by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I picked up this book initially thinking that this was some sort of a peek into the life of Goutama Buddha (who was called Siddhartha before he became the Buddha). Was shocked by the beginning when it spoke about Siddharta being the son of a Brahmin priest and learning to offer prayers to Gods...as I was pretty sure that Buddha's story started in a castle and that he was born to a royal couple...
Anyways, I continued with the book...and must admit that it has its moments of brilliance and some of the quotes are amazing. The language too is very simple and easy to read, and will also offer a crash course introduction to a few different schools of eastern belief and thought that have been touched during the tale. There are also moments when the book becomes a bit boring...however, in my opinion it definitely is worth going through just to get a peek at the good stuff. This book is not for everybody though, and would not appeal to everyone.
Our protagonist Siddharta is born to a brahmin and learns the Vedas and the hymns and the ways to perform offerings to the Gods and forces of nature from his father. He learns to meditate on 'Om' the primeval sound of the universe and would often spend long hours lost in meditation and thought. Soon, he starts to feel a need to understand the self, and is not able to continue to concentrate on performing offerings or chanting of hymns like his simple father, and decides to set out on the path of the Samanas (Jaina renunciates)and he along with his loyal friend Govinda join a group of travelling Samanas and are accepted into their fold. They learn a lot in the company of the Samanas. They learn about maya - the cosmic illusion and suffering that is part and parcel of existence on this world. They learn about advanced techniques of breathing, fasting and controlling their energy. They also sense and experience the oneness of being.
However, some basic questions still remain unanswered and they set out in search of Goutama Buddha or Sakyamuni, whom everyone speaks of as a perfected being. They listen with wonder and delight to Buddha's sermons and Govinda is so moved that he dons ochre robes and seeks initiation into the Buddha's fold. Siddharta on the other hand holds the Sakyamuni's experiences and enlightenment as the real treasure and not his teachings. He believes that wisdom cannot be taught or passed from one person to another and has to be experienced by oneself. Knowledge, which can be taught is incomplete and can only lead to wisdom but not really help to attain it.
So, our hero sets out again...and now falls headlong into the samsaric existence. He learns about the love of a woman and about he craft of a tradesman. He learns how to make money and how to indulge in pleasures. He learns how to enjoy the things and desires that he had hereto despised as ignorance and maya. Earning more money, gambling, drinking, feasting, enjoying pleasures of the flesh and all kinds of comforts, he spends such a long time that his inner desire to know the truth of existence and his spiritual leanings are all but extinguished. He is rudely awakened one night through a dream and in a shaken disturbed state of mind he runs away from his rich, comfortable but material life. It was in this state that he contemplates suicide and is about to jump into a river, when he hears the divine sound of 'Om' seemingly emanating from the river. This brings back a flood of thoughts and memories from what seems to him like another life, and he falls into a deep stupor like state induced by his tiredness and swirling emotions. He passes into a deep, dreamless sleep and awakens a bit later and finds his greatest teacher or Guru in a simple ferryman who lives by the river.
The ferryman Vasudeva teaches Siddharta once again to listen and to contemplate and to respect. Slowly and steadily, Siddharta finds the Atman, the Brahman that he looked for all his life all around him and within him and in the flowing river and the rocks and pebbles that lie on its banks. He finally finds inner peace, only to be set to trial once again in the form of his son (borne by the courtesan whom he used to see during his materially motivated days). He experiences a longing and feelings of affection like he never had and these lead to great turmoil and much suffering, before Vasudeva's words and his meditation on them bring about new wisdom.
After experiencing "love" for his son, and all the wisdom that these feelings and emotions brought to him, Siddharta no longer attempted to distinguish between the samsaric and nirvanic existence. For him, everything became perfect, and he perceived perfection in every aspect of nature and learned to love the same for what it is...and not what it was or what it would become one day. He didn't care about the fruits of action, but delighted in the simple act of doing the act. He could finally understand the mother's blind love for her child, the father's immense pride in his son's achievements, the man's longing and deep desire for his beloved, the ignorant woman's desire for jewelry, the merchant's obsession with money...etc etc. Everything started to make sense to him now, and he saw love in its different forms in every aspect of nature, life and existence. With love... finally... the great puzzle had been solved, and the mystery of life was clear now. Thus did this Siddharta (like his namesake who became the highly exalted Sakyamuni Buddha) reach enlightenment and fulfillment at a humble ferryman's abode. He became known a simple but wise holy man in the surrounding lands, and his childhood friend Govinda one day comes to see him. The book ends with a conversation between the two friends on different topics, and with an assertion that true wisdom is to be gained by experience and can never be received through books or be simply passed from one person to another.
This is a simple, powerful tale with some deep allegories and symbolism built into the story line. I liked this tale, but didn't really love it...and would rate it at 3 stars. View all my reviews