cover Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse

Review Copyright © 2000-2003 by Claes-Fredrik Mannby

Siddhartha tells the story of a man in search of mental peace and an understanding of man’s place in existence.

Siddhartha, the protagonist, starts life as a Brahmin, taught to love thought, prayer, meditation, and to despise life as transitory. He excels at whatever he chooses as his goal, and early on acquires the conviction that wisdom cannot be taught, and embarks on a series of adventures to seek enlightenment. At first, he attempts to kill what he thinks of as his Self [p. 17], which he believes is his tie to this earth, and all its supposed depravity. He practices asceticism and becomes a wandering beggar, but does not feel that he has come any closer to unity with the world spirit, Brahma. His friend and follower, Govinda, joins the Buddha, but he himself, although a great admirer of Buddha’s, rejects the idea of following anyone’s teachings. He decides he should try to understand his Self, that he had been trying to escape, and he believes no teacher can help him with this quest [p. 38]. “How deaf and stupid I have been, he thought, walking on quickly. When anyone reads anything which he wishes to study, he does not despise the letters and punctuation marks, and call them illusion, chance and worthless shells, but he reads them, he studies them, letter by letter. But I, who wished to read the book of the world and the book of my own nature, did presume to despise the letters and signs. I called the world of appearances, illusion. I called my eyes and tongue, chance.” [p. 40]

So, Siddhartha set out to explore the world, his senses, his sexuality, his hunger. To do this, he became the lover of a courtesan, and the partner of a merchant. With the sole skills of thinking, waiting and fasting, he excelled both at love and business, and soon became wealthy, although it was all just a game to him, and he only slowly became part of the world of self-absorption, honor, money, plans and hopes. Eventually, however, the proud, purposeful wanderer was worn down by his life of pleasures and luxury, and chose to escape. Now, however, the perils of superficial goals and life were no longer teachings to him, but actual wisdom, felt by his whole being.

As his next learning experience, he chooses a river and a ferryman, from whom he learns: “‘That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere, and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past, nor the shadow of the future[.]’ […] ‘I reviewed my life and it was also a river, and Siddhartha the boy, Siddhartha the mature man and Siddhartha the old man, were only separated by shadows, not through reality. Siddhartha’s previous lives were also not in the past, and his death and his return to Brahma are not in the future. Nothing was, nothing will be, everything has reality and presence.’” [p. 107]

At the river, he is united with his son, as the mother, the courtesan, dies from a snake bite, and he learns love and hopelessness, as, just like he left his father, his son must go on his own path. And, Siddhartha has to finally accept the world as an interwoven fabric of entities and timeless actions, neither good nor bad from a global perspective, just there, stretching from source to mouth, from one form of Brahma to another, and he has reached his goal.

Siddhartha thus rejects the Buddha’s division of existence into Samsara and Nirvana, illusion and truth, but claims it is not a rejection, since, he says, words and thought necessarily distort, and any teaching must use inaccurate classifications. Thus by knowing words only as approximations and metaphors, Siddhartha claims that the differences of teachings do not matter. “No, a true seeker could not accept any teachings, not if he sincerely wished to find something.” [p. 110] He thus considers actual knowledge or wisdom much more valuable than undigested teachings. “But, he who had found, could give his approval to every path, every goal; nothing separated him from all the other thousands who lived in eternity, who breathed the Divine.” [p. 110]

“‘The potential hidden Buddha must be recognized in him, in you, in everybody. The world, Govinda, is not imperfect or slowly evolving along a long path to perfection. No, it is perfect at every moment; every sin already carries grace within it, all small children are potential old men, all sucklings have death within them, all dying people—eternal life. It is not possible for one person to see how far another is on the way; the Buddha exists in the Brahmin, and dice player; the robber exists in the Brahmin. Therefore, it seems to me that everything that exists is good—death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly. Everything is necessary, everything needs only my agreement, my assent, my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me.’” [emphasis added, p. 144]

Siddhartha thus believes he can derive morality from determinism. But, if there is no time, there are no actions to take, no conditions and no question of a choice to agree. If all is good, there can be no moral “must.” It is yet another theory constructed to still a yearning and fearful heart. As such, it teaches much wisdom about life, has valuable insights and contains much poetry of vision:

“‘Quite frankly, I do not attach great importance to thoughts either. I attach more importance to things. For example, there was a man at this ferry who was my predecessor and teacher. He was a holy man who for many years believed only in the river and nothing else. He noticed that the river’s voice spoke to him. The river seemed like a god to him and for many years he did not know that every wind, every cloud, every bird, every beetle is equally divine and knows and can teach as well as the esteemed river. But when this holy man went off into the woods, he knew everything; he knew more than you and I, without teachers, without books, just because he believed in the river.’

“Govinda said: ‘But what you call thing, is it something real, something intrinsic? Is it not only the illusion of Maya, only image and appearance? Your stone, your tree, are they real?’

“‘This also does not trouble me much,’ said Siddhartha. ‘If they are illusion, then I also am illusion, and so they are always of the same nature as myself. It is that which makes them so lovable and venerable. That is why I can love them. And here is a doctrine at which you will laugh. It seems to me, Govinda, that love is the most important thing in the world. It may be important to great thinkers to examine the world, to explain and despise it. But I think it is only important to love the world, not to despise it, not for us to hate each other, but to be able to regard the world and ourselves and all beings with love, admiration and respect.’” [p. 146-7]

This seems to be the goal of Siddhartha’s “philosophy,” which is not, then, love of knowing and truth. By conceding in this manner, even if somewhat sarcastically, that examining and explaining the world leads to despising it, he unfortunately grants that in reason, the world is despicable, but it should be loved anyway. He provides a rationalization for loving the world, but grants that it is only a rationalization. So, according to him, a human being’s choice is to choose to be benevolent and stick to a rationalization, to live as an animal, or to think and to conclude that the world and humanity are depraved, including oneself.

The ideas of timelessness and unity thus become a way of satisfying and fooling reason, rather than true conclusions. If they were truly sound ideas, for one thing, they would not be self-contradictory, but Siddhartha would also not have to make love a first principle, but a simple consequence of his rational conclusions. He does not. Instead he gives you the choice of faith, depravity, or reason and unhappiness.