Sunday, October 7, 2012

Siddhartha book review

/* Multiple spoilers ahead */

Siddhartha is a bildungsroman which follows the journey of a boy, born in a venerated Brahmin family, as he progresses through the Vedic stages of life as a student (Brahmacharya), a homemaker (Grihastha) and a hermit (Sannyasa).

Defying his father, Siddhartha leaves home to become an ascetic and live a life of self-denial. In his meditative quest on the meaning and purpose of life, he is accompanied by Govinda, his childhood friend. They meet Gautama Buddha (founder of Buddhism). Govinda joins Buddha as his follower. Siddhartha, while acknowledging that Buddha has truly achieved the enlightened state which he had been so far seeking, refuses to join the order of Buddha and places the value of experience in imparting wisdom much higher than teachings imparted by any guru.

Fourth chapter of first part Awakening begins here and is instructive in understanding Siddhartha. He repudiates that the acceptance of Buddhist tenet of detachment from world or Hinduism philosophy of Sansar Maya Hai is necessary for a fulfilling and awakened life.

"When someone reads a text, wants to discover its meaning, he will not scorn the symbols and letters and call them deceptions, coincidence, and worthless hull, but he will read them, he will study and love them, letter by letter. But I, who wanted to read the book of the world and the book of my own being, I have, for the sake of a meaning I had anticipated before I read, scorned the symbols and letters, I called the visible world a deception, called my eyes and my tongue coincidental and worthless forms without substance.”

Now, Siddhartha meets Kamala, a courtesan, and gets drawn by her beauty. She asks him what he can do in exchange of her favours. He says, “I can think. I can wait. I can fast.” Siddhartha explains that he is capable of rational analysis and logical deduction, through which he can set and shape his desires into goals. Also, he has the virtue of patience and art of waiting to understand what goals to pursue and what not. Since he also has learned the practice of fasting (a common practice among ascetics of going for long periods without food), he can’t be broken down by hunger to do something against his will.

“When you throw a rock into the water, it will speed on the fastest course to the bottom of the water. This is how it is when Siddhartha has a goal, a resolution. Siddhartha does nothing, he waits, he thinks, he fasts, but he passes through the things of the world like a rock through water, without doing anything, without stirring; he is drawn, he lets himself fall. His goal attracts him, because he doesn't let anything enter his soul which might oppose the goal. This is what Siddhartha has learned among the Samanas. This is what fools call magic and of which they think it would be effected by means of the daemons. Nothing is effected by daemons, there are no daemons. Everyone can perform magic, everyone can reach his goals, if he is able to think, if he is able to wait, if he is able to fast."

Kamala guides him to a businessman Kamaswami. He initiates Siddhartha in his trade impressed with his fast grasp and superior thoughts.

Even though initially Siddhartha thinks himself as just an observer, ultimately he gets appropriated by the hitherto despised vortex of wine, gambling and lust. As that Hindi idiom says, “Kaajal ki kothari mein kaiso bhi sayaano jaaye hai, ek leekh kaajal ki laagi hai, laagi hai.

In his forties, disgusted by his sensory, libidinous life, Siddhartha renounces his comfortable palace and goes to forest. This is just a day after Kamala is impregnated with his child. He goes to the river and contemplates suicide by drowning. He is saved by the awakening of his inner voice, which had in recent years been dwarfed by the cacophony of his materialistic life, and hears that most holy word in Hinduism Om.

He then starts living with a ferryman, Vasudeva, on river banks. Vasudeva is portrayed as a man of few words but deep understanding, a little less conventionally educated but more than compensated by his observing and absorbing nature. Vasudeva teaches Siddhartha and the reader the importance of listening.

“He was taught by the river. Incessantly, he learned from it. Most of all, he learned from it to listen, to pay close attention with a quiet heart, with a waiting, opened soul, without passion, without a wish, without judgement, without an opinion.”

In this fast paced life, if people dread having real conversations and “we need to talk” moments, it is because we have just lost the ability to listen. We do not know how to react when listening to someone who is elated, frustrated, accusatory, angry or grieving. We want to butt in with that witty remark, plug in that “similar-thing-which-happened-to-me” story, when may be the speaker is counting on us just to lend him our ears and not our views or commiserations. A side effect of this is that we keep having shallow conversations based on facts and opinions and never on feelings.

Hermann Hesse' depiction of the river as someone who hears without being superciliously judgmental, spuriously sympathetic or cruelly dismissive reminds me of the horse in Chekhov's Misery ("To whom shall I tell my grief?") to whom Iona tells about his son’s death.

But I digress. One day Kamala gets bitten by a snake near Siddhartha’s hut and dies leaving her child. Despite Siddhartha's subtle attempts to instill Sanskar, his son is obstinate and unyielding. One day he flees after stealing money from the hut. Siddhartha goes after him but then realizes how he must have pained his father, when he left him for an ascetic life. It appears to him that river is explaining to him the cycle of life.

In the final chapter, Govinda has a chance encounter with Siddhartha. By that time, Gautama Buddha has died. But Govinda is presented as still-seeking, still-grasping.

"It's true, I'm old," spoke Govinda, "but I haven't stopped searching. Never I'll stop searching, this seems to be my destiny. You too, so it seems to me, have been searching. Would you like to tell me something, oh honourable one?" Quoth Siddhartha: "What should I possibly have to tell you, oh venerable one? Perhaps that you're searching far too much? That in all that searching, you don't find the time for finding?"

Siddhartha tells him that if we remain focussed on the destination, we remain oblivious to the experiences and pleasures of the path. As they say journey is the goal.

We find that Siddhartha has evolved in his thinking from the time when he was talking to Kamala about goals. This chapter is important as it finally crystallizes the thoughts of Siddhartha.

Spoke Siddhartha, "... To thoroughly understand the world, to explain it, to despise it, may be the thing great thinkers do."

Siddhartha exhorts us to lessen the importance we place on thinking, analyzing, explaining. He wants the thinkers to move away from explaining life by deductive reasoning of facts to an inductive deciphering based on experiences and observations. And for this it is essential that they get in touch with their emotions and feelings.

Hermann Hesse was influenced by philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer argued that the world is not rational. Therefore, a spontaneous, instinctual approach, curtailed desires and goals and striving for universal beneficence is the solution to this imponderable, uncontrollable and unfathomable life.

Siddhartha places the quest of unreserved love, admiration and respect for everyone, including oneself, as being the true north of one’s life.

Spoke Siddhartha, "...I'm only interested in being able to love the world, not to despise it, not to hate it and me, to be able to look upon it and me and all beings with love and admiration and great respect."

I would interpret the journey of Siddhartha as the expedition in which finally one is at peace with oneself, neither too happy with one’s goodness nor too self-flagellating for one’s meanness. (“a person is never entirely holy or entirely sinful.”― Siddhartha). Then, if one finds some things abhorrent, like Siddhartha does when caught in the material world, to strive to change that, and without ever forsaking one’s faith in the redemptive nature of human will and determination. This is the only way to get a very high self-respect. And, my hypothesis is that this self-respect and self-belief has to compulsorily predate and be necessarily present for the universal respect and admiration for others, regardless of their national, regional, religious, educational, professional, gender identity, to evolve.

 This is a book which can help you in illuminating blind spots, clarifying muddled values and straightening out bigoted acceptance of one truth.

I have found a thought, Govinda, which you'll again regard as a joke or foolishness, but which is my best thought. It says: The opposite of every truth is just as true!

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