Siddhartha (1922)

by Hermann Hesse 

Knowledgeable advisers caution against using Siddhartha as a short course in Eastern philosophy, but it does seem that it can function at least as an introduction. In Siddhartha's search for nirvana, he evaluates Hindu Brahmins, ascetic Samanas, and Buddhists, rejects and then overindulges in the material world, before arriving at understandings that are not everyday assumptions for Westerners (e.g., time does not exist; finding requires not seeking; everything exists in all things).
Siddhartha begins his quest with his childhood friend Govinda, but their paths part when Govinda chooses to follow the Buddha and Siddhartha decides that wisdom is not going to come from a teacher. Siddhartha's eventual attainment of nirvana comes when he listens to the river, which he finds does not exist in time, contains everything, and even "speaks" the word "om" (the oneness and unity of all things). Instead of seeking, Siddhartha realizes that he just needs to let himself be: enlightenment already exists within and is present at every moment. Teachers can lead us away from the wisdom within; trying too hard destines us, like Govinda, to not find.

Though written in straightforward prose, this is a difficult book, steeped in Indian philosophy that isn't always explained in depth. Siddhartha is more a parable than a traditional novel, with little description and character details. Siddhartha himself is too superior to represent an ordinary human; even when he strays into materialistic excesses, those experiences are later explained as necessary for his eventual enlightenment.

What is a Westerner to take from this book? Although aphorisms like "Stop trying so hard" are indeed useful, the ironic answer that Siddhartha might give is "Don't look in this book for enlightenment. You have to find it within yourself."


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