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Book review Philosophy

Siddhartha, An Indian Tale (1922). Herman Hesse

Siddhartha is the fictitious biography of a man who shares a name, and temporal-spatial proximity, with the Buddha, and who echoes many notes of the Buddha’s development. This spiritual journey into the self unfolds in rolling lyrical language, develops psychological insights in vivid imagery, and reconciles the cacophonous conflict between the worldly and the spiritual in a symphony of joy. Siddhartha is most memorable for its portrait of its protagonist: who combines amiability with an openness to endless change, and becomes a role-model for spiritual seekers everywhere.

Siddhartha is the fictitious biography of a man who shares a name, and temporal-spatial proximity, with the Buddha, and who echoes many notes of the Buddha’s development. This spiritual journey into the self unfolds in rolling lyrical language, develops psychological insights in vivid imagery, and reconciles the cacophonous conflict between the worldly and the spiritual in a symphony of joy. Siddhartha is most memorable for its portrait of its protagonist: who combines amiability with an openness to endless change, and becomes a role-model for spiritual seekers everywhere.

Siddhartha, a gifted young Brahmin, has reached the limits of Brahminical knowledge, and yearns to leave him and expand his horizons. His father won’t let him; Siddhartha, in a display of his already superhuman endurance, just stays standing on the spot where he made his request; his father yields. Siddhartha and his bosom friend Govinda set forth and join the Samanas in the forest. Siddhartha masters the Samanas’ ascetic lifestyle, and their talents for fasting and meditating; he cements his Brahminical dualism (the idea that material reality is separate from, and an illusion that conceals, the spiritual realm), and acquires in the process a scorn for all earthly pursuits. Soon, Siddhartha exhausts the possibilities of Samana philosophy, too. It’s time to set forth again – on a journey that takes Siddhartha, ironically if accidentally through the prescribed phases of a Brahmin’s life, to the goal he has all this while been fleeing from: himself.

On his path to enlightenment, one of the first teachings Siddhartha must overcome is maya: the idea that multifaceted material reality conceals the true oneness behind. Siddhartha realises that multifaceted reality, in fact, true, beautiful, and valuable in itself. “Blue was blue, river was river… The purpose and the essential properties were not hidden somewhere behind the things, but were in them, were in everything.” This poststructuralist epiphany frees Siddhartha from the contempt for the real world that blinkered him in his previous life as an ascetic.

Siddhartha is a charismatic and compelling protagonist. Long before he finds his spiritual centre, Siddhartha shows the unwavering self-belief that characterises all prophets. As a young man he goes to see the Buddha. He realises that the Buddha epitomises the perfection he seeks himself. But he realises also that not the Buddha, but only his own experience, can teach him what the Buddha has learned. He lets go his dear friend Govinda, who has resolved to join the Buddha’s followers. He knows in his soul that wisdom cannot be taught: for this very reason, he makes no attempt to teach Govinda this wisdom; parting from him instead in the affectionate silence of the wise.

Later, when Siddhartha encounters a skilled prostitute, he begs her to teach him the art of love. The first series of virtuoso kisses that Kamala bestows on Siddhartha leaves him “astonished like a child about the cornucopia of knowledge and things worth learning, which revealed itself before his eyes.” With a naïve curiosity, utterly free from his former derision for worldly arts, Siddhartha begs Kamala to teach him about sex – the domain of knowledge through which the next mile of his path lies. Siddhartha’s openmindedness, and willingness to learn from any source, make him a worthy role-model and a charming protagonist.

Also admirable is Siddhartha’s ability to pick out, in every creed, what he finds useful. As he matures, he no longer casts away a former phase of life as entirely useless: he’s able to keep what helps. Long after he has disowned Brahminism, he is saved from his single suicidal urge by an echo from his faraway youth: “Then, out of the remote areas of his soul, out of past times of his now weary life, a sound stirred up… the old word which is the beginning and the end of all prayers of the Brahmans, the holy ‘Om.’” Similarly, looking back at the profligate life which he has fled, Siddhartha realises that he needed to lose himself in the lap of lust and luxury in order to achieve an understanding of their true value. He had already dismissed worldly pleasure as worthless: but that evaluation had been based on theory alone, and was, therefore, itself also worthless.

Siddhartha is, of course, flawed. It’s thirst of knowledge and experience that drive him to seek out sex and leisure and business; in doing so, he furthers his own development. But soon he sinks into inertia and addiction; avarice, lassitude, and a unfounded sense of superiority uglify his face. Now in his forties, he undergoes yet another awakening, abandons the wealth he has accumulated, and quietly sets forth again. Like the rest of us, Siddhartha sinks into inertias and oblivions that sometimes last for years. What distinguishes him is his ability to wake up and see what he has become, to pick himself up, shake himself off, abandon the work of years – and set forth again, naked as he was born, on the next mile of the path that he alone can navigate.

In the book’s final section, Vasudeva a humble ferryman serves as the conduit for Siddhartha’s final enlightenment. It is the river, by which the pair make their living, and in whose resounding silence they spend decades, that is the real teacher of both men. “Incessantly, Siddhartha was taught by the river. Most of all, he learned from it to listen, to pay close attention with a quiet heart, with a waiting, opened soul, without passion, without a wish, without judgment, without an opinion.”

Hesse’s descriptions of the landscape reflect an unreal, mythological, and sometimes bizarre India – “And he turned pale like a dry banana skin,” belying his unfamiliarity with the real India. But this infelicity is irrelevant: for physical reality is merely the context for Siddhartha’s spiritual development. At his journey’s beginning, “[Siddhartha] saw merchants trading, princes hunting, mourners wailing for their dead… lovers loving, mothers nursing their children – and all of this was not worthy of one look from his eye, it all lied, it all stank, it all stank of lies, it all pretended to be meaningful and joyful and beautiful, and it was all just concealed putrefaction.” At his journey’s end, too, the river that becomes his final teacher is not a distinct, specific river, but merely a river archetype: the source of universal wisdom for anyone willing to listen.

Hesse’s narrative rolls along in a series of short phrases that lull the reader into the leisurely, fractal, but sure rhythm of Siddhartha’s journey. Here’s Hesse describing Siddhartha’s early and fruitless pursuit of meditation as an escape from the self: “Though Siddhartha fled from the self a thousand times, stayed in nothingness, stayed in the animal, in the stone, the return was inevitable, inescapable was the hour, when he found himself… once again his old self Siddhartha, and again felt the agony of the cycle [of rebirth] which had been forced upon him.”

Siddhartha is a book to savour slowly, to reread, to dip into often as we dash blindly about our noisy lives. A few pages of this lilting prose, of Siddhartha’s colourful journey, calm the mind like a session of meditation. Notwithstanding literal inaccuracies, and the mystery of two Siddharthas living in the same place and time (though the book’s metaphysics hints at this mystery’s resolution), and notwithstanding the passage of a hundred tumultuous years since its publication – Siddhartha remains a book well worth reading.

Read Siddhartha for free here. Read in soft copy to save paper.

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

3 replies on “Siddhartha, An Indian Tale (1922). Herman Hesse”

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