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What would you do to find enlightenment? Would you stop eating? Would you become homeless? Would you hire a sex worker? Most folks have heard of the Buddha, also known as Siddhartha (or सिद्धार्थ in Sanskrit), which means "one who has reached his goal" or "enlightened one". Siddhartha (1922) by Hermann Hesse tells the tale of another individual, also named Siddhartha, on a spiritual journey of fulfillment and self-discovery. In this novel, Siddhartha even runs away from Buddhist teachings to pursue his path to enlightenment.
Siddhartha is a fictional story that takes place in an ancient Nepalese city on the Indian subcontinent about 6 centuries before the birth of Christ. Born to a family who adores him and as a part of the Brahman caste, a young man named Siddhartha is plagued with spiritual discontent regardless of his tranquil childhood.
Hindu society is organized by a caste system. A caste system is a social and economic hierarchy that divides people into different classes. The Brahman caste is the highest caste that includes priests and religious teachers. The Samana caste is lower on the hierarchy and includes wandering beggars who believe that the rejection of physical desires is the true path to enlightenment. While Herman Hesse did not strictly follow the same organization and rules of the Hindu caste system, he does reference different castes — most likely to emphasize the various themes in Siddhartha.
Siddhartha spent his childhood with his friend Govinda learning philosophies and meditations from the sages, or wise men. His father was a religious leader and a respected member of the village. Although still a child, he could speak "Om" already, which is a sacred sound and tool used during meditation that improves clarity and controls one's mind. The people of his village knew that he was destined for greatness because of his determination and accomplishments at a young age.
Siddhartha realized that his community of Brahmans had spent so much time learning from the holy books, but they had still not achieved enlightenment. Siddhartha also felt inside of himself the "Atman", or the universal soul, which makes him feel "one with the universe" (First part, The Son of the Brahman). One day, Siddhartha revealed to his friend Govinda that he would join the Samanas to see what new things he could learn from them.
Siddhartha's father was angry with him for wanting to join the Samanas. Regardless of the pushback, Govinda joined his restless friend, as he admired Siddhartha greatly. As the Samanas passed by, Siddhartha followed them and gave up all of his clothes except for a loin cloth. Because the Samanas believe that one must rid themselves of physical desires, Siddhartha started fasting and enduring extreme heat, cold, pain, and thirst. He desired to exist only as his innermost being without the distraction of a physical body.
After three years, Siddhartha realized that following the Samanas was not the way to find enlightenment either. He saw the oldest Samana, a man in his 60s, had still not achieved it, nor had he ended samsara. So, he and Govinda left to follow a different path to enlightenment.
Samsara is the Hindu term for the constant cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. To end samsara is to find enlightenment or Nirvana.
They heard a rumor of someone named Gotama, the Buddha who had achieved Nirvana, and they went to hear his teachings. Siddhartha and Govinda went to the town Gotama was in and waited for him in a grove as they heard he welcomes pilgrims.
The two friends had no problem spotting Gotama. Siddhartha immediately "saw him, a simple man in a yellow robe, bearing the alms-dish in his hand, walking silently" (First Part, Gotama). Gotama had no wife, no possessions, and no home. Siddhartha immediately feels his inner calmness. They went to see him present a lesson, and Gotama discussed his eightfold path to enlightenment. At the end of his speech, many listeners asked to follow him, including Siddhartha and Govinda. However, shortly afterward, Siddhartha realized that to truly find enlightenment, "fleeing from the self" (First Part, With the Samanas) through fasting and meditation was not the answer — he needed to learn who he was.
Siddhartha decided that he shouldn't run away from the outside world. Instead, he needed to be a part of it and partake in pleasures in order to understand who he was. Govinda stayed behind with the Buddha, and Siddhartha went alone to the big city. He walked through a forest, crossed a river with help from a ferryman named Vasudeva, passed through a village, and came to a stream with a beautiful woman washing her clothes. The two flirt, and Siddhartha kisses her breast. This was Siddhartha's first experience with a woman, and he quickly left after a voice inside him told him to stop.
