Monday, June 4, 2007


Welcome to the first of the online book discussions of Brooklyn Book Talk. Various BPL librarians will lead these discussions, and each month will feature a new title chosen by a different librarian. The titles can range from classics to contemporary fiction, drama and non-fiction. We are hoping that you will find these discussions entertaining and educational.

Our first selection is Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha.

When we read a book, we establish a complex interaction among the author, the book, and ourselves. We ask questions, project meanings, experience emotions, and make inferences. The kind of reading experience we end up with will largely depend on what we ourselves bring to the reading process in the beginning. To make our discussions of Siddhartha richer and more meaningful, we will approach the text from diverse but relevant literary perspectives including formalist, biographical, mythological, historical, psychological, cultural, gender, deconstructionist, and reader-response criticisms. We will attempt to evaluate the emergent insights in the light of reason and evidence supported by the text and the context.

The author, the reader, the text and the context are intertwined in a complex unique unity. This is especially true for Siddhartha as it crosses cultures, philosophies and sensibilities. Hesse fittingly termed his works “biographies of the soul” and “inward journeys” in search of one’s true identity.

We shall begin exploring the many meanings of the novel with an advance acknowledgment of the enduring enigmas of life, world and consciousness and their mysterious possibilities and potentials. As the contemporary novelist Milan Kundera said, “A novel examines not reality but existence. And existence is not what has occurred, existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man can become, everything he’s capable of. Novelists draw up the map of existence by discovering this or that human possibility.”

Hesse conceived of Siddhartha in 1911 following an extended visit to India in search of the fulfillment that he believed Oriental philosophies could offer. The novel’s youthful protagonist, Siddhartha, is an exceptionally bright, inquisitive yet skeptical Brahmin, a member of the highest caste in Hinduism, who seemingly has a secure and comfortable existence but feels emotionally dissatisfied and spiritually hollow. In due course, he courageously renounces his life of Hindu ritual and embarks on a personal search for the ultimate meaning of life.

Along the way he embraces various philosophies and practices. But, even meeting the Buddha did not convince him of the doctrine of salvation from suffering. Siddhartha reminds the Buddha of his own quest for enlightenment, stating, "You have done so by your own seeking, in your own way, through thought, through meditation, through knowledge, through enlightenment. You have learnt nothing through teaching, and so I think, O Illustrious One, no one, nobody finds salvation through teaching. To nobody, O Illustrious One, can you communicate in words and teachings, what happened to you in the hour of your enlightenment."

Nonetheless, Siddhartha’s search for ultimate meaning remained intact but he could not find what he sought as he perceptively observed the consequences of practicing different philosophies on his being and consciousness.

Disillusioned that all these paths failed, Siddhartha becomes a simple quiet ferryman but he never ceases to look for the symbols of meaning that surround his existence. During repeated crossings of the river and relentless introspection, he reaches his own “hour of enlightenment” which even the Buddha could not describe to him. Hence Hesse’s honored insight: “Every man is more than just himself; he also represents the unique, the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world's phenomena intersect, only once in this way, and never again.”

Some possible discussion questions:

The following questions can be combined to explore Siddhartha from several perspectives. You can engage perspectives which most resonate with you.

In what way are the facts about Hesse's life relevant to the understanding of Siddhartha?

Do any of the known myths and archetypes of any culture shed light on the text?

How do you think your own historical moment affects your reading of the work?

How does the work challenge or affirm your own ideas of psychological and spiritual growth?

Discussion Guidelines:


Dr. Kurt Johnson said...

Siddartha is an interesting choice for a number of reasons. There has always been a lot of controversy about the usefulness of this book, and that discussion has changed with time-- from when the book was more "in sync" with the senses of "the sixties" to now, when it is often not a recommended book in academic circles re: eastern spirituality. Today is it sometimes considered "dated" or as having lost luster with time. The reasons for this are interesting in themselves and probably of interest to anyone reading it today. No one doubts that the book remains a compelling read-- the main reason it was often even used as a "text" in classes about Hinduism and Buddhism, particularly in the 60's when east was just coming to west (in many garbs). But now it is more debated whether it matters that (a) the book inevitably filtered the root traditions it wanted to portray through very western (as well as Hesse's personalized) lenses, or (b) the spiritual message of the book has an authenticity anyway because (i) it differentiates the character of Siddartha from The Buddha himself (very important to a true understanding of the narrative), and thus admits openly to being about a radically individualized spiritual search and discovery...yes, very "western" in tone. I am a "teacher" actually of eastern spirituality and had my son read this book when he was taking a college level class on eastern religions in which the book actually wasn't recommended. The fact is, he got a lot out of the book, experientially, such that it seemed less important to me whether one needed to debate this or that "angle" of how the narrative itself filters the parochial authenticity of eastern traditions, or whether it is "true" to "actual" Hindu-to-Buddhism teaching "norms" (a concern of some practitioners, especially academicians, who criticize the book). Most likely, many people reading, enjoying, or even being greatly moved by this book will not realize that its history carries this kind of "baggage". My own feeling is that spiritual search and discovery today have become so non-parochial (from the interspirituality of Wayne Teasdale to the integral perspective of Ken Wilber) that it is actually less important to what extent the spiritual/historical trappings in Siddartha are "academicly sound". If this book fosters/engenders search and discovery, one can trust that any future practitioner dedicated enough to follow any path with some rigor will find out these differences anyway. Looking back at their reading of Siddartha with a bit of sensitivity to it's naivete, that person might well get a chuckle that, for them, "that started it all" anyway. I haven't met anyone yet who didn't have something "happen" within them upon the reading of this book. Good choice.

