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[649] Siddhartha – Hermann Hesse

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” When the exalted Gautama, teaching, spoke of the world, he had to divide it into samsara and nirvana, into illusion and truth, into suffering and release. One can do nothing else, there is no other way for the one who wants to teach. But the world itself, that which exists around us and inside us, is never unilateral. Never is a man or a deed wholly samsara or wholly nirvana, never is a person entirely saintly or entirely sinful. ” (Part II, Gorvinda, p.112)

Siddhartha is a short philosophical novel that exhausts neither possibility nor interpretations. The premise is simply and almost too conventional to pique my interest at first. A young Indian Brahmin’s (highest caste of society) pursuit of enlightenment, during the same time period of gautama Buddha. It has a strong resemblance to the story of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, except in Hesse’s rendition of his Brahmin prince, Siddhartha forsakes Buddha’s teachings, even though he is highly moved by Buddha’s presence, because he has the complicating (and troublesome) intuition that he cannot achieve what the Buddha has achieved by following the Buddha. In other words, no amount of second-hand knowledge and learning can give him the real sense of peace and happiness unless it’s enlivened by real first-hand experience.

I have had to endure so much stupidity, so many burdens, so much error, so much disgust and disappointment and misery simply to become a child again and to be able to begin fresh. But it was rightly so, my heart affirms, it, my eyes laugh at it. I had to experience despair, I had to sink down to the most misguided of all thoughts, to the thought of suicide, in order to experience grace, again to perceive Om, again to sleep well and properly to awaken. (Part II, By the River, p.76)

So Siddhartha decides the best way to emulate the Buddha is not to follow him. Into the world he goes, allow it to hold him captive—desire, covetousness, lassitude, and avarice. After he tasted wealth, swathed in well-being, he loses his spiritual edge and forgets about his quest, and ends up being disgusted with himself.

Siddhartha reads like a prose-poem interspersed with philosophical insights. Although Siddhartha achieves a kind of surpassing peace as the book draws to a close, throughout the book Hesse’s pursuit of other religions resonates. The language is both lyrical and sensual. Siddhartha himself is an absorbing character, who follows nothing other than the dictates of his heart. Hesse doesn’t enlighten us what “enlightenment” is because enlightenment itself is abstract and intangible. Whether or not Siddhartha attains enlightenment (if there’s such a thing as perfect enlightenment), he experiments with the whole range of possibility. Keeping his own counsel he evolves as a human being to a place of peaceful universal unity.

140 pp. Barnes & Noble Classics. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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