The tale of Siddartha opens with the reader being introduced to its protagonist- the son of a wealthy Brahmin- his friend Govinda and their indulgent lifestyles. My first impression was that the style of writing was simplistic, feeling in some ways like blatant allegory; a sense of fairy tale, which led me to realise that there would be no long winded introductions or explanations involving the characters or their actions; what will only be delved into thoroughly will be philosophy and theology, and even within the first couple of chapters I got the feeling that the characters, even Siddartha, will serve primarily as metaphors for this purpose… the story isn’t about them, but what they discover of the world around and within them.
Seeking peace and truth within is the theme of this tale, and Siddartha leaves his home with the loyal Govinda in tow to do so. Thus begins the trend of leaving, or rather the transition from one way of living/one mindset into the other- this one being from that of wealth and security and the set ways of the Brahmins into the ascetic and impoverished wandering of the Samana monks. In doing this, Siddartha hopes to strip away his ego to be able to reconstruct his own mindset from scratch- one of purity without pride or lust. His petulant attitude during this time is captured vividly by Hesse-
He saw dealers dealing, princes hunting, mourners mourning their dead, whores offering themselves, doctors tending patients, priests setting the day of sowing, lovers loving, mothers nursing their babies- and everything was unworthy of his eyes, everything lied, everything stank, everything stank of lies, everything shammed meaning and happiness and beauty, and everything was unacknowledged decay. The world tasted bitter. Life was torture.
But through this suffering comes an “awakening” of sorts, as in his raw visceral experience Siddartha realises the connectedness of nature, that he is part of everything but can always return to himself. However, while becoming dissatisfied with the teaching, he claims that this particular type of escapism from the ego can be achieved quicker by a gambler or drunk and if the elderly men whom he and Govinda follow so faithfully have not reached Nirvana yet, then what chance do they have? And so the next transition begins and is the seeking of Gautama, known as the Buddha.
When I knew nothing about this story I thought that it would feature the Buddha as a primary character, even thinking that Siddartha might himself become the “Sublime One”, but this isn’t true. In fact the meeting between the two men is short, as after listening to the Buddha’s teaching Siddartha decides that although impressed at such profound insight, he cannot find what he is looking for through teachers nor any other man but must realise his own enlightenment; and this does indeed begin his “awakening”. The Buddha, as the wisest and holiest of men, serves as a pinnacle of Siddartha’s endless seeking as he severs the ties to his past life. In a refreshed state he now feels an independence and is eager to start a new life, and does so, leaving Govinda behind.
What comes next is a descent into a hedonistic and eventually destructive lifestyle as Siddartha, seemingly looking to experience every aspect of living, indulges himself in the superficial, or as Hesse puts it, “Siddartha had lived the life of the world and the pleasures without actually belonging to it“. He also learns of desire, lust and sexual pleasure from a wealthy courtesan named Kamala (who later bears his child), and of business and becoming rich through a merchant named Kamaswami. Collectively the lessons which Siddartha learns here somewhat reflect Western philosophy, maybe touching on Hesse’s own concerns as the concept is defined by Siddartha labelling his peers “child people”, whom he later describes as being ” …led not by thoughts and insights, but solely by drives and wishes.” However, although at first he mocks their futile ambitions and lack of conciousness of greater insight, his lifestyle allows him to slip into that same state in which he feels dissatisfied and frustrated, eventually escaping to what forms the last portion of the tale.
It is here that we are properly introduced to the character Vasudeva the ferryman. Siddartha first meets him when he traverses the river to get to the town in which he becomes so disillusioned, but on leaving, feeling soulless and a failure, he attempts to end his life by throwing himself into that same river in which he later finds comfort and knowledge through Vasudeva. This may be the most likeable character Siddartha encounters during his travels. He is portrayed as being humble but wise and the river on which he lives is the philosophical embodiment of his values and beliefs in the workings of the universe. More importantly to Siddartha, he acts as a father figure, listener and a teacher who allows him to realise the river as being symbolic of the eternal cycle, and is ultimately the solid foundation from which Siddartha’s enlightenment flourishes.
The culmination of the journey of Siddartha is a conversation between him and his old friend, Govinda. By now Vasudeva, saintly and sublime, has left to live out the rest of his life in peace and Siddartha has grown old as a ferryman. Word of his wisdom has travelled far and Govinda, still seeking Nirvana through Buddhism, makes the pilgrimage to see him in hopes that he will receive some valuable insight or that the ferryman will impart some of his teaching. It becomes apparent that the enlightened ferryman is his friend Siddartha and as they talk into the night, Govinda pleads for any practical knowledge which he could implement to become blissfully content himself. This last section of the book to me was the most engrossing as we see how far Siddartha has come. It’s mostly dialogue between the two men and mostly Siddartha speaking, but he does so with confidence and an almost passive sense of regret in not being able to impart what he has learned. And this is interesting as in some way it feels that Siddartha becomes Hermann Hesse, and Govinda the reader. In reading the tale we, like Govinda, seek a profound insight or potentially mind altering concept through spirituality. Firstly, this endless “seeking” is scorned as Hesse writes-
Seeking means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal. You, Venerable One, may truly be a seeker, for, in striving towards your goal, you fail to see the things that are right under your nose.
After trying to explain his experience, his belief in the illusion of time, the onerous cycle and unity of everything that is, Siddartha’s plea to Govinda, and maybe Hesse’s to us, is that words cannot do justice to intuition, feeling; that in our seeking we are also limited by communication, for: “Wisdom cannot be communicated. Wisdom that a wise man tries to communicate always sounds foolish.” And ironically, that may be the reason why I’ve had such a hard time writing this review. I was going to try and convey the sense of awe I felt when I absorbed Hesse’s intricate and careful writing- Siddartha’s wisdom, but my own words may not be enough to do that. Although I can say that in this short tale of a man’s lifetime of learning, Hesse paints a vivid picture of the struggle within the intertwining beliefs of men dealing in eastern philosophy, and despite the restrictions of language to express deeply visceral feelings, what did connect was nothing less than epic in its ambition. But, in the end, maybe our attempts to articulate these thoughts are futile, as I’ll never forget the simple words that had the most impact on me; those of Siddartha when he reminisces about meeting the Buddha- “I see his greatness not in speaking, not in thinking, but only in doing, in living.“