Nomi said...

Dr. Kurt Johnson wrote:

…spiritual search and discovery today have become so non-parochial (from the interspirituality of Wayne Teasdale to the integral perspective of Ken Wilber) that it is actually less important to what extent the spiritual/historical trappings in Siddartha are "academicly sound".

Interesting thoughts. The discussions on Siddhartha are month long so we will be able to experiment with several perspectives on the novel and the author and flesh out more details as we go. I would certainly like to see how ideas of Wayne Teasdale and Ken Wilber can illuminate themes developed in Hesse’s works.

The academic unsoundness of Hesse’s spiritual/historical trappings in Siddhartha may be viewed in the light of his confession that the tale of Siddhartha’s pilgrimage is also his own: “All those stories dealt with me, reflected my own path, my own secret dreams and wishes, my own bitter anguish.” The stages of evolution of Hesse’s own consciousness are described in Siddhartha. He had called himself a Buddhist when he was thirty. Some critics maintain that Siddhartha was his expression of “liberation from Brahmanism, Hinduism and Buddhism.”

Knowing some facts about Hesse’s life can illuminate our understanding of his works, since they are largely autobiographical. Hesse’s mother was born in India of missionary parents and he had ready access to books on Eastern philosophy and religion, as his grandfather was also an Indologist. Indian songs and books and discussions about India with visiting scholars influenced him deeply. The symbols and meanings he discovered and internalized determined his ways of seeing the world in a particular way. Another pivotal fact about Hesse’s life could be that his therapist was a Jungian and not a Freudian.

Anonymous said...

Time is nothing because nothing really changes. By not being arrogant and judging the world, Siddhartha found peace, and through this he has dispelled his self. Govinda continues to judge things. He has never chosen his own path, but has instead merely followed behind the footsteps of others. Siddhartha continues, therefore, it seems to me that everything that exists is good in death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly. Everything is necessary, everything needs only agreement, assent, loving understanding; then all is well with him and nothing can harm him. He needed lust to strive for property…to learn not to resist them. Lust and greed had always been fearful things for he had never experienced them himself. He had once resisted women, and the life in Samsara because he was taught to fear them. After he lived it he learned much, and aversion was no longer an obstacle for him on his journey.

Anonymous said...

I so agree with Dr. Johnson. We should honor Hesse for being among the first to open the East/West discussion but hopefully we have moved to a more integral and globally sophisticated place in this discussion.

Many of the first who went East in the first two thirds of the twentieth century went with unconscious baggage and very little real knowledge of Western spiritual traditions. While they rightly rejected much of the diminished and corrupted teaching of Western religious institutions they failed to inform themselves of the deeper dimensions of those traditions that would have resonated so powerfully with many of the teachings the encountered in the East. The East West divide was exaggerated greatly. The East was romanticized and equated only with its higher expressions; a kindness not afforded their natal traditions.

The fairly shallow desire to equate things and draw shallow connections further corrupted the discourse and unconsciously many unconscious assumptions were “read into” traditions in both directions that are not there. We are still very much in the process of trying to sort this out.

An integral approach will respect the integrity and uniqueness of all systems and methods and traditions and while not defining the over and against one another as in the past, also not simply mush them together and flatten them out. One may practice a particular tradition very deeply and at the same time understand the contributions of other traditions each as a part of the common human heritage, history, collected wisdom of humanity which has unique and indeed necessary contributions to make to the overall body of wisdom and knowledge that belongs to us all. This is the beginning of a true global spirituality.

Can we imagine stories and even temples and cathedrals for the future that can and will serve this global spiritual tradition? Very exciting. Perhaps this integral approach can free us from some of the unconscious limitations of Hesse’s vision.

L. Marshall

Nomi said...

L. Marshall wrote:

“Can we imagine stories and even temples and cathedrals for the future that can and will serve this global spiritual tradition? Very exciting. Perhaps this integral approach can free us from some of the unconscious limitations of Hesse’s vision.”

But can causal conditions for cultivating a “conscious global spirituality” be implemented in the wake of “unconscious limitations” of individual perceptions, epistemologies, ethics, aesthetics and even metaphysics, be it East and West? That is a crucial question our generation has to answer. What James Joyce famously said is not irrelevant to the nature of perception and the unconscious: "In Ulysses, I have recorded, simultaneously, what a man says, sees, thinks, and what such saying, seeing and thinking does, to what you Freudians call the subconscious."

