The Penguin Drop Caps edition is a vibrant fluorescent yellow with bright green stain on the edges of the page. The contrast colour on the spine and the initial H is sky blue. I puzzled over the initial for a long time, trying to figure out its connection to the story. Perhaps the blue swirls symbolize the river, a central character. The H is composed of two swirly lines that intertwine in the middle; is this a reference to the notion of oneness? “And all of it together, all voices, all goals, all yearnings, all sufferings, all pleasures, all good and evil—the world was everything together.” (p. 187) I also noticed the font was considerably larger than the other Drop Caps volumes, which meant this would be a shorter read. Good thing.
Hermann Hesse won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946 "for his inspired writings which, while growing in boldness and penetration, exemplify the classical humanitarian ideals and high qualities of style". Siddhartha was written in 1922, though it became popular in the English-speaking world during the 1960s and 1970s, no doubt through the influence The Beatles and others who were enamoured with India and a western interpretation of Hinduism and Buddhism.
Siddhartha is a Brahmin who seeks peace and fulfillment first through asceticism, second through pleasure, and third through daily listening to a river working as a ferryman. He has an encounter with the Buddha but ultimately rejects his teaching in pursuit of his own path. Eventually, he, too, becomes saintlike, perfect, through his meditation on the river and the unity of all things. Govinda, his friend, who as a child loved and admired him for his beauty and intelligence, comes to venerate him for the peace which emanates from every part of his being.
Reading Siddhartha is like reading poetry. The novel is highly structured, the three stages in Siddhartha’s spiritual journey bookended by conversations with his childhood friend, Govinda. As a writer, Hesse has mastered the use of the comma. “”For the first time, all this, all this yellow and blue, river and forest, passed into Siddhartha through his eyes, was no longer the magic of Mara, was no longer the veil of Mara, was no longer senseless and random diversity of the world of appearance, despised by the deep-thinking Brahmin, who disdains the diversity, who seeks the unity.” This flowing, song-like style makes the novel feel like a sacred text.
But there is something incoherent about the ideas expressed in the novel. Siddhartha feels that his ego is the problem. Isn’t that a Jungian or Freudian concept? Yet Siddhartha does not seek the extinction of the ego in submitting to the teaching of the Buddha, but in pursuing his own path. Isn’t that a contradiction? Then there’s the usual muddle of death is in life, sin is in grace (wait—aren’t those Christian concepts?) youth is in old age. Siddhartha also tells Govinda, “Wisdom cannot be communicated.” Isn’t that what he is doing right there, communicating wisdom? This kind of tail-chasing, poetic, warm-fuzzy light-radiating peace talk is very beautiful and appealing, but it doesn’t hold up to reality. He actually says, “The opposite of every truth is just as true!” (p. 197). Deep, man.
So while Siddhartha affirms that death and life are one, the Christian says, “Death is the enemy, the wages of sin.” Grief at death is a universal response. Which worldview aligns better with that reality?
In the novel, three characters are called perfect men: the Buddha, Vasudeva, the ferryman, and finally Siddhartha. What is meant by perfection? Are they morally perfect, never having done wrong? In the case of the Buddha and Vasudeva, we do not know. Siddhartha, on the other hand, spends years in a love affair with a courtesan, gambling and drinking, and is basically absent from his son’s life, despite attempting to win him over. I’m not sure we can say this is perfection, however much inner peace he may have later attained.
Most people agree that this book is about individualism. Siddhartha leaves his family, never to return; he parts ways with Govinda; he leaves his mentor and lover without saying goodbye; he can’t form a secure attachment with his son. All for the sake of fleeing the ego? Maybe I’m not getting something here.
If Siddhartha is like George Harrison (“The time will come when you see we’re all one”) then Govinda is like Bono (“I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”). An old man, he asks his peace-radiating friend what teaching he has distilled from his unusual life. The back cover quote is taken from this closing scene where Siddhartha says, “I learned how to let the world be as it is, and to love it and to belong to it gladly.” (p.200) A lovely sentiment, but on close inspection it doesn’t align with the way the character holds himself at a distance from “the child people” (everyone who has emotions, basically).
As ridiculous as I feel criticizing a Nobel prize-winning author, I would say, read Siddartha for the style and structure but seek spiritual truth elsewhere.