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Comments by Bob Corbett
Reading this novel was not like a typical read of a novel for me, not even a very fine or moving one. Rather, it was like a dialogue, a looking into the mirror at a vague and indistinct self. There was so much in Siddhartha’s life and journey that is my story too; yet so very different at the same time. He grew up in India in a Hindu religious situation; I grew up within Roman Catholicism in the U.S. But so many other things overlapped or had, for me, striking similarities.
His father deeply influenced his early spiritual life; my inspirations were two priests in the parish where I grew up through high school. Eventually he went off to seek a “higher” form of his religion as he saw it; after high school I entered the seminary to become a priest. Three years after his move away from family and home he actually left his religion fairly much in the background and moved more fully into the secular world. I spent four years my undergraduate college days in the seminary and within a year after that was a non-religious atheist and have remained so ever since. In his later years he returned to the life-form of his religious days, but not WITHIN the religion, and now, in my later years I’m in a similar position, remaining totally outside anything like “religion,” but again spending great portions of my time in a search for truth and meaning in life.
Siddhartha was a deeply moving and exciting reading venture for the past few days. Once I started the novel I simply couldn’t put it down and read it with care within three days.
In his early days he was deeply influence by his powerful and very decent father. Yet he was dissatisfied. Is what he has “all”? Finally, at about age 16 he decides to join the Samanas, a group of very strict and economically simple religions seekers. This move in his life was much to his father’s disapproval. “Then father realized that Siddhartha could no longer remain with him at home – that he had already left him.” And off he goes with his dear friend, Govinda.
“. . . everything stank of lies; they were all illusion of sense, happiness and beauty. All were doomed to decay. The world tasted bitter. Life was a pain.”
It was a useless exercise. What was this life of the Samana?
“It is a flight from the Self, it is a temporary escape from the torment of Self. It is a temporary palliative against the pain and folly of life.”
He tells he friend, Govinda that they learn to deceive themselves, but not to find Nirvana.
They meet a holy man, Gotama. Some were convinced he was the “answer” to their search. Others doubted. When they meet the holy man they go separate way, Govinda to follow Gotama and Siddhartha to leave the Samana. He learns that it is only in the self, not in a doctrine or teaching that is ultimate truth. But, he doesn’t yet really know what that means. Siddhartha realizes he has been seeking truth, but it is self he really needs to find.
He meets the beautiful and rich courtesan, Kamala and is deeply attracted to her. He begins to have sexual relations with her, but much more than that.
“Both thought and the senses were fine things; it was worth listening to them both, to play with both, neither to despise nor overrate either of them, but to listen intently to both voices.”
She sends him off to try to get work with the successful businessman, Kamaswami. Siddhartha can read and write and those will be useful tools for Kamaswami. The businessman receives him and accepts him because he trusts Kamala. He asks Siddhartha what he “needs.” The reply is: “I am not in need and I have never been in need. I have come from the Samanas with whom I lived for a long time.”
He learns business and money making from Kamaswami and love making from Kamala. He cared little for business and money making. The merchant even challenged him with an opportunity to share BOTH in the profits made by his deals and the losses as well, thinking this would make him care. It didn’t. He explains to Kamaswami that the key to his attitude is “not to need.” And he seems not to.
His relationship with Kamala is very pleasing but much more like “samsara” (illusion) than like nirvana (truth). Nonetheless, he likes it a great deal!
Soon Siddhartha becomes rich and loses many of the habits and ideas from his Samana world. He retained
“. . . a moderate life, pleasure in thinking, hours of meditation, secret knowledge of the Self, of eternal Self, that was neither body nor consciousness.”
Eventually, after making a great deal of money and getting more and more used to the lifestyle that went with it he simply walks away. Only Kamala understood. In response she freed her pet songbird she so loved, and made sure that she was pregnant by Siddhartha before he left.
He is now over 40 and again on his own. He is mixed up and doesn’t really know what to do, but an old habit comes back he announces the word that begins prayer or meditation “Om” and it works. He begins a return to his older ways. Eventually he meets the mysterious ferryman, Vasudeva. He has operated a small paddle-powered ferry over a river. Vasudeva takes him in and they become dear friends, eventually partners in the ferry business.
The river “speaks” to the mainly quiet Vasudeva. These voices of the river tell him:
“They all belonged to each other: the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of indignation and the groan of the dying. They were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways. And all the voices, all the goals, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together were the world. All of them together were the stream of events, the music of life.”
His old friend, Govinda, comes back into his life and the simple but wise and holy Vasudeva dies. Govinda is still attracted to the life and message of the holy man, Gotama. However, as many years earlier, Siddhartha can’t accept the saint’s message. He couldn’t years ago as a young man, and now in the last years he still can’t:
“Knowledge can be communicated but not wisdom. One can find it, be fortified by it, do wonders with it but one cannot communicate it and teach it.”
The book then ends on this curious irony. The story, the whole of it, is told with words, the very medium which Siddhartha maintains, cannot really communicate what the book seems to communicate – wisdom. However, this irony seems to be a universal difficulty for human communication.
Hermann Hesse’s novel is beautiful account of a life’s journey from a public and known religion to a personal and esoteric private spiritual journey. It is the story of a man never quite satisfied with where he is, but always striving to find a bit more of the meaning and struggle for meaningful existence. It is a book that no seeker of “higher things” should miss.Bob Corbett email@example.com
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