Hesse’s Siddhartha

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse - coverSiddhartha is Hermann Hesse’s best known novel in the English speaking world. Unlike his earlier works which are semi-autobiographical and describe young men in dealing with crises of faith in contemporary Europe, Siddhartha is set in ancient India during the lifetime of the Buddha. When the book came out in 1927 it gave many westerners their first exposure to Eastern philosophy and religion. It is frequently included on lists of influential books of the 20th century and is a good candidate for inclusion on a Great Books reading list.

The full name of the “Supreme Buddha”, the founder of Buddhism was Siddhārtha Gautama. In Hesse’s book, however, he is represented by two discrete characters: Siddhartha, the protagonist, and Gotama, the founder of the religion.

Please note that the remainder of this post contains spoilers.

Siddhartha is a gifted son of a brahmin who is being groomed for a career in the ancient Vedic religion. In his twenties he becomes disillusioned with his fathers’ faith, which he believes is unlikely to lead to enlightenment. He and his friend Govinda leave their village and join a band of Samanas, wandering ascetic holy men who reject the teachings of the brahmins. Historically, by the time of the Buddha, their were numerous Samana sects with widely differing philosophies and practices. As portrayed by Hesse, they are very similar to the Cynic philosophers of the ancient world, who rejected all materialism and lived in voluntary poverty under a strict moral code. This is only one of the points where syncretism creeps in between Hesse’s “Eastern” novel and the Western philosophy of his literary background.

After three years Siddhartha and Govinda become frustrated with the Samanas’ program. Hearing that a new spiritual leader, Gotama, has achieved enlightenment they decide to seek him out and hear his teachings. Govinda is soon convinced and becomes a Buddhist monk. Siddhartha finds he has tremendous respect for Gotama Buddha and truly believes he is enlightened. However, he concludes that it is not possible to learn wisdom from a teacher, but only through personal experience. The split between organized religion and received authority, symbolized by Govinda and individual spiritualism and inquiry, symbolized by Siddhartha, becomes the most important theme for the rest of the book. Readers of my blog will also recall that the question of whether virtue (wisdom) can be taught was also of preeminent importance to Socrates and Plato–another incidence of Hesse’s syncretism.

After taking leave of Gotama and Govinda Siddhartha has an epiphany in which he decides to embrace materialism and accept the beauty of the universe in all its myriad forms, rejecting the idealistic philosophy of the Vedic and Buddhist religions, in which the world is seen as illusion. The parallels between his internal dialogue and the writings of the Epicureans, like Lucretius, are obvious. The practices that Siddhartha adopts are more like the bourgeoisie Epicureanism of Claudian Rome than the pure philosophy of Epicurus; he follows his new acceptance of materialism to the nearest city. Here he immediately embarks on a love affair with a high-profile courtesan, goes into business, and spends the next couple of decades making himself a wealthy self-made man. In the process he picks up a drinking problem and a gambling addiction. Finally, disgusted with himself, he walks away from everything and becomes a simple ferry-man on the banks of a river. Here, under the tutelage of a wise older ferryman he finally achieves inner peace.

The idea that philosophers should experience the world in their youth also shows up frequently in Plato, particularly in The Republic where the Guardians were not to be taught philosophy until they were thirty, and afterwards were to be turned adrift to make their way in the world for fifteen years, at which time they could assume their roles as philosopher-rulers.

Statue of Hermann Hesse in Calw, Germany [public domain via Wikipedia]

Statue of Hermann Hesse in Calw, Germany [public domain via Wikipedia]

It is natural that Hesse, who was raised in the Western tradition and educated in a European seminary (until he suffered a crisis of faith and dropped out), would interpret Eastern philosophy through the lens of his own background. It is also probably that I, raised in the same tradition, would criticize his work through a similar lens–particularly since I have been working with Plato and Lucretius recently and their writings are fresh in my mind. It is also true that authors, once they have created an individual style and enjoyed some commercial success, tend to follow it in subsequent works. So is this just a “typical” Hermann Hesse novel, but simply told in a new setting? I thought so until I read the final two chapters, in which Siddhartha’s personal philosophy reaches an ultimate formation which is distinctly, unarguably Asian.

The opposite of every truth is just as true! That’s like this: any truth
can only be expressed and put into words when it is one-sided.
Everything is one-sided which can be thought with thoughts and said with
words, it’s all one-sided, all just one half, all lacks completeness,
roundness, oneness. When the exalted Gotama spoke in his teachings of
the world, he had to divide it into Sansara and Nirvana, into deception
and truth, into suffering and salvation. It cannot be done differently,
there is no other way for him who wants to teach. But the world itself,
what exists around us and inside of us, is never one-sided. A person or
an act is never entirely Sansara or entirely Nirvana, a person is never
entirely holy or entirely sinful. It does really seem like this,
because we are subject to deception, as if time was something real.
Time is not real, Govinda, I have experienced this often and often
again. And if time is not real, then the gap which seems to be between
the world and the eternity, between suffering and blissfulness, between
evil and good, is also a deception.

The acceptance of paradox is one of the major traits which sets Eastern thought apart from Western thought. Westerners have always sought to categorize the universe, to break it down into ideas which are either one thing or another. Easterners except that a concept can be two, apparently contradictory, things at once. Even the most famous and enduring paradoxes in Western thought, the doctrine of the Trinity, was a product of Eastern thinkers and has never sat entirely comfortably with the West.

Likewise, the acceptance of nonlinear time is a hallmark of Eastern thinking. In the East, time can be circular if not completely illusory,

The sinner, which I am and which you are, is a sinner, but in times to come he will be Brahma again, he will reach the Nirvana, will be Buddha–and now see: these ‘times to come’ are a deception, are only a parable! The sinner is not on his way to become a Buddha, he is not in the process of developing, though our capacity for thinking does not know how else to picture these things. No, within the sinner is now and today already the future Buddha, his future is already all there, you have to worship in him, in you, in everyone the Buddha which is coming into being, the possible, the hidden Buddha. The world, my friend Govinda, is not imperfect, or on a slow path towards perfection: no, it is perfect in every moment, all sin already carries the divine forgiveness in itself, all small children already have the old person in themselves, all infants already have death, all dying people the eternal life. It is not possible for any person to see how far another one has already progressed on his path; in the robber and dice-gambler, the Buddha is waiting; in the Brahman, the robber is waiting. In deep meditation, there is the possibility to put time out of existence, to see all life which was, is, and will be as if it was simultaneous, and there everything is good, everything is perfect, everything is Brahman.

When I read this last chapter I realized that everything which proceeded it was part of Hesse’s design to, masterfully, lead his Western readers to a place where they might be able to appreciate these viewpoints.

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