By Hermann Hesse
As a boy, Siddhartha grows up under the tutelage and knowledge of his father and the holy men in his town. He learns contemplation, practices daily rituals, and participates in the ways expected of someone of his birth and upbringing. As he grows into a young man, Siddhartha begins to question whether this path will lead him to further growth or if he must travel elsewhere to find greater wisdom. Accompanied by his childhood friend, Siddhartha joins a group of Samana and adopts the life of an ascetic, foregoing all material comforts and learning the value of patience. Yet again, after some time spent learning from the Samana, Siddhartha feels he has nothing else to learn from them and that his next step is to learn from himself and his own experience. Alone this time, Siddhartha takes up residence in a town and slowly becomes engulfed by a life of material concerns and passions of the flesh. Years later, feeling nauseated and consumed, Siddhartha flees the town and ends up by a river. On the brink of throwing himself in, Siddhartha is saved by the pure sound of the Om. Siddhartha seeks shelter with the ferryman of the river, where he lives out the rest of his days adopting the customs of the ferryman and listening to the river, wandering ever farther down the path toward enlightenment.
“Siddhartha” is perhaps the most well-known novel by Hermann Hesse. Hesse’s writing, like the title character, has a sense of equanimity and detachment. His words and descriptions neither idolize Siddhartha for his pursuit of enlightenment nor disparage him when he falls under the spell of material pursuits. Instead, he conveys Siddhartha’s story as a series of events that sometimes lead to positive outcomes or sometimes lead to negative outcomes. Similarly, Siddhartha learns detachment and balance through these events. Having experienced the whole spectrum from extreme deprivation to being ravaged by the pursuit of pleasure, Siddhartha eventually finds a middle ground. While showing a thoroughly human (and relatable) propensity toward mistakes, Siddhartha also demonstrates how to incorporate what he has learned from his experiences to clarify his goals and give him direction. Hesse creates in Siddhartha a character that is fallible, gifted, and relatable.
One of the things that is particularly great about this book is how the story invites further reflection. I love books that make me pause and think. However, I will admit that there were certain points that I didn’t fully grasp, which left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied when I finished the book. In general, though, I would highly recommend this book. Narratives like the one in “Siddhartha” tend not to garner much attention in mainstream U.S., so it is worth reading if only because it is something different. And, if nothing else, it is short and quick.