Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Still waters run deep
Siddhartha is a philosophical novel about one man’s quest for spiritual enlightenment. The story takes place about 500 BC in India. Siddhartha, the son of a Hindu Brahmin, groomed to become a Brahmin himself, turns his back on the teachings of his father and leaves his village to search for inner peace. He renounces all worldly possessions and joins the samanas, ascetic mendicants who live in the forest. Siddhartha then meets Gotama, the Buddha, but ultimately decides to seek his own path rather than follow the Buddha’s teachings. At this point Siddhartha turns his back on his thoughtful life of fasting and meditation, and begins a worldly life of lust and greed. Though the meaning of life continues to elude Siddhartha, and he finds each new lifestyle to be inadequate to answer his metaphysical questions, along the way he learns something valuable from each stage of his journey, and this accumulation of knowledge and experience advances him step by step on the path towards enlightenment.

Hermann Hesse is a masterful writer who deservedly won the Nobel Prize in 1946. Many of his novels revolve around the quest for knowledge and wisdom, yet all differ greatly in their setting and tone. Siddhartha is written in deceptively simple prose. It reads almost like a fairy tale, yet Hesse’s economy of words masks a rich depth of philosophical insight and spiritual understanding. It is a very short novel, easy to read, and accessible to readers of all levels from junior high to PhD, though the deeper philosphical concepts may escape younger readers. Due to its brevity and the inherent ambiguity in its spiritual subject matter, this novel can be enjoyed again and again, with new discoveries made in each rereading. It provides a good introduction to the philosphy of eastern religions, Hinduism and Buddhism in particular, though one may also recognize in the text elements from schools of western philosophical thought like pantheism, stoicism, and cynicism (in the Greek sense of the word). But a big part of the message of the novel is that enlightenment cannot be reached by labeling movements or perusing texts. One can only find inner peace by living life, by experiencing. Wisdom can be learned but cannot be taught. For those engaged in their own quest, this book does not provide a treasure map with a big red X where lie all the answers to your metaphysical queries. It’s more like one solitary signpost along a winding path, with a simple arrow pointing the way.
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1 comment:

  1. Great post on one of my all-time favourites! I've written a piece about it too: