The origin of language according to Tom Wolfe



Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech (Little, Brown and Company, 2016, 185 pages) is a most frustrating book. When, up to page 162, the reader thinks “finally, there is someone who can shed a smidgen of more light on the question of the origin of language”, the author stops short, and, in fact, destroys the whole edifice he has so carefully constructed in the preceding pages. Paralleling the conceptual developments and social acceptance of the ideas of the pairs Darwin- Wallace, and Chomsky- Everett, Wolfe traces an outline of intellectual vicissitudes of ideas regarding the “science” of language, especially as they involve the origin of language. These developments demonstrate the power of the academia which tends to overlook solitary researchers outside of the university halls who have no chance to promote their ideas to the world, especially to the “learned” world, and have them stamped with academic approval.

Mentalist claims have expanded our vision about language but have not received the hard evidence to support them. The origin of language is inextricably connected not only to the picture we have of human evolution in general, but more specifically, to the answer to the following two questions:  Is language biologically encoded in homo sapiens sapiens, i.e. is it an organ? Or is language a cultural artifact like the bow and arrow? Wolfe chides Chomsky and leaps beyond Everett in stating that speech was the first artifact: sounds formed codes, i.e. words (p. 163). Then he proceeds to state obvious commonplaces: without speech, the human beast is unable to make plans, to enjoy an accurate memory (and to preserve it, he writes – he surely means written language, not speech!), to make use of mathematics, to have power over the animal kingdom.

Wolfe equates words with speech, a common mistake made by linguistically untrained speakers and writers. He mentions six extraordinary cases of individuals who changed history through language: Jesus, Muhammad, John Calvin, Marx, Freud, and Darwin, but he does not elaborate on their verbal contribution. He prophesies that “soon, speech will be recognized as the Fourth Kingdom” (i.e.,  regnum animalia, vegetabile, lapideum, and, loquax, the last one inhabited solely by homo loquax, making up the universum loquax  “spoken” universe – he possibly meant to say “talking universe”, but what he says is “talkative/loquacious  universe”! Most probably, he was grasping for the form  locutum, the past participle of loquor, loqui “to speak”), or better, yet, loquentem, the present participle, i.e. “speaking” (p. 168). Clearly, Latin for an English speaker is a well-used point of origin of some interesting new meanings, but in this case, the author’s description of the universe as loquax invokes irony rather than awe. Unless Wolfe wants to underscore the fact that today everyone is loquacious, especially on social media…And this is the crux of the matter: speech and language are devalued to such an extent that even bestselling authors do not check their verbal  creations. And Wolfe, being an author of verbal creations, clearly opts for the definition of language as the “author’s tool”, which does not add anything to our understanding of the origin of language.

The final paragraph of the slim booklet contains the following:

  To say that animals evolved into men is like saying that Carrara marble evolved in to  [sic] Michelangelo’s David. Speech is what man pays homage to in every moment he can imagine.

Leaving aside the sexist language, and unclear syntax, Wolfe does not elaborate on his theory of  evolution/creation of “men”. In what way is “creation”, i.e., “sculpting” the same as “evolution”?

Yet again, as happens quite often in my posts which contain book reviews, my conclusion has to do with the publishing business of today: was this book in its manuscript form ever edited, read by a representative of the publishing house, discussed by the publishers? If yes, they would have noticed at least the following problems:

  1. The title: If speaking metaphorically, where is this “kingdom of speech”? Who is its king (for surely there is no queen in sight)? If the term is used for taxonomic purposes, then there is no need for so many regna: two are sufficient: regnum loquentem and regnum non loquentem.
  2. The question about whose ideas are promoted and why is one of the two crucial points of the whole book (the second one being the answer to the question of the origin of language).  The promotion and reception of ideas are extremely topical themes especially these days, when false news and fake news are being constantly banded about. The book seems to endorse the underdog (i.e., the non-academic researcher), without, however, making a concerted effort to analyze this deeply.
  3. It is clear that in the era of multimedia products, verbal creations need a defender. What is more, language needs to be supported, cultivated, elaborated, in the individual as well as in society. This book could have contributed to this defense.
  4. The answer to the question of the origin of language cannot be delivered by one individual-it needs collaboration among scores of researchers.

It’s all well to throw some crumbs (ideas) on the road, but it is a far cry from a well-developed theory, or at least, a well-developed analysis: hence my frustration with the book.


A new, different human


That the Buddha has become  part and parcel of some indefinite general cultural awareness is obvious from the fact that statues supposedly representing him are now found in home decor stores. Aside from the fact that he would probably be surprised, shocked and annoyed by this development, what is it about him that draws us to him? Is it his iconoclasticism? Is it his human search for a new humanity? Is it his steadfast belief in the power and possibility of human mind and body to overcome suffering? And, therefore, asking about him as a person is natural: What was he like? What exactly happened to him? How did he live? How did he achieve his goal? These and other questions are answered in Karen Armstrong’s Buddha (Penguin Books, 2004). The author makes it clear that the Buddha’s biography can only be partial and full of conjectures, since not only more than 2 and a half millennia intervene between him and us, but also facts about his life are found in writing which appeared more than hundred years after his death (for ex., the Pāli scriptures). This book is therefore threading a difficult and complex ground of centuries of added facts, fantasies, myths about who must have been a charismatic sage. So completing his life story is no mean feat.

The book’s content, after the Introduction,  is divided into sections, more or less following the generally accepted divisions of the Buddha’s philosophical development: Renunciation, Quest, Enlightenment, Dhamma*, Mission, Parinibbāna. The Introduction explains the various sources for the biographical details used, and gives an overview of the complexities of teasing out those which are more plausible than others.  She states that “The Buddha always insisted that his teaching was based entirely on his own experience. He had not studied other people’s views or developed an abstract theory” (xx).  This is an unfortunate statement, since it is contradicted by his constant pre-enlightenment search for teachers and ideas about suffering, explained later in the book (p. 35 and following). The Buddha’s appeal to “our own Western culture” is explained by his “scrupulous empiricism” and also because “He  confined his researches to his own human nature and always insisted that his experiences – even the supreme Truth of Nibbāṇa – were entirely natural to humanity” (xxvi).

