Siddhartha is a novel about a young Indian man living during the days when the Buddha was alive and preaching.
It was written in 1951 by Hermann Hesse, the Nobel-prizewinning Swiss novelist.
Siddhartha starts on a journey of self-discovery, a member of the Brahmin caste and a Samana, peripatetic ascetic beggars who give up their lives renouncing worldly goods in the search for truth. He and his friend Govinda have many conversations about the Vedic teachings they grew up studying as they are traveling. Govinda loves Siddhartha with a hero-worship intensity not uncommon among young men. Their paths cross the ant-procession of monks who follow the Illustrious One, Gotana, the Buddha, and Govinda makes the difficult decision to leave Siddhartha and follow the Buddha and learn about the Eightfold Path, and in the process come out from under Siddhartha's shadow.
Siddhartha continues on his wanderings, continually self-reflecting on truth versus illusion. He longs to find a coherent, self-consistent set of principles to live by. One day, a woman rubs against him, wanting him in a physical way. He turns her down, but wonders about the importance of his physical self. He'd been taught to avoid the pleasures of the flesh, but he knows the stirrings in himself contain some aspect of truth.
He encounters Kamala, a beautiful courtesan, and asks her to be his teacher in matters of love. She looks at the beggar and tells him she will teach him, but he must become rich and wear nice clothes to be presentable for her. She has him work for the rich man in town. He does so, and becomes successful for the paradoxical reason that he is not tied to a love for wealth, and that his detachment makes him a better businessman. His status as an important merchant please Kamala, and she teaches him the ways of love. But immersion in the world, Samsara, takes its toll on Siddhartha, and years later he feels his soul sullied by addiction to money, status, and physical love. One day he quits it all and wanders back into the forest, in despair that he had wandered so far from his former life as a Samana.
He comes upon a river where he nearly commits suicide. His friend Govinda, in an accidental meeting, happens along and rescues Siddhartha from this fate. Govinda, by now deeply immersed in the ways of the Buddha, spends time with his old friend, whom he barely recognizes in his fine merchant's clothes. They discuss their lives up to this point, and Govinda continues on. Siddhartha stays by the river and meets a ferryman named Vasudeva, an untaught peasant, in whom a spirit of kindness and enlightment resides. Vasudeva and Siddhartha begin to live together. Siddhartha regains his equilibrium, as Vasudeva tells him about the river and its teachings. Vasudeva, who is not good with words, lives comfortably with the gifted Siddhartha. Soon legends spread about the two wise ferrymen who live by the river.
They grow old. In their later years, a procession of monks stream by. The Buddha, the Perfect One, is dying, and monks from all countries cross the river on their way to Gotana to honor his last days. Kamala, who has taken up the Buddha's ways, is in this procession. She has lost her famed beauty, but Siddhartha still recognizes her. She is bitten by a poisonous snake and dies with a peaceful Siddhartha looking on. She leaves him her son, who is also Siddhartha's son, fathered just before he left Kamala's town.
The son is difficult, and Siddhartha begins feeling the guilt of not being able to change the son's meanspirited ways. Eventually the teenaged son leaves him and returns to the city where he has servants who will allow him to continue his grandiose lifestyle. Siddhartha is griefstricken that the son does not follow an ascetic lifestyle as Siddhartha himself has. Yet he recognizes the same temptations of wealth that had entrapped him earlier.
Vasudeva dies, and as Siddhartha grows old, Govinda comes into Siddhartha's life one final time. A series of dialogs between the men bring out the teachings that Siddhartha has learned by his travels. In many ways they are akin to the Buddha's, but instead of having been taught by an authority like the Buddha, Siddhartha's wisdom was self taught, and Govinda realizes that in many ways Siddhartha is a parallel Buddha. His childhood hero had become an enlightened man just because of the unusual journey of life he'd taken.
Why It's an Important Novel
For many college students in the post World War II era, Siddhartha was the first entree into Eastern literature, philosophy, and religion, and thus it seemed exotic and novel. It was a short novel, easily readable in a day, a Hindu and Buddhism for Dummies book. Some of these college students became teachers and professors and presented Siddhartha to high school and college students. It was easily digested, and it contrasted Eastern religions with the post-war Bishop Sheen type of Christianity that the fathers who fought in Anzio and Normandy believed in. Being young and impressionable, the children of the Gray Flannel Suit corporate climbers took this quasi religious book as Holy Script and made it the basis for their ill defined quasi religions. Some got serious about Buddhism and became truly religious. Most did not, and went the way of Robert Pirzig and his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. God was everywhere. God was all. God was... well, God was everything Christianity was not.
It's meaningful to teenagers who rebel against answers presented them in neat packages in church. LaylaLeigh's writeup, Siddhartha, is a perfect example of a high schooler who latches onto this book as received wisdom. In the 1960s, this book was very big among hippies. Hippies who did drugs usually progressed on to Carlos Castaneda and his mystical hallucinatory bullshit.
Hesse's style is reminiscent of Plato's. The dialogs are contrived, as between Plato and Socrates in The Republic. One character is used as nothing more than a sounding board for the main character's pontifications. In this case, Siddhartha's friend Govinda is a confused friend with no spine, who asks eternal questions of the noble Siddhartha, who comes across as a tiresome pontificating ass. (Forgive me. This may be middle age speaking. I've long ago lost patience with people who know all the answers.)
Why I'm Writing About This
When I was done with this book, it represented the end of a thread that began over thirty years ago. It gave me closure. My brother Werner handed me this book and urged me strenuously to read it when we were both in high school.
Siddhartha gave him a vantage point outside of his existing one (and mine). Lutheran church teachings, Jesus as son of God, sin, evil, goodness, these were our foundational thoughts. He was struggling with his internalized realization of his gayness, or at least his bisexuality. When all around us were families of nice hetero married couples, who were blindly following a path that their parents followed, who in turn were following a path set by their parents... Werner picked up Siddhartha and began reading. He was wild about the book.
I was a big skeptical. At the time Siddhartha was thought to be a racy book. Kamala was a woman who embraced the life of the flesh. She was a courtesan, a prostitute, and the novel did not condemn her lifestyle. It was what it was. I thought this was contrary to God's word, and thought the whole Eastern religion was not just bullshit, but anti Christian. I was closed to the whole novel and all of its ideas in it.
I rejected it, and in so doing rejected Werner's quest for truth outside of our framework, the framework of religion and ways of living in which we were immersed. He was angry with me for my unquestioning attitude. He was right to do so.
I've been wrong about a lot of things. The older I get, the more I question whether I have really learned anything that is true. Morals, philosophies, theologies, all seem contextually dependent. None seem to be culturally independent. I don't know much any more. I believe in the power of love, and 1 Corinthians 13. Beyond that, not much else is true. Love your neighbor as yourself. Be kind to others. If a person slaps you on one cheek, offer the other. No God. No heaven. Just what's here and now.
I wish I had my brother back. I wish Kaj would get well. I wish my marriage had worked out. I wish I'd been less dogmatic.
It's funny. Some of you younger readers here on E2 think we oldsters have a line on received wisdom. You actually ask me for advice on things. If I hem and haw, and ask you questions about what you think is true and what you think is important, it's not because I'm being socratic and helping you find the truth. It is more an admission of the inadequacy of my own understand of truth, life, and its meaning.