Planetary history of the “symbolic species,” is no secret. Universal truth seems to be the first casualty of cultural identity, be it East or West. History and modernity are replete with evidence that when a given culture, induces notions of a particular identity in its members, it can lead to “unconscious filtering,” “differential politics” and “narcissistic response” towards the perceptions of the universally true, the good, and the beautiful, in the human condition. But perhaps ideas are better classified in terms of their truth and validity, their coherence with other known and verifiable truths, their consensus within the community of unbiased seekers, and their impact on consciousness, rather than their sources in East or West.

As Alan Watts summarized his lifetime of research in comparative religions: “Thus we are hardly aware of the extreme peculiarity of our own position, and find it difficult to recognize the plain fact that there has otherwise been a single philosophical consensus of universal extent. It has been held by [men and women] who report the same insights and teach the same essential doctrine whether living today or six thousand years ago, whether from New Mexico in the Far West or from Japan in the Far East.”

What Alan Watts refers to, has been called the “Perennial Philosophy.” It is the worldview that has been perceived and embraced by the vast majority of the world’s greatest spiritual teachers, philosophers, and even scientists of East and West. It is called “perennial or “universal” because it manifests in almost all cultures across the globe and across the ages. Wayne Teasdale, Ken Wilber, among many other unbiased students of consciousness, have offered a map of “global spirituality,” which will evolve as we engage more openly, with the mysteries of human consciousness and the challenges of human condition.

Anonymous wrote:

“Time is nothing because nothing really changes. By not being arrogant and judging the world, Siddhartha found peace, and through this he has dispelled his self. Govinda continues to judge things. He has never chosen his own path, but has instead merely followed behind the footsteps of others.”

Emerson’s message seems to be addressed to all courageous Siddharthas and conditioned Govindas of the world: The Soul is tied to no individual, no culture, no tradition, but rises fresh in every person, beyond every person, and grounds itself in a truth and glory that bows to nothing in the world of time and place and history. We must be, and can only be, “a light unto ourselves.”

In other words, finding your own “yoga” which resonates with your “complex unique unity” and helps you develop your universal psychological and spiritual potentials such as reason and love, creativity and compassion, will be the religion of the future. Our violently divided world needs more Siddharthas than Govindas.

Anonymous said...

Raising a stone, Siddhartha explains that he likes the stone because it may become a plant or an animal as it grinds into dirt and changes. The rock is like a person capable of becoming anything, for it is a part of OM. Govinda has always been a part of Om too; he only needs to recognize it after he stops searching for something finite, for a tangible goal. The answer is all around him in the unity of things. Govinda remains confused. Next Siddhartha expresses his dislike of words themselves; words are the root of teachings, yet words can not convey an experience. Govinda disagrees, declaring that the word “ Nirvana” is a state of being that one attains. Siddhartha replies that "Nirvana" itself is merely a word; it describes an experience that the word itself can not convey.
Words, like time, are an illusion created by people wishing to teach and educate others, but they lose the meaning of experience itself, of emotions and feelings such as depression and love. Siddhartha explains that love is the most important thing to have in the world, to love a person, a place, and the world. Everything should be embraced for what it is.

Anonymous said...

I don't need great faith, I have great experience.
Joseph Campbell

Most people live, whether physically, intellectually, or morally, in a very restricted circle of their potential being. They make use of a very small portion of their possible consciousness.
William James

Anonymous said...

Govinda still doesn’t understand. He remains a restless shadow, destined to follow behind others who experience the world while he stagnates. Before rising to leave, Govinda realizes that, despite his own confusion, Siddhartha appears to be as enlightened as the
Buddha had been. He is still curious how he has reached this state of being, asking one
last time to hear what knowledge Siddhartha can give him to make him understand since
his “path is often hard and dark.”

Govinda always admires Siddhartha for his mind and spirit. Thinking that he’s destined for greatness, Govinda always on his side hoping that he too, in the long run, can become a great teacher. Is that why he remains behind to become a disciple of the Buddha while Siddhartha has become free from any influences--his father, the
Samanas, the Buddha, and now even his friend Govinda?

Nomi said...

Hesse's representations of Siddhartha's evolving character make far more sense when we see them in the light of Carl Jung's psychology of the unconscious. Jung insisted on "acknowledging the dark side” of human nature and assessing its sometimes subtle manifestations while searching for one's own path towards self-realization. Greed, sex and gambling possessed Siddhartha for a while but never fulfilled him. As the courtesan Kamala says: “Sexual love is an art, and art is a game; every game is dangerous, for the player may sooner or later forget it is a game.”

Nomi said...

Ongoing discussions of Siddhartha will be more fruitful if we have a better understanding of what is meant by Perennial Philosophy.

