Year End Read – Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

The world that a child walks into is ripe with parents,teachers, and relatives who are ever ready to impart their share of knowledge. This world is ever so full with innumerable guides, inexhaustible chicken-soups, volumes of encyclopedia, armies of life-coaches. In simple terms, we should have turned out into a perfect world, a super-harmonious civilization by now. After all when we consider the abundance of knowledge through our history and present as a planet, the awe just grows deeper and deeper.

So the questions that arise are – Why does history repeat itself? Why do we still make mistakes? Why do we fall for the same bait over and over again?
Do we not know better after years of education and training? These and many such questions have been explored and ruminated upon in this wonderfully seamless read – Siddhartha. The story of Siddhartha which is mentioned amongst great modern classics was authored by Hermann Hesse, a German novelist, poet, and writer in 1922. The novel has been translated by Hilda Rosner and fittingly has a very personal and touching introduction by Paulo Coelho.

The story is set in India of the times of Buddha. A Brahmin’s son, Siddhartha is an intelligent young man set to follow the lineage of his ancestors. There is nothing about him that doesn’t please his parents and his friends. To quote from the book – “There was happiness in his father’s heart because of his son who was intelligent and thirsty for knowledge; he saw him growing up to be a great learned man, a priest, a prince among Brahmins.
There was pride in his mother’s breast when she saw him walking, sitting down and rising, Siddhartha – the strong, handsome, supple-limbed, greeting her with complete grace.
Love stirred in the hearts of young Brahmins’ daughters when Siddhartha walked through the streets of the town, with his lofty brow, his king-like eyes and his slim figure.

However, Siddhartha’s heart was aloof from all of this and he was not happy. There was something missing in all these rituals, sacrifices, contemplation, and debates. We are made to view from the stands the quest of Siddhartha to find that missing happiness in his heart. Somewhere through that journey, we become his companion and a time comes, when we see Siddhartha in ourselves, and we become him.

Reading this book got me thinking about a lot of things. Leave alone learning from others’ mistakes, do we even learn from our own? How many times have we committed mistakes of repeating nature in our lives? You make a promise to yourself that this won’t be repeated and yet, cometh the hour, cometh the imperfect man! To me, that is the process of learning – you redo the lessons. Another question was – can we really get away from the world? Isn’t this world to be lived inside and conquered? If it is not to be done from inside, where is the outside? The story of Siddhartha is the story of a man who finds his goal amidst the so-called chaos of the world through his own experience, learning by doing rather than preaching of great men. So, he makes his own mistakes, because they are his mistakes to make, and no matter how great a teacher you get, the best part of your learning comes through your own actions and experience.

In this context, there is one more thing to ponder upon. How do you know whether someone is a great teacher? Sri Krishna is considered to be one of the greatest. Through Gita, he makes Arjun give up grief and get up to fight the battle of Kurukshetra. One of the most critical message that many do not pay attention to is what Krishna tells Arjun by the end of Gita –

इति ते ज्ञानमाख्यातम् गुह्याद् गुह्यतरं मया|
विमृश्यैतदशेषेण यथेच्छसि तथा कुरु||

“Thus I have imparted to you wisdom which is more secret (profound) than all that is secret(profound). Reflecting over this whole teaching, do as you think fit.” 18.63

This make a huge difference. After imparting all the knowledge that I require, the teacher must set me free to choose my own actions. And there lies the fountainhead of great many possibilities of reasoning, questions, making mistakes through one’s own actions, and of learning from one’s own experience. Why?

There are threads that I would like to spawn to answer this question.

  1. The socio-political scenario of today’s world – In spiritual training, like in scientific studies, a student must be given space to question and to reason. After having satiated the hypothetical thirst, the student must be allowed to see the practical demonstration and then decide for himself if that was something he wanted to be like or would like to do. The teacher’s own life serves as the demonstration for the pupil in spirituality. Thereafter, the student performs his own experiments and draws his own inferences. Sadly, in today’s organized religious setup, this aspect is completely missing. Most of the so-called teachers bind you with their theories, not exhibiting any of what they preach, and many a times even mis-preach because they have nothing else to do. Questioning a belief system becomes blasphemy, reasoning is seen as arrogance, validating makes you faithless. People get offended easily. I would suggest you to walk away from such a person.
    This was not always the case and the miseries of today have a great deal to do with the fact that you are not allowed to question a lot many things. This gives rise to a clan of mindless followers who can go to any extent to protect their own set of beliefs, in turn giving rise to false representations of religions, and also concealment of everything that is irrelevant to the context of current time in one’s religion and so must be expunged.
  2. Can we become the observers of our own lives? Science has long been observing things from a man’s perspective. However, the eastern philosophy has also tried to look inwards, and observe the self. A man in present can see his past, and imagine his future. It’s the same man in different time period connected through strings of thought, memory and imagination. Yet, even though a man can look into the past, he cannot alter it. Even though a man can imagine a future, he cannot have an exact control over it. In present however, we react, we do things, we make mistakes, and we learn.
    A teacher sits at a different point on the time axis from us. A teacher who wants you to grow your faculties, should come to your point on the axis, understand that your present might be very different from his past and help you accordingly, which is to set you free to choose your actions at the end of all knowledge sharing. A teacher who is there to just collect, in today’s phraseology – ‘likes’, ‘shares’, and ‘followers’ will never try to reach your point on the axis and will keep shouting from his time-point. Though we are gifted to look at different time-points of our own lives, maybe we can not so easily look at someone else’s past from our present. That makes it difficult to learn from someone else’s mistakes. However, connecting our past to someone’s present is easier. Maybe, just maybe, that’s why we don’t really relate to the oft-cited line from our elders – “I have made that mistake in the past, and that’s why I am telling you this because son, you are treading the same path as I once did.”  This might explain why many elders don’t take kindly to a person younger to them but exhibiting greater knowledge and better skills.
    In the book
    – Siddhartha happens to meet Goutam Buddha in his travel across the forests, and instantly grows fond of him. However, unlike his friend Govinda, he doesn’t stay with Buddha, and tells him that though Buddha was the most remarkable person he had met, it is on him to realize the truth by his own actions and not by any teachings. To Siddhartha, the fact that Buddha himself didn’t go under any conventional teacher to get enlightenment and yet attained it through his own austerity and actions, he must as well carve out his own path. The ever-blissful Buddha doesn’t show any sign of nervousness at this, and doesn’t care to stop him but only gives him a few lines of caution of the path ahead. Though Buddha remains an inspiration for him, he continues his learning from the nature and treads on his own path. The following story in the book will tell you that there are things that we can’t cut ourselves from, there are mistakes that we must make to prepare our own lessons in life.


The story of Sidhhartha is also autobiographical in spirit. When one reads about Hermann Hesse, one gets to know his own personal conflicts and quest for peace. That’s why Siddhartha is a great hope for an average human being. That man, who has to be in this world and yet conquer his own self and attain enlightenment. Through the story, an extra-ordinary Siddhartha is thrown into an ordinary world where he does everything that an ordinary man does. What he makes of the ordinary/extra-ordinary world is for you to read and understand.

A great friend, Mr. Arnab Ghosh lent me this book and I can’t thank him enough at the end of my read. This book is poetry in prose and had a calming effect on me right from the first word. It was a journey from silence to silence.
Don’t believe me? You know what you ought to do.


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