Reinterpreting Siddhartha in Light of Oriental Philosophies

In your quest for meaning of life, a Buddha will be always near you

In your quest for meaning of life, a Buddha will be always near you

Siddhartha: An Indian Poem by Hermann Hesse is a misleading novel. Despite sharing the first name, it is not a biography of the historical Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. Hesse called it an ‘Indian poem’ and Hindu philosophy was indeed crucial to the story but one commentator has seen it as another typical Western work not dissimilar to Moby Dick or Huckleberry Fin. Some saw the novel as a mélange of Indian and Western ideas, while others viewed it as a work of excellence for its integration of Hindu and Christian mysticisms. Siddhartha: An Indian Poem is a novel so riddled with conflicting views that a reinterpretation seems not only proper but desirable. 

The story, unlike the many interpretations it generates, is simple and uncomplicated. A boy named Siddhartha found himself dissatisfied with the traditional religion and started his quest for enlightenment. He joined the ascetics, wandered in the forest, and listened to Buddha’s teachings but found none of them convincing. One day, he crossed a river and arrived to a city. He accumulated immense wealths and mired himself in sensual pleasures. This, too, failed to illuminate him the meaning of life. In desperation, he went back to where he came – the river. There, he befriended an old ferryman whose simplicity so awed Siddhartha that he decided to live with and learn from him. Siddhartha, following the old ferryman, learnt wisdom from the river. Life was peaceful but for the visit of Siddharta’s young son. Notwithstanding his father’s love, the son despised his father’s simple living and left. Heartbroken, Siddhartha went back to the river and finally found the enlightenment he has longed for since his youth. 

As an ‘Indian poem’, Indian elements are not in short supply. The Indian – sounding names are not just fanciful oriental construction. Bennett has noted that Vasudeva (the old ferryman) was one of the name of Krishna, who is an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, one of the holiest gods in Hinduism. Through this connection, Vasudeva could possibly be the incarnation of Lord Vishnu and pointed the way of enlightenment to Siddhartha. Kamala (the sexual mentor of Siddhartha) is derived from Kama, the Hindu god of erotic love and is another instance of possible divine guidance for Siddhartha.

One Indian perspective has interestingly accorded four characters with the four goals of human life in Hinduism. Govinda (the faithful friend of Siddhartha and later a respected disciple of Buddha), Kamala, Kamaswami (the merchant who taught Siddhartha the art of business) and Siddhartha respectively represent Dharma (good deeds), Kama (sensual pleasure), Artha (wealth and power) and Moksha (enlightenment) in Hinduism. Meeting these characters symbolizes the phases that Siddhartha has undergone. With Govinda, they prayed and fasted. With Kamaswami and Kamala, he gambled his wealth and learnt the art of sex. Finally, learning the wisdom from the river, Siddhartha embodied Moksha – the enlightenment that relieved him from the Wheel of Sufferings.

A central theme underpinning Siddhartha’s spiritual quest for enlightenment that wisdom is not communicable in words. This finds echoes in many Oriental philosophies and religions. The first line of Tao Te Ching, a key text in Daoism, said ‘The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao’. An ancient Hindu hymn alternatively said ‘Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names.’ The earthly language is an encodement of worldly images and a product of human logic. The truth is something that is all – transcending and is  ‘beyond the phenomenal realm of names and forms’ (in Joseph Campbell’s words). Hence, it is indescribable and uncommunicable.

Yet, what is that ‘something’?  Siddhartha refused to accept any doctrines because that ‘something’ is a feeling devoid of words. After hearing the teachings of Gautama Buddha, the final and most respected teacher, Siddhartha found himself still unpersuaded. The doctrines of Buddha sound fair and attractive but it lacks a crucial aspect; ‘it does not contain the secret of what the Sublime One himself experienced, he alone among the hundreds of thousands’. When Siddhartha said ‘I ‘ll be my own teacher, my own pupil. I’ll study myself, learn the secret that is Siddhartha’, he is not being pompous. He is trying to find the experiences that the Buddha has felt but was not traceable in his teachings.

In substance but not in name, the views of Siddhartha closely correspond to Zen. Although Tom Robbins said in the Introduction of the Modern Library edition that for historical accuracy, Hesse could not have intended it, the emphasis on indescribable truth, enlightening experience and the self-reliance can be found in stories of Platform Sutra, the canonical text in Zen. In one story, the enlightened monk has even burnt the Diamond Sutra, another Zen classic, because the teachings in it were no longer useful after he gained the experience of enlightenment. Is this not similar to Siddhartha’s seeming pomposity to refuse any teachings in the first place? With so much identical elements, it was not unlikely Hesse has stumbled into Zen with his own knowledge in Indian and Chinese philosophies without realizing it. 

