Herman Hesse, Siddhartha – New Directions Paperbook, 1957 Translated by Hilda Rosner
Read from September 4th to 12th 2014.
My rating: 4/5 stars
Like many other readers I guess, I initially thought that Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha would be some sort of biography of Gautama Buddha. Indeed, even the narrative structure seems to lead to Buddha’s teachings: the first part with its four chapters could hint to the four truths and the second part, with its eight chapters to the Eightfold Path. Even when Buddha himself appears as a character in the story, he might for a while be seen as the hero’s double, whom he confronts, denies and finally accepts as his other half.
However, this is not it. Siddhartha chooses his own path, refusing to be a follower of the “Illustrious One”. Therefore, the dual structure of the book reveals at a closer view three ages in the hero’s life, each of them completed with an “awakening”, an epiphany: the age of knowledge or of the first truth, in the hero’s young years, the age of experience or of the second and third truth, in his maturity years and the age of the wisdom or of the fourth truth, towards the end of his life. Thus the novel turns out to be, apart a novel of ideas, also a bildungsroman.
During his years of knowledge-seeking, the young Siddhartha acquires only a theoretical meaning of the first truth: the truth of dukka, the suffering. Leaving his home for a pilgrim life with the Samans, he frostily contemplates the pains of the people, despising the world with the arrogance and merciless of the youth. He is only an indifferent spectator who thinks he found the way to avoid dukka:
…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.
Siddhartha had one single goal – to become empty, to become empty of thirst, desire, dreams, pleasure and sorrow – to let the Self die.
The encounter with Gotama Buddha makes him question whether knowledge is the answer. Although Gotama explains that his teachings’ goal is not the knowledge itself but the salvation from suffering, Siddhartha realizes that adopting Buddha's view he would only fill the Self with Buddha’s teachings, not truly find the Self. Realizing that Atman does not mean to mutilate and destroy the Self, he decides to leave the Samanas. This decision is his first awakening, his first rebirth:
I will no longer study Yoga-Veda, Atharva-Veda, or ascetism, or any other teachings. I will learn from myself, be my own pupil; I will learn from myself the secret of Siddhartha.
His second step, which could illustrate the second truth, of the origin of dukka, corresponds to the maturity years. Siddhartha decides to play the game of Samsara, that is to experience firsthand the cravings that originate suffering: the pleasure of the senses, the social power, the avoiding of pain. For twenty years or so he learns the art of love, the art of trade, the art of idleness, until one by one he drinks all three poisons that are the roots of dukka: he begins to ignore reality, he becomes attached to pleasurable experiences and he comes to fear for his possessions. The turning point is, this time, a symbolic dream in which, finding a rare bird dead in a cage he equates it with his soul, jailed and about to perish in this world of illusions:
…Samsara, a game for children, a game which was perhaps enjoyable played once, twice, ten times – but was it worth playing continually?
The third truth – of the cessation of dukka – has been revealed with his decision to distance himself from his lover, his friends and his material goods, and the hero takes the final step towards wisdom, the most difficult one, on his own Eightfold Path, that, by following an ethical conduct and continuous concentration will direct him towards the right view of the world. An exhaustive view, in which fits a little bit of everything that was or will be (to respect the time of the narrative) thought and said: animism, Platonic contemplation of ideas, Bergsonian intuition, Leibnizian monadic world, neoplatonic coincidentia oppositorum, and so on, in order to prove that the world is already “Om”, already perfect:
The world, Govinda, is not imperfect or slowly evolving along a long path to perfection. No, it is perfect at every moment; every sin already carries grace within it, all small children are potentially old men, all sucklings have death within them, all dying people – eternal life. It is not possible for one person to to see how far another is on the way; the Buddha exists in the robber and dice player; the robber exists in the Brahmin.
Siddhartha’s way to reach Nirvana is accomplished not only through acceptation (Right Intention) and contemplation (Right View) of the world, but also through love, in an act of Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration:
“It seems to me, Govinda, that love is the most important thing in the world. It may be important to great thinkers to examine the world, to explain and despise it. But I think it is only important to love the world, not to despise it, not for us to hate each other, but to be able to regard the world and ourselves and all beings with love, admiration and respect. (…)
I know that I am at one with Gotama. How, indeed, could he not know love, he who has recognized all humanity’s vanity and transitoriness, yet loves humanity so much that he has devoted a long life solely to help and teach people?”
It was the easiest way for me, because of the title and the mythical references in the text, to offer bits of Buddhist philosophy as lecture keys. However, knowledge of it is not necessarily required, for in the end, the book simply describes the archetypal quest towards the meaning of the world and the Self. And little by little, page by page, the erudite allusions become less important, whereas Siddhartha’s journey becomes our own journey, touching and forever changing our soul by making us believe, even it is just for a while, that we lifted the Veil and caught a glimpse of the unknown.