Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse
Really good book! You know it’s a good book when every passage conjures thoughts and reflection. The main character, Siddhartha, seeks enlightenment. By describing Siddhartha’s path to enlightenment, the author, Hesse, demonstrates his personal knowledge of the Eastern religions. Hesse is a Westerner, but he spent a few years living in India and studying Eastern religions. I readily admit that my knowledge about Eastern religions is poor, so I’m excited to gather some insights and glimpses into this unexplored world. From what I currently understand, Buddhism focuses on understanding the self. Followers seek enlightenment by learning how to have complete control over their minds and bodies. In the most extreme, they can consciously separate themselves from the world, dying and then returning to life at will.
“Siddhartha” means “one who has accomplished his aim.” The focus is on the self, rather than the group. In the story, Siddhartha’s character refuses to follow Buddha, because he believes that true enlightenment can only be obtained through an individual journey. After only a few pages into this book, I was impressed with the amount of good content! I was surprised that the book opened with a description of Siddhartha’s person. This seems to be a somewhat common approach - that an adventure type novel describes the physical attributes and personality of the protagonist. Siddhartha is compared to a god. He was beautiful, walked elegantly, moved elegantly, had a kingly eye, was noticeably intelligent, and all of the young girls loved him. It is interesting how one man receives so many positive attributes, to the point where he is compared to a god, whereas the rest of men seem to have none of these impressive super-human qualities. All of the best traits are gifted to one man, Siddhartha in this story, as opposed to evenly distributed among multiple men. This life is not fair. This uneven distribution of traits exists today, just as it existed in the Greek stories, where men like Achilles and Hercules and Helen seemed to receive abundant good qualities to the point that they were compared to gods. Life is not fair.
In the beginning of the story, there is a scene where Siddhartha sits down to meditate, “directing his arrow towards Brahman.” He is in such a state that his friend, Govinda, is unable to arouse him. Apparently this parallels a story about Buddha, whose name not accidentally, was also Siddhartha. As a child, the Buddha was able to meditate in such an advanced state that his father would be worried. This makes me wonder, is it actually possible to enter such a trance? Is it just a fictional idea? And if possible, then what is such a trance like? What is it like to focus on something so intently that you completely remove yourself from your surroundings? I suppose that we all do this occasionally – we become so engrossed in an activity that we don’t notice an approaching friend. But to be able to enter into that state at will? That’s a special skill.
Wow, I was struck with an emotional bombshell here. I read Siddhartha’s conclusion about his Shramana experience, and I cried at the truthfulness of his statements. All that Siddhartha learned from the ascetics, he could have also learned from a drunkard in the local tavern. We all just want a temporary escape from reality. The drunk accomplishes this through alcohol. The Shramana, through self-denial. But ultimately, we all seek to numb the pain of life, to cease to be conscious of one’s self.
Many events in Siddhartha’s life parallel the life of the real Buddha. And this was the author’s intent. Siddhartha decides to leave the Shramanas. This event happens in a scene where Siddhartha exerts a sort of mental power over the head Shramana. Siddhartha stares the man down, until the Shramana caves. The scene is somewhat unusual and repugnant, because the Shramanas do not seek power or control. Leaving the ascetic lifestyle closely reflects the Buddha’s abandonment from his own teachers.
After abandoning the Shramanas, Siddhartha and Govinda seek out the Buddha, who has claimed to achieve true nirvana. Nirvana is a complete release from suffering, a reliable happiness. Gautama’s goal is to teach and deliver people from suffering. The description of Gautama unsettled me. He was a man, neither happy nor sad, and his countenance showed no expression. He was devoid of emotion. Does obtaining nirvana imply a renunciation of emotions? If so, then I disagree with Buddha. I think that emotions are essential, and that they make life enjoyable. Emotions result from passion towards topics that matter. I suppose that a life devoid of emotion would also be a life without suffering. But it’s also a life without pleasure and without love. Is that a life worth living? I don’t think so.
After listening to Gautama’s teachings, Siddhartha decides to pursue his own path in life. Siddhartha no longer desires to learn from ascetics or teachers. He separates from his closest friend, Govinda, and walks alone in the pursuit of “I.” Siddhartha realizes that he is completely alone in this world. He does not belong to a group of artists, the Shramanas, Buddha, his earthly father, or any other group of people. He is not pursuing a god or a craft. He is alone, completely, searching to understand himself. As he is walking, these realizations strike him like bombs, one after another, causing his steps to falter. This book feels very personal. It’s an exploration of Siddhartha’s thoughts. Part 1 ends here.
Part 2 begins here. Siddhartha meets a woman. He is captivated by her beauty. He decides that he must enter the city and learn from the woman. He realizes that here, this beauty, these feelings, are something that he does not understand. Finding the beautiful woman, Kamala, Siddhartha expresses his desire to learn about love from her. He recites a poem that pleases Kamala greatly, and so she rewards him with a kiss. This event sends Siddhartha in pursuit of money and fine clothes and jewelry so that he can charm the lovely Kamala. Siddhartha finds employment with a wealthy merchant. Siddhartha states that his skills are “fasting, waiting, and thinking.” The merchant sees no value in these skills, but nevertheless Siddhartha learns quickly and has much success. He acquired great riches and material possessions that he used to woo the beautiful Kamala. From Kamala, he learned about love and pleasure. It seems not fair that this one man is so talented at so many things. He’s handsome, he’s a skilled merchant, and he succeeds at capturing the love a beautiful woman.