Perennial Philosophy
From Wikipedia

The notion of perennial philosophy (Latin: philosophia perennis) suggests the existence of a universal set of truths and values common to all peoples and cultures. The term was first used in the 16th century by Augostino Steuco in his book entitled: De perenni philosophia libri X (1540), in which scholastic philosophy is seen as the Christian pinnacle of wisdom to which all other philosophical currents in one way or another point. The idea was later, and more famously, taken up by the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, who used it to designate the common, eternal philosophy that underlies all religions, and in particular the mystical streams within them. The term was popularized in more recent times by Aldous Huxley in his 1945 book: The Perennial Philosophy. The term "perennial philosophy" has also been used as a translation of the Hindu concept of Sanatana Dharma, the "everlasting or perennial truth, or norm".

The existence of a perennial philosophy is the fundamental tenet of the Traditionalist School, formalized in the writings of 20th century thinkers René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon. The Indian scholar and writer Ananda Coomaraswamy, associated with the Traditionalists, also wrote extensively about perennial philosophy.

Main principles

According to the tenets of the perennial philosophy, people in many cultures and eras have experienced and recorded comparable perceptions about the nature of reality, the self, the world, and the meaning and purpose of existence. These similarities point to underlying universal principles, forming the common ground of most religions. Differences among these fundamental perceptions arise from differences in human cultures and can be explained in light of such cultural conditioning.

Among these perceptions are the following assertions:

The physical or phenomenal world is not the only reality; another non-physical reality exists. The material world is the shadow of a higher reality which cannot be grasped by the senses, but the human spirit and intellect bear testimony to it in their essence.
Humans mirror the nature of this two-sided reality: while the material body is subject to the physical laws of birth and death, the other aspect of human existence is not subject to decay or loss, and is identical to the intellect or spirit, which is the sine qua non of the human soul. In the modern West, this second or other reality has been frequently discounted or ignored.

All humans possess a capacity, however unused and thus atrophied, for intuitive perceptions of ultimate or absolute truth, and the nature of reality. This perception is the final goal of human beings, and its pursuit and flourishing are the purpose of their existence. The major religions try to (re)establish the link between the human soul and this higher and ultimate reality.

This ultimate reality, in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), is called God; God is the Absolute principle from which all existence originated and to which all existence will return. Non-theistic religions, such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Taoism, may characterize the ultimate or absolute somewhat differently than the Abrahamic religions, but the fundamental concept is the same.

In a non-local implicate order, information cannot have a locality, but 'permeates' and/or 'transcends' all localities. And information that has no locality sounds a great deal like the Hindu divinity Brahma, the Chinese concept of Tao, Aldous Huxley's 'Mind at Large', and 'the Buddha-Mind' of Mahayana Buddhism. Any of those concepts must mean information without location. ... The Buddha-Mind is not 'God', Buddhist continually explain, and Occidentals blink, unable to understand a religion without 'God'. But Brahma, in Vedic Hinduism, does not have any of the personality, locality, temperament (or gender) of Western 'gods' and, like Buddha-Mind, seems to mean a kind of non-local implicate order, or information without location ....
Robert Anton Wilson's 'Quantum Psychology'

The Buddha declined to make any statement in regard to the ultimate divine Reality. All he would talk about was Nirvana, which is the name of the experience that comes to the totally selfness and one-pointed. […] Maintaining, in this matter, the attitude of a strict operationalist, the Buddha would speak only of the spiritual experience, not of the metaphysical entity presumed by the theologians of other religions, as also of later Buddhism, to be the object and (since in contemplation the knower, the known and the knowledge are all one) at the same time the subject and substance of that experience.

Aldous Huxley's 'The Perennial Philosophy'

The Perennial Philosophy is expressed most succinctly in the Sanskrit formula, tat tvam asi ('That art thou'); the Atman, or immanent eternal Self, is one with Brahman, the Absolute Principle of all existence; and the last end of every human being, is to discover the fact for himself, to find out who he really is.
Aldous Huxley

These worldwide perceptions are thought to be amendable with one another and reliable in themselves because of their internal consistency and due to the similarities among them, in spite of their often independent origins.

The life's work of Yahya Suhravardi was to link Hinduism, what he called the 'original oriental religion' with Islam. He claimed that all the sages of the ancient era had preached a single doctrine. This perennial philosophy was mystical and imaginative. Unlike dogmatic religion, which lends itself to sectarian disputes, mysticism often claims that there are as many roads to God as people. This was the finding of Karen Armstrong in her study on Sufi gurus, [A History of God P. 265]

According to Huxley, the perennial philosophy is: "the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man's final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being; the thing is immemorial and universal. Rudiments of the perennial philosophy may be found among the traditional lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions" (The Perennial Philosophy, p. vii).

Nomi said...

Characters of both Govinda and Siddhartha represent two contrasting ways of searching for wisdom, and two of the major intellectual influences on Hesse—Goethe and Nietzsche. Govinda represents a submissive attitude towards authority thus denying his uniqueness, repressing his reason, and inhibiting his emotion. No wonder he finds his path “hard and dark.”

Siddhartha’s philosophical views, on the other hand, correspond closely to Hesse’s, who combined a “Faustian” spirit of Goethe and a rebellious mood of Nietzsche. Hesse once said: “Among all German writers, Goethe is the one to whom I owe the most, …who enslaved and encouraged me, forced me to follow his lead or vigorously attack it.” And Nietzsche’s ideas of a complete re-evaluation of moral standards of existing culture that valued weakness and conformity, rather than creativity and individuality, found expression in Siddhartha’s character.

Self-education through self-discovery was the meaning of Hesse’s own life. In addition, the context of World War I, German nationalism, Hesse’s own struggles with organized religion and German identity, and protests against the propagandist education system of Germany, got represented in the themes and characters developed in Siddhartha.

Sarvavidya said...

I first read Siddhartha about 30 years ago, when I was about 15. At the time I knew very little about Hindu or Buddhist spirituality. My reading of this novel is very different now, and has been enriched by my life experience and study of Hindu/Vedanta and Buddhist traditions.

One aspect of Siddhartha that initially disturbed me in my recent reading was the inconsistency regarding the word “Self”. In the literature of yoga Vedanta, “Self” is used to refer to the Supreme, to Absolute Reality. In the chapter entitled, “Kamala”, “Self” is used to refer to the Absolute Reality

He had known for a long time that his Self was Atman, of the same
eternal nature as Brahman, but he had never really found his Self,
because he had wanted to trap it in the net of thoughts.

However, in the rest of the novel, the word “Self” is generally used to refer to the individual ego. For example, in the chapter entitled “With the Samanas”,

Siddhartha had one single goal – to become empty, to become
empty of thirst, desire, dreams, pleasure and sorrow – to let the
Self die. No longer to be Self, to experience the peace of an
emptied heart, to experience pure thought – that was his goal.
When all the Self was conquered and dead, when all passions
and desires were silent, then the last must awaken, the innermost
of Being that is no longer Self – the great secret!

In the chapter entitled “The Brahmin’s Son, Siddhartha asks,

And where was Atman to be found, where did He dwell, where did
His eternal heart beat, if not within the Self, in the innermost, in the
eternal which each person carried within him?

Here Siddhartha is distinguishing between Atman and Self, speculating that the Atman is found in the Self, rather than being One. The use of the word “Self” is ambiguous, and it’s unclear whether it is being used to refer to Absolute Reality or to the ego. If one understands Atman and “Self” as being synonymous, then it does indeed refer to the innermost and eternal.

In another passage, Siddhartha ponders, “One must find the source within one’s own Self, one must possess it.” Here it is also ambiguous what the word “Self” refers to. Who is it that must find and possess, and what is it that one must find and possess?

I lean toward the interpretation that these inconsistencies are a depiction of Siddhartha’s early doubts and confusion, because in the latter part of the novel, it is quite clear that Hesse has a very clear understanding of the teachings of Yoga Vedanta.

Siddhartha desires to leave the Samanas, feeling that the austerities that he has been practicing are not leading him closer to Realization. He rejects all teachers and doctrines, even those of the Buddha, although he perceives that the Buddha is an enlightened being.

He tells the Buddha,

If I were one of your followers, I fear that it would only be on the surface, that I would deceive myself that I was a peace and had attained salvation, while in truth the Self would continue to live and grow, for it would have been transformed into your teachings, into my allegiance and love for you and for the community of the monks.

Here, Siddhartha is referring to the pitfall that Chogyam Trungpa calls “spiritual materialism” – in which a person engages in spiritual practice and imagines himself (herself) to be advanced, while insidiously, the person’s ego becomes magnified in the form of spiritual pride and narcissism regarding their teacher and path.

For Siddhartha, it is necessary for him to follow the path of Bhoga, the experience of worldly joys and sorrows, in order for him to eventually confront and annihilate his ego/thinking mind. For Siddhartha is himself filled with spiritual pride. He thinks himself to be superior to others and calls them “children”.

He tells the courtesan Kamala “I can think, I can wait, I can fast,” and believes that he can uses the powers of concentration and one-pointedness to be successful in worldly affairs and that he can immerse himself in these worldly affairs and remain unaffected by them. He compares himself to a stone thrown into water, “…drawn by his goal, for he does not allow anything to enter his mind which opposes his goal. In the beginning, he is able to do this, and acts with detachment. Kamaswami observes that “[He] always seems to be playing at business, it never makes much impression on him, it never masters him, he never fears failure, he is never worried about a loss.”

When Siddhartha fist enters the town where he encounters Kamala, he visits a temple of Vishnu, where stories are related to him about Vishnu and Lakshmi. It could be said that Siddhartha’s relationship with Kamala is a worldly reflection of the archetypal couple Krishna and Radha, the incarnations of Vishnu and Lakshmi. Siddhartha’s erotic exploration with Kamala is an intrinsic part of his spiritual journey, of desires that must be fulfilled. Kamala mirrors Siddhartha in her detachment and ability to retreat to a place of peace within herself. Kamala will give birth to his son, and it is through experiencing sorrow at his son’s defiance and rejection of him that Siddhartha learns how to love deeply, and develops compassion and empathy for others.