In the chapter on Renunciation, Armstrong follows Gotama**’s  route taken commonly by sages, ascetics, forest-monks of his era: in order to cut loose from one’s attachment to people and things which causes pain and suffering, one must abandon the familial lifestyle and search for a way out of suffering outside of the confines of the usual social, economic, political circles. Throughout the book, the author makes connections to “our” (read: modern “Western”) beliefs and attitudes. For example, in this chapter, she writes:

Everything in the mundane world had, it was thought, its  more powerful, positive replica in the divine realm. All that we experienced here below was modeled on an archetype in the celestial sphere; the world of the gods was the original pattern of which human realities were only a pale shadow. This perception informed the mythology, ritual and social organizations of most of the cultures of antiquity and continues to influence more traditional societies in our own day. It is a perspective that is difficult for us to appreciate in the modern world, because it cannot be proved empirically and lacks the rational underpinning which we regard as essential to truth. But the myth does express our inchoate sense  that life is incomplete and that this cannot be all there is: there must  be something better, fuller and more satisfying elsewhere. (p. 5)

At this stage of his life, Gotama is very much conscious of the teachings of his day: reincarnation happens, the soul comes back and is given life according to the actions of the previous host/body/person. What bothers him, and many others, is the ineluctability of the soul returning to yet another life of suffering. According to the author, this resulted in a malaise, common to three parts of the world quasi contemporaneously:

An increasing number[of people] had come to feel that the spiritual practices of their ancestors no longer worked for them, and an impressive array of prophetic and philosophical geniuses made supreme efforts to find a solution. Some historians call this period (which extended from about 800 to 200 B.C.E.) the “Axial Age” because it proved pivotal to humanity. The ethos forged during this era has continues to nourish men and women to the present day. Gotama would become one of the most important and most typical of the luminaries of the Axial Age, alongside the great Hebrew prophets of the eight, seventh and sixth centuries;  Confucius and Lao Tzu, who reformed the religious traditions of China in the sixth and fifth centuries; the sixth century Iranian sage Zoroaster; and Socrates and Plato (c. 427-327).  (p. 10-11)

The chapter entitled Quest deals with Gotama’s delving into various explanations offered by tradition and different teachers as to the cause of suffering: is it ignorance? (Upanisads: lack of understanding of the true Self); is it desire?  (monks of the east Gangetic plains: cravings that make us say “I want”, i.e. egotism). Furthermore, the means to achieve understanding and transcendence included various paths:  meditation (mental exercises), yoga (physical exercises), extreme punitive regimes, self-indulgence.

Gotama’s Enlightenment moment was the result not of his mastering the existing techniques, but of his resolve to “work with human nature not fight against it – amplifying states of  mind that were conducive to enlightenment and turning his back on anything that would stunt his potential. He was developing what he called a “Middle Way” (p. 71). Legend has it that “after the night of meditation, he gained insight about the Four Noble Truths: Noble truth of suffering (dukkha) that informs the whole of human life, Cause of this suffering that was desire (tanhā), Nibbāṇa exists as a way out of this predicament. He discovered the path that leads from suffering and pain to its cessation in the state of Nibbāṇa” (p. 81). And he came up with the Noble Eightfold Path as a way to enlightenment. The Path includes Morality (right speech, action,  livelihood), Meditation (yoga, mindfulness, concentration), and Wisdom (right understanding and resolve). Interestingly, “He had not made this up; it was not a new creation or an invention of his own. He insisted that he had simply discovered  ‘a path of great antiquity, an ancient trail, traveled by human beings in a far-off, distant era’. …this ancient knowledge had faded over the years and had been entirely forgotten” (p. 82).

The chapter on Dhamma underscores specific points of the Buddha’s teaching, specifically, the fact that one should not accept a doctrine on somebody else’s authority  because this could not lead to enlightenment:  it was an abdication of personal responsibility (p. 101). “Letting go” of useless desires, realizing that change is permanent, bring the disciples closer to Nibbāṇa. Furthermore, and this is truly revolutionary (although not original, see the Materialist Ajita’s teachings), “The Buddha always denied the existence of any absolute principle or Supreme Being, since this could be another thing to cling to, another fetter and impediment to enlightenment.” (p. 115) After his enlightenment, the Buddha was also called Tathāgata = one who has gone (after the enlightenment).  “The scriptures say that the Buddha attained Nibbāṇa in late April or early May, but do not reveal the year in which this important event took place. The conventional date 528 BCE, some modern scholarship puts it in 450 BCE” (p. 123).

What was the upshot of the Buddha’s enlightenment? Chapter 5, Mission, describes the blossoming of his followers, despite his vehement repetition that people should follow their own minds. His  sermons reached everyone, and the throngs were substantial. The number of his disciples grew steadily, although slowly at first. Later, donations from kings made  places of quiet seclusion for the monks who followed him (sangha=monastic assembly), but close enough for those townsfolk who needed to come and consult with them. The various understandings of his preaching sharpened into two views, led by two of the most gifted disciples: Sāriputta and Moggallāna. Their understanding

became the inspiration for the two main schools of Buddhism that developed some 200 to 300 years after the Buddha’s death. The more austere and monastically inclined Theravāda regard Sāriputa as a second founder. He was of an analytical cast of  mind and could express the Dhamma in a way that was easy to memorize. But his piety was too dry for the more populist Mahāyāna school, whose version of Buddhism is more democratic and emphasizes the importance of compassion. (p. 130)

This stage of the Buddha’s life also brings into full focus the contradictions of some of his views, for ex.,

  1. although compassionate, the Buddha showed loving kindness to everyone but not to women (and once admitted, their provisions were stricter than for men);
  2. although believing in everyone’s ability to achieve enlightenment, only the disciples were able to learn skillful techniques of meditation (the Noble Truths were not for the laymen);
  3. although he aimed at forging a new way of being human and reform human consciousness, he avoided (consciously?) a close working relationship with kings and rulers, preferring to concentrate not on political and social reform, but on individual enlightenment. Through this, a better society was possible, as life in his sangha demonstrated that contentment without egotism is possible and is in fact pleasurable.

The final chapter on Parinibbāna deals with death and its aftermath. Interestingly enough, the Buddha was aware that not all people believed in reincarnation; his sermons were specifically tailored to his audience. Thus, in the sermon to the Kālāmans, he suggested “they should avoid greed, hatred and delusion, but also cultivate benevolence, kindness and generosity, try to acquire a sound understanding of life, leading to more happiness.  … The Buddha did not impose the doctrine of reincarnation upon the Kalamans, who may not have been familiar with it. If there was another life to come, then this good kamma might get them reborn as gods in heaven next time, but if there was no other world, then this considerate and genial lifestyle might encourage others to behave in like manner towards themselves” (p. 146).***

In the Introduction, Armstrong makes it clear that “The Buddha was trying to find a new way of being human” (xxv). This new way is still new, in a sense that modern life – secular or religious – still clings (!) to the wrong things. This Buddha’s biographer is to be commended for her delicate treatment of the sage’s life. She succeeds in honoring the Buddha’s desire not to look at him, but at his dharma (teaching). Moreover, she puts his life in the context of his era, and makes connections to current cultural practices and beliefs, thus enriching the possibilities of thinking differently about life. All in all, though, the Buddha remains not of this world.


