December 29th, 2015


When is enlightenment not enlightenment?

I'm sort of surprised that I didn't get around to reading this back in high school or college … I certainly remember the more “hippie-ish” folks in high school being big fans of the book. Honestly, had I read Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha in those days I'd probably have been more enthusiastic about it than I am encountering it now. I ordered the Dover Thrift Edition of this (and a few other titles), in order to have some “quick reads” to counter a couple of big thick things I'm currently reading (and will be for months), and I figured that this was one of the notable gaps in my literature background.

The problem I had with this probably starts with the title … why would Hesse name the protagonist the same name as the historical Buddha – while including the Buddha in the story? It's like naming a character Arjuna and not having Krsna involved! Plus, the general story arc … at least through the first part of the book … sounds quite like a re-telling of the Buddha's story, albeit differing in the particulars. Having had 40 years since high school to study Buddhist material, I found the parallels being confusing rather than enticing, with the noted “WTF?” element of this Siddhartha being a different character than the Buddha.

Of course, I'm the wrong person to ask about fiction or parables, and I take it (from some of the info in the Introduction) that Hesse habitually has his characters “undergo the arduous process of self-discovery to reconcile {their} warring halves and find harmony and peace” via some process which combines “psychoanalysis and Eastern religion”. This is a relatively new translation, by Stanley Applebaum in 1999 (a fairly rare thing for these Dover books), and his commentary and notes raise some interesting issues. It turns out that Hesse, despite his intents to do so, never actually visited India, but was on a steamer trip through other parts of southeast Asia … leading to his using Pali words for things, and making some major misstatements (such as including Chimpanzees and Jaguars in the north Indian fauna, although those are native to Africa and the Americas, respectively).

The cynic in me wants to say this was popular with the “drug culture” because you'd have to be stoned to take it at face value, but that would be unkind. Perhaps the main character's constantly changing his path was the key element in the book's appeal.

Anyway, like the Buddha, this Siddhartha was a child of wealth (son of a prominent Brahman, rather than a king), who rejected that life. In this case, his rejection comes from looking at the results of the priests, scholars, and others in his life … that they have, even into old age, not achieved enlightenment – leading him to assume that their methods are wanting. Like the Buddha he leaves to join a group of wandering ascetics (here called Samanas, a Pali term) and learns the basics of what he later claims as “what he knows” – to think, to wait, and to fast. His childhood friend Govinda (confusingly, a name related to Krsna) comes with him and they travel together.

Govinda has heard of the teachings of the Buddha (here Gotama) and wants to see this teacher … Siddhartha has already bored of the teachings of the Samanas, and agrees that they'll go see Gotama. There is a passage there which shows Siddhartha to be somewhat sarcastic … mocking Govinda and saying that they already have the “finest fruits” of Gotama's teaching – his calling them away from the Samanas. He specifically notes:
But please also recollect that other thing you heard me say, that I have become distrustful and weary of teaching and learning, and that I have little faith in words that come to us from teachers.
… not exactly the best frame of mind to be looking at a whole new philosophy. He also, in taking leave of the ascetic elder, has a major confrontation, and basically tells Govinda “watch this!” and puts an advanced enchantment spell on the old man to give them his blessing.

It is, perhaps, not surprising that Siddhartha does not join Govinda in “taking refuge” with Gotama, but tells him that he's leaving. On his way out, he encounters Gotama, and has the audacity to engage him in discussion … which the Buddha brushes off as “quarreling over mere words”, adding:
But the doctrine you have heard from me is not an opinion of mine; its goal is not to explain the world to thirsters after knowledge. Its goal is different; its goal is deliverance from suffering.
This does not suit Siddhartha, and he goes into something of a tantrum, including:
O Sublime One – no one will achieve salvation through teachings! O Venerable One, you will not be able to inform and tell a single person in words and by means of teachings what happened to you in the hour of your enlightenment! The doctrine of the enlightened Buddha contains a great deal, it teaches many to live righteously, to shun evil. But one thing this doctrine, so clear, so venerable, does not contain: it does not contain the secrets of what the Sublime One himself experienced, he alone among the hundreds of thousands.
… basically saying he's leaving because he isn't being handed enlightenment on a silver platter! He leaves the Buddha and heads back into the world (as it were), and has his own sort of illumination, although this is largely just rejecting everything he's studied.

The book shifts dramatically here, as Siddhartha goes very much back to the world, he falls in love with a courtesan who promises (if he “cleans up” and gets fine clothes and money) to teach him the arts of love, she introduces him to a merchant who can use his skills (in reading, writing, and analytic thought) and apprentices him … over a few years he becomes rich, comfortable, and addicted to gambling. He eventually gets disgusted with himself, and goes off to a pleasure garden he owns, and (like the Buddha story, again), sits under a tree and reviews his life. He eventually “dies to” all those things and simply leaves … wandering to the same river crossing where a kindly ferryman had brought him across years before. Here he contemplates suicide, but falls asleep. He awakes to find a monk sitting with him – which is his old companion Govinda (who does not recognize him). The two chat for a while, and Govinda leaves. Eventually Siddhartha convinces the Ferryman to take him on as an apprentice, and he spends years “learning from the river”.

The courtesan had had a son by him, and they come by … but she's killed by a snake, and the boy stays with Siddhartha and the Ferryman. The kid's a spoiled brat, and eventually steals their money and the boat and heads back to the city. Much psychological processing ensues. Eventually, the Ferryman leaves to be a vanaprastha (forest hermit), and Siddhartha is the new Ferryman-slash-sage at the river crossing. At the end of the story, Govinda shows up again, they discuss their differing views of reality (at this point Siddhartha has developed his own version of enlightenment) and, after a long visionary description, he bows and leaves and the book ends (and, frankly, I thought it really needed a coda to sort of wrap things up somewhat, but it just stops).

Again, this book is a classic, but it really is a jumble of things, not particularly well paced, and leading to an ending all too similar to The Sopranos notorious cut-to-black final scene. Of course, if one was young, impressionable, stoned, and encountering Eastern Mysticism for the first time in reading Siddhartha, none of the caveats I've brought up would likely matter. Heck, the main character's moving away from everything that he gets bored/dissatisfied with would probably be a draw, as would his immersion in the erotic arts in the penultimate phase of his existence. One must wonder what was Hesse's intent here … was he trying to forge some syncretic form of western psychological theory with his understanding of Indian teachings?

While I enjoyed the book, it was hard for me to disengage my “critical” mind that was constantly cross-referencing what was in the book with what I knew about the supposed source material. If you've read less about Buddhism (and other Indian religions) you're likely to have less resistance to the story as it's presented. And while this is nowhere near as abstruse as most of those “teaching stories” that I find so irritating, it's still something of a “parable”, so I'm likely fighting with it in ways that others wouldn't be.

Being a Dover Thrift book, it's cheap … with a cover price of a whopping $3.50 … so even a penny copy used (which there are several available) would be more than that with shipping – so your best bet might be to request your local brick-and-mortar to order in a copy for you (although a free ebook version – in a different translation – is available via Project Gutenberg).

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