Siddhartha feels alienated and apart from others – feels like an onlooker; detached from the live he is leading. He says to his lover, the courtesan Kamala, “Perhaps people like us cannot love. Ordinary people can – that is their secret.” Without the capacity to experience love, there is an emptiness at the core of his being.

Gradually, Siddhartha becomes more and more like the people who he despises and feels superior to, yet envies them their passion and power to love. His inner voice becomes silent.

Just as the potter’s wheel, once set in motion, still turns for a long
time and then turns only very slowly and stops, so did the wheel
of the ascetic, the wheel of thinking, the wheel of discrimination
still revolve for a long time in Siddhartha’s soul; it still revolved,
but slowly and hesitatingly, and it had nearly come to a standstill.
Slowly, like moisture entering the dying tree trunk, slowly filling
and rotting it so did the world and inertia creep into Siddhartha’s
soul; it slowly filled his soul, made it heavy, made it tired, sent it
to sleep.

Siddhartha’s dream of the death of Kamala’s songbird, is the catalyst that prompts him to renounce the life that he has been leading. He had to experience worldly materialistic life in order to renounce it.

At first he is so disgusted with himself and filled with self-hatred that he contemplates suicide. Then he gazes into the river and hears the sound “Om”.
Siddhartha hears the Anahata Nadam - the unstruck sound, the sound of silence.

This inner sound, then, is Nature’s “alarm clock” to awaken us. It is
our telephone call coming long distance from heaven through our
body and mind to alert us to pay attention to our inner life. It is the
voice of God within – not a religious or sectarian God, but pure
Existence – to awaken us to who we are, to the Self, the I-AM.
From Nada Yoga: The Science, Psychology, and Philosophy
of Anahata Nada Yoga, by Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati.

After a long dreamless sleep by the river, Siddhartha awakes feeling as if he was reborn. He is letting go of the notions of “I” and “mine”. He reflects, “Nothing is mine, I know nothing, I possess nothing, I have learned nothing.” He is beginning to relinquish the illusion of his ego/thinking mind, and realizes that all of its forms had to die – Siddhartha the Brahman, the Samana, the merchant and pleasure-monger.

Siddhartha goes to live by the river with the ferryman, Vasudeva. In the Hindu tradition, Vasudeva is the father of Lord Krishna. The ferryman is a spiritual father to Siddhartha.
Siddhartha hears the Anahata Nadam in the river; the voices of all living creatures manifesting in Oneness – the voice of Life, of Being. From listening to the river, Siddhartha learns how to transcend time. He learns that “nothing was, nothing will be, everything has reality and presence.”, and that all self-torment, and fear are in time – the realm of the ego – it is the ego - the thinking mind that agonizes over the past, and is filled with anxiety regarding the future.

The ferryman Vasudeva is himself a symbolic figure - one who helps others to cross over, from the Unreal to the Real, from the darkness to the light, from the fear of death to immortality. Vasudeva is empty of ego, of the notion of doership. He says of himself, “I am not a learned man; I do not know how to talk or think. I only know how to listen and be devout; otherwise I have learned nothing.” Vasudeva spends much of his time in silence, and has the capacity to listen deeply. From the river, Siddhartha he learns “how to listen, to listen with a still heart, with a waiting, open soul, without passion, without desire, without judgment, without opinions.”

Before Vasudeva leaves him to go into the forest, Siddhartha realizes the Self –

From that hour Siddhartha ceased to fight against his destiny.
There shone in his face the serenity of knowledge, of one who is
no longer confronted with conflict of desires, who has found
salvation, who is in harmony with the stream of events, with the
stream of life, full of sympathy and compassion, surrendering
himself to the stream, belonging to the unity of all things.

The name Govinda is symbolic as well. In the Hindu tradition, Govinda is the name of Lord Krishna as a youth. In the novel, Govinda is Siddhartha’s boyhood friend, and they are separated when Govinda becomes a disciple of the Buddha. Govinda represents the seeker who is still dominated by the thinking mind – in which words, thoughts, names and forms can become an obstacle to the perception of Reality. When he first re-encounters Siddhartha, he is unable to recognize him and misjudges him because he is wearing the clothing of a wealthy merchant.

When years later, Govinda encounters Siddhartha again, Siddhartha tells him that “he seeks too much, and that his seeking is preventing him from finding.”

The spiritual master Ramana Maharshi said,

You yourself impose limitations on your true nature of infinite
being, and then weep that you are but a finite creature. Then
you take up this or that spiritual practice to transcend the
non-existent limitations. But if your spiritual practice itself
assumes the existence of the limitations, how can it help you
to transcend them?

(from Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi,
edited by David Godman)

Siddhartha speaks to Govinda about the transcendence of duality – of all of the divisions our minds create: this world and eternity, Samsara and Nirvana, good and evil, suffering and bliss. He speaks about the transcendence of time – that past, present and future are One. Understanding this, one ceases to form judgments about others:

It is not possible for one person to see how far another is on the way;
the Buddha exists in the robber and dice player; the robber exists in
the Brahmin.

