Thursday, June 12, 2014

Book Review: Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse

Opa’s words:
Do you know "SIDDHARTHA" by Hermann Hesse? He was a young Indian, who looking for knowledge comes to the Ascetics, learns all the exercises for abstinence, the insensitivity to pain, etc. but later moves on, because he saw this as an escape from earthly suffering and joy, to which an Ascetic tries to make himself unfeeling. Naturally it is too human to try such an escape, but shouldn't one, if at all possible, try to bear it?
As promised, I have read the book Opa mentioned in the last letter to Gisela, Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse. These mystical/life quest books seem to be en vogue around this precarious time between the world wars. This book was written in 1922, soon after the shell-shock of the Great War. The future is uncertain, the past is ghastly, and the present time isn’t promising. It is a ripe time for self-reflection, spiritual questioning, and abandoning all preconceived ideas of religion and morality. Hermann Hesse looks to the East for inspiration. In his book, Siddartha, he chronicles the journey of a man on a spiritual quest. The man, Siddartha, isn’t even sure what he is looking for: wholeness? Spiritual awakening? Wisdom? By the end, even the concentrated effort of searching seems wrong. All along this search, he has a friend, Govinda, who is sometimes alongside him, sometimes distant, but who seems to always show up just as Siddhartha is transitioning to the next step in his journey.

Siddhartha, starts as a young boy who leaves his father to join the ascetics, abandoning all physical comforts and even necessities in the hope to transcend the physical world and reach full spiritual maturity. He masters this task, and leaves in search of a greater challenge, a higher revelation. He wandered into a town and met a courtesan, Kamala, from whom he learned the art of love. He also learned the art of making money and became a full participant in village life, all in the quest to earn his lessons in love from Kamala. He became saturated by the lessons, the life in the village, to the point where he no longer thought and acted as an ascetic, but thought and acted as an ordinary man with riches. At this moment, he felt the weight of this materialistic world and its possessions. He moved on from this life, suicidal and sick from greed, gluttony and lust- seeking to learn something else. He travels to a river where he finds his will to live, a good night’s sleep, and another chance meeting with his friend Govinda.

Siddhartha begins to learn from the river, and the Ferryman who is sort of an ambassador for the river’s wisdom. When Siddhartha and the Ferryman, Vasudeva, get acquainted and make arrangements for Siddhartha to stay and learn, the Ferryman humbly tells Sidhartha: “I am not a learned man; I do not know how to talk or think. I only know how to listen and be devout; otherwise I have learned nothing.” (105) I think this quote is a good summary of how Siddartha ultimately completes his quest for spiritual enlightenment.

His journeys are not over, as he has an unexpected visitor from his past: Kamala, who brings with her Siddhartha’s son. Kamala suffers an untimely death due to a snake bite, and Siddhartha’s son is stranded and stays with his father, a stranger.  The son is pretty much a spoiled kid who is traumatized by his loss and his forced relationship with his father. He treats his father with as much disdain and teenage angst as he can muster. Eventually he runs away and Siddhartha lets him go, although he is completely heartbroken, he knows that the son needs to go back to his village with the comforts of his previous life.

Siddartha endures his heartache until he can’t take it anymore and confesses all that is on his heart to Vesudeva. Vesudeva listens well (he has the gift of listening) and takes Siddhartha to listen to the river. Siddhartha has a spiritual experience, and awakening, when he listens to the river. He sees his own pain and suffering, characters from his life- flowing in the river. Then he hears the voices of joy, suffering, and all the sounds of creation and emotion swirling together in a cacophony that combines into the sacred “Om” sound of one-ness.

After fostering this revelation, Vesudeva is able to go in peace, and he walks into the forest “into the unity of all things.” (This death sort of resembles the death of the prophet Elijah who doesn’t die but is swept away on a chariot to heaven.)

The last visitor and journey for Siddhartha is his dear friend, Govinda, who has once again crossed his path. Govinda asks Siddhartha for teaching, for some moral or principle to live by. Siddhartha has a difficult time expressing to his friend that what he has to offer: wisdom or enlightenment- is not for explaining or teaching. One must simply listen and learn it. Govinda at last has his revelation and sees in the river and in Siddhartha the revelation of the one, of Buddha, of wisdom.

Siddhartha speaks of the one-ness of all things in his sort of mystical existentialism (my label)- he sums up his wisdom in this passage:
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 with some kind of desired imaginary world, some imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and be glad to belong to it. (144)
To me, this statement sort of sums up what Siddhartha has learned in his journey. It is sort of a combination of buddhist teaching that one should strive to escape all suffering... with the idea that the way to escape it- is to not want to escape it- but to experience it all and love it all as it is all part of the Holy Om, or One. It seems dialectical in nature, but I’ve found many parts of wisdom to be this way. This same idea is reflected in one of my favorite “mystical” teachers: Julian of Norwich, when she echoes the refrain “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” You could find this idea hidden (perhaps more flippantly) in the French expression “c’est la vie.” 

This idea of oneness- of everything and nothing mattering- is why I’m calling it existential mysticism. It is sort of a big picture idea of existentialism, but combined with a contentedness that comes from a spiritual understanding. So it is not an existential depression that follows (when you think- if it’s all the same, who cares?!) but rather- there is peace and value that ultimately, everything returns to God. All shall be well. Life will be, and the value is: love. Love life, love the world, love the spirit- do not separate them- and become one with it all.

I think this sort of practical application of a mystical journey must have appealed to Opa- who understood and appreciated the value in thinking and exploring mystically, but ultimately felt that it was an error to forever search an escape by ignoring reality. You cannot escape the world, as Opa has learned through his life experiences. But you can find value in the experience that is beyond face value.

Siddhartha is a mystical book that combats the extremes of mysticism. I don’t think that the ideas in it are all perfectly logical or theologically sound- but I can learn wisdom and truth from it. And isn’t that the point? Even if life is not perfectly logical or theologically sound, we can still glean wisdom, understanding, and above all- love.

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