Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
As a young man assigned to read the small, tattered copy of Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse, that my High School English teacher handed out in class, I had no idea I was about to read an account of the life of Buddha. I’d heard of Buddhism before, but I had very little background at that time about Buddha himself. No background is necessary to enjoy the reading of this timeless classic, of course, and in fact if you’ve always wanted to learn more about Buddhism, Eastern Philosophy, India, or you are simply in the market for an epic life story and want to be able to enjoy it in one sitting, well then this might just be the perfect book for that occasion.
We find the Prince, the Brahmin’s son, in his “younger and more vulnerable years”. He has grown up in a world of privilege, with everyone around him loving him both for his looks and intellect. Siddhartha, however, is not satisfied with that life. He is restless and doubtful about many of the rituals prescribed by the ancient Vedas (sacred texts of knowledge) “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.” In one of his first epiphanies as an adolescent, Siddhartha decides to give up the life of privilege and lead an ascetic life, in search of true enlightenment. After having mastered the ascetic life under the tutelage of the Samanas, a religious sect who practices complete renunciation to worldly possessions, and who focus on meditation and the numbing of the senses, Siddhartha once again chooses to find his own way. He severs his connection with the Samanas, hypnotizing his old teacher before leaving, to prove his level of mastery. Siddhartha goes on to meet Gautama Buddha, the sage of that era. Although he greatly admires the Buddha of the era, Siddhartha begins to form his own idea that the enlightenment he seeks cannot come second hand. Again Siddhartha decides to continue on his own path. He meets a beautiful woman, but having renounced all his earthly possessions, there is little he can offer the girl. She offers him some pragmatic romantic advice and introduces him into an ordinary way of living. For several years Siddhartha leads a “normal” life. He goes into business, makes money, and experiences the pleasures and pains of ordinary living. At first he sees it all as just a game. He laughs at people’s material obsessions and is able to take refuge in his ascetic mental sanctuary before being bothered by worldly preoccupations for too long. But “Slowly, like moisture entering the dying tree trunk, slowly filling and rotting it, so did the world and inertia creep into Siddhartha’s soul… Gradually his face assumed the expressions which are so often found among rich people – the expressions of discontent, of sickness, of displeasure, of idleness, of lovelessness.”
Siddhartha is woken up by a terrible dream one night. He walks to a river and is depressed by his own reflection in the water. It seems he’s aged and grown a belly and become the picture of the lazy sacrificial, official he dreaded becoming in his youth. It was time to move on again. And again Siddhartha gives up his earthly possessions. He becomes the assistant of a wise old ferryman who is short on advice but long on experience. The ferryman teaches Siddhartha to listen to the river. Here Siddhartha at last finds peace, albeit a brief period of torment he undergoes when he experiences fatherhood. But from the river he learns the true nature of life. He realizes that like the river life is timeless. There is no past and no present. When one learns this, one is finally happy and at peace. Wisdom then, he concludes, is in accepting things as they are. “Everything that exists is good – death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly. Everything is necessary… 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.”