“Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse
In just over 100 pages, Herman Hesse tells a poetic, profound and powerful story of a man’s path towards enlightenment. Many stories twice or three times the length of Hesse’s Siddhartha fall short in capturing the essence of a soulful yet intellectual character, the profundity of such a character’s thoughts and realizations in relation to his actions, and appear verbose in comparison to the amount of weight and power Hesse’s Siddhartha carries in so few words.
Hesse was ahead of his time. What distinguishes Hesse’s story of one man’s path to enlightenment from others before and after him is his bridging of Eastern and Western traditions, philosophy and intellectual thought, as well as the bridging of a spiritual, ascetic life and that of society, or “the child people,” as Hesse terms “unenlightened” people. I appreciate Siddhartha’s exploration of the whole range of human possibilities―from his religious upbringing, to a wandering ascetic, to carving his own path as a wealthy merchant and lover, to pursuing a simple life as a ferryman and finally, to navigating the tricky waters of fatherhood.
Many of these events parallel the historical Buddha’s own experiences. Hesse seems to believe that the path to enlightenment is an individualistic, experiential one, and advocates exploration of one’s own life, heart and mind rather than following in the path of someone more enlightened.
Furthermore, Hesse begs the question of whether words and language can communicate and convey the deepest truths or whether it can only prepare us for them. He intimates a lack—the inadequacy and limitations of words and even metaphors, of conversation, of discourses, to capture the true essence (or lack thereof) of the experiences leading up to enlightenment and of enlightenment itself. Few humans who have ever existed have experienced this state of existence. Often, the greatest obstacle to overcome is the self and the self’s desire for enlightenment. It’s a bit paradoxical—unlike most other things in life, the more one desires enlightenment, the less likely one is to attain it.
Siddhartha’s story begins when he is, by my estimation, a teenager. He is born into a family of Brahmins, a privileged caste and one of the highest Hindi social classes during the time of the Buddha, around 625 B.C. His father is a priest of the Vedic order, and by the time Siddhartha seeks permission to leave home, he has already mastered the many meditation tricks and techniques that many fall prey to on the path towards nirvana. He finds himself restless amidst his father and the Brahmins, having intellectually learned and understood all he could from them, he begins to wonder where he might meet a truly enlightened one—one who not only had knowledge in his mind, but also in his experience.
Upon leaving home, Siddhartha, along with Govinda, his childhood friend, spends three years in the forest living amongst shramanas, or ascetics, which I presume to be the original hippies—people who have denied the comforts of modern society to live off of the land in their pursuit of Truth. Siddhartha learns to slow his breathing, and to dissolve his “self” and “ego” to become boundless, formless, shapeless. But no matter how many times he abandons his “I,” for however long or short, he always returns to it. Siddhartha finds himself at another plateau, discontented with the distracting and deceptive consolations and anodynes born of the technical abilities he’s learned from the shramanas, whom he observes are no further along the “path of paths” than the “child people” of urbanity.
Siddhartha and Govinda take leave of the shramanas in search of the venerable Gautama Buddha, the Exalted one, whose story has permeated every village and forest. Siddhartha is skeptical of the Buddha’s teachings, certain he’s learned all he can that words can offer, but when he sees the Buddha, he immediately recognizes and understands the holiness and peacefulness of the man:
“…he gazed attentively at Gautama’s head, at his shoulders, at his feet, at his hand that hung calmly, and it seemed to him that every joint of every finger fo this hand was a teaching that spoke, breathed, smelled of, glistened with truth. This man, this Buddha, was true even down to the gest of his little finger” (25).
Here, Govinda and Siddhartha part ways. The former takes refuge in the Buddha’s teachings and finds his place among the disciples, while Siddhartha chooses to forge his own path.
