“Siddhartha,” he said, “why are you waiting?”
“You know why.”
“Will you go on standing and waiting until it is day, noon, evening?”
“I will stand and wait.”
“You will grow tired, Siddhartha.”
“I will grow tired.”
“You will fall asleep, Siddhartha.”
“I will not fall asleep.”
“You will die, Siddhartha.”
“I will die.”
In this section from the opening chapter “The Brahmin’s Son,” Siddhartha engages in a loaded dialogue with his father. Siddhartha is a spiritual pilgrim, and though it is clear he earnestly desires to seek truth and transcendent knowledge, Hesse does not yet reveal the full extent of his convictions. Siddhartha has met the wandering Samanas, and he is entranced by the possibilities of adopting the Samanas’ ascetic lifestyle. In this dialogue with his father, Siddhartha makes clear for the first time just how solid his convictions are and how deeply he feels he must search for spiritual fulfillment. Siddhartha’s father strongly disagrees with Siddhartha’s decision to join the Samanas, since Siddhartha will be leaving not only his family but also his religion. Leaving his religion is an additional slap in Siddhartha’s father’s face, because Siddhartha’s father is in effect a religious leader. Here, Siddhartha confronts his father with total conviction. This conviction will appear again later, when Siddhartha’s own son decides to leave his life as a ferryman and return to the city of his birth.
Siddhartha learned a great deal from the Samanas; he learned many ways of losing the Self. He traveled along the path of self-denial through pain, through voluntary suffering and conquering of pain, through hunger, thirst and fatigue. He traveled the way of self-denial through meditation, through the emptying of the mind through all images. Along these and other paths did he learn to travel. He lost his Self a thousand times and for days on end he dwelt in non-being. But although the paths took him away from Self, in the end they always led back to it.
This passage from the second chapter, “With the Samanas,” describes Siddhartha’s initial attempt to find enlightenment, and his ultimate frustration with it. The Samanas advocate eliminating the Self in order to achieve spiritual fulfillment. They believe that when personal feelings and needs are eliminated, whatever remains will be transcendent. The Samanas believe that one can effectively eliminate the Self by denying the senses. Siddhartha and Govinda give themselves over completely to this technique, but as this passage makes clear, Siddhartha does not succeed. While he can lose himself temporarily in his efforts to resist hunger, thirst, and fatigue, Siddhartha always comes back to his Self. The exercises of the Samanas offer progress, but the progress is only temporary.
This passage reveals a crucial element of Siddhartha’s approach to seeking enlightenment. Siddhartha, though he is a dedicated spiritual pilgrim, does not like the wait-and-see approach. When a method of spiritual pursuit loses its efficacy or exhibits limitations, Siddhartha moves on to another. Siddhartha makes some spiritual progress with the Samanas, and he is certainly better off with them than he was in his home village. However, even the oldest Samanas have not yet attained Nirvana, and Siddhartha will not wait around. He is trapped in a cycle of losing and regaining his Self, and he believes there must be a better way to Nirvana.
“[T]here is one thing that this clear, worthy instruction does not contain; it does not contain the secret of what the Illustrious One himself experienced—he alone among hundreds of thousands. That is what I thought and realized when I heard your teachings. That is why I am going on my way—not to seek another doctrine, for I know there is none, but to leave all doctrines and all teachers and to reach my goal alone—or die.”
This excerpt, from the chapter “Gotama,” is part of Siddhartha’s parting dialogue with Gotama the Buddha. Here, Siddhartha further refines and revises the principles that will guide his spiritual quest. He clearly defines the problem he sees in Gotama’s teaching: Gotama has achieved enlightenment himself, but his achievement does not guarantee that he is able to enlighten others. This doubt serves as a centerpiece to Siddhartha’s argument. Siddhartha points out that Gotama did not have a teacher to show him how to attain Nirvana. Siddhartha finally proves that following the commands of an enlightened man does not necessarily lead to becoming enlightened oneself. Siddhartha goes no further. He does not dislike Gotama, and, in fact, he praises Gotama’s teachings and concedes that attaining Nirvana certainly qualifies one to teach others about the world. Siddhartha maintains only that attaining Nirvana does not appear to enable one to teach others to reach it.