Siddhartha arrived on the outskirts of the city and saw a beautiful woman being carried on a canopied chair by servants, and they made eyes at one another. He learned that her name was Kamala and then continued onto the city to get a haircut and bathe in the river for the first time since leaving the Samanas.
He later ran into Kamala, who noticed his appearance was now neat and orderly. He explained that he had left the Samanas. Now, he could look at beautiful women. He asked Kamala to teach him the "joys of love" (Second Part, Kamala), but she claimed that he needed to give her gifts and have money himself in order to court her. He recited a poem in exchange for a kiss, and she gave him white clothing.
Kamala is a sex worker, or a courtesan.
The next day, Siddhartha went to Kamala's house, where she explained she recommended him for employment with a merchant named Kamaswami. Kamaswami was old and wanted to retire, and she claimed he could learn how to become wealthy through him. As the two business partners worked together, Siddhartha became richer, ate the best foods, dressed in elegant clothing, purchased a beautiful home with plenty of servants, and enjoyed gambling and drinking alcohol. Kamala now considered Siddhartha one of her favorite men, and they spent a lot of time together. However, over time Siddhartha's vices got the better of him, and he became greedy and lustful.
Siddhartha's new lifestyle did not last, and eventually, he was no longer enamored with a lavish routine full of gambling. Now in their 40s, Kamala asked Siddhartha about the Buddha, and he responded by going into great detail about him. Kamala says that she may one day join the Buddha. Siddhartha noticed her youth leaving her body, as he could see wrinkles appearing. Sick of the smell of alcohol and what his life had become, he spent all night meditating and decided to leave and start afresh.
Siddhartha left without saying goodbye to Kamala or Kamaswami and returned to the forest he had walked through 20 years prior. He came to the river he once crossed, spat at his own reflection, and considered drowning himself. Instead, the sacred "Om" came to his mind, and he fell asleep repeating this chant. He woke up and saw someone in a yellow robe above him; it was Govinda!
Though Govinda did not recognize him, he stopped to watch and warn the man of the dangers of sleeping by the river as there were snakes. Siddhartha did recognize him, and he told his old friend of the journey he had been on since they last saw each other. The two parted ways and Siddhartha felt restored.
Siddhartha met Vasudeva at the river once again. He offered the fancy clothes off his back in exchange for assistance crossing the river. Vasudeva complied, and Siddhartha stayed the night in his hut. Siddhartha desired to become Vasudeva's assistant one day, as he explained he was intrigued by the mysteries of the river.
He then goes on to explain his life story to his new friend, and Vasudeva responds by saying he will learn a lot from the river as “It knows everything, the river, everything can be learned from it" (Second Part, The Ferryman). Years passed, and Siddhartha stayed with Vasudeva and learned many trades. Siddhartha took time to learn from the river by listening and paying attention to it without judgment.
Meanwhile, Kamala was no longer a sex worker and started following Buddha's teachings. She is raising her son, Siddhartha's son, whom he unknowingly fathered before leaving the city. The son was named after his father. There was a rumor that the Buddha was dying, and many people went to see him before he passed, Kamala and young Siddhartha included. During their journey, they were tired and stopped by the river to nap. A snake bit Kamala, and Vasudeva took the mother and son to his hut to recover. There, Siddhartha recognized both Kamala and his son. Kamala dies, but right before, she tells him that she had finally found peace. He says the same.
Siddhartha now needed to raise his 11-year-old son, who was struggling with the lifestyle change and the loss of his loving mother. He had grown up with material things, and he was now unaccepting and defiant toward his new life and his father. In a rage, he one day told his dad, "I rather want to become a highway-robber and murderer, and go to hell, than to become like you! I hate you, you’re not my father..." (Second Part, The Son).
How do you think Siddhartha feels after he is rejected by his own son?
