Why Hesse again, and of All Books Siddhartha?
By Suh Yong-Jwa, Emeritus Professor, German Language and Literature
I came across the book unexpectedly. I read Hesse's Siddhartha for the third time recently. In English this time. First time was in Korean when I was a teenager in high school, then in German as a college student. Why in English now? As long as I teach 'Korean as Foreign Language' to foreign students at CNU, I believe having a better command of the English language would serve me to communicate better with students from other countries. The English version that my English teacher Michael S. showed me, originally published in 1951, has this amazing antique quality to itself. Reading Siddhartha after all these years since I first attempted to decipher its wisdom, I felt that it was no coincidence that the book came to me again. I now feel almost obligated to deliver some messages of the book to young people today, through my own prism of trail and errors in understanding these elusive messages.
Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) was a German-Swiss poet, novelist, and painter, was born in Calw, Germany. Both of his parents served in India at a mission, a Protestant Christian missionary society. He grew up in a household steeped in Pietism, a movement within Lutheranism, but he showed his rebellious character in early days, and, in one instance, he fled from the seminary and was found in a field a day later. After schooling he started a bookshop apprenticeship, but he quit after three days. Following a 14-month mechanic apprenticeship at a clock tower factory, he began a new apprenticeship with a bookseller, and he spent his Sundays with books rather than friends. Pretty soon, he began to write poems and later also novels.
Through his parent's experience in India, Hesse's interest in Buddhism probably came relatively naturally. Schopenhauer and theosophy renewed his interest in India. Through Siddhartha (1922), he showed his love for Indian culture and Buddhist philosophy that had already been developed in his earlier life.
Siddhartha is composed of 2 parts. Part One: The Brahmin's Son, With the Samanas, Gotama, and Awakening, and Part Two: Kamala, Amongst People, By the River, The Ferryman, The Son, Om, and Govinda.
The story begins with a young Indian named Siddhartha, who seeks spiritual enlightenment. By the way, in Sanskrit, the name Siddhartha means he who has achieved self-realization. Young Siddhartha was a perfect son of the Brahmin, the highest varna (or the class) - in the Hindu law "Smriti," which decreed four "varnas": the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas, and Shudras. He was intelligent, with a seemingly insatiable thirst for knowledge. He left home and lived for a while as a Hindu ascetic among the Samanas, with his friend Govinda.
After seeing the limitation of asceticism, however, the two left the Samanas three years later, to meet Gotama who has claimed to have achieved spiritual perfection. Gotama Buddha talked about the human suffering, the origin of suffering, the way to release from suffering: Life was pain, the world was full of suffering, but the path to release from suffering had been found. Govinda was immediately impressed and joined the community of Gotama's followers.
Siddhartha, however, felt that he could not find salvation through teachings of another. Leaving the groves of Gotama, he felt he had also left his former life behind him. Siddhartha realized that he had been afraid of himself. He was newly born, and finally awakened. Upon this awakening, the world was transformed in his eyes. All things had been regarded with distrust before, because the reality lay on the other side of the visible. But now his eyes lingered on this side, his goal no longer on the other side.
He next sampled the pleasures of materialism. Not only the thoughts but also the senses were fine things, behind both of which lay hidden the ultimate meaning of life. In the groves of Kamala, the well-known courtesan, and Kamaswani, the richest merchant, opened him a simple and easy life amongst people. The more he became like them, the more he envied them and the sense of importance, with which they lived their lives. They seem perpetually in love with themselves. His face assumed the expectation of discontent, of sickness, of displeasure, of idleness of loveliness. Suddenly he realized that all this pleasure only degraded him and how passion was closely related to death. He felt as if something inside him had died. He left this material garden and never returned.
Siddhartha wandered into the forest, and when he reached a meandering river in the woods, fatigue and hunger had weakened him, until he heard a sound Om, the perfect sound of all. Then he suddenly awakened and realized the folly of his previous actions. After long sleep under the tree, it seemed to him as if ten years has passed. He looked at the world like a new man. Now he again stood empty and naked and ignorant without any preconceived knowledge in the world. He changed from a man into a child, from a thinker with worldly knowledge into an ordinary being. He had to have experienced so much stupidity, so many vices, so many errors, just in order to become a child, again and again beginning anew.