*The author prefers using Pāli rather than Sanskrit terminology; i.e. dharma.

**Gotama is the Pāli equivalent of the Sanskrit Gautama Buddha’s name.

***This is why it is not surprising that aspects of Buddhist thought can flourish without the necessity of belief in transcendence. See, for ex., Rick Heller, Secular Meditation. A Guide from the Humanist community at Harvard. 32 Practices for Cultivating Inner Peace, Compassion, and Joy. (New World Library, 2015).



Controlling Mothers


It’s almost a cliché now to say that the hardships women had to endure (and often still endure) is sometimes beyond description. Rebecca Wells’ novel, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (Harper Perennial, 1996), illustrates a wealth of these hardships brought on by capitalist culture, Louisiana traditions, alcohol abuse, Catholic church, men’s myopia, and family cruelty. But all can be generally borne on the woman’s shoulders on account of the fact that women have each other – in this case, a sisterhood of four strong, resourceful and imaginative ladies.

The narration forms an intriguing, rich in detail, female American novel. The 40-year old Siddalee Walker attempts to come to terms with her deeply troubled, but loving as well as abusive mother. The actions span the era between the 1930s and 1990s; Louisiana is the prime setting, although New York and Seattle’s environments have a role too.  Sidda’s mother, Vivi Abbott, finds solace, audience, and a confessional in her three bosom friends (the real ones, not like Facebook ‘friends’). They do everything together and they can count on each other unconditionally without hesitation, hence the name “The ya-ya sisterhood”. There is an abyss between Sidda and her mother, exasperated after Sidda, a well-received theatre director, reveals some intimate details about her mother’s not-so-flattering behaviour to a journalist who published the interview in the New York Times. Vivi is appalled and does not want to have anything to do with her daughter. What brings them back together is a box of memorabilia which Vivi collected: photos, letters, cards, newspaper clippings, etc. of events connected in any way with Vivi and  with the ya-ya sisterhood. Sidda requested to see the box and Vivi sends it to her. These mementos reveal as well as hide many aspects of Vivi’s life. The biggest tragic event, the moment of a violent child abuse by Vivi, although perhaps perpetrated in her family for generations, is brought  on by medication, alcohol, and horribly ignorant indoctrination by a Catholic priest. Needless to say, the novel’s happy ending brings mother and daughter ever close together, although Sidda admits that she will never know her mother fully.

The narration provides a rich panorama of Louisiana climate, food, traditions, social conventions, which are both an attraction for Sidda and a source of trepidation. The reader can almost feel the humid heat, the aromas of gumbo  and julip, and the warmth of human interaction. The novel alternates voices (omniscient narrator, Vivi, Sidda, letters, newspapers clippings, etc.), a technique which adds to the wealth of images.

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood describes in clear detail how mothers’ behaviour is controlled by societal traditions (be they religious, economic, or social), geographical locations which underpin people’s conduct, and by the extent to which husbands/fathers are involved in raising the family. On the other hand, mothers also control their children and husbands. The femaleness of the novel underscores the network of female relationships women were and are often relegated to for the sake of their sanity. This sisterhood, however, does not remove the psychological problems Vivi faces alone – in a reform school, hotel, sanatorium. It is only thanks to her resourcefulness and stamina that Vivi lives through the traumatic moments in her life. These, nonetheless, bring repercussions for the manner in which she raises her children, especially her first-born Sidda. The paradox is, however, that Sidda wouldn’t be what she is (a successful, thinking, albeit insecure person), if it weren’t for her mother; above all, theatre director and author.


Beyond a thriller



According to Wikipedia, “Thrillers are characterized and defined by the moods they elicit, giving viewers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety.” All of these are present in the reader’s reaction to the novel Conclave. The power of God, the ambition of men by Robert Harris (Random House, 2016).

How exactly is a Pope elected? Should he be Italian or not, white or not, traditionalist or progressive? What are the traditions and rules the cardinals have to adhere to? What politicking goes on while in conclave (i.e. locked behind closed doors)? What is the balance between God’s will and the cardinals’ intentions? What are the unpredictable elements in such a closed environment? These are the questions answered in this fast-paced, well-researched fictional narrative. The setting is the Sistine Chapel and surrounding buildings in the Vatican, the characters are mostly the cardinals entrusted in the election of the pope, the plot revolves around the actual voting, but there are twists and turns which have to do with the personal characteristics of the cardinals (those most predicted to become the Pope, as well as those least suspected). Political context (manifestations, terrorist bombings) frame the narrative. The time in which the actions take place is perhaps near to our future, maybe just past the current papacy of Pope Francis or the one after him. The omniscient narrator offers his descriptions of the action through the character of Cardinal Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals: a slow, slightly infirm, but intelligent and honest man who has been in the Vatican for a long time and is quick to avoid scandals and steer the media (in southern Italian dialects, meli  means “honey”).

Clearly, there is suspense and excitement when the election of a new Pope is happening,  by virtue of the expectations, desires, prayers of all Christians and not, and by the weight of the decision put on the shoulders of the 118 men who have to come to a majority agreement. The anxiety is evident in the initial vote cast where any cardinal’s name can be put on the ballot. These common and expected elements could make an interesting thriller. But Harris goes beyond the regular plot. At least two surprising elements turn up which make for a definitely interesting, though-provoking, and above- average narration, because they allow for  flight of the imagination outside of the confines of the conclave thriller.

1) The first surprise element deals with a blemish on the character of a very strong papacy candidate, the Nigerian Cardinal Joshua Adeyemi. While very young, and while already in the clergy, he fathered a son. This news comes as a complete bombshell, brought about by the seemingly chance visit from the mother, a Nigerian nun, a sister with the Daughters of the Charity of St. Vincent De Paul.   Lomeli has to deal with it. Of course, the affair is hushed but Adeyemi has no chance of winning through skillful re-direction of votes. Thus, the chance of the first black pope is lost.

