"Siddhartha" by Hermann Hesse

 

A beautiful philosophical novel by a Nobel Prize winner. It's a story of a young Indian Brahmin's pursuit of enlightenment. The setting is the time period of Gautama Buddha. The story is rich with philosophy, but the language is so lyrical and the narration so vivid that it is difficult to separate the poetry and the deep philosophy. One flows with the story as if flowing with a peaceful river. The author seems to conclude that no amount of second-hand knowledge and learning can give you the real sense of peace or happiness unless it is enlivened by real first-hand experience.

 

Siddhartha, a Brahmin boy, is brought up in a devout and learned family, but he is restless and full of doubt about the routine of sacrifice, chanting, and meditation. So he leaves home and spends time with the ascetics who believe in hard renunciation and numbing of all bodily senses. But this route does not bring the salvation Siddhartha seeks. So, he goes and meets up with Gautama Buddha to hear his teachings. He realizes that what he is seeking is the state Buddha has achieved for himself, but his teaching does not satisfy him. So, he decides to live an ordinary earthly life and try to discover his true "self". A long time passes in the world of birds and flowers, sensuous pleasures and pains, and money and vices. Initially, Siddhartha participates in ordinary people's activities as if they were just games, and views ordinary people as children and laughs at their childish intensity. He is able at will to return to the inner sanctuary of Siddhartha the ascetic and not be bothered by anything for too long. But sure enough he soon gets drawn into the whirlpool of Sansara and all but forgets his real pursuit. Eventually though, a bad dream awakens him and he returns to the river of his childhood and youth utterly shaken and bewildered. He is saved from suicidal thoughts, and then he becomes the assistant of a wise old ferryman who has learnt the art of listening to the river and learning life's secrets. Here, finally, Siddhartha achieves peace (although there is a brief period of torment when he experiences what it is to be a father). He realizes that life is like a river - timeless, present everywhere at the same time, with no past and present, and when one conquers the unreality of time, one is happy and at peace. He realizes that the wisdom is in accepting things as they are.

 

The story is presented in a poetic and rhythmic language. A few examples:

 

Dreams and restless thoughts came flowing to him from the river, from the twinkling stars at night, from the sun's melting rays.

 

His worthy father and ... the wise Brahmins had already poured ... their knowledge into his waiting vessel; and the vessel was not full, his intellect was not satisfied, his soul was not at peace, his heart was not still.

 

The Buddha went quietly on his way, ... his face and his step ... spoke of completeness, sought nothing, imitated nothing, reflected a continual quiet, an unfading light, an invulnerable peace.

 

Slowly, like moisture entering the dying tree trunk, slowly filling and rotting it, so did the world and inertia creep into Siddhartha's soul; it slowly filled his soul, made it heavy, made it tired, sent it to sleep.

 

He looked lovingly into the flowing water, into the transparent green, into the crystal lines of its wonderful design. He saw bright pearls rise from the depths, bubbles swimming on the mirror, sky-blue reflected in them.

 

As time passed and the boy remained unfriendly and sulky, when he proved arrogant and defiant, when he would do no work, when he showed no respect to the old people and robbed Vasudeva's fruit trees, Siddhartha began to realize that no happiness and peace had come to him with his son, only sorrow and trouble.

 

And here are some of the philosophical gems:

 

One can beg, buy, be presented with and find love in the streets, but it can never be stolen.

 

Gradually his face assumed the expressions which are so often found among rich people - the expressions of discontent, of sickliness, of displeasure, of idleness, of lovelessness.

 

When someone is seeking, he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he has a goal, he is obsessed with his goal.

 

Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One has to find it, be fortified by it, and do wonders through it.

 

There shone in Siddhartha's face the serenity of knowledge, of one who is no longer confronted with conflict of desires, who is in harmony with the stream of events, with the stream of life, full of sympathy and compassion, surrendering himself to the stream, belonging to the unity of all things.

 

Everything that exists is good - death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly. Everything is necessary, everything needs only my agreement, my assent, my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me. Through my body and soul ... I learned to love the world, and no longer compare it with some kind of desired imaginary world, some imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and be glad to belong to it.

 

Recommended for Age-group: 18 and above (spiritual/philosophical content)

 

 

Last updated: 27 February 2016

 

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