Monday, 18 December 2017
Siddhartha - Herman Hesse
I may have mentioned before that I am not religious. Religion has no attraction for me although I am interested in the narrative aspects. In any event, it is not reasonable to shun a novel by an undoubted master just because it happens to be about religion.
I clearly am no expert on Buddhism. I had long thought that Siddhartha the 1922 novel was about the Buddha himself. This is not foolishness on my part - Siddhartha Gotama is one of the generally accepted forms of the Buddha's given names - it is novelistic guile on the part of Hesse. His Siddhartha is not a prince like Gotama but a Brahmin, a hereditary Hindu priest. As an adolescent he becomes dissatisfied with organised religion and joins a band of wandering samana (searchers for truth) with his best friend Govinda. After a few years of fasting and begging Siddhartha and Govinda hear about the Enlightened One, Gotama. They visit him and hear him teach. Govinda is converted to Buddhism but Siddhartha, being a conceited young man, feels the Buddha's teaching is not enough. He does not doubt that Buddha is enlightened, but that teaching - even from Buddha's own lips - is not the path to enlightenment. For Siddhartha, each person must find their own path.
From the very start of what is only a hundred-page novella, you sense that Hesse, verging on middle age, is searching for his own take on the meaning of life. The questions and misgivings that Siddhartha explores are the author's own.
I somehow doubt that Hesse ever ended up in the bed of the most famous courtesan in India but Siddhartha does. To win her affection he becomes a merchant and a gambler. He tries to conduct his affairs in a righteous manner but after twenty years or more realises it cannot be done. He abandons his pregnant lover Kamala to resume his search for enlightenment. He meets Govinda, now a Buddhist monk. He meets again the ferryman Vasudeva, who took him across the river to Sansara all those years ago. Through Vasudeva, he eventually finds the clue to enlightenment, which is the subjugation or eradication of the self in order to achieve oneness with everything else. The ending, when his oldest friend Govinda sees all this through Siddhartha's smile, is profoundly beautiful.
I still have no interest in religion but my interest in Hesse is revived and I really must tackle the late, philosophical-cum-transcendental novels that won him the Nobel Prize in 1946.