The next morning, Siddhartha and Vasudeva realized the young boy had left and taken their money. Siddhartha was upset and wanted to find him, but Vasudeva told him the boy was old enough to go on his own. He went after his son regardless and returned to Kamala's old garden. On arrival, he realized he could not rescue his son. He sat and meditated for a long while until Vasudeva retrieved him, and they returned to the hut on the river. Siddhartha was constantly reminded of his son every time he saw a young child, and he felt deprived and sad. He was humbled.
Suddenly, Siddhartha heard the voices of his family: his son, Kamala, his father, even Govinda — he could hear everyone all at once in the sound of the river. Siddhartha heard it all: "the great song of the thousand voices" (Second Part, Om). He heard the Om. He heard perfection. He had finally achieved enlightenment. Vasudeva heard it too.
Govinda, who was also on his own path to enlightenment, had gained followers and heard of a wise man who worked on the river ferry. Govinda went to this ferryman seeking advice, not knowing it was his old friend Siddhartha. Siddhartha told him not to seek anything, as that implies there was a goal. Rather, Govinda needed to find something, as "finding means: being free, being open, having no goal" (Second Part, Govinda). Siddhartha mentioned that Govinda found a man sleeping by the river years prior but did not realize it was his old friend. At once, Govinda realized he was currently speaking to his old friend Siddhartha. They spent the night together in the hut.
The next day as Govinda was leaving, Siddhartha told him to kiss his forehead. Govinda complied, and as he touched his lips to his forehead, he saw "a flowing river of faces, of hundreds, of thousands, which all came and disappeared, and yet all seemed to be there simultaneously" (Second Part, Govinda). All of the faces of every person and animal "floated along and merged with each other, and they were all constantly covered by something thin, without individuality of its own, but yet existing" (Second Part, Govinda). Govinda saw everything as one and found enlightenment himself.
Many characters come and go throughout Siddhartha's life. The seven most important characters are Siddhartha, Govinda, Gotama, Kamala, Kamaswami, Vasudeva, and his son.
Siddhartha is the novel's protagonist. He starts as a curious young man and becomes wise and enlightened once he realizes he can't follow another's teachings. He is independent and represents open-mindedness and the search for self-understanding.
Govinda is Siddhartha's childhood friend and confidant. He is submissive and follows in Siddhartha's shadow before he chooses to follow Gotama, the Buddha, instead. He also becomes enlightened as a result of his constant seeking of teachers and the love he gets in return from Siddhartha.
Gotama, the Buddha, is a religious leader and has attained Nirvana. He teaches his followers his eightfold path to enlightenment. Govinda eventually follows him, while Siddhartha rejects the idea of following others.
Kamala is a sex worker who teaches Siddhartha how to love. She helps him transition from the lifestyle of the Samanas to a city man who works hard and attains riches. She mothers Siddhartha's son, and later dies from a snake bite.
Kamaswami is a merchant who teaches Siddhartha how to conduct business. He prioritizes maximizing profit at all costs and lures others into a materialistic lifestyle with him. He represents a distraction on Siddhartha's path to enlightenment.
Vasudeva is a humble ferryman who helps Siddhartha find enlightenment by taking him on as his apprentice. He is spiritual and wise. He has already found enlightenment through his close connection to the river and its secrets.
Young Siddhartha is the son of Kamala and Siddhartha. He acts very spoiled and materialistic, and he hates his father. He represents his father's final test before he attains enlightenment.
To convey the message that one can eventually find enlightenment, Hesse explores themes of wisdom, free will, and nature through Siddhartha's spiritual journey to reach Nirvana.
From an early age, Siddhartha is interested in wisdom. He's born a Brahman, follows the Samana, and attempts to learn from Gotama, the Buddha, before realizing that wisdom cannot be found through a teacher. Instead, Siddhartha shifts gears to search for wisdom by learning about himself. His search for wisdom is then hidden behind distractions and illusions, some of which sidetrack him. For example, Siddhartha falls in love and indulges in materialistic pleasures as a result of his business dealings with Kamaswami. Even experiencing fatherly love for his son is not enough for him to find true wisdom. These new experiences were an illusion of how to find true wisdom, as Siddhartha never finds satisfaction or Nirvana through these means.
