Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse tells the story about the titular character and his spiritual quest. Siddhartha is the son of a Brahmin, a Hindu priest, who realizes he wasn’t suited for the traditional path towards enlightenment. Along with his friend, Govinda, he joins the Samanas, a sect of ascetics, but even the life of voluntary poverty failed to guide him towards the awakening he craved. He met Gotama, the Buddha, but not even the Enlightened One can teach Siddhartha the path towards that enlightenment. As Govinda became a Buddhist monk, Siddhartha continued his quest. En route, he enjoyed a material life, became a merchant, and seduced a famous courtesan, but that life led to despair. So Siddhartha returned to a simpler existence. He became a ferryman with his friend and mentor Vasudeva. Vasudeva taught Siddhartha to listen to the river, and in the river’s current—not one sound but a cacophony—Siddhartha heard Om.
Siddhartha is a short novel, only 152 pages in the Bantam Books edition that I read, but it’s a novel packed with change. That’s the point of fiction, right? One of the first questions I ask when analyzing a novel or short story is what changed? On one level, the change is obvious in Siddhartha. It begins with a restless youth and ends with a contented old man. That part of the story, I have no difficulty understanding and appreciating. It’s a physical and emotional journey, as we all take through life. But on a deeper level, a thematic level, Siddhartha tells a spiritual story. The real change happens in Siddhartha’s soul. As an atheist, I always find religious themes abstract, confusing, and therefore unsatisfying.
Of course, this is my failure—if failure is the right word—rather than Hesse’s. There’s no weakness in his prose; he wrote the novel he intended to write. I have read only two books by him, Steppenwolf is the other one, and both left me pondering what it was I had just read. That’s not a bad thing. I want novels to engage the mind, to incite post-reading pondering, to leave some questions unanswered, to inspire different interpretations. As such, Steppenwolf worked for me, but Siddhartha failed to connect with me in the same way. In a term used in this novel, I’m not feeling the Om.
So let’s turn my focus away from what I can’t relate to and towards what I can. Siddhartha is on a spiritual quest, which I can’t relate to, but he began that quest as a restless young man. That I can understand because I had been a restless youth. Much of my life was spent following the designated path—school, college, career—but after college, I suffered a crisis of purpose. I had majored in business administration, but once I graduated—almost immediately—I realized that the last thing I wanted was a career in business.
Govinda knew that [Siddhartha] would not become an ordinary Brahmin, a lazy sacrificial official, an avaricious dealer in magic sayings, a conceited worthless orator, a wicked sly priest, or just a good stupid sheep amongst a large herd. No, and he, Govinda, did not want to become any of these, not a Brahmin like ten thousand others of their kind. He wanted to follow Siddhartha, the beloved, the magnificent.
In much the same way, in his father’s house, Siddhartha was focused on learning everything spiritual he could. Like his father, he intended to become a Brahmin. But once he reached the age for that career, he realized he wanted another. He did the only thing that made sense; he left home.
After college, I looked for a place where I wanted to live. I tried Spokane, where I grew up, and I tried Seattle. I moved to Denver, where I lived two years cut away from everyone and everything I have known. I loved Denver, but it wasn’t right. In Denver, I practiced a hedonistic life, dating several women, spending my time and money at the nightclubs. It was fun without being satisfying. I eventually realized in cutting myself off from everyone and everything I knew, I had also cut myself off from myself. I needed to leave that Mile High life behind and return to Washington State, to my home, and to myself.
Siddhartha can relate to that. Dissatisfied with his father’s teachings, with the ascetic lifestyle, and with the Buddha’s enlightenment, he sought a secular life. He became a merchant and the lover of a famous courtesan. He made money, wore fancy clothing, lived in a luxurious home, and wasted his time on gambling games. As my visits to the night clubs grew old and unsatisfying, his gambling failed to fulfill him. He realized he had to leave that secular life behind and return to his spiritual quest.
And in that quest, he returned to the river and became ferryman. Now came the long, calm maturing between middle age and old age. He listened to the river and heard Om. To find what he was searching for, he had to stop searching. It came to him. More likely, it was always within him, which is what I think his friend and fellow ferryman Vasudeva would say. For Siddhartha, Om is a spiritual awakening or experience.
I’m uncertain how to relate his Om to my own life, but I think of it as contentment. I am contented. I’m no longer the restless young man. Though I don’t think of myself as an old man, I know I’ve reached the age people think of as old. If you had told me when I was thirty that I would live out my days in Olympia, I would’ve shaken my head and thought of you as nuts. I didn’t choose Olympia; Olympia chose me. Siddhartha didn’t choose a life on the river; it chose him. Olympia was where I found myself when I stopped looking for myself. The river is where Siddhartha stood when he stopped seeking.
Then Siddhartha had spent the night at his house with dancers and wine, had pretended to be superior to his companions, which he no longer was. He had drunk much wine and late after midnight he went to bed, tired and yet agitated, nearly in tears and in despair. In vain did he try to sleep. His heart was so full of misery, he felt he could no longer edure it. He was full of a nausea which overpowered him like a distasteful wine, or musi that was too sweet and superficial, or like the too sweet smile of the dancers or the too sweet perfume of their hair and breasts.
I began this review believing that I found little in Siddhartha to relate to in my own life, but as I wrote it, I realized that Siddhartha and I are more alike than I believed. I keep thinking that I write these reviews for you, the unknown reader, and though that’s true, it’s also true that I write them for myself. In writing them, I learn more about what I read; I learn what I take from the novels, stories, and poems I read. Every novel, story, and poem is a collaboration between the writer and the reader. Siddhartha was on a spiritual quest. Though I’ve never thought of myself as being on a spiritual quest, I too sought the abstract, that thing that would bring me happiness and fulfillment. I doubt I’m unique. In Siddhartha’s journey, in one way or another, lies the path all of us take.