Book Reviews, Philosophy

«Siddhartha» by Hermann Hesse

«Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal.»

«Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it. I suspected this when I was still a youth …  There is one thought I have had, Govinda …: that is, in every truth the opposite is equally true.» This is what Siddhartha says to his old companion Govinda in the book’s last chapter. (Chapter «Govinda», New Directions Publishing Corporation, Translated by Hilda Rosner, New York, 1957, p. 115) 

A stone is an animal, is God, is all

He continues: «For example, a truth can only be expressed and enveloped in words if it is one-sided. Everything that is thought and expressed in words is one-sided, only half the truth; it all lacks totality, completeness, unity … But the world itself, being in and around us, is never one-sided. Never is a man or a deed wholly Samsara or wholly Nirvana; never is a man wholly a saint or a sinner. This only seems so because we suffer the illusion that time is something real. Time is not real, Govinda. I have realized this repeatedly. And if time is not real, then the dividing line that seems to lie between this world and eternity, between suffering and bliss, between good and evil, is also an illusion.»

At the end and at the goal of both of their lives, Siddhartha (which translates literally to: «he who has reached his goal») says to Govinda: «This … is a stone, and within a certain length of time it will perhaps be soil and from the soil it will become plant, animal or man. Previously I should have said: This stone is just a stone; it has no value, it belongs to the world of Maya, but perhaps because within the cycle of change it can also become man and spirit, it is also of importance. But now I think: This stone is stone; it is also animal, God and Buddha. I do not respect and love it because it was one thing and will become something else, but because it has already long been everything and always is everything.» (p. 117)

Toward more meaning in life

Hermann Hesse (1877–1962) is the author of this coming-of-age novel about the life of the Brahmin’s son Siddhartha. One of the most influential books of the 20th century, it has been read by millions worldwide and has been translated into dozens of languages since it was published in 1922. Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize for his literary achievements immediately after the Second World War in 1946. But it was not until the 1960s and 70s that «Siddhartha» acquired world fame when it became a hippie bible. At least in the German-speaking countries, however, Hesse never really shook off the slightly underrated image of an enraptured youth cult book writer.

Entirely undeservedly so, as I must state after reading «Siddhartha» several times in my adult years. I know of no other publication, let alone novel, that embraces the teachings of Buddhism and the Tao Te Ching with so much elegance and grace and without ever becoming superficial. In simple, well-chosen words, Hesse leads us through this young man’s life, who is so eager for knowledge and thirsty for the world, and he lets us share in all the ups and downs and in the fulfilling enlightenment. The author paints simple and unpretentious pictures and sincere scenes of our potential development toward a more «meaningful» being. This was probably one of the keys to the novel’s lasting success and fame.

Knowledge through experience, not learning

Rarely, if ever, has a writer expressed the potential meaning of our lives in such beautiful, convincing, confident, and valid words and with so much inspiration. Hesse’s succinct narration of the legend surrounding young Siddhartha’s self-liberation from social and family conventions toward an independent and self-determined life is based on the realization that our human consciousness is not so much advanced by teachings, but foremost by our own personal experience.

The story of the Brahmin’s son’s life, who sets out to find meaning and enlightenment, is told in 12 short chapters. Siddhartha first turns to the ascetic wandering beggars of the Samana. «Siddhartha had one single goal—to become empty, to become empty of thirst, desire, dreams, pleasure and sorrow …» (p. 11) Soon, however, young Siddhartha sees all of this as a flight from the self, a temporary escape; he debunks meditation as a mere skill to master. «… and I am beginning to believe that this knowledge has no worse enemy than the man of knowledge, than learning.» (p. 15) Even the teachings of Gotama Buddha, whom Siddhartha personally seeks out, fail to help him. Siddhartha recognizes: «I think, O Illustrious One, that nobody finds salvation through teachings.» (p. 27) Buddha replies: «You know how to speak cleverly, my friend. Be on your guard against too much cleverness.» (p. 28)

The worldly world

Siddhartha next explores the «worldly» world («Meaning and reality were not hidden somewhere behind things, they were in them, in all of them.», p. 32)—and rushes headlong into the all-too human hustle and bustle. He meets the beautiful courtesan Kamala, who introduces him to the mysteries of making love. «Both thought and the senses were fine things, behind both of them lay hidden the last meaning; it was worthwhile listening to them both, to play with both, neither to despise nor overrate either of them, but to listen intently to both voices.» (p. 39) At the same time, he is apprenticed to a businessman and soon achieves wealth and prosperity.

The Om of perfection

Immersed in everyday life, Siddhartha becomes more and more entangled in Samsara, the painful, eternal cycle of rebirth with all its fears and hardships—until he has enough of the banality of it all, breaks out for a second time, and leaves his previous life along with its alleged securities behind. He takes another big step on his way; he recognizes his zeal and arrogance, his foolish striving for lust and power, and devotes himself completely to the now. The essence of life reveals itself to him in the great river, to which he listens attentively: 

«Siddhartha saw the river hasten, made up of himself and his relatives and all the people he had ever seen. All the waves and water hastened, suffering, towards goals, many goals, to the waterfall, to the sea, to the current, to the ocean and all goals were reached and each one was succeeded by another. The water changed to vapor and rose, became rain and came down again, became spring, brook and river, changed anew, flowed anew.» (p. 110) 

«And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life. When Siddhartha … heard them all, the whole, the unity; then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word: Om—perfection.» (p. 110–111)