Review of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha by Abhay Joshi of Pune

A beautiful philosophical novel by a Nobel Prize winner. It’s a story of a young Indian Brahmin’s pursuit of enlightenment. The setting is the time period of Gautama Buddha. The story is rich with philosophy, but the language is so lyrical and the narration so vivid that it is difficult to separate the poetry and the deep philosophy. One flows with the story as if flowing with a peaceful river. The author seems to conclude that no amount of second-hand knowledge and learning can give you the real sense of peace or happiness unless it is enlivened by real first-hand experience.

Siddhartha, a Brahmin boy, is brought up in a devout and learned family, but he is restless and full of doubt about the routine of sacrifice, chanting, and meditation. So he leaves home and spends time with the ascetics who believe in hard renunciation and numbing of all bodily senses. But this route does not bring the salvation Siddhartha seeks. So, he goes and meets with Gautama Buddha to hear his teachings. He realizes that what he is seeking is the state Buddha has achieved for himself, but his teaching does not satisfy him. So, he decides to live an ordinary earthly life and try to discover his true “self”. A long time passes in the world of birds and flowers, sensuous pleasures and pains, and money and vices. Initially, Siddhartha participates in ordinary people’s activities as if they were just games, and views ordinary people as children and laughs at their childish intensity in their material obsessions. He is able at will to return to the inward mental sanctuary of Siddhartha the ascetic and not be bothered by anything for too long. But sure enough he soon gets drawn into the whirlpool of Sansara and all but forgets his real pursuit. Eventually though, a bad dream awakens him and he returns to the river of his childhood and youth utterly shaken and bewildered. He is saved from suicidal thoughts, and then he becomes the assistant of a wise old ferryman who has learnt the art of listening to the river and learning life’s secrets. Here, finally, Siddhartha achieves peace (although there is a brief period of torment when he experiences what it is to be a father). He realizes that life is like a river – timeless, present everywhere at the same time, with no past and present, and when one conquers the unreality of time, one is happy and at peace. He realizes that the wisdom is in accepting things as they are.

The story is presented in a poetic and rhythmic language. A few examples:

Dreams and restless thoughts came flowing to him from the river, from the twinkling stars at night, from the sun’s melting rays.

His worthy father and … the wise Brahmins had already poured … their knowledge into his waiting vessel; and the vessel was not full, his intellect was not satisfied, his soul was not at peace, his heart was not still.

The Buddha went quietly on his way, … his face and his step … spoke of completeness, sought nothing, imitated nothing, reflected a continual quiet, an unfading light, an invulnerable peace.

Slowly, like moisture entering the dying tree trunk, slowly filling and rotting it, 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 looked lovingly into the flowing water, into the transparent green, into the crystal lines of its wonderful design. He saw bright pearls rise from the depths, bubbles swimming on the mirror, sky-blue reflected in them.

As time passed and the boy remained unfriendly and sulky, when he proved arrogant and defiant, when he would do no work, when he showed no respect to the old people and robbed Vasudeva’s fruit trees, Siddhartha began to realize that no happiness and peace had come to him with his son, only sorrow and trouble.

And here are some of the philosophical gems:

One can beg, buy, be presented with and find love in the streets, but it can never be stolen.

Gradually his face assumed the expressions which are so often found among rich people – the expressions of discontent, of sickliness, of displeasure, of idleness, of lovelessness.

When someone is seeking, he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he has a goal, he is obsessed with his goal.

Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One has to find it, be fortified by it, and do wonders through it.

There shone in Siddhartha’s face the serenity of knowledge, of one who is no longer confronted with conflict of desires, 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 all things.

Everything that exists is good – death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly. Everything is necessary, everything needs only my agreement, my assent, my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me. Through my body and soul … I learned to love the world, and no longer compare it with some kind of desired imaginary world, some imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and be glad to belong to it.

PJOP: What can we, as ordinary men and women of the material world, take away from Siddhartha?

As a man of the real world, perfectly stuck in its vagaries and uncertainties, I found the section of the book that dwells on Siddhartha’s own participation in Sansara very helpful. He views every transaction as a game played by little children. He is not emotionally invested in the outcome of these games. He gambles with abandon – with amounts that astonish his more earthly mates. He treats his business partners – whether they are customers or vendors – as humans, and not as means of profit-making. He is as happy to win one big deal, as to lose another. There is a little episode narrated in the book of Siddhartha going to a distant marketplace ostentatiously to make money, but returns with empty hands. But, he had great fun, he says, with all those wonderful villagers feasting him, dancing with him, and what not. His logic is that these wonderful people would certainly help him make money in the future.

This detachment of Siddhartha from the fruits of his deeds is not a new idea – it’s one of the central tenets described in Gita. But, through the real-life examples the book provides it appeals even more and appears to be something that is not impossible to practice.