His quest for wisdom ends when he guides himself to a subtly wise man he had already met 20 years prior: Vasudeva. It is with Vasudeva that Siddhartha is guided towards enlightenment by means of the river. By loving the river and the earth, he is able to find wisdom and Nirvana. The once intangible idea of wisdom and enlightenment is made tangible through human and natural means.
Nature pushes Siddhartha forward on his spiritual journey. After Siddhartha parted ways with Govinda, he crossed a river and then found a stream with a beautiful woman. The stream was the location where he was introduced to physical pleasures: the next part of his journey. Later, once he had the realization that he was sick of his materialistic and superficial life with Kamala, and it did not bring him to Nirvana, he went back to the same river he crossed twenty years prior and contemplated taking his own life.
The river then took Siddhartha to the next and final part of his journey with Vasudeva. It is through his role as Vasudeva's assistant that he learns the mysteries of the river. During his moment of enlightenment, Siddhartha hears everyone all at once in the sounds of the river, ultimately showing the power and ability of nature to bring one to Nirvana.
As a young boy, Siddhartha was self-motivated to explore the world to find fulfillment, regardless of his father's wishes. Siddhartha's father was extremely angry with him when he decided to follow the Samanas, but he eventually caved to respect his son's free will and let him go. When Siddhartha became a father himself, he was also faced with a similar decision to let his son go, despite his selfish feelings of wanting the fatherly satisfaction of raising a respectable son. However, free will won above all, and Siddhartha let his son go — even though it left him feeling deprived.
The characters in Siddhartha had the free will to follow others or to blaze their own trail to find Nirvana. Many individuals, such as the Brahman and the Samanas, chose to find enlightenment through others' ideologies. Others chose to engage in physical pleasures, such as Kamaswami. Siddhartha utilized his own free will to not participate in following a specific ideology and to not engage in physical pleasures, and this resulted in his final grand achievement: enlightenment.
The concepts of contradiction, irony, and satisfaction drive the plot of Siddhartha and push Siddhartha's life forward.
Contradictions are rampant throughout Siddhartha.
First, Siddhartha's search for enlightenment is both required and irrelevant. While Siddhartha spent the first portion of his life searching for the right teacher and ideology to bring him to Nirvana, this was not the means to the end he was looking for.
Once he chose to abandon his search for enlightenment through the Brahmans, the Samanas, and Gotama (as they were all still searching in old age), he was able to find enlightenment once he looked inward to learn about himself. This is contradictory because although the search for the right teacher or ideology did not lead him to his answer, he could not have found Nirvana had he not been unsuccessful in looking to others for help.
Second, once Siddhartha found enlightenment and was with Govinda (who still followed Gotama) for the last time, he made statements to Govinda that contradicted Gotama's teachings. This confused Govinda, as Govinda was still searching for others' words of wisdom to lead him to enlightenment. Siddhartha explained that words are irrelevant. As Govinda kissed Siddhartha's head, this silent moment of love showed Govinda a continuous river of faces and emotions that ultimately brought him to Nirvana. Contradictory to Govinda's beliefs, this path to enlightenment was not found through words or the teachings of others. Instead, it was found through guidance, love, and the sharing of experiences.
The entire plot of Siddhartha can be seen as ironic.
Irony: a literary device that shows how an expected result can be the opposite of reality.
Siddhartha spent his life seeking something to bring him enlightenment. This included teachers, ideologies, and experiences. He expected the result of these things to bring him to Nirvana. However, none of these things were the answer he was looking for. The reality was that he should not seek anything, as that implies a goal. The true way to enlightenment is to find it without a goal, path, or the teachings of others. This was the opposite of what he expected, resulting in an ironic twist to the plot of the novel.