However, the bigger question is whether absolutely no one human being is beyond reproach. And, conversely, if one  is a sinner, one cannot be a great, admired, idolized musician/ politician/ journalist/ actor/ instructor/ etc. etc. etc., and of course, pope. It seems that especially nowadays “sins” such as sexual predation, rape, violence against women and men, lying, cheating, and other illegal behaviours do not constitute grounds for firing presidents, politicians, actors, etc., nor these “fallible” people fall from grace of the general public. Are cardinals then different than other humans?

2) The second surprise has to do with the gender and sex of the pope. While there is the myth of Joanna, seemingly the only female pope in history, clearly the sex and gender of the pope are not matters of choice or discussion. The pope is a male and is a man. And yet, Harris suggests that a woman can rise to the top of the Catholic hierarchy. But there is a physiological circumstance: she has to have a medical condition, a deformity (fusion of the labia majora and minora), and therefore she is not a real, complete woman. The pope then can be a person who is less than a woman. It also helps that Benites (she) is a Philippino, therefore the long-awaited Third World pope.

The novel’s content, with its focus on the election of the pope, has the opportunity to touch upon other topics as well, such as the question of wealth and economic dealings of the Catholic church, the sexual misconduct of its clergy, losing faith in the Church, the “hand of God” in human affairs. Harris also uses striking similes and metaphors to bring the reader into what it must feel like being sequestered from the world. For ex., “…the reporters and photographers started calling out to the cardinals, like tourists at a zoo trying to persuade the animals to come closer” (p. 20); “Behind the thick bulletproof glass, priests and security men moved silently in the yellowish glow like creatures in an aquarium”  (p. 47), “We are an Ark, he thought, surrounded by a rising flood of discord.” (p. 34), etc. Memorable are also depictions of some characters: “Cardinal Goffredo Tedesco was the least clerical-looking cleric Lomeli had ever seen. If you showed a picture to someone who didn’t know him, they would say he was a retired butcher, perhaps, or a bus driver” (p. 45);  a Canadian, Cardinal Tremblay, “looked like a cleric in some Hollywood romantic movie: Spencer Tracy came to mind.” (p. 140).

In conclusion, Harris has created a fast-paced, suspenseful drama, peopled with quirky and interesting characters, unpredictable events, and Catholic pomp and circumstance. He has also highlighted two timely topics with which society is still grappling, giving them, however, still slightly traditional answers. A worth-while read.

Reason can not coexist with inscrutability


The main theme of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist (transl. Alan R. Clarke; HarperOne, 2014, first ed. 1988) can be summed up in the following sentence: To attain your dreams, you need money. In other words, this fable-like, deceptively simple narration hides a complex web of philosophical assumptions, historical knowledge, religious and traditional beliefs. All of these, however, are by-products of one aspect of the modernist grand narrative: that of money.

The plot follows the journey of an unusual shepherd “boy” (his age is never given – maybe for a purpose), Santiago, who dreams the same dream twice. This dream urges him to go to the Egyptian pyramids to find a treasure. He consults a gypsy and Melchizedek (both for a fee) who simply tell him to follow his heart’s desires, which become his Personal Legend.  From his native Andalusia he travels to Tangier where he is robbed so he has to earn money to be able to join a caravan headed for the pyramids. The desert gives him a chance to meditate on his life and learn about alchemy (which does not make an impression on him). In a forced rest on account of tribal wars the caravan has to stop at the Al Fayoum oasis where he falls in love with Fatima, meets a real alchemist, and almost becomes the oasis counselor. This is thanks to this reading of two hawks as an omen of war. Despite the war, the alchemist takes him close to the pyramids where is is robbed again; but the  alchemist makes gold and gives some to Santiago. He then returns to Andalusia, and digs under a tree where he once rested with his sheep. There he finds a treasure and heads back to Al Fayoum to Fatima.

Coelho, through his artistic skill,  has the reader fall for the fairy-tale atmospheres, mythical Arab wisdom, pyramids, do-what-your-heart-tells-you attitude, so that the protagonist’s “Personal Legend” (dream? purpose in life?), the Universal Language of the World Spirit, and the accoutrements of the mystery of life are prominently foregrounded. The messages are clear: listen to your heart, fulfill your childhood desires, interpret your dreams as omens,  follow the ancient traditions and religions, travel, don’t rock the boat, keep making money.  Under this surface patina, so attractive to countless readers, there are, however,  troubling undertones which make these feel-good concepts look incomplete. Here is just a sample of these bothersome undercurrents, contradictions, and not fully-exploited themes.

1. The novel is set during an undefined era, in a sort of rarefied atmosphere. The protagonist never feels hunger, and although he’s robbed twice, the first time he earns money by working in a crystal shop and the second time the alchemist provides him with gold. His father gives him enough money to buy sheep, in order that he can embark on the occupation of shepherd.  So the message here seems to be “believe your lottery ticket is the winning one”, and if you are middle class, so much the better. And therefore, the underlying message often exemplified in the novel says that the universe conspires to help you to achieve your Personal Legend. The fact that giving oneself up to occult and hidden forces is not the reasonable answer is never considered in the novel. Reason is defeated and inscrutability takes charge.

2. The name of the protagonist, Santiago, is highly interesting.  Santiago (Saint James, also called Santiago Matamoros) is now the patron saint of Spain (and Portugal and many other nations). One of the legends narrates of his miraculous apparition and help given the Spaniards in their battle against the Moors (battle of Clavijo, 844). When Santiago meets the alchemist for the first time,  he “was reminded of the image of Santiago Matamoros, mounted on his white horse, with the infidels beneath his hooves. This man looked exactly the same, except that now the roles were reversed.” (p. 113) Now he is the infidel who waits for the blow of the sword, but it does not come. In the book, Santiago is asked to become the counselor of the group that governs the oasis, an offer which he declines. Clearly, Christian-Muslim relations are one of the latent themes of the book, but never exploited in full. For example, the concept of Maktub (it is written) is mentioned a few times, and reason does not prevail: Tradition is taken as the measuring stick, inscrutability wins again.

3.   One of the most prominent conceits in the novel is expressed by the alchemist when Santiago is supposed to perform his metamorphosis and become the wind that sweeps the oasis to show the Arabs that he has mysterious powers (so that they would fear him and let him and the alchemist go). Santiago is doubting that he can perform this miracle, and the alchemist says: “Then you’ll die in the midst of trying to realize your Personal Legend. That’s a lot better than dying like millions of other people, who never even knew what their Personal Legends were.” (p. 146) This statement, smug as it is, contradicts something stated before: children (presumably all children) know what their heart wants, so everyone know their Personal Legend is.

