Siddhartha – Herman Hesse

siddhartha-hermann-hesseFirst published in 1922 in German, Siddhartha tracks the spiritual journey of its title character in search of enlightenment

Siddhartha is the handsome son of a respected and wealthy Brahmin in ancient India. He lives what appears to be an idyllic life with his family and best friend, Govinda. Already at a young age, Siddhartha is regarded as a spiritual adept, wise beyond his years. He practices the art of contemplation, can pronounce Om silently, and recognizes Atman within the depth of his being. To all who know him, Siddhartha already has the tools to become a learned and happy man.

‘…a prince among Brahmins.’

But he is not satisfied.

Siddhartha , accompanied by his ever loyal friend Govinda, chooses to follow a new path with a group of travelling ascetics known as Samanas. They believe enlightenment is reached through rejection of all physical desires and the Self. And so he takes up a new life of poverty. As with the Brahmins, he adapts to the ways of an ascetic quickly and is thought to have great potential on his path and again he is dissatisfied. Like the Brahmins, Siddhartha sees the most adept elders of the Samanas are no closer to enlightenment than he and again he sees he must follow a new path.

Siddhartha and Govinda depart again and again are met with a new group of truth seekers, the Buddhist followers of the enlightened one, Gotama. Siddhartha is at first enthralled by the wisdom of Gotama but realizes that he must follow his own path. He rejects the teachings of the great Buddha and continues on, leaving his friend Govinda to follow Gotama and the Eightfold Path alone.

The young hero spends the next several years in an entirely new direction, acquiring wealth and exploring the pleasures of the flesh. He loses himself in money and material, drinks, gambles, grows fat, and forgets the wisdom he once held. He submits to despair to the point he considers taking his own life only to rediscover the sacred Om.

‘The years passed and nobody counted them.’

To summarize the complete novel is to repeat oneself for that is journey one takes.  Siddhartha masters one path only to realize its folly and begin anew. No cognitive pursuit can bring him to enlightenment but having experienced these paths he attains understanding. No single event on his path will bring nirvana because the sum total of his experience is what matters. Hesse wrote in a letter:

“[my] Siddhartha does not, in the end, learn true wisdom from any teacher, but from a river that roars in a funny way and from a kindly old fool who always smiles and is secretly a saint.”

The novel is entertaining, concise and appropriately mystical. For any western mind looking for a way into Eastern thought it is a very good place to start. I first read it in high school and having revisited it come away with new wisdom as only a great piece of literature can bestow. It’s short, it’s fun, and most importantly it’s authentic.

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