This suspension of judgment applies to the world itself, to acceptance of Life and all of its experiences. Siddhartha tells Govinda, “The world, Govinda, is not imperfect or slowly evolving along a long path to perfection. No, it is perfect at every moment…

Siddhartha holds up the stone, and tells Govinda, “I do not respect and love it because it was one thing and will become something else, but because it has already long been everything and always is everything.” Siddhartha is acknowledging that the stone, and everything in existence is a manifestation of Brahman, and should be embraced and loved, not dismissed as mere illusion.

Govinda is doubtful of Siddhartha’s words, but is profoundly affected by his presence. When Govinda kisses Siddhartha, his doubts are dispelled as he glimpses the Infinite, and perceives the myriad manifestations of Existence in Siddhartha’s face.

This passage is reminiscent of Chapter XI, verse 7 in the Bhagavadgita, where Lord Krishna reveals his Universal Form to Arjuna:

Here today, behold the whole universe, moving and unmoving and whatever else thou desirest to see, O Arjuna, all unified in My body.

(The Bhagavadgita. Trans. S. Radhakrishnan)

Anonymous said...

The old ferryman, Siddhartha, asks that Govinda kisses him on the forehead. Obeying, a great love fills him. Staring into Siddhartha’s wrinkled face he sees a river, as Siddhartha had seen upon the face of Vasudeva, flowing with thousands of faces merging together and separating. He saw the face of a newly born child, red and full of wrinkles, ready to cry. He also saw the face of a murderer, saw him plunge a knife into the body of a man; at the same moment he saw this criminal kneeling down, bound, and his head cut off by an executioner. He saw the naked bodies of men and women in postures and transports of passionate love. He saw corpses stretched out, still cold empty. Govinda’s vision
flows across Siddhartha’s face and grows larger and larger until he saw all these forms and faces in a thousand relationships to each other, all helping each other, loving, hating, destroying each other and become newly born. Each one of them was mortal, passionate, painful example of all that was transitory. Yet none of them died, they only changed, were always reborn, continually had a new face, only time stood between one face and another. Govinda sees what Siddhartha understands about the world’s cycle. Siddhartha’s teachings are transformed from words into a vision. Words can not explain Om, since “Wisdom is not communicable” as Siddhartha had once said. Instead he shows what he has come to learn about the world. Govinda finally feels emotion and a place of being within, rather than a need to analyze the external world. He loves his old friend Siddhartha, for he has become like the Buddha.

Nomi said...

Sarvavidya wrote:

One aspect of Siddhartha that initially disturbed me in my recent reading was the inconsistency regarding the word “Self”.

Thanks for sharing your thoughtful views. You make a crucial observation which needs to be “deconstructed” as thoroughly as possible for it may illuminate, not only the deepest meanings of Siddhartha but also one of the highest mysteries of reality and consciousness.

The language of religious and spiritual thought is stuffed with ambiguity, equivocation, not to mention irony and paradox. The renowned Chinese sage Confucius once said: If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate. Wittgenstein meant something similar when he claimed, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

More importantly, language conveys information. In the information age, and in the wake of availabilities of unprecedented information from a variety of cultures, it is crucial to understand the nature of information and its interactions with various archetypal and modern modes of consciousness---from East to West, and from “self” to “Self.”

Although other nonverbal means of expression convey important information as well, but they lack the complexity of language and its range of content. Language, with all its potential for chaos and creativity, is pivotal in representing the world in our consciousness. It is used to help store “specified information” in memory (especially long-term) which later becomes overtly or covertly available for thoughts and emotions and myriad other known and unknown processes of conscious and unconscious mind.

Information, however, can be true or false, tribal or universal, familiar or novel, partial or comprehensive. But in an important sense, our consciousness is patterned in a “complex correspondence and conformity” with the qualities and quantities of information we happen to, actively or passively, represent in our consciousness, in any given culture. Our readiness, receptivity or repulsion toward “arts and facts” of present information environment--from ethics to politics to metaphysics--is a product and function of our "meaningful" information-consciousness interactions of the “embedded and embodied” past.

Information, broadly conceived, once acquired, represented, processed, stored and “believed” by a brain, influences perception and meaning in descriptive, normative, and prescriptive realms. In other words, information influences, not just cognitively, but also emotionally, morally, aesthetically and spiritually. Given some complex interaction of time, chance, information, consciousness, and situational modalities, certain “specified information” may become the life story of individuals and worldview of cultures.

In summary, “significantly represented information” can influence belief, and belief influences behavior, unless overridden by more significant and stronger representations and information-consciousness interactions, ad infinitum, East or West. The world is a colorful place with a variety of “selves” because of the complex dynamic interactions between the varieties of represented information and the “spectrum of human consciousness.”

The concept of “Spectrum of Consciousness” further helps delineate the distinctions between “self” and “Self.”