Small examples of irony are found in each of the ideologies and teachings that Siddhartha dismissed. First, he sees devoted Brahmans, such as his father, constantly seeking enlightenment but never attaining it. Next, he sees the Samanas and the followers of Gotama also seeking enlightenment through teachings, but they never reach enlightenment either. These followers assumed there was one path to find enlightenment, and they spent their entire lives looking for that one teaching to bring them to Nirvana. It is ironic that Siddhartha, the one who abandoned these teachings and ideologies, is the only one to attain enlightenment — as he realized that following another is not the correct path.
Siddhartha is constantly seeking satisfaction as a means to enlightenment throughout his life. He is tested in three ways to find that satisfaction, yet none of these three tests bring him what he desires.
First, he followed the Brahmans, then the Samanas, and then Gotama in an attempt to find satisfaction. However, following others did not bring him satisfaction. Second, he met Kamala and Kamaswami. He indulged in various pleasures, yet these did not bring him satisfaction either. He eventually left them in order to continue on his quest. Third, Siddhartha looked to his son to give him fatherly satisfaction in old age. This also did not end in satisfaction, as Siddhartha's son hated him and ran away.
It is only after these three challenges of attempted satisfaction does he find enlightenment. The novel continuously shows us that satisfaction is not a goal to be attained. Rather, satisfaction comes inadvertently through the experience of finding who you are.
When Siddhartha met Kamaswami, he tested his ability to read and write. Siddhartha writes on a piece of paper,
Writing is good, thinking is better. Being smart is good, being patient is better." (Second Part, With the Childlike People)
While the reader and Siddhartha do not understand the impact of these words, in retrospect, we see that Siddhartha knew exactly what was needed to achieve enlightenment after all: original thought and patience. It took Siddhartha a lifetime to truly manifest enlightenment, and he did so by creating his own path and being patient.
When Siddhartha was beginning to feel enlightenment, he asked Vasudeva for confirmation. Vasudeva responded,
It is this what you mean, isn’t it: that the river is everywhere at once, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains, everywhere at once, and that there is only the present time for it, not the shadow of the past, not the shadow of the future?" (Second Part, The Ferryman)
From their first meeting until Siddhartha became enlightened, Vasudeva understood that the river could teach many lessons to one who is paying attention. He confirms what Siddhartha is experiencing: the ecstasy of enlightenment.
Siddhartha has many quotes throughout the novel, but one that sums up his perspective on life is, "Writing is good, thinking is better. Being smart is good, being patient is better."
Herman Hesse's novel Siddhartha is a fictional story about a young man who is in search of enlightenment. He does briefly follow the Buddha, who was alive about 6 centuries before the birth of Christ.
Siddhartha is an important book because it shows the benefits of independent thought and self understanding.
The message of Siddhartha is that one can find wisdom and Nirvana through nature by utilizing free will to find their own path to enlightenment.
Siddhartha follows the life of a young man on his quest for enlightenment. He starts as a Brahman, follows the Samanas, and then rejects the teachings of others after he hears the Buddha speak. He then prioritizes physical pleasures, which he indulges in for twenty years. He gets sick of this lifestyle, and he lives the rest of his life as the assistant of a ferryman on the river where he eventually achieves Nirvana.
What themes does Hesse employ in Siddhartha to show how one can find enlightenment?
True or False: Siddhartha knows Vasudeva is enlightened before he asks to be his apprentice.
What does Kamaswami represent?
a distraction on Siddhartha's path to enlightenment
Where does Siddhartha first experience physical pleasure?
At the stream where a beautiful woman is washing her clothes.
What is the Atman?
the universal soul
What tool does Siddhartha have to find calmness? Choose the best answer.
He can speak the Om
What does "Siddhartha" mean in Sanskrit?
Who does Siddhartha learn from first?
What does Siddhartha find satisfaction in?
What two concepts does Siddhartha consider "better" when meeting Kamaswami?
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