4. Accepting armed conflict as the inevitable result of keeping tradition alive means not challenging the status quo. When the oasis is attacked by a group of Arabs (which is against the Tradition – oases should not be violated in this way), the attackers are killed, their leader hanged from a dead palm tree (death without honor). But the whole battle rests on the reason for the fight: the invading group was starving and thirsty. There seems to be a contradiction here: all religions urge believers to engage in acts of generosity towards those who are less fortunate – but the episode says just the opposite, kill the unfortunate ones, never mind sharing food with them. So Maktub (it is written) makes for contradictory behaviour. Reasoning was not even considered before the conflict started.

5. In the fight between reason and emotion, emotion wins. This is clearly seen from the way verbal language is devalued and disregarded. According to the alchemist, “people become fascinated with pictures and words, and wind up forgetting the Language of the World.” (p. 90) The word language is used often, but with the meaning of non-linguistic communication, especially that of omens, dreams, such as “true language of the universe” (68) ,  “language of enthusiasm” (64), “language that doesn’t depend on words” (46), even the caravan and desert “speak the same language” (81). The novel does not attempt to build a bridge between reason and emotion, intuition, mystification. On the other hand, it is ironic that novels are written using verbal language, a means that is devalued in this book.

6. Omens form the backbone of the plot, and the Englishman who wants to become an alchemist goes so far as to say that “Everything in life is an omen. … There is a universal language, understood by everybody, but already forgotten.” (74) The camel driver “knew that any given thing on the face of the earth could reveal the history of all things.”  (104)  The interpretation of omens, though, is mostly the purview of “specialists” (gypsies, old Testament characters, alchemists). Santiago has to rely on Urim and Tummim to give him answers. He is not urged to think on his own, abandoning reason to mystery, intuition, and feeling.

7. Last but not least, the plot of the novel would not exist without the necessary monetary support for the protagonist. There is nothing that happens without money: dreams of traveling, Personal Legend of finding a treasure, looking for help in interpreting his dream, joining a caravan, all depend on his ability to pay. Money is the conduit to the protagonist’s happiness. Although the meaning of the word treasure  can be metaphorical, it is the gold and money treasure he finds at last under the tree in Andalusia that allows him to go back to the desert to join his love, Fatima. The only two characters  who give him money without asking, in fact, are his father and the alchemist.

In conclusion, The Alchemist is a nice fable, a respite from violence and gore and other unpleasantness. But it is also a great example of the unseen power of the pull of money. Dreams can be fulfilled, but this fulfillment depends on one’s ability to pay. Trusting one’s intuition and heart is not sufficient. The beauty of a fable is that even here there is one dissenting voice, that of the crystal salesman, who tells “the boy”: “I don’t want anything else in life. But you are forcing me to to look at wealth and at horizons I have never known. Now that I have seen them, and now that I see how immense my possibilities are, I’m going to feel worse than I did before you arrived. Because I know the things I should be able to accomplish, and I don’t want to do so.” (60) In other words, to each his/her/its own Personal Legend.





Ancient India


It is impossible to give an account of the content of an informative book of 676 pages; one can only touch upon some memorable details. What can be said with certainty, though, about this great historical account is that the author’s love, admiration, and tenderness toward his subject shine through every page. A.L. Basham’s tome, The Wonder That Was India. A survey of the history and culture of the Indian sub-continent before the coming of the Muslims (Picador, 3rd edition, 1967, first published in 1954), is to be savoured slowly. It is an interesting companion to Pankaj Mishra’s An End to Suffering (also reviewed here).

The volume’s Foreword is penned by Thomas Trautman, and the book itself is divided into ten chapters and ends with 10 appendices, a Bibliography and References, as well as with an Index and Glossary. It contains a chronology of pre-Muslim India, and  89 plates (illustrations, photos in black and white and in color) as well as line drawings. The historical account touches ancient India from the prehistoric period (3000 BC Baluchistan, and 2500-1550 Harappa Culture) through to the 16th century (Northern and Peninsular medieval dynasties). The author tackles this vast subject geographically (North to South and West to East) according to where chronological developments in culture, economy, social and religious contacts lead. The amount of information receives a logical treatment, so reading flows very easily. No historical outline, however, is complete without touching upon the present. And Basham’s Chapter X, Epilogue: The Heritage of India contains not only those elements which the world received from India, but also an optimistic view of the future: “…the whole face of India is altering, but the cultural tradition continues, and it will never be lost”. (p. 496) This statement, seen from a distance of more than 60 years, and from cynicism due to all postmodernist thought, brings heartfelt positive feeling, only to be undone by recent cultural clashes (in Sri Lanka) and by the rapid leveling of all cultures in the world into one technological maelstrom.

What follows are outlines of each chapter.

From the Introduction (Chapter I), we learn that the name India comes from the name of one of the two most important rivers, Sindhu (Indus), which the Persians pronounced as Hindu. It is noteworthy that, according to the author, the effects of the northern mountains (Himalayas) on the social, economic, and cultural development of India has been overrated, but of course their importance as sources of the two most important rivers (the Indus and Ganga) is paramount. The history of India is unique (similar to that of China) in that some of the most ancient traditions have been preserved until the present day – a situation which is not mirrored in Egypt or Greece. The continuous traditions came to be studied, from the European perspective, in the 18th century: among the first scholars who delved deeply into India’s history were Jesuit fathers who mastered Sanskrit (for ex., Father Hanxleden who worked in Kerala from 1699 to 1722), but the pre-eminence of research falls into the English hands starting with Sir William Jones (who came to Calcutta as a judge of the supreme court, 1746-94), a linguistic genius, to whom we owe a scientific proof of the idea that Persian and European languages originate from a common ancestor which is not Hebrew (as had been believed). Under the English administration, India’s ancient literature was translated, and the Asiatic Society of Bengal was established (1784), existing to this day. Archaeology received a boost, too, but most excavations on a large scale began only in the 20th century. Native scholars did and continue to do work as Sanskritists, epigraphists, archaeologists. Basham’s perspective and admiration is clear from this excerpt:

At most periods of her history India, though a cultural unit, has been torn by internecine war. In statecraft her rulers were cunning and unscrupulous. Famine, flood and plague visited her from time to time, and killed millions of her people. Inequality of birth was given religious sanction, and the lot of the humble was generally hard. Yet our overall impression is that in no other part of the ancient world were the relations of man and man, and of man and the state, so fair and humane. In no other early civilization were slaves so few in number, and in no other ancient lawbook are their rights so well protected as in the Arthaśāstra. No other ancient lawgiver proclaimed such noble ideals of fair play in battle as did Manu. … To us the most striking feature of ancient Indian civilization is its humanity.... India was a cheerful land whose people, each finding a niche in a complex and slowly evolving system, reached a higher level of kindliness and gentleness in their mutual relationships than any other nation in antiquity. For this, as well as for her great achievements in religion, literature, art and mathematics, one European student at least would record his admiration of India’s ancient culture.  (pp. 8-9)

This paragraph not only clearly states Basham’s esteem, but also touches upon a number of strands that fill the loom of Indian history, but whose interpretation by no means receives a universal acceptance. These are as follows: India was a cultural unit in antiquity; social relations were humane; laws protected the humble classes.