He has an important conversation with the Buddha before he parts, intellectually engaging and challenging the Buddha’s teachings on interdependency, causality and the unity of the world—bringing forth an age-old debate between monism (the belief of “oneness”) and that of Buddhist non-dualism (which means, “not two” and believes in “emptiness”). The Buddha does not engage in the debate and instead disarms Siddhartha with an implication of the triviality of words and opinion relative to the import of experience. Siddhartha knows the Buddha is right, and is convinced he must continue his journey and find his own way.
Knowledge and intellectual understanding has gotten him this far, but it will not get him where he needs to go. He takes leave of Gautama and goes on his way.
As Siddhartha continues on his path, he weaves in and out of his identity, at times embracing it and at times feeling deeply abandoned and lonely. He recognizes, a couple of times, that the only way to go is forward, and ends up spending several years living amongst the “child people.” He lives as one of them, learns the basics of trade from Kamaswami, a wealthy merchant who takes him in, and the art of love and cult of pleasure from Kamala, a beautiful courtesan who becomes his lover.
For a long time, he lives this way, participating in the world and its games, engaging his senses in the full range of human conditions, without belonging or being owned by them. But one day, he finds himself seized by the “spiritual malaise of the rich” (63), and the last bit of transcendent light inside of Siddhartha goes out. Siddhartha realizes he can no longer stay, and after a day long’s sit in his garden, he recognizes how far he’s strayed and how he longs to return to his metaphysical path. He leaves the city quietly, without notice, unaware he would one day soon have a son.
Before Siddhartha’s inner light is reignited and he is “reborn,” he falls deep into a dark abyss, overwhelmed by fatigue, hunger, shame, misery and suffering. His thoughts move towards death, as does he. Moments before he is lost forever, a preternatural sound, that of “OM,” reverberates his senses and he is jolted awake once more.
Siddhartha, in this moment, experiences yet another “rebirth.” The final chapters of the story follows Siddhartha’s impending enlightenment, as the veil of delusion slowly lifts from his eyes and he begins to see, hear, smell, think, speak, feel more clearly, more compassionately, with increasing frequency. In these final chapters, Siddhartha’s greatest teachers are a simple ferryman and a river, and his greatest and closing challenge to overcome is his final attachment to his defiant son.
In some ways, Siddhartha’s path towards enlightenment mirrors the (non-secular) Buddhist belief of reincarnation and achieving the state of nirvana as a way to break the cycle of rebirth and suffering. Each choice Siddhartha makes leads him down a drastically different path. Each time, something within him—a thought, a sentiment—dies, and something new is birthed.
Siddhartha lives through as many lives and versions of himself in his one life as many of us do in ten. This is the beauty of Hesse’s work—he weaves together a story of many lives into one man’s life journey towards nirvana. With each chapter representing a different phase of life, Siddhartha whets his senses, questions his mind and encounters some kind of spiritual awakening. But his path is by no means linear. This cycle and process repeats itself over and over until finally, Siddhartha’s fleeting flirtations with enlightenment become profound and enduring.
“Strange indeed my life has been, he thought to himself, it has taken strange roundabout routes. As a boy I was concerned only with gods and sacrifices. As a youth I was concerned only with asceticism, with thinking and meditation; I was searching for Brahman, venerated the eternal in Atman. As a young man though I followed the penitents, lived in the forest, suffered heat and frost, learned to go hungry, instructed my body to feel nothing. Miraculously then the teachings of the great Buddha were revealed to me, I felt knowledge of the unity of the world circulate in me like my own blood. But even from Buddha and from the great knowledge I had to walk on again. I went and learned the pleasures of love from Kamala, learned business from Kamaswami, made piles of money, lost money, learned to love my stomach, learned to cater to my senses. It took me many years to lose the power of my intellect, to unlearn how to think, to forget the unity” (76).
