“Knowledge can be communicated but not wisdom.” (142)
Hermann Hesse’s slim little book, Siddhartha, first made its way into my grubby hands many years ago when I was only seventeen or eighteen years old. It was handed to me by a close friend who was some nine years older than I, a friend I spent a lot of time with while he was jamming on his guitar singing an eclectic mix of Scott Weiland and Christian songs on the La Jolla cliffs overlooking the ocean while I was pondering life during my youthful explorations into Christian fellowship and literary explorations. That friend had often told me that he recognized a maturity in my demeanor and he felt that this book would speak to me.
On my first reading it felt odd that an outspoken Christian would hand me a fictional account written by a German author exploring eastern enlightenment, but the simplicity and directness of the story was truly eye opening to my eager and curious adult mind. After reading Siddhartha for the first time I quickly reread it and later turned to Hesse’s canon for further fuel to feed my spiritual hunger during my late teens and early twenties. Of his many books that I read, only Narcissus and Goldmund came close to satiating the hunger ignited by Siddhartha. Hesse was the first author that captivated my developing mind during my young adult life, however as I read more and more of him I found that the universal themes within his novels tended to repeat themselves. On reading Demian in my later twenties its story failed to ignite my interest and I finally laid Hesse to rest as I realized that my life experiences had changed my palate and I was no longer hungry for Hesse’s worn themes of wandering spirits and theological explorations into eastern philosophy.
And so, Siddhartha, has been sitting on my shelf for many years, forgotten. Somehow in the past year or so it has been catching my eye, inviting me to reopen its cover. After recently finding renewed joy in rereading a short novella in between a longer work, I decided to rediscover the words cherished by my youthful self and revisit Siddhartha.
The simple story of Siddhartha is a tale of self-discovery of a young man who initially renounces his family’s wealth and social position to live for many years as an ascetic, renouncing all possessions and achieving states of ecstasy through prolonged fasting and mastery over his bodily desires through meditation. He later steps away from the ascetic life to explore the pleasures of lust and material wealth and becomes a successful businessman finding peace in this new life as he learns to connect with humanity’s social structure that he had denied as an ascetic. In his middle age years he has a crisis of conscious and nearly kills himself after leaving behind all of his possessions and material power. Through the luck of circumstance, he bumps into an old friend of his who had sought the path of the Buddha during their shared years as ascetics in their youth. The interaction with this old friend reawakens Siddhartha and he chooses to adopt a simple livelihood as river ferryman, finding peace in a life of simple purpose unburdened by want.
That synopsis is the basic skeleton of the story. It reads directly and to the point, with several beautiful and thoughtful verses that digress upon the purpose of life lived through self-awareness, the enlightenment offered through meditation, and the warmth and opportunity found in human interaction. The plot could be viewed as slightly contrived, with many circumstantial events happening far too easy in unbelievable fashion, but the contrived plot is forgivable because this isn’t a book written with plot as the purpose. The value of this book is in its presentation of the rewards inherent in a self-examined life.
On rereading this book I rediscovered why I loved it so much in my youth and on reading it in my mid-thirties it had new meaning for me. This book caused me to reflect on my life with joy and respect for the many experiences I have lived through. This book inspires me not to look on the past with regret or with shame or with pride but to accept my past for what it was, the past that I have lived. This book caused me to look to the future not with despair or anxiety or fear, but to look at the future for what it is, an opportunity to be open to the many beauties and joys presented to one who is open to life and what it offers.
“I learned through my body and soul that it was necessary for me to sin, that I needed lust, that I had to strive for property and experience nausea and the depths of despair in order to learn not to resist them, in order to learn to love the world and no longer compare it to some kind of desired imaginary world, some imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and to be glad to belong to it.” (144)