Chapter II deals with Prehistory: The Harappa culture and The Aryans. Stone tools (hand axes, arrowheads, etc.) were found both in northern and southern India and could be dated to about 100 000 years ago.* Agricultural settlements were excavated in Baluchistan and lower Sind, dating from the end of the 4th millennium, when the climate was very different. Various cultures thrived, separated by the manner in which they produced pottery (in the North red, in the South buff), but they were united in worshiping a Mother Goddess, of whom small statuettes were found. The civilization of the Indus, now called the Harappa culture (2500-1550 BC), known from excavation in Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, and other cities, was apparently based on oligarchic commercial republic system, since no remains could be identified as places of worship nor weapons were found there. Harappa had a thriving agricultural economy and exported produce and cotton, metal and semi-precious stones which found their way to Mesopotamia; numerous family seals with emblems and inscriptions were found. Waves of invaders destroyed the existing villages and replaced the existing culture. These invaders were probably Vedic Aryans, and called themselves Aryas (anglicized into Aryans; the form survives as Iran, cognate with Eire).  These migrated from the North-West; the invasions to India covered centuries and various tribes. One tribe, the Bharatas, included priests who perfected advanced poetic technique, and the hymns were passed down by word of mouth only through careful memorization. This great collection of hymns is the Rg Veda, still the most sacred text of the Hindus, and it, as well as the Brahmanas, and Upanisads, form the basis of our knowledge about the ancient Aryans. It is probable that the hymns of the Rg Veda were composed between1500 and 1000 BC.  The Aryans were organized in tribes led by chiefs (raja) and they were fighting not only the natives (Dāsa) but also among themselves. Apparently, the retroflex consonants existing in Sanskrit and other modern vernaculars are due to the influence of  the natives’ languages while learning Sanskrit. Aryans seem to have had class divisions in place: ksatra (the nobility), vis’ (ordinary people), brāhmana (priest), sudra (serf); these divisions deepened as the Aryans laid great stress on purity of blood, so children born of  intermarriage with natives and non-assimilated natives were considered low class. The Sanskrit word used for these divisions is varna (color), and not caste, term which is generally accepted today. The Aryans engaged in a mixed pastoral and agricultural economy, the horse and the cow were utilized greatly; inebriating drinks (sama and sura)  were very popular – used in sacrifices and during festivities. They were warlike and kept pressing on to the eastern parts, setting up kingdoms in Kosala and Kasi and later Videha. Consolidated kingdoms of the later ages were still ruled by kings, but their power was much limited by the power of the Brahmans and that of the public opinion. “Political divisions based on kingship were giving place to those based on geography, and in many parts of India the tribes were rapidly breaking up. This, and the strong feeling of insecurity which it caused, may have been an important factor in the growth of asceticism and of a pessimistic outlook on the world, which is evident throughout this period.” (pp. 42-43).

Chapter III focuses on History: Ancient and Medieval Empires.  From the 6th century BC on, the historian can rely on more numerous written sources: this time brought great ferment not only in the spiritual domain (ascetics, mystics, the Buddha, etc.), but also advancement in commerce and politics. The old order of brahmanic culture slowly disappeared and new kingdoms arose in the east: Magadha, Vatsa and Avanti. The policy of Bimbisara and Ajatasatru (both kings of Magadha) seemed to aim at the control of as much of the course of the Ganga as possible – conceivably the idea of a far-flung Indian empire in the making. The Greeks’ permanence in India was short – about 80 years. Alexander crossed the Indus in 326; Megasthenes, as ambassador (305 BC), traveled and saw the Mauryan court and greatly admired its emperor Candragupta, a precursor of Asoka, the greatest and noblest ruler India has known. Then come various invasions from Central Asia as well as Iran.  In the 4th century of our era, Candra Gupta rose to power, ruling over Northern India, and his imperial advancements were continued by other rulers establishing the Gupta empire. Further raids occurred between the 7th and the 10th century (invaders from Central Asia, and the Huna, Arabs, Turks). All the while dynastic wars continued.

Chapter IV discusses The State: Political Life and Thought. The main sources of information are textbooks on statecraft, the administration of force, the conduct of kings.  Kautiliya Arthasastra gives detailed instructions on control of the state, organization of the national economy, and conduct of war. The great epics Mahabharata and Ramayana also contain sections which provide information on statecraft as it existed in the early centuries of our era. Kingship, royal function, oligarchies and republics, councillors and officials, local administration are described in this chapter. Legal literature, elucidating the obscure sacrificial instructions of the Brahmanas, was written in the form of brief aphorisms (sutras) and they were later versified. These Smrti (remembered) writings are distinct from the earlier Vedic literature Sruti (heard). The king’s duty was to uphold the Dharma (“the divinely ordained norm of good conduct, varying according to class and caste, “the Sacred Law”, p. 114) by means of Danda (coercion/punishment/justice). Militarism was one constant aspect of any kingdom, but “The intense militarism of ancient India did not lead to the building of a permanent empire over the whole sub-continent.  … numerous factors prevented the unification of the recognized cultural unit… the size of the land … the martial tradition itself.” (p. 124) In India, “Hinduism, which had no all-embracing super-national organization, rather encouraged inter-state anarchy by incorporating many martial traditions into the Sacred Law.” (p. 129)

Chapter V describes Society: Class, Family and Individual. In social conduct, there is a common Dharma, i.e. rules of conduct, but there exist also Dharma rules which are intended for different distintions by class, age, gender, etc. The biggest distinction was between the twice-born and those who could not be initiated into the Aryan status.

