Hermann Hesse. Siddhartha, translated by Hilda Rosner. New York: Bantam Books. 1971.
Pp. 152. $4. 99.
A DEEPER MEANING by Josh Shulman Many books have great stories to tell. A lot have a deep message to convey. Siddhartha however, is a unique book. Though simple in its style, it is deep in meaning. One can take in its plot and get out of it a good story.
On the other hand one can read deeper into it and try to find meaning from the story. Hermann Hesse somehow manages to tell something to the reader that is much deeper than the words he writes on the page. Perhaps it is the words he chooses that helps readers relate to Siddhartha. Maybe its the dreamlike feeling one gets after reading the book, partially due to how time is not linear in it. Whole years pass without notice, then just a day or two are focused on. This shows how Hesse is less concerned with the specific details of events or their times, but rather how they affect Siddhartha and what he gains from them.
There is a theme of individuality that is developed through the course of the book. As Siddhartha becomes more of an individual, realizing he has to seek enlightenment on his own and for himself, he becomes more at peace and closer to his goal. As a boy, Siddhartha was a promising Brahmin. His father was very proud of him and loved him deeply. Siddhartha was intelligent and thirsty for knowledge and was seen by his father as a great learned man, a priest, a prince among Brahmins (4). He had taken part in the learned mens conversations, had engaged in debate with his deer and close friend Govinda, and had practiced the art of contemplation and meditation with him.
Siddhartha made others happy just to see the hope and promise in him. He himself however, was not happy. Seeing his father whose thoughts Siddhartha believed were fine and noble and who he saw as a blameless man going to wash away his sins daily, when he obviously didnt hav any, made Siddhartha think that his fathers way was not the correct way. Siddhartha also believed that the wise Brahmin teachers had already passed on to him the bulk of their knowledge. With that, one day he and Govinda went to a banyan tree to pronounce Om, the sacred Hindu syllable. When Siddhartha was done meditating he no longer felt that he could stay there any more.
He felt that in order to achieve inner peace he had to move on. Asking Govinda to come with him, he decided to join a band of Samanas. When he goes home to ask for his fathers permission, his father thinks for a long time before denying his son his request. Siddhartha stands in the same place all night in defiance and upon much consideration, his father finally grants him permission to leave. The next morning, Siddhartha and Govinda leave with the group of Samanas. Siddhartha joined the Samanas and assumed the life of an ascetic hoping to attain Nirvana.
He believed that by denying his body, his soul would flourish. To become empty of all things- thirst, desire, dreams, pleasure, and sorrow- was the only way to become empty and let the Self die. He ate only once a day and never cooked food. He fasted for fourteen days.
He fasted for twenty-eight days. The flesh disappeared from his legs and cheeks. Strange dreams were reflected in his enlarged eyes. The nails grew long on his thin fingers and a dry, bristly beard appeared on his chin.
His glance became icy when he encountered women; his lips curled with contempt when he passed through a town of well-dressed people. He saw businessman trading, princes going to the hunt, mourners weeping over their dead, prostitutes offering themselves, doctors tending the sick, priests deciding the day for sowing, lovers making love, mothers soothing their children-and all were not worth a passing glance, everything lied, stank of lies; they were all illusions of sense, happiness and beauty. All were doomed to decay. The world tasted bitter. Life was pain (13). Siddhartha was completely devoted to his goal.
For a long time he was filled with pain and thirst until there was no more pain or thirst in him. Many times, Siddhartha felt that he was able to let his soul leave his body and be without his Self. Every time, however, it would return. He confided in Govinda, his shadow, who followed wherever Siddhartha went, that he now thought that this was not the correct route to Nirvana, that teachings couldnt be. Govinda first thought that his friend was joking but when news of the Buddha, the Illustrious One, came and Siddhartha said he was leaving the Samanas and was going to see this Buddha, Govinda followed.
Together, Siddhartha and Govinda traveled to the town in which the Buddha was staying. They beg for food and are offered a place to stay the night. The next day they go to hear the Buddhas preachings. Both of them agree that the Buddha is truly holy and enlightened. Govinda is so moved that he decides to stay. Siddhartha though, distrustful of teachings, decides he must continue on.
Govinda is shocked that Siddhartha does not wish to stay here with this holy man and they part tearfully. Before leaving, Siddhartha goes to talk with the Buddha and tells that he is not staying because he doesnt think that the Buddha can help him achieve Nirvana. The Buddha listens to him but is not upset by his words. Siddhartha believes that although the Buddha has taken his friend from him, he has given him something else. He gave Siddhartha the realization that he cannot find enlightenment from teachings and that he must find his own path.
After he leaves the Buddha, Siddhartha goes on his way and thinks. He believes he has left his old life behind and he is now a man. The realization that wisdom is gained but cannot be taught came to him. He began to see everything in a new light, not as a cruel trick, but more as a gift. In separating himself from everything he had previously believed in, a sense of isolation came over him as he realized he was alone.