He doesn’t stress or worry about anything. In his work, he cares not at all for actually making money for his employer. He does not worry about successful sales or profits. This is drastically opposed to his boss, who worries much about everything. This is a great example of the “thinking and waiting” skills that Siddhartha possesses. There’s a humble, patient, easy-going confidence about Siddhartha that I would like to be able to emulate in my own life. I don’t want to worry. I want to rest in God’s assurances.
Siddhartha refers to the “normal” people in Kamala’s city as “child people.” Siddhartha looks down upon them with contempt, because they place too much value on the importance of their lives and their possessions. Siddhartha feels that he is above all of these things. Therefore, he never grows close to any person. He cannot relate to them. Only to Kamala does he become close. They understand each other. Eventually, Siddhartha recognizes that he has been trying to become like the “child people.” He realizes that he has been pursuing food, passion, materials, wealth, and women, just like the “child people.” He is completely revolted and disgusted at himself. He’s revolted by what he has become, and decides to flee this lifestyle. Only Kamala was not surprised when Siddhartha disappeared from the city. Because they were lovers, because they were close to one another, she knew this event was coming. At this point in his life, Siddhartha is 40 years old. Is that the time it approximately takes to achieve material success in this world? It might be. Is that what it takes to seduce a beautiful woman? It might be. Are thinking, waiting, and fasting valuable skills? Probably. There are many good lessons to take away from this story.
When Siddhartha becomes disgusted with his gluttonous behaviors, he also recognizes that he lost his inner voice, which had successfully and reliably guided his life in the past. To lose that inner voice, once finding it, would be disastrous. It takes time and practice to hear that voice and interpret its callings. To lose that skill would make me feel completely lost, without a guide. That’s terrifying. No wonder Siddhartha contemplates drowning himself in the river.
Finally, Siddhartha finds enlightenment from the ferry man. And at the end of the story, Siddhartha shares some of his discoveries with his old friend, Govinda. First, let’s talk about love. Kamala once told Siddhartha that he could never love. She said that he never experienced true love, nor had the capability to. When Siddhartha loses Kamala, and is consequently burdened with a son, he realizes the truth of her words. Siddhartha never truly loved. Even with Kamala, he withheld part of himself. He never truly released his whole heart. He was always seeking “I.” He never experienced the love that the child people display for one another, the reckless love that causes the child people to abandon all rational thought. Siddhartha never felt the all-consuming passion of love - love that consumes all of your soul, body, and being. Love that drives every action. That is, until Siddhartha met his son. Only when Siddhartha spent time with his son, did he realize the love of the child people, and only then did he understand what drove the child people to act so strangely. He learned that this all-consuming type of love can conquer seemingly impossible tasks. It transcends all rational boundaries. Love is powerful. Siddhartha finally learns this piece of life’s puzzle. Ok, so that’s love. My body aches to experience this type of love. And my current thoughts on this topic are too personal to write in this blog.
Next - wisdom. Siddhartha explains that wisdom cannot be taught like knowledge can. When true wisdom is spoken, it sounds like foolishness to others. I wonder if this is one way of detecting true wisdom from the mouths of other people? Does it sound like foolishness? Wisdom cannot be conveyed. Wisdom can be sought and obtained, but it cannot be spoken or taught. This is really interesting, because it implies that the only way to acquire wisdom is through self-pursuit and through self-exploration. The attainment of wisdom is entirely one’s own burden.
Seeking. Siddhartha explains that seeking implies you have a goal. The problem with seeking is that one’s eyes only see what he wants to see. You miss seeing the surroundings, which if it weren’t for your seeking, would be obvious. Seeking makes you blind. According to Siddhartha, seeking’s opposite is finding. With finding, there is no goal. With finding, your eyes are open, and you are not blind. I think that Siddhartha’s point here is very good, and I wonder how seeking and finding play a role in my own life? Again, this topic begins to get more personal than I would like to share in this blog. But that’s what makes this book so great. It encourages deep questions and thought.
Unity. This is Siddhartha’s last and final revelation that he shared with Govinda. Everything is unity. This becomes obvious to Siddhartha when he looks into the river, under the guidance of the ferry master. In the river, he sees everything blended together. Faces merge, friends and lovers pass by, lovers entangle with one another in passion, animals die, murders occur, children are born, and all of these things flow by, all of them in unity with one another. Life is much like the river, it comes and it passes. We are all united together. Once this idea of unity is achieved, enlightenment is obtained. Siddhartha shares this enlightenment with Govinda. I have not reached this state of enlightenment in my life, so I cannot comment any further. Is enlightenment something that I want to seek? Is it worth seeking?