How 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.