There are a few high-level takeaways I gathered from Hesse’s Siddhartha. The first is the importance of experience in additional to intellectual knowledge, which is further affirmed by another book on Buddhism (The Art of Living by William Hart) where the author illuminates the reader on three different types of “wisdoms”—accepted, intellectual and experiential—and the value of each. Toni Morrison has also shared similar thoughts on the matter relative to modern day society:
“We move from data to information to knowledge to wisdom. And separating one from the other, being able to distinguish among and between them, that is, knowing the limitations and the danger of exercising one without the others, while respecting each category of intelligence, is generally what serious education is about.”
Data, information and knowledge are all relevant and even necessary to help steer us towards an experience, but words are ultimately inferior and inept before wisdom, which can not be known in just the intellectual sense but must also be felt, practiced, lived. Wisdom does not become wisdom until it has been experienced, until it has been lived.
“‘Wisdom cannot be conveyed. The wisdom a sage attempts to convey always sounds like folly’” (111).
All of this reminds me of the oft referred to parable of the difference between reading about how to ride a bike and actually learning to ride a bike.
Hesse, and many other Buddhist thinkers, seem to imply that one can only arrive at true wisdom (and perhaps enlightenment) once (s)he has experienced the synergistic relationship between our mind (our intellect), body (our senses) and spirit (our life force, or “energy” ).
My own thought is that these three form the foundation for a strong stool or tripod; if one leg is weaker or another stronger, the stool is off balance and unusable.
Western society has often emphasized one or two of these legs over the other.
During the Romantic era, the focus was on inner emotions and nature, with a rejection of rationalism and intellect. In the past several decades, we’ve moved into a cognitive revolution, where the mind and intellect take precedence over emotions and perhaps nature. For Hesse’s Siddhartha, he begins as a man of pure intellect, who then pursues a life of bodily mortification and indulges in a life of sensory stimulation, before finding his way (back) to his spirit, all the wiser.
It is only then—after failed attempts to reach nirvana via pure intellect, sense or spirit, and having let go of his preconceptions of all three—that he finally attains enlightenment. Perhaps then, one arrives at enlightenment only when the three are perfectly balanced, which is easiest to achieve with total and complete dissolution.
A second lesson from Siddhartha is recognizing the futility, encumbrance and blindness of desire. Desire here means a want or longing for something tangible or intangible—in this case, the goal of enlightenment. This desire, is after all, the impetus for Siddhartha’s story. The more we seek, the less we find. When we’re in want and seeking, we create in our mind’s eye some loose image of what it is we’re looking for, a goal, an expectation. This gives us tunnel vision. Our mind tricks us into seeing things that are perhaps not there and to miss things that are.
This, as Siddhartha explains to Govinda during their reunion in the final chapter, is the difference between seeking and finding. Enlightenment cannot come to those who seek, but only to those who are free, open and without desire or goal. Siddhartha, like Govinda, had been a seeker all of his life. It is only when, in a moment of complete despair and surrender, when he’d “given up” on his seeking, that he is able to hear the “OM” that saves his life—the inner voice, inner spirit, which had been there all along.
“‘When someone seeks… then it happens all too easily that his eyes will only see the thing he is seeking, that he cannot find anything, cannot let anything in, because he is always thinking only of that thing he seeks, because he has a goal, because he is possessed by the goal. Seeking means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal. You, Venerable One, may indeed be a seeker, for, striving toward your goal, there is much you do not see which is right before your eyes” (110).
In the past several months, I’ve been exposed to much of Buddhist philosophy through experiences and books—from my first ever LSD trip, to my first ever vipassana, to my current yoga teacher’s training course, to various non-fiction books about meditation and Buddhist philosophy (Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright and The Art of Living by William Hart). Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha is greater than the sum of these parts.
Siddhartha is the aspirational yet accessible embodiment of Buddhism as a philosophy and way of life. In him, I have not only come to a better intellectual understanding of what it means to follow the path of Truth, but I have also found the courage to follow my own, unique path, to experience all that may come my way—the good, the bad, the ugly—fully, and to, as best I can, not box up any experience into a neat little package, complete with a bow on top.