There are many things I like about Siddhartha: Brahma. He is the subject of a story told at the time when Siddhartha Gautama was alive. The latter Siddhartha went on to become known as Buddha.
The story told by Herman Hesse is a warning in a way, that following Buddhism as a doctrine is perhaps missing the point.
Upon meeting Siddhartha Gautama, our Siddhartha rejects his teachings. Not because he is an ass, but because he has realised that one can only find true peace and wisdom if one understand the world through the lens of the self, and not through the teachings of others. He asks, what does the voice inside of me say? What is my perception? And he sets off on his own journey of enlightenment. I love that.
After years of studying monk-like practices with his pal Govinda; practices such as concentration, fasting, thinking and waiting, Siddhartha and his pal bump into the real Siddhartha aka Buddha.
Govinda is impressed and goes with the sage, whilst Siddhartha chooses another path. They meet again (Siddhartha and Govinda) at various points in the story, and each time Hesse seems to make the point that from the same beginnings, the fella that chose the path of self-enlightenment (our Siddhartha) has reached deeper places than his pious conformist counterpart Govinda.
Once departed from Govinda, and after being monk-like for years, he decides somethings got to change. Siddhartha meets Kamala a temptress gifted in the art of pleasure. All red lipped and deft of hand. She teaches him all a man should know about a woman. He becomes a rich man, takes pleasures in foods and luxuries, plays dice to the extreme, and generally becomes a part of the social elite. He has servants and things: consumes and devours. He is by all accounts a huge success.
Throughout the story Siddhartha refers to “child-people”. This is who I would call the “unenlightened “and you don’t see them (patronisingly) until you are on your own journey of enlightenment. Siddhartha becomes a part of the world of the child-people, but he admits he is not like them. I envy them he says; in their simplistic lives and with their satisfaction by simplistic things; they are happy and they can love. I cannot love he laments. And then eventually ennui sets in. But, he has it all, and it takes years for him to cast off the shackles of surfeit.
This part of the story was particularly fascinating. Siddhartha was on a Jounrey, and his experience of ennui was reportedly essential to his enlightenment, but equally is his experience of being able to cast it off. Which he does simply by walking away into the woods. How many people do I know at this point in their lives, but feeling trapped. They all feel unable to walk into the woods.
After a short journey and a process of catharsism including a brief contemplation of suicide, at the edge of the woods he meets the ferryman: Vasudeva. This man is crucial to the story. He’s a mentor. A calm influence and a wise rock for Siddhartha to move around. He spends many years with Vasudeva on the river, listening to the wisdom of the river. It is said that Vasudeva learned all of his wisdom simply by attending to and concentrating on the ripples in the water. Later Siddhartha makes the point that any natural thing would have had the same impact if viewed correctly, even a rock. The river becomes a theme for him, chattering and flowing always. The river saves him with its inherent wisdom flowing to the sound of the universe: ommmmmm.
Many years of settled calm existence then see Siddhartha faced with another challenge: the arrival of his son. Kalama is traveling along with many monks to the reported death bed of Buddha. She wants to look at a wise man before she dies. Sadly she gets her wish, but the wise man she lays eyes on is her Siddhartha, not the Buddha one. She does die (sooner than she expected) from a snake bite. On her death bed she deposits her eleven year old surprise son with his surprised dad. Surprise!
Unfortunately, despite his hopes and patience, Siddhartha son is unable to take to his surroundings. He grew up a boy in luxury and wasn’t ready to leave. After years of pitying the child-people, Siddhartha finally joins their rank. This is because he loves his son. He loves for the first time. And for that love he observes he takes leave of his senses. He cannot make wise choices, despite the logic, kindly provided by Vasudeva, he sees the wise path but cannot do it! Even in this part of the story there is such heartfelt experience. He finds what it is to be human. He surrenders to something bigger than common sense. Eventually the boy runs away and breaks his heart. It takes him years to recover. But he needed the experience. Finally, he is repaired when he loses his shit, and Vasudeva holds space for him while he tells of his pain. He lets his pain engulf him and suddenly he sees all human suffering as one voice, their pain and their joy at the same time, their faces flowing down the river over the edge into mist, becoming rain and returning to the river. Life is experience and joy and pain. The noise of all the universe, the cries of joy and pain, becomes the sound oommmmmm. The completeness and wholeness of the world. It’s really moving.
He spends the rest of his days in a state of bliss. Herman Hesse makes the point that the real Buddha died as a revered man by many child people, but this man, the real Buddha in a way, was just a simple ferryman not seeking the light, not writing books, not masticating on Facebook or the like (he didn’t say that but you catch the drift).
The point is really made finally when Govinda meets Siddhartha and is clearly not really enlightened at all despite a life of servitude and seeking. Siddhartha speaks with him and we realise he has become Vasudeva for Govinda. And so it goes.
Absolute brilliance in 81 pages. I loved the story. A gift to me from my own Sid Arthur trying to make his way just like me.