Siddhartha’s encounter with Gautama, the enlightened, is a must-read for those of us who I think mistakenly look for readymade recipes for everything. Listening to the great Gautama, whose fame is far and wide in alleviating the spiritual pain of millions, it is astonishing that Siddhartha comes away as a skeptic of Gautama’s cookbook for eternal happiness. Of course, it is not a comment specifically on Gautama’s ideas. Rather it is the realization that dawns on Siddhartha that he was not going to benefit from any doctrine, not even one as great and effective as Gautama’s. The author has timed this realization, wonderfully I think, during the encounter with Gautama, since the counterbalance to this sad realization is Siddhartha’s joy for finally getting to observe someone in flesh and blood who epitomized enlightenment. He is endlessly happy that he now knew what he was aspiring for all along. He wanted to be like Gautama – one whose limbs exhibited the perfect balance, one who walked in perfect peace, and one whose eyes emitted perfect happiness.

Finally, this book is a feast for the literary aesthete. It is written in a lyrical fashion, and the story flows beautifully like the smoothly rolling river which is the central philosophical metaphor used towards the end of the book. It is interesting that many philosophical books have been written using the lyrical format. Gita is a great example, and so is the Marathi commentary on Gita by Sant Dnyaneshwar. Also Shankaracharya (aka Sankara) wrote couplets whenever he had spiritual inspirations. Looking at this philosopher-poet duality, it may be safe to conclude that philosophy is not the dry subject that many call it!

I think “Siddhartha” is really a journey of a seeker, and the most significant takeaway from this book is probably that there is no “one” path; everyone must undertake a similar journey of discovery of the ultimate truth. Siddhartha’s interaction with Gautama, the enlightened, beautifully portrays this message. Siddhartha is impressed with Gautama himself – by his serenity and his whole persona – and knows instantly that that is the state he wants to achieve himself. At the same time, Siddhartha has the intelligence to realize that Gautama’s teaching may not be the path leading to that state, and he, Siddhartha, must himself continue his quest. But, at least now he knows what he had been looking for all along. He now has a clear-cut goal personified in front of him in the shape of Gautama.

Siddhartha’s companion and friend, Govinda, travels with Siddhartha almost all throughout the journey, until they meet Gautama. At that point, Govinda decides for himself that he had reached his destination; he had found a home for his soul – the Sangha of Gautama’s disciples. And, so, Govinda separates from his lifelong friend and allows him to continue his journey.

Great works like the Bhagavad Geeta are clearly the result of accumulation of experiences of thousands of seekers – rishis and yogis – who explored different ways to enlightenment. Gita is a tome of this accumulated knowledge. Krishna, while answering Arjuna’s questions, suggests and expounds so many different means of reaching Him. And he informs Arjuna that there is no “recommended” or “preferred” way; one should follow a path that suits his/her temperament and liking.

It does not appear to me that there is any conflict between ‘Siddhartha’ and ‘Gita’ so far as this specific “truth” is concerned. Gita also believes in the timelessness of life, the unity of things, and that life flows endlessly like a river.

PJOP: What is the extent to which Siddhartha follows a typical path in his pursuit of self-knowledge. I mean he is the student, the employee, the family man, the ascetic as he progresses through life—is this supposed to be a typical path?

One of the fascinating aspects of Siddhartha’s story is that he does not follow the typical path an average person goes through in the pursuit of spiritual peace. The average person usually starts out in the material world and goes through a prolonged Sansara (family life). (S)He may then realize the need for spiritual study and enlightenment for him/her-self. At that point, (s)he has a variety of paths available to choose from, and so forth.

Siddhartha chalks out a different sequence in his life. He is brought up in a devout and learned family, which indulges in the routine of sacrifice, chanting, and meditation. Dissatisfied with this lifestyle, he leaves home and spends time with the forest ascetics who believe in hard renunciation and numbing of all bodily senses. But this route also does not bring the salvation Siddhartha seeks. So, he goes and meets up with Gautama Buddha to hear his teachings. He realizes then that what he is seeking is the state Buddha has achieved for himself, but his teaching does not satisfy him. So, he decides to live an ordinary earthly life and try to discover his true “self”.

Thus, Siddhartha enters the stage of “Sansara” much later in life – after spending considerable amount of time in spiritual pursuits. In fact, he decides to experience Sansara only to try it out as another means of finding the ultimate truth, and not as an inevitable step in life like other ordinary people. Therefore, his responses to the worldly events are also very unlike the ordinary people’s. This part of “Siddhartha” is one of the most fascinating sections to read.

Only after spending an extended period of time in Sansara, and after realizing that it was all like a long bad dream, he awakens from it and returns to the river of his childhood and youth utterly shaken and bewildered. There he continues his pursuit of the ultimate truth.

Note: You can contact Abhay Joshi at abjoshi@yahoo.com.

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10 Responses to Review of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha by Abhay Joshi of Pune

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  10. Batool says:

    I have been teaching Hesse’s ‘Siddhartha’ but have been unable to find its relevance to European contemporary culture: the world wars,the erosion in the socio-cultural fabric, the message conveyed by Hesse must have been relevant to The Lost Generation. Could you help me out?I understand that allegory and transcendence are an integral part of this novella but how would one connect two disparate cultures.

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