So there’s two main reasons as to why I picked up this book. Firstly, it was placed in the ‘classics’ section in my library and as someone who has made it a goal to read as many classics she can, I felt compelled to read it. Secondly, it talked about Siddhartha and Buddha. I’m not particularly religious, but I find myself really digging Buddhism a lot of the time so I figured this book was a safe bet. So basically, it was a book that I assumed I would probably enjoy because I enjoy classics and Buddhism. Unfortunately, my logic did not turn out as I’d assumed it would.
Siddhartha purports to tell the story of a Brahim named Siddhartha. As a young boy, in an effort to discover atman (enlightenment), he leaves home. He ends up joining some ascetics and begins to adapt to their lifestyle, believing that once you strip away everything, you’ll be able to finally find enlightenment. Once he realizes that he won’t find nirvana with the ascetics, he gets drawn to one who has been assumed to already been enlightened, Gautama Buddha. He meets Buddha and is taken aback by his holiness. However, he discovers that Buddha’s teachings don’t exactly gel with him, so he declines to serve him and be a part of his group. Siddhartha believes in the unity of the world, which contrasts with Buddha’s teachings to transcend the world. Similarly, Siddhartha argues that teachings of any nature, including those of Buddha’s, while worthwhile, cannot really take the place of individual experience. Teachings can only teach you, they do not lead you to the experiences that really *change/ broaden your understanding/ enlighten* you. And those experiences are necessary in order for one to achieve enlightenment.
At this point, he comes to a stand still, not sure of what to do. He decides to go across a river to meet people on the other side/ see what life is like there. In his journey, he meets a curious ferryman who prophesies that Siddhartha will return to him and repay him in some way. Anyways, Siddhartha comes to the other side of the river. It’s a city filled with merchants, barbers, courtesans, etc. As he went to one extreme to find enlightenment and failed to find it, he decides to go to the other extreme. Hence, he meets a courtesan, named Kamala, and learns how to love (i.e. sex/ seduction techniques). On her insistence, he also becomes involved with a local merchant becomes a merchant himself. He remains in the city for a long time, continually taking part in life’s pleasures and slowly forgetting his teachings from the ascetics. Instead of stripping himself of everything, he gives in to everything. However, through time, he realizes that despite going to the other extreme, he still hasn’t obtained enlightenment. The guilty, materialistic, lustful life was a farce, a game, to cover the emptiness inside.
Taken aback and overwhelmed, Siddhartha leaves the city and contemplates committing suicide. However, after a spiritual moment with the word “om” and a chance meeting with an old friend, he decides to live and instead devote himself to the river. So he reunites with the ferryman and attempt to learn from the river’s spirituality. He and the ferryman become quite famous as sages as the two are content to detach themselves from the world and just listen to people and convey the messages of the river.
A few years later, it turns out that Kamala had given birth to Siddhartha’s son after he left the city, and had become Buddha’s devotee. She comes to the river to ferry across to meet the Buddha and chances upon Siddhartha. However, this reunion is short-lived as she is fatally bitten by a snake and dies. Siddhartha then assumes responsibility for his young son, who is himself bitterly opposed to this. The son refuses to listen to Siddhartha and adapt to his simplistic ways. Siddhartha tries to kill him with kindness (figuratively!) because he loves him so much, but the boy refuses and runs away after stealing all his money. Siddhartha attempts to go after his son but is persuaded by the ferryman to let his son find his own path; just like how Siddhartha found his own as a young boy. Peering into to the river with the ferryman, Siddhartha realizes that all things are connected in unity and that time is immaterial. So happiness and sadness, sufferings and pleasure, good and evil, are all together and part of the oneness of the world. In other words, he attains enlightenment.
Many years later, his friend having heard of a great enlightened man living near the river (Siddhartha) comes to meet him. When he recognizes Siddhartha, he asks Siddhartha to teach him or at least impart some of his wisdom. Siddhartha initially refuses but then relents, telling his friend of how time doesn’t exist and how for each true statement there is an equally opposite true one. His friend thinks of Siddhartha as a mad man and gets ready to leave. Before he leaves, he kisses Siddartha’s forehead, on Siddhartha’s request, and immediately experiences the same timelessness Siddhartha had seen in the river. Hence, the book ends.
To be completely honest, I did not find the book to be as enlightening (LOL) as I hoped it would be. I just, I felt bored. A lot of the ideas and themes discussed in this book were things that I had already looked into/ heard about. So there wasn’t anything extremely new in it for me to learn about. I think I expected too much.
That said, this doesn’t mean that the book is a bad book. I mean, I could see how this book has attained its ‘classic’ status. It does grapple with some really interesting themes and the final idea about how everything is connected and how each experiences matters is a really great one. One that I actually believe in as well. So in terms of message, it’s really solid. In terms of presentation, it’s pretty solid as well. The idea of someone going from one extreme to another in an attempt to find something is one that has been done before but always remains enjoyable to read. Siddhartha’s journey was indeed nice to read about. And there were some incredibly insightful sentences and paragraphs in the book that I really, really enjoyed. To illustrate my point, I’m going to actually copy down a portion of the book:
Siddhartha said: “What could I say to you, Venerable One? Perhaps that you are seeking too hard? That you seek so hard that you do not find?
“What do you mean?” asked Govinda.
“When someone seeks,” said Siddhartha, “then it easily happens that his eyes see only the thing that he seeks, and he is able to find nothing, to take in nothing because he always thinks only about the thing he is seeking, because he has one goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal. You, Venerable One, may truly be a seeker, for in striving toward your goal, you fail to see certain thing that are right under your nose.” p 121-122
Like I said, it is pretty insightful and quite profound. The passage also illustrates another feature of the book, it’s simple writing style. I think that’s actually the one thing that made me struggle with the book the most. I just, I was not a big fan of the writing, or perhaps I should say translation. It was written in german and then translated into english. I think I would’ve probably enjoyed the german version more, if I could read german. I enjoyed what was being said but my enjoyment was often brought down by the writing style. I found it difficult to keep up and found myself just reading over passages rather than reading through them. Perhaps I’m quite challenged when it comes to reading philosophical content. In sum, I think it’s a good book and worthwhile, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectations and left me a little puzzled in my feelings about it. Good message, but not quite delivered the way I hoped it would be.
My rating: read it to learn about what enlightenment could be, but don’t expect to have your life changed by it.