Hermann Hesse’s novella Siddhartha, written in 1922, is a deeply contemplative book about a man’s lifelong journey to achieve true enlightenment. The story takes place in India of long ago, where Siddhartha is raised in Hindu teachings. As Siddhartha masters the teaching of Hinduism, he decides it offers inadequate explanations of the ways of the world.
…the wise Brahmins, had already passed on to him the bulk and best of their wisdom [but] his soul was not at peace.
As Siddhartha strikes out on his own in search of meaning and to find answers for the eternal questions plaguing his soul, the reader is carried along his river of life causing introspection into the meaning in our own lives. Siddhartha spends three years as a wandering Samana, who live in self-denial and abject poverty. The natural world is embraced as truth. Siddhartha finds this also does not quench his search for truth, so next visits Buddha, whom he reveres and respects as someone who has attained perfect enlightenment. However, he now believes that such enlightenment cannot be taught.
A man only looks and walks like that (Buddha) when he has conquered his Self. I also will conquer my Self…No other teachings will attract me, since this man’s teachings have not done so.
He decides to start to try to understand himself by experience in the world, rather than just contemplation.
[Siddhartha’s] body was certainly not the Self, not the play of senses, nor thought, nor understanding, nor acquired wisdom or art with which to draw conclusions and from already existing thoughts to spin new thoughts…Both thought and the senses were fine things…it was worthwhile listening to them both…to listen intently to both voices.”
Siddhartha next exposes himself to human nature, seeking lust and wealth, and attaining both. He remains in that world for many years, finally awakening himself that these things have taken him far from the path of fulfillment, enlightenment and truth that he was seeking.
Slowly, like moisture entering the dying tree trunk…so did the world and inertia creep into Siddhartha’s soul; it slowly filled his soul, made it heavy, made it tired, sent it to sleep.
He leaves that world and his riches, and returns to a river where he spent some time years earlier, and contemplates suicide in distress over the wickedness that had taken over his life. Instead, he realizes that through these experiences:
…his senses became more awakened, they learned a great deal, experienced a great deal….It is a good thing to experience everything oneself…As a child I learned that pleasures of the world and riches were not good. I have known it for a long time, but I have only just experienced it. Now I know it not only with my intellect, but with my ears, with my heart, with my stomach. It is a good thing that I know this.
Siddhartha decides to remain near the river and live with his friend, the wise and quiet ferryman named Vasudeva. Vasudeva teaches him to listen to the river, to see that life is endlessly flowing, is a constant cycle, with nothing really changing. Siddhartha realizes the unimportance of himself, that we are all part of a larger unity. It is after living a life of self-denial, then experiencing sins for himself, does he finally find wisdom.
All the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life…then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om – perfection….From that hour Siddhartha ceased to fight against his destiny. There shone in his face the serenity of knowledge, of one who is no longer confronted with conflict of desires, who has found salvation, who is in harmony with the stream of events, with the stream of life, full of sympathy and compassion, surrendering himself to the stream, belonging to the unity of things.
One day he meets his oldest friend at the river’s edge. A friend who devoted himself to Buddha many years earlier. While Suddhartha has found meaning in life, the other has spent his entire life following, without question, the teachings of another rather than teaching himself via experience.
[Siddhartha learns that] a true seeker could not accept any teachings, not if he sincerely wished to find something…..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 obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal.
Those with a western view on life should not shy away from this book. The themes throughout this book cross cultures, cross time, bridge east and west, past and present. The mental struggles Siddhartha lives through are the same struggles we all live through. Avoiding the savage influences of riches, materialism and lust that the modern world inundates us with. It is a book about finding meaning in life. About the need to fuse knowledge with experience to attain wisdom. It is a book about thinking, about contemplating one’s self, about the need to dispose of ego. Regardless of the path one chooses to take in life, this book encourages one to choose wisely, to learn from one’s mistakes (experience), to avoid stagnation, to be receptive, honest and loving. It is a message we can all gain from. As an interesting sidenote, Siddhartha’s character seems to exist within another character from a completely different type of story, that being W. Somerset Maugham’s A Razor’s Edge. In that story, the protagonist (Larry) also swims against the norm, forgoes modernism and riches and heads east, seeking wisdom and a deeper meaning in life. In some sense Larry is a modern Siddhartha, neither captured by any dogma,yet both seeking through teachings of dogma and life experience a greater enlightenment and reason for being. One other side note. In some sense, Siddhartha is the eastern equivalent of John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress, which allegorizes the journey of Christian life. One seeks enlightenment from within, the other from without. One seeks experience of self, one experience of Him via hope and faith. Does beauty, does knowledge come from within? Or, does it exist externally, available for us all if we just open our eyes to His teachings? By reading both, one can easily surmise that God exists externally and internally and offers us hope and salvation by not only following His word blindly, but through our ability to learn from our sins, contemplate our wrong-doing and seek redemption through a deeper understanding of His word, gained by experience. This edition is from the Easton Press Reader’s Choice Series of 2008. It is translated by Joachim Neugroschel and contains an introduction by Ralph Freedman. Outside of the nice illustration for the frontispiece, the edition contains no illustrations. It is a nice little volume, a bit plain, but clean and easy to read. Pictures