#AW80Books: Herman Hesse’s ‘Siddhartha’ – the classic that made a generation want to punch hippies
When Karen from Kaggsysbookishramblings mentioned that she and Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat a Herman Hesse reading week a while back, I jumped at the chance to break my Hesse duck with one of the volumes I’ve picked up secondhand but never got round to reading. I chose Siddartha because along with Steppenwolf, it stands as Hesse’s most famous work, and out of the two novels, it’s a lot shorter – no small consideration with multiple reading challenges piling up. And on that note, I decided to double up and include this as one of my #AW80Books as it’s set in India. (You can read about our Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge here).
The novel is written with a simple clarity, reminiscent of the pared down style of a parable or other spiritual tales. Hesse tells the story of Siddartha, the son of a Brahmin, who, along with his friend Govinda, sets off to seek enlightenment. At first, they cast off comfort and possessions, embracing fasting, self-denial and meditation with the Samanas. Hearing rumours that a Holy man, Gotama, the Buddha, was travelling in the vicinity, the two young men leave the Samanas, and go in search of this wise man. On meeting the Buddha and hearing his wise words, Govinda joins his followers, but Siddartha chooses another path, believing that to reach the same state of enlightenment he has seen in Gotama, he has to find it on his own.
Siddartha puts self-denial behind him. He falls in love with a courtesan, Kamala, and in time becomes a wealthy businessman. He gambles, drinks, eats rich food and over time what starts out as novelty becomes routine.
Property, possessions and riches had also finally trapped him. They were no longer a game and a toy; they had become a chain and a burden.
He leaves Kamala, and the comforts of his wealth and home, and realises that his ability to fast, to meditate and rise above suffering had been lost.
He had exchanged them for the most wretched things, for the transitory, for the pleasures of the senses, for high living and riches. He had gone along a strange path. And now, it seemed that he had indeed become an ordinary person.
Despite these turns of events, there is no judgement and Siddartha is not self-critical.
I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices, so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment and sorrow, just in order to become a child again and begin anew. But it was right that it should be so; my eyes and heart acclaim it. I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide, in order to experience grace, to hear Om again, to sleep deeply again and to awaken refreshed again. I had to sin in order to live again….This path is stupid, it goes in spirals, perhaps in circles, but whichever way it goes, I will follow it.
Siddartha ends up working as a ferryman, and finds wisdom in the river’s sounds and the eternal yet ever-changing flow. The son he had never met comes to live with him for a while after Kamala’s death, and like his own father before him, Siddartha has to let him leave to make his own way in life.
When I started reading the novel I’ll admit to having misgivings. In my younger years, I had the misfortune of meeting a number of self-obsessed young men on a quasi-Buddhist trip with long hair and Jesus sandals, a copy of Siddartha clenched in their palms. They would spout spiritual nonsense like pop-up sages about how like, totally, enlightened they were, over a handcrafted beaker of herbal tea, before proceeding to be condescending and judgmental about everyone and everything, entirely oblivious to both their privilege and selfishness. And breathe…………..
Part One riled me because I knew it had fuelled a whole generation of selfish, mainly middle class tossers, so it was hard to view it objectively. However, in Part Two, I made a breakthrough because Hesse clearly isn’t promoting competitive self-denial as the new extreme sport. His is a tale of non-judgement, of finding your own path, neither following anyone else, nor judging the paths others take. Wise words Herman – I simply can’t argue with that!