The Brahman was thought of as a divinity in human form, and he was accorded precedence, honor and worship. He was responsible for carrying out the sacrifices to ensure prosperity, and some were great teachers of the Vedas. There were various classes and types of professional priests; but all were feared and maintained by the king and the population at large. The ksatriya (ruling class) was responsible for protection, i.e. fighting in war and governing in peace. The vaisya (mercantile class) was made of farmers, keepers of cattle and petty merchants; although they were a distant third group, – they could be oppressed at will by the upper two classes – ,  some achieved great wealth. The sudras were not twice-born, and these were of two kinds: “pure” or “not-excluded” and “excluded”.  Their duty was to wait on the other three classes; they had few rights; and were not allowed to hear or repeat the Vedas. Below the sudras there are the untouchables, outcastes, depressed classes (the candala group).  Slavery is also discussed. The four stages of life, which together with the idea of class are the bulwarks of Hindu society, are described in detail:   after receiving the sacred thread (i.e. the second birth), youth were to lead an austere life as students at the home of their teachers; having mastered the Vedas, they returned home to marry and become householders; once they have seen their children and grandchildren, they left their homes and lived in the forest as hermits. Clearly, these rules pertain to boys. Women were always minors at law. They could hold specified amounts of property, could become nuns but not officiate. But the role of women was to marry and take care of their menfolk and children. The wife’s fidelity was sacrosanct.

Chapter VI focuses on Everyday Life: The daily round in city and village – among the most important sources for the life of a well-to-do young Indian is the Kamasutra. Dice, chess, boxing and other games are described.

Chapter VII takes on Religion: cults, doctrines and metaphysics, describing the religion of the Vedas (the main gods are compared to the Greek divinities), following the ascetics, analyzing the rise of ascetic and mystical doctrines out of some opposition to brahmanic pretensions and deep feeling of uncertainty during momentous societal transformations. Topics treated in detail are Ethics of the Upanisads, Buddhism, the Lesser and the Great Vehicle, Jainism and other unorthodox sects, Hinduism, all illustrated with significant excerpts from the sacred writings. Christians, Jews, and Muslims were not antagonized: “This capacity of toleration contributed to the characteristic resiliency of Hinduism, and helped to assure its survival” (347).

Chapter VIII concentrates on The Arts: architecture, sculpture, painting, music and the dance. Stupas (burial mounds) underwent transformations and became centres of religious life. Temples are described in detail, as well as sculpture , engraving, terracotta products and paintings receive meticulous treatment. The Indian musical scale is illustrated.

Chapter IX deals with Language and Literature. The role of Sanskrit, the language of the sacred books,  for historical linguistics is recognized; Indian grammarians and some of their ideas are described. Prakrits, the language of everyday speech is also preserved in Asoka’s edicts, for example, or in the speech of women characters in Indian drama. It is simpler than Sanskrit both in sound and in grammar. One early dialect of Prakrit was  Pali, still the language of Buddhism in Ceylon, Burma and South-East Asia.. Dravidian languages (Tamil, Canarese, Telegu and Malayālam) also enjoyed literary uses. The earliest important written documents are Asokan inscriptions, written in a well-developed script, pointing to a long previous development. Between the 6th century BC and 5th century of our era scripts underwent modifications: the Devanagari script is used to write Sanskrit, Prakrit, Hindi and Marathi, but there are local variations, for ex., in the Panjab, Bengal, Orissa, Gujarat and elsewhere. Parts of the Vedas, Brahmanas, Upanisads receive high praise for their literary merit. The two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana,  being martial epics interpolated with passages on theology, moral and statecraft, are also prime sources for our knowledge of early Indian civilizations. European aesthetic standards do not appreciate the ornate Sanskrit poetry and its rigid canons of literary convention appreciative of verbal ingenuity. Plays are also described (for ex., “The Little Clay Cart”), as well as Sanskrit prose.

The Appendices deal with Cosmology and Geography, Astronomy, The Calendar, Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry, Physiology and Medicine, Logic and Epistemology, Weights and Measures, Coinage, The Alphabet and Its Pronunciation, Prosody, The Gypsies.


* This dating has now been corrected to much earlier: see Michael Greshko, “These Tools Upend Our View of Stone-Age Humans in Asia”,


siddharthaHow could a young man, around 450 BCE, look for answers to life’s enigmas, especially the feeling of unhappiness? What was it like to meet Gautama Buddha? Are there answers that the Buddha does not provide? What does it mean to abandon life’s pleasures? How does one deal with the pain inflicted by others, especially by the behaviour of one’s children? These are some of the questions dealt with in the novel by Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha (transl. by Hilda Rosner, A New Directions Book, 1951).

The novel’s plot is deceivingly simple: a good-looking young man, Siddhartha, the son of a Brahmin, lives in relative wealth, listens to his father’s preaching, feels the love of his mother and his  friend, Govinda. He is aware of the admiration of the Brahmins’ daughters, he is delighting everyone as well as making everyone happy. But there is no joy in Siddhartha’s heart, so he embarks on the life of the Samanas (wandering ascetics), even though this is against his father’s wishes. Thirst, rain, hunger, self-denial, meditation accompany his learning, but he keeps asking whether these are the right ways to approach salvation. On the urge of Govinda they decide to hear the teachings of Gautama Buddha (in the translation, Gotama) on the origin of suffering, and the way to release the soul from suffering. Govinda is convinced that the Illustrious One is the way to salvation, but Siddhartha is convinced that nobody finds salvation through teachings, that teachings do not show the character and nature of the Self. He is sure that by following others he was afraid of himself, he was fleeing from himself and this is his awakening. He finally looks at the world differently: the sun, moon, river, forest, all beckon him. Attempting to enter the world as a man, he wonders into the grove of the beautiful Kamala, the well-known courtesan. Her courteous manner enchants him and he is ready to become her disciple and her friend. But her teachings are not for free, so he becomes a rich merchant, lives among the townsfolk, but still, for a while, clings to his three principles: “think, wait, fast”. He learns about goodness  but also about the evil ways of the world. He is Kamala’s best lover, but he does not love her. She promises to him that when she is older, she will have a child with him. Meanwhile Siddhartha learns to conduct himself in the world, and the world catches him: possessions, riches, dice, idleness, acquisitiveness trap him. One night, in his forties, he has a dream which indicates to him his lost time, and he is overwhelmed with great sadness. He has spent long years without any lofty goal. Abandoning the town, he falls asleep in a grove when Govinda shows up. He wakes up refreshed and loving everything around him. He comes to a river and meets the same ferry boatman he met on arrival, so many years before. This ferryman, Vasudeva, is poor, but wise. He offers shelter and food to Siddhartha, who works for him. Vasudeva teaches Siddhartha to learn to listen to the river. They both ferry people and animals over the river,  they both smile radiantly, in the evenings they both listen silently to the river. One day streams of people need to cross the river as Gautama Buddha is dying; one of these travelers is Kamala with her son. Kamala dies having been bitten by a poisonous snake, and the eleven-year old boy, Siddhartha’s son, stays with them. But he was accustomed to riches, fine food, soft bed, and accommodating servants. Siddhartha asks him to help out, do chores, but his son rebels. Siddhartha is out of his wits: when he is strict and punishes him, his son reacts violently. But the worst reaction is to Siddhartha’s kindness and love: his son does not want to be like Siddhartha and he runs away, taking away with him all the money Vasudeva and Siddhartha have collected for their work. Siddhartha longs for his son and follows him, even though he is wounded by his son’s flight, Siddhartha realizes that he cannot be with him, so he comes back to the ferryman’s hut. Once, while he crosses the river, he remembers his father’s pain when he himself left his paternal house, and he notes that his pain and his father’s pain are eternal repetitions in a fateful circle. Listening to the river, he no longer hears laughter or sorrow or pleasure – all feelings are interwoven into one word: Om – perfection. Siddhartha ceases to fight against his destiny and radiantly decides to go to the forest where he meets Govinda and they have a long talk. Govinda achieves understanding on Siddhartha’s death.