Along his way, Siddhartha meets a ferryman by a river. He allows Siddhartha to stay in his hut and says that one day Siddhartha will repay him because all things come back. He also tells Siddhartha that much can be learned from the river. Continuing on, Siddhartha comes to a village. On its outskirts is an unfenced grove in which he saw a very beautiful woman, Kamala. He greeted her but, embarrassed by his appearance, he puts off formally introducing himself until the next day when he can get a haircut.
When he introduces himself to her he asks her to be his teacher in love. She tells him that he needs to get fines shoes, fines clothes, and money to buy her gifts. Kamala asks him if he has any talents. Siddhartha tells her that he can fast, think, and wait. To Kamala, these are useless, but soon she learns that he can read and write and then helps to get him a job. Over time, working for Kama swami, he becomes more and more like the child people in the village.
Siddhartha grows more attached to Kamala, as she is the focus of his life. He became very used to the pleasures of life and eventually grew completely separated from his old life as a Samanas. When he realized that this way of life is causing him pain, he had a dream of Kamala songbird flying free. He leaves immediately without saying goodbye, and unknowingly left Kamala with his unborn son. Siddhartha came back to the river that the ferryman had helped him cross many years before.
He is full of misery and despair and thoughts of suicide came to him. He fell into a deep and long sleep. Then as he looked at his reflection in the river he said the sacred Om. When he awoke he felt that he had shed his old life and had again begun anew. Rising up, he saw a monk on the bank of the river asleep. Looking closer at the monk he recognizes him as his old friend Govinda.
The two of them talk for a short time but they take their leave of each other, Siddhartha still with great love for his friend. After departing from Govinda, Siddhartha reflects on his life. He understands that he had to go through all the events and experiences in order to get to this point and begin again as a child. Great happiness was mounting in him.
The world looked very different to him now. Remembering the friendly ferryman that took him across the river once before he decides to stay by the river. He wanted to learn from it, and so went to the friendly man. Siddhartha tells him that he lives a great life and, offering his clothes as payment, he asks him to take him across. The ferryman, Vasudeva, recognizes Siddhartha from the past. After crossing the river, Siddhartha tells Vasudeva his life story and Vasudeva sees that the river has spoken to him.
He says that Siddhartha will learn to listen to the river, and he will learn one other thing too but he can not tell him what. The two of them lived together for awhile, occasionally exchanging words that were few and long considered. Time went by and Siddhartha learned from the river. He also became more and more like the ferryman, their smiles growing similar. Many travelers thought them brothers. One day, while making a pilgrimage to see the dying Buddha, Kamala and her son came across the river.
While resting she was bitten by a snake. Siddhartha, hearing their cries for help, finds her and their son. He takes them back to his hut and tries to help her, but it is too late. Kamala dies, leaving her son in Siddhartha care.
The boy mourns and cries for a while and Siddhartha leaves him alone. When he was done grieving Siddhartha tries to treat him with great kindness to teach him the ways the he himself follows. His son, however, is rebellious. It became increasingly difficult for Siddhartha to care for him since he was completely unresponsive. Eventually his son runs away and Siddhartha tried to follow him. Along the way, Siddhartha comes to the realization that he has to let his son go his own way.
His sons departure causes him pain but, after listening to the river, he accepts it as a part of life, remembering how he had to leave his father a long time ago. After finally realizing that he couldnt fret over his son, he had a very long talk with Vasudeva. As he talked to him, Siddhartha saw something in Vasudeva. He saw that this man was the river, that he was God. Vasudeva takes him to the river to listen to it. Eventually Siddhartha had heard what Vasudeva was talking about.
He learned the one thing from the river that Vasudeva couldnt tell him so long ago. Both of them were very old now, and the ferryman knew it was time for him to leave. He left with great joy in his heart, his face glowing, and full of peace. Govinda one day came upon the river, looking for its ferryman.
He found Siddhartha and asked him to take him across. The two of the talk and soon realize each others identity. Siddhartha tries to tell his childhood friend what he has learned, but Govinda can not grasp what he is trying to explain. Finally Siddhartha asks him to kiss his forehead. Govinda saw many images. Somehow, he understood now what Siddhartha meant.
Finally, both Govinda and Siddhartha, two boyhood friends that set off to find fulfillment and enlightenment, found what they were looking for. Siddhartha is a novel that has a hidden meaning. Reading it wont give one the enlightenment that Siddhartha got at the end, but it will help to make a reader understand it. Siddhartha has a wonderful and simple plot.
Most of its characters are simple and represent specific kinds of people. Siddhartha learns from each one of these people and part of all of them is in him. That one has to find their own path in life is the theme of this book. Any person can learn a great deal by reading Siddhartha.