In this context, the river plays an important symbolic role. In one level, the river reconciles the two worlds that Siddhartha found unsatisfying. After undergoing rigorous ascetic training and meeting the Gautama Buddha, the last of all the earthly guides, Siddhartha was awaken to find his own path and crossed the river to the city. The crossing of the river symbolizes that Siddhartha was entering the sansara – ‘child’s play’, the realm of worldly wealth and pleasure. He did his training of doing good deeds and now he needs to submerge himself in what he despised before – sex and money. Ultimately, however, he grew restless, and later irrevocably frustrated. He went back to the river.  He has reached the equilibrium point between extreme asceticism and extreme epicureanism.

The reconciliation is one level and the deeper level of the river’s symbolic role is the representations of ‘timelessness’ and ‘simultaneity’ (in the words of Ziolkowski’s immensely insightful article: Siddhartha: The Landscape of the Soul). The concept of time makes no sense in a river. It has no points of beginning and ending because it flows unceasingly: one crest of wave follows another. Everything is in a cycle. Life itself is a series of microscopic cycle. We went through stages of life, and the end of one stage only paves the way for the new stage, just like the life of Siddhartha:  ‘He had died, and a new Siddhartha had awoken from sleep. He too would grow old; he too would have to die someday. Siddhartha was transitory, every shape was transitory’. Death is but the beginning of new life.

The river is not only timeless but it is everything; it represents a moment when all perspectives are simultaneously present. The Tao Te Ching said ‘When the world knows beauty as beauty, ugliness arises/ When it knows good as good, evil arises’ Everything is relative to each other. Long and short are simply two opposing perspectives that belong to the One. This is best contrast with Mill’s words: ‘But on every subject on which difference of opinion is possible, the truth depends on a balance to be struck between two sets of conflicting reasons’. Here, there is only truth and falseness and they are incompatible. The river in Siddhartha, however, unified all perspectives, whether they are long or short, light or dark and good or bad.

The river is the gist of the Orientalism but it would be naive to see Siddhartha as an unbiased account of the Indian philosophies. In the last pages, Siddhartha preached love: ‘And here now is a bit doctrine that you will laugh: Love, O Govinda, appears to me more important than all other matters’. This exhortation of love is at odds with transcendental experiences in Hinduism, Buddhism and Zen. It comes closest with Buddhist notion of benevolence but they are certainly not equivalent. It resembles Christian mysticism. Rose observed that ‘Despite the Eastern coloration, the message of Siddhartha is Christian, even Protestant Christian, not Asiatic’. While I don’t think Siddhartha went as far as preaching a Christian message, Rose’s remark did suggest that Hesse attempted to infuse the value of Christian love in the essentially mystical experiences of Hinduism, Buddhism and Zen.

Against this background, the smile of Siddhartha bears a symbol of complex meanings. In one aspect, it seems to be a smile of benevolence, just like a Buddha’s smile in many statutes and paintings It does not quite fit, however, as Siddhartha not only did not distance himself from the earthly world but embraced it. In another aspect, it was a ‘radiant’ smile that show some naive optimism and yet it was not unrestrained. In the eyes of Govinda, ‘his gaze and his hand, his skin and his hair, everything about him radiates a purity, radiates a calm, radiates a gaiety and kindness and holiness that I have beheld in no other person since the final death of our sublime teacher’. In short, Siddhartha’s smile, like the river, is timeless and simultaneous. It encompasses all points of views and reconciles all conflicting perspectives. Siddhartha was enlightened. He was Buddha.

Siddhartha is a little gospel. Unlike the gospels in the Bible, it proclaims no doctrine and defies any definite interpretations. Like the gospels, however, the novel is a ‘good news’ for anyone searching the meaning of life. It deserves to be read twice and thrice, as anyone of us will go through the stages of life, that Siddhartha has undergone, and thought of questions, that he has thought. The wisdom we learn from him may be incommunicable, but it is certainly timeless and all – transcending.

Extended reading: Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, eine indische Dichtung, as a Western Archetype, An overview of Siddhartha for Exploring Novels (by Robert Bennett, available at Literature Resource Center), Toward a Perspective for Indian Element in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, Tom Robbins’ IntroductionSiddhartha: The Landscape of the Soul (concerns the narrative structure),  and Faith from the abyss: Hermann Hesse’s way from romanticism to modernity

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