Siddhartha’s problems with Gotama’s teaching helps Siddhartha shape his own quest for enlightenment into a self-directed one. When Siddhartha goes straight from his many years of asceticism to a life of indulgence and sensual gratification with Kamala, the contrast may at first seem jarring or implausibly radical. However, passages such as the one above do account for Siddhartha’s extreme transition. He has resolved to apprentice himself to no other person in his quest for Nirvana. While Kamala teaches him to enjoy physical love, and Vasudeva teaches him to listen to the river, Siddhartha’s journey remains self-directed for the remainder of the novel. All notions of where Nirvana might be found now come from within.
His face resembled that of another person, whom he had once known and loved and even feared. It resembled the face of his father, the Brahmin. He remembered how once, as a youth, he had compelled his father to let him go and join the ascetic, how he had taken leave of him, how he had gone and never returned. Had not his father also suffered the same pain that he was now suffering for his son?
This quotation appears in the chapter titled “Om.” After Siddhartha’s son leaves, Siddhartha resumes the life of a ferryman with Vasudeva. Siddhartha has been sick at heart about his son’s decision to flee back to the city, and the passage of time has not helped to ease the pain. Here, Siddhartha looks into the river, and he sees his father in his reflection in the water. He remembers his own departure from home in the midst of unhappy circumstances, and he remembers that his departure hurt his father, just as his son’s departure hurt Siddhartha himself. He realizes that he could not have stopped his son from leaving, just as Siddhartha’s own father could not have stopped Siddhartha. Although Siddhartha wanted to share with his son all he had learned about life, he accepts now that his son will have to come into his own understanding. Siddhartha could not have helped him in his search for meaning any more than Siddhartha’s own father was able to help Siddhartha. These observations and the solace Siddhartha draws from them mark the beginning of his understanding of life as a river, which is one of the most important aspects of the Nirvana he eventually attains. Like the flow of the river, events in Siddhartha’s life seem inevitable, repetitive, and even circular. Trying to resist the river’s current is senseless. For the first time, Siddhartha truly internalizes these notions, and he begins to understand the ideas of timelessness and peace.
No longer knowing whether time existed, whether this display had lasted a second or a hundred years, whether there was a Siddhartha, or a Gotama, a Self and others, wounded deeply by a divine arrow which gave him pleasure, deeply enchanted and exalted, Govinda stood yet a while bending over Siddhartha’s peaceful face which he had just kissed, which had just been the stage of all present and future forms. His countenance was unchanged after the mirror of the thousand-fold forms had disappeared from the surface. He smiled peacefully and gently, perhaps very graciously, perhaps very mockingly, exactly as the Illustrious One had smiled.
This quotation appears near the end of “Govinda,” the novel’s final chapter, and it serves as both Siddhartha’s ultimate vindication and a contradiction to Siddhartha’s beliefs. First, it leaves no question as to whether Siddhartha has succeeded in his lifelong quest to reach enlightenment. Siddhartha’s face is the same touchstone of enlightenment once known only to Gotama, and Govinda can actually taste the Nirvana he emanates. Govinda finally acknowledges that Siddhartha’s methods were the right ones all along. While Govinda’s road toward Nirvana was more traditionally pious, Siddhartha’s path proved more successful. All along Siddhartha had claimed Nirvana can come only from within, and that teachers could not impart enlightenment to students. Govinda seems to accept this contention at last.
However, an ambiguity emerges as this chapter draws to a close. Govinda seems to have achieved Nirvana by kissing Siddhartha’s forehead. This description of Govinda’s transcendent understanding is remarkably similar to Siddhartha’s own experience of Nirvana. If Siddhartha can transmit Nirvana through a kiss, however, he contradicts his own central belief that Nirvana can come only from within. Possibly, Siddhartha gives Govinda merely a glimpse of true enlightenment, not enlightenment itself, essentially pointing the way for Govinda, much as Vasudeva pointed the way for him.
Siddhartha dreamed the bird died in the cage, which symbolizes what will happen to him if he continues his path of samsara. When he leaves, a real bird is released by Kamala. Therefore, the bird represents Siddhartha leaving the prison of samsara and chosing a life outside of the cage, rather than a life of pleasure and comfort inside the cage.
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