One of the most inter-disciplinary philosophers of our time, Ken Wilber, first articulated his research on consciousness in The Spectrum of Consciousness (1977):

“Being and consciousness exist as a spectrum, reaching from matter to body to mind to soul to Spirit. And although Spirit is, in a certain sense, the highest dimension or the level of the spectrum of existence, it is also the ground and the condition of the entire spectrum. It is as if Spirit were both the highest rung on the ladder of existence, and the wood out of which the entire ladder is formed. Spirit is both Ground and Goal. In its immanent aspect, Spirit is the Condition of all conditions… In its transcendent aspect, however, Spirit is the highest rung on our own ladder of growth and evolution. It is something we must work to comprehend, to understand, to attain union with, to identify with. The realization of our Supreme Identity with Spirit dawns only after much growth, much development, much evolution, and much inner work, only then we do understand that the Supreme Identity was there, from the beginning, perfectly given in its fullness.”

So the “self” transform into “Self” with the evolution of one’s consciousness, with dedicated inner work, which might differ in content and process from one spiritual tradition to another but does not differ in its ultimate goal of Self realization.

Also, in the words of psychologist, Rollo May:

“Multitude of egos [selves] reflect the fragmentation of contemporary man. The concept of fragmentation presupposes some unity of which it is a fragmentation…Autonomy by its very nature can be located only in the centered self. Logically as well as psychologically, we must go behind the ego-id-superego system and endeavor to understand the “being” of whom these are expressions.”

“Duality-in-Reality” is therefore, the lowest rung of the "ladder," in the grand game of "Lila," so to speak. Continual progress on spiritual path necessitates recognizing and transcending many such inevitable dualities, from symbolic and semantic, interior and exterior, to temporal and cultural. Spiritual heritage of humankind does converge but at the highest rung of the ladder, in the deepest band of the spectrum of consciousness. Religions diverge at Symbolic Level and converge at the Level of Consciousness.

In the words of Dadu:

Ask of those who have attained Truth; all speak the same word. All the enlightened have left one message; it is only those in the midst of their journey who hold diverse opinions.

Those who claim to have actually experienced that Level of Consciousness, transcend the boundary lines of individual religions, cultures and language. Aldous Huxley in the West, and Sri Aurobindo in the East, among many others, point out the "Perennial Philosophy" that resurfaces again and again throughout history in the teachings of the great prophets and founders of all religions. The methods or spiritual practices (or yogas) may vary but their ultimate realizations are identical at the Level of Consciousness. It is an inner experience, a state of consciousness transcending all information and reason of the smaller "self," which directly reveals the truth of one's deepest and highest “Self.”

In that Level of Consciousness called ‘samadhi’ by the Hindus, ‘nirvana’ by the Buddhists, ‘fana’ by the Muslims, and the ‘mystic union’ by the Christians, the consciousness of the individual suddenly becomes the consciousness of the entire vast universe. All previous sense of duality is swallowed up in an awareness of indivisible unity. Hence, the finite is not the opposite of the infinite, but only, an excerpt from it. The infinite is the ground of the finite, and so between the finite and the infinite, there is absolutely no boundary. Behind the Yin and the Yang, is the Tao itself.

Nomi said...

Anonymous wrote:

Govinda’s vision flows across Siddhartha’s face and grows larger and larger until he saw all these forms and faces in a thousand relationships to each other, all helping each other, loving, hating, destroying each other and become newly born. Each one of them was mortal, passionate, painful example of all that was transitory. Yet none of them died, they only changed, were always reborn, continually had a new face, only time stood between one face and another.

This comment reminds me of William James’s following often quoted view on consciousness:

"Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness... No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question...At any rate, they forbid our premature closing of accounts with reality."

The important question is how can we consciously access those deeper and more encompassing forms of consciousness and discover what Herman Hesse describes in Siddhartha and William James alludes to in the above statement?

Ken Wilber offers a practical answer to manifesting these innate potentials of consciousness:

“Still, on this side of the gateless gate, there are certain factors that seem to facilitate this awakening. Of these, satsang—or simply sitting in the Presence of those whose realization is brilliant, clear, and radiant—is probably the most profound. But there are countless other facilitating factors, including meditation, the many yogas (raja, jnana, bhakti, karma, kriya, laya) and ITP [Integral Transformative Practice]. But none of them can actually cause you to awaken because the awakened Self is already ever-present, and you already know it. So when enlightenment occurs, it almost appears as an ‘accident.’ As Baker Roshi put it, ‘Enlightenment is an accident. Meditation makes you accident prone.’"

Nomi said...

We have come to the end of our online discussions of Siddhartha. I would like to thank all of you who took the time to share their thoughts or read the postings. I hope you enjoyed them as much as I did. To celebrate reading in all its forms is one of the greatest joys in the living of a good life. Please feel free to offer feedback or suggestions at The next discussion will be on Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch which will be facilitated by Melissa. Hope to see you there. Thanks.