Before him, Siddartha saw a single goal: to become empty, empty of thirst, empty of want, empty of dream, empty of joy and sorrow. To let the ego perish, to be ‘I’, no longer, to find peace with an empty heart and await the miraculous with thoughts free of Self. This was his goal. When all ego had been overcome, had perished, when every longing and every drive in his heart had fallen silent, only then could the Utmost awaken, the great secret, that innermost core of being that is no longer Self.

I avoided Hermann Hesse for the entirety of my teenage years, for fear of turning into a hipster doofus in a coffee shop. You know the kind. For years I became instinctively suspicious of anyone who even mentioned Steppenwolf in conversation. At the time I saw readers of Hesse as being at the opposite end of the same spectrum to Ayn Randers, two sides of a fanatical attachment to a solipsistic ideology of self.

I had a sneaking curiousity about the German mystic, however. His evident interest in Eastern philosophy was attractive, something I had been eager to learn more about ever since a Religious Education class in 1994, when my teacher dismissed Buddhism as an aberration in a single rant.  Today I took the opportunity to see whether my prejudice against Hesse was justified.

Siddartha is a young man who has been raised to become a Brahmin like his father. Having a noble bearing and a native thirst for knowledge, his family feel proud as they are confident he will follow in his father’s foot-steps. His closest friend, Govinda, is in awe of his boyhood companion, whom he regards as someone who is truly special, already having the makings of a very wise and holy Brahmin.  What he does not realize is that Siddartha’s goodness and learning has not earned him any true sense of satisfaction. He is searching for a different path to enlightenment, becoming distrustful of doctrine and anyone who claims that there is an ordered path to wisdom. One day a group of Samanas, pilgrims with no property or livelihood, come to his town. Siddartha decides that he will join them and requests permission from his father to leave. The proud Brahmin is dismayed by his son’s decision and refuses. When Siddartha does not relent, patiently waiting in the same spot where he asked his father’s blessing for hours, eventually permission is given. He has learned that quiet determination can not be denied. As he leaves, his friend Govinda joins him.

The two live as Samana, fasting  and studying under their elder fellow pilgrims, suffering the physical indignities of an ascetic lifestyle in their quest for wisdom. Siddartha takes in all that the men have to teach them and still finds it wanting.

Instead Siddartha chooses yet another path again, alone this time, plunging into the lives of ‘child-men’, who reside in cities. He becomes a lover of women under the instruction of the courtesan Kamala. Enters the world of business, becoming rich as a tradesman and living in a fine house of his own. Instead of the rags of a pilgrim, he wears fine clothes and oils his hair. Siddartha sees that knowledge in itself is worth the effort and that the life of a holy man hides itself from many experiences out of a fear of Sansara. Yet as the years pass he realizes he still feels discontent, that though his knowledge is great, he still lacks true wisdom.

What I enjoyed about this book is how the trope of the young man seeking enlightenment is initially reversed. Siddartha is raised to be holy and only discovers the more venal world of city life after fully exposing himself to the rigours of abasement in search of self-knowledge. It is actually a quite simple tale, a well-composed twentieth century religious parable.  

Hesse has an interesting approach to the naming of the characters. Obviously Siddartha shares his name with the Buddha, here referred to as the ‘Sublime One’. His friend Govinda, who chooses to part company from Siddartha and become a monk is named for one of the aspects of Krishna and so on. The technique signifies the novel’s intent – to argue that those seeking for enlightenment and ‘oneness’, need only recognize what is holy all around them.

Siddartha is an Eastern take on the Bildungsroman of Goethe written with a quiet lyricism. I was pleasantly surprised.

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