrace with the beautiful, strong woman, could scarcely be told from dread. He longed for her like the condemned man for the ax. Both elements were there, flaming desire and inconsolable grief; both burned, both warmed, both killed.”

On her side, Teresina says: “Why do I love you? Why does something draw me to you? You’re old and not good-looking. I’m afraid of you and yet I must be with you.” She correctly guesses that he’s a criminal and that his money is stolen. He says it’s not important; she asks, then, what is? He replies: “It’s important that we drain this cup.”

They make love in her apartment. Klein awakes in the middle of the night and finds himself caught again in the horror of his past, riven by conflicted feelings towards the woman. The inner demon he had repressed for decades now struggles to leap forth and kill the one he loves by his own hand. With a supreme effort of will he gains control and refuses to do it. This brings peace, and he decides that there is only one way to resolve the fatal conflict within him. He steals out into a pitch-black rain, makes his way to the lake, finds an unsecured boat, and paddles far out upon the restless water. He mounts the edge of the boat, leans forward until it slides away behind him, and allows himself to sink. Now “he was in the universe”.

3. Total Surrender

3 thoughts on “The Sublime Surrender of Hermann Hesse

  1. Pingback: Total Surrender | The Kin of Aries

  2. Pingback: Heroic Devotion | The Kin of Aries

  3. Pingback: Seelenheil ~ Path of the White Spirit | The Kin of Aries

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