Herman Hesse’s book, Siddhartha lends itself perfectly to a hero’s journey. His journey is long, painful, and dangerous, but Siddhartha comes out better because of it. The book was written by Hesse in 1922 and based on a character set in the 500 BCs. It is odd that the book applies to modern India just as it applied to the India of 2 millennium ago (when Siddhartha supposedly lived). This, coupled with a captivating story line makes this a fun book to read, as well as an interesting point of view into early Indian culture.
Siddhartha searches for “why” we are on the Earth, and finally finds his answer after many long years. The book begins with Siddhartha as a young boy living with his Brahmin parents in a moderately wealthy city in India. His father is a rich and powerful Brahmin priest, and Siddhartha is expected to follow in his footsteps as a Brahmin. He learns the ways of his people quickly, and at a tender age, his is participating in conversations with his elders. This is the time when Siddhartha starts to here things preached to him.
He may have already decided that he must find his own way of doing things instead of falling under the spell of his teachers and elders. He has a thirst for knowledge– the author puts it well by saying that he is a “vessel that in not full”. He discovers that the elders and teachers have only placed a drop in the bucket for his quest of knowledge, but it is all they know. He is not happy with his lifestyle because he knows he must strike out into the world and discover for himself the ways of the world.
Still young, Siddhartha tells his father that he wishes to join the wandering squad of possession-less Samanas. His father disagrees, but does not get violent. They have a standing disagreement, and Siddhartha stands by the window in protest all night long. In the morning, his father tells Siddhartha that he may join the Samanas if he wishes. His father tells him that if “you find bliss in the forest, you should come back and teach me. If you finds disillusionment, come back, and we shall again offer sacrifices to the gods together”.
Siddhartha is called into the world to discover what knowledge there is out there for him, and to answer the question that nags at him– what is the Self? He and his friend Govinda descend into the life of the Samanas. They accept them, and after Siddhartha and Govinda get rid of all their possessions, they begin to live like the Samanas. The goal of a Samana is become empty, to shut out joys of life, and just wallow in the sorrow and pain that remains. He lives like this for years on end, and little does he know, but Siddhartha is still running from his Self.
Throughout his life, he is assisted by many people in his journey to the Abyss and back. Govinda is his friend and follower who he sees many times intermittently through the book. His father finally agrees the let Siddhartha try his new belief system with hopes that his own life may benefit from the journey of his son. The Buddha, who Siddhartha meets later in the book, tries in vain to introduce a belief system into Siddhartha, and succeeds in convincing Govinda, but cannot convince Siddhartha at first.
Kamala, another character in the latter stages of the book teaches Siddhartha a great many things, including the fact that even after his years as a Samana, he can love. Vasudeva is the ferryman who does little but listen to Siddhartha and provide him with food, shelter, and insight into his life through the river. Kamaswami is the rich trader who gets Siddhartha a job and teaches him of the stresses and joys that can be enjoyed by the rich. All of these people create the story and life of Siddhartha. As a Samana, Siddhartha and Govinda go to see the Great Buddha.
Siddhartha is forced to think for himself when Govinda agrees to join the Buddha’s ranks of monks. At this point in the book, Siddhartha is forced to decided between his great friend and what he believes is right. He could join his friend, and look to become convinced by the Buddha, or he can continue searching for his own answers to the questions about the Self. After deciding to abandon his friend and the monk’s way of life, Siddhartha continues down the dusty road of life. He comes across a ferryman named Vasuedeva who shows him the river and the secrets that it hold within.
Siddhartha is still too nieve to realize the potential, but he continues down the road. When he reaches the town, he sees Kamala. Kamala is the beautiful woman who has a grove in the town that Siddhartha will call home for many years. Siddhartha gives up a lot to be with Kamala, and learn her ways of love. After a brief talk, he knows that he must get money to please Kamala and to learn what she has to teach. To earn this money, he gets a job with a rich merchant named Kamaswami. Kamaswami teaches him many things, including how to do business, but more importantly that most people are extremely concerned with time and money.
Siddhartha realizes this, but attempts not to follow it every single time he has the chance. Siddhartha and Kamala learn from each other. Siddhartha presents her with gifts, but she gives him knowledge. To continue to please her, Siddhartha must continue to work. The stresses start to get to him, and soon he starts to do nothing but earn money just to gamble it away. He becomes lost in the ways of the Samana, and looses the three possessions that he did have as a Samana- the ability to wait, the ability to fast, and the ability to think. He has entered the Abyss of his life.
He drinks wine and indulges in “wretched money”. His life becomes worthless, and he soon realizes that he is still running from the Self rather than conquering it. In a dream, a songbird symbolized all that was good in him. In his dream, it sang every morning, but then one morning, it sung no longer. When he looked into the cage, it was dead. The bird was dead, just as all that was good in had died during his time living the life of a rich person. Like a fog, weariness had set over him slowly and discreetly. Now he knew it was time to return to the old ways.
He left early in the morning without anything. When he had left his father, he had had his youth, and a yearn to learn. Now he had no youth, but his vessel of knowledge was still not full. He took nothing with him, no money, no extra clothes, no food, and no plan. He just knew that he had to shed the rich way and return to the middle way. He realized that was getting no closer to his vision of conquering the Self. He once again struck out for the road. When he came to a shady area, he sat down and began thinking about how lousy his life was. He had no friends, no money, he had nothing.
He had lost his three possessions (thinking, fasting and waiting) and he knew he couldn’t go back to the ways of the rich. He contemplated suicide, but then somewhere deep in his mind, the word “Om” came out. He said the word over and over, and then fell into a deep sleep. When he awoke, he felt like a new man, and next to him was his friend Govinda. Govinda was still a monk, still followed the Buddha, but he was resting when he saw Siddhartha. They chatted a while before parting ways again. Siddhartha continued down the road until he met Vasudeva by the ferry again.
His life had changed a lot since he had last seen Vasudeva. He had now been rich, and then willingly went back into poverty. He had no possessions, just as he did last time he saw Vasudeva. This time, he decided to settle with Vasudeva and live in the middle life. By the end of the book, Siddhartha had reached the state he wanted– the conquer of the Self. He had a son, and just as Siddhartha had left his father in search of knowledge, so did his son. Siddhartha changed a lot throughout the book, but eventually came back to the same place as when he started, only with much more knowledge under his belt.