Vasudeva, the ferryman knew how to listen. Siddhartha also learned from the river how to listen, to listen with a still heart, with a waiting, open soul, without passion, without desire, without judgment, without opinion.
He realized that nothing was, nothing will be, and everything has reality and presence.
Many years passed and he met Kamala, who was dying. To Siddhartha she introduced her son, who she had named Siddhartha after his father.
In this hour he felt more acutely the indestructibleness of every life, the eternity of every moment. After the burial, Siddhartha wanted to raise his newfound son in this simple life, but the eleven-year-old child was a spoilt mother's boy. A day came when the young Siddhartha openly turned against his father and returned to the city. Even so he felt a deep love for the runaway boy, like a wound that won't heal. The wound lasted for a long time. Siddhartha began to envy other people who were living with a son or a daughter, he felt the sorrow of the lost love for his son, and he felt these ordinary people were his brothers. Their vanities, desires and trivialities no longer seemed absurd to him.
Still, Siddhartha grew slowly and began to understand the knowledge of what wisdom really was. Siddhartha continued to listen to the river. One day he felt his wound healing and his pain was dissipating. He ceased to fight against his destiny. He discovered that the river is all life flowing toward a goal. It sings the great song of the thousand voices, which consists of this word, Om-perfection. Siddhartha heard it and he smiled. Siddhartha's 'Self' had flown into oneness, and he achieved enlightenment. Vasudeva heard the same sound in the same way, and he also achieved nirvana. At that moment Vasudeva said farewell and went into the woods, into the unity of all things.
Meanwhile Govinda was also regarded with respect for his age and modesty, but there was still restlessness in his heart and his seeking was unsatisfied. Govinda heard talk of an old ferryman and went to meet him. When Govinda asked for advice, Siddhartha, who had remained as the ferryman after Vasudeva's departure, answered, "You seek too much that as a result you cannot find it. It happens quite easily that you only see the thing that you are seeking, that you are unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because you have a goal, because you are obsessed with your goal." Seeking means to have a goal, but finding means to be free, to be receiptable and to have no goal.
Govinda was pleased to see his friend of youth again. They talked about the doctrines, beliefs and knowledge. What they found in each other's discoveries were:
- Knowledge can be communicated, but wisdom may be incommunicable. The wisdom, even coming from a wise man always sounds foolish to others who have not attained it themselves.
- Everything that is thought and expressed in words is one-sided, only half the truth. It all lacks totality, completeness and unity. But the world itself is never one-sided. Never is a man wholly a saint or a sinner.
- Time is not real. The dividing line that seems to lie between this world and eternity is also an illusion. The potential Buddha already exists in the sinner, his future is already there. Therefore, everything that exists is good - death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly. Leave it as it is, love it and be glad to belong to it.
- One can love things, but one cannot love words. Therefore teachings are of no use. Nirvana may be a thought, but there is not very much difference between thoughts and words.
Govinda saw no longer the face of his friend Siddhartha. Instead he saw other faces, many faces, a long stream of faces, and Siddhartha's peaceful face had just been the stage of all present and future forms: Nirvana.
What the whole text tries to tell might be: Experience is the aggregate of conscious events that demand participation, learning and knowledge. We should not believe in words or lessons but in actions and in observing the "things" of the world as they are. According to Hesse, these individual events bring about more Samsara [circle of life or suffering], but they are not a kind of hinderance or obstacle, because these experiences only could lead Siddhartha to attain understanding, deep comprehension of what life is. In most Indian religions, life is not considered to begin with birth and end in death, but as a continuous existence in the present lifetime of the organism and extending beyond.
In our post-modern capitalist society where the excessive competition rules supreme, this seemingly aimless type of mindset might appear outdated and of no use. What is then the usefulness of human being? How dangerous it is, if we would judge people mainly by efficiency and productivity! Are humans to be measured against working machines? Have we replaced humanity with calculating meritocracies in the name of fairness and progress?
In that respect, Hesse is still worth reading, leaving aside the fact that the hippies in 1960s and 1970s worshiped this book. Siddhartha gives us a rarely-found yet well-deserved pause to think about our life, about ourselves, whether we know where to go and how we might get there. Or is there?
*Text: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, translated by Hila Rosner, MJF Books, New York 1951.