This plot is accompanied by a psychological search for understanding of how we think, how we feel, why we feel as we do, and whether the search for answers really leads us to salvation, i.e. to break the circle of transmigration of souls, to be free finally of the repetitions of the soul’s suffering. Siddhartha is not satisfied with the teachings of others until he comes to terms with the fact that experience teaches everyone to think differently and more humanely. The biggest realization that he achieves brings him to see everyone else as equal – because everyone else suffers for the same reasons and on account of the same things. Before, he was the son of a Brahmin, put on a pedestal, adored, loved; now he is a suffering father, just like all fathers. “He now regarded people in a different light than he had previously: not very clever, not very proud and therefore all the more warm, curious and sympathetic.” (p. 105)

The following analysis picks and chooses elements of the novel which question the Buddhist thought in general (there are various off-shoots of this belief; see for ex. the explanations in my preceding review).  Of course, Siddhartha’s life brings to the open the questions philosophers have been musing about for many centuries, for example, the active and the contemplative life; living outside of society and living in/contributing to society; taking advantage of someone and being taken advantage of; pleasure and pain, and a host of others. In a sort of rarefied setting, Siddhartha, however, is able to avoid thinking about society and his place in it. Specifically, the focus on the individual path to salvation really avoids to consider simple questions like “If we all become beggars for food, who will actually produce it?”, or “Why do we feel sad and upset if things do not go our way, even though we know that we should not cling to things?”, or “If it is not right to be violent, but if someone else kills the animal, why can I eat it without remorse?”. The strategy for Siddhartha in a way resembles that of Oblomov (the protagonist of  Ivan Goncharov’s eponymous novel): do nothing. Sleep is a common activity shared by the two characters, although the awakening is starkly different. In other words (and, clearly, for different reasons), nihilism seems to be a way out. Siddhartha rationalizes, at the beginning of the novel, this disentanglement from life of learning like this:

There is, so I believe, in the essence of  everything, something that we cannot call learning. There is … only a knowledge – that is everywhere, that is Atman, that is in me and you and in every creature, and I am beginning to believe that this knowledge has no worse enemy than the man of knowledge, than learning. (p. 15)

This is a slap in the face of all the Brahmins and Samanas and their desire to teach the right path towards salvation. So introspection is a means to understanding:

…to recognize causes, it seemed to him, is to think, and through thought alone feelings become knowledge and are not lost, but become real and begin to mature. (p. 30)

But there are feelings which hide deficiencies:

Siddhartha began to play dice for money and jewels with increasing fervor… . …He loved that anxiety, that terrible game of dice, during the suspense of high stakes. He loved this feeling and continually sought to renew it, to increase it, to stimulate it, for in this feeling alone did he experience some heightened living in the midst of his satiated, tepid, insipid existence. (pp. 63-64)

Then he has a dream that Kamala’s bird died and he threw it away, “he was horrified and his heart ached as if he had thrown away with this dead bird all that was good and of value in himself.”  (p. 66) He now must abandon this reckless, useless life of making money and losing it, and must disappear from that life. But his disappearance does not end in ennui or in horror vacui; the previous dissolute life is replaced by calm activities of the boatman, by meditation beside the river which discloses the depth of thought leading to the revelation that conquering time means conquering all evil. “Nothing was, nothing will be, everything has reality and presence” (p. 87), i.e. mindfulness,  and impermanence – the realization that panta rei, everything changes. Despite this, Siddhartha cannot shake his despair when his son does not obey him: the pages which describe Siddhartha’s suffering, frustration, anger when dealing with the insubordination of his son are full of heartfelt truth and wrenching feelings. Once the goal to reach his son’s soul is gone, he feels emptiness and despair, but reminded by the river’s eternal flow, he falls back to waiting, listening, and having patience. Is it his upbringing among Brahmins and experience with the Samanas which helps him not to be destructive at this stage? Where does his strength to fall back onto his own self come from? Why is he not apathetic? Buddhist thought is not clear where to look for strength at these crucial moments when ceasing fighting against one’s destiny is called for.

Siddhartha finds great relief in the perfection of the sacred syllable – Om. It is troubling, for a linguist, to know that although the Brahmins insist on keeping the ancient tradition and  pronunciation intact, the sacred syllable transformed from AUM to OM through time. Although this is a regular sound change exemplified by lots of languages (for ex., Latin TAURU > Italian toro “bull”, or Latin AURU > Spanish oro “gold”), it is inconceivable that the syllable’s sacredness remains intact when such a phonetic change occurs. Does it mean that the sacredness of the Brahmin language is also impermanent? What are the consequences of this dramatic change for spiritual yearning and the understanding of the sacred?

In conclusion, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha opens the mind to a universe of ideas that differ greatly from the received truths of modernity. It also, however, sits on the fence with regards to the individual’s role in society: personal salvation is seen as the utmost good – this is perhaps why Buddhism so easily takes root in North America – but societal troubles are not even mentioned. Moreover, it is not clear where exactly personal  strength comes from when the individual is suffering. Such a fascinating life story as Siddhartha’s makes us question our own innermost feelings about ourselves. And for this reason, rereading the novel means always finding new aspects of the self.