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Hermann Hesse

Part One

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Part Two

“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.”

(See Important Quotations Explained)

Summary: The Brahmin’s Son

The novel is set six centuries before the birth of Christ, in ancient India at the time of Gotama the Buddha, whose Eightfold Path guides the faithful toward Nirvana. Siddhartha is a young Brahmin, handsome and learned, with the potential to be a prince among his caste members. Everyone knows he is destined for greatness because he has mastered all the rituals and wisdom of his religion at an early age. His village is idyllic, and Siddhartha seems to live an enviable life. His father is a Brahmin, a religious leader and esteemed member of the community. Siddhartha seems well on his way to following in his father’s footsteps.

Though Siddhartha spends his time studying the Hindu wisdom of his elders along with his best friend Govinda, he is dissatisfied. He suspects that his father and the other erudite Brahmins have learned perfectly everything from the holy books, but he does not believe they have achieved enlightenment. The rituals and mantras they have taught him seem more a matter of custom than a real path that could lead to true enlightenment. To become religious men by the standards of their own community, Siddhartha feels he and Govinda would have to become like sheep in a large herd, following predetermined rituals and patterns without ever questioning those methods or exploring methods beyond the ones they know. Siddhartha is deeply unhappy at this prospect. Though he loves his father and respects the people of his village, he cannot imagine himself existing in this way. Siddhartha has followed his father’s example with conviction, but still he longs for something more.

One evening after meditating, Siddhartha announces to Govinda that he will join a group of Samanas, wandering mendicant priests, who have just passed through their city. The Samanas are starved, half-naked, and must beg for food, but only because they believe enlightenment can be reached through asceticism, a rejection of the body and physical desire. The Samanas seem completely different from the religious elders in Siddhartha’s own community, and since he has not found the wisdom he has been searching for at home, he decides he should follow the Samanas’ path and see what he can learn from them. When Siddhartha informs Govinda that he will join the Samanas, Govinda is frightened. He knows Siddhartha is taking his first step into the world and that Govinda himself must follow.

Siddhartha, a dutiful son, asks his father for permission before leaving with the Samanas. His father is disappointed and says he does not want to hear the question a second time, but Siddhartha does not move. The father cannot sleep and gets up every hour to find Siddhartha standing with crossed arms in the darkness. In the morning, his father reluctantly gives permission. He knows Siddhartha will not change his mind. He asks that Siddhartha return home to teach his father the art of bliss if he finds it elsewhere. As he leaves to join the wandering Samanas, Siddhartha is pleased and surprised to learn that Govinda has decided to join him in this new life outside the village.

Analysis: The Brahmin’s Son

Despite his solid spiritual upbringing among the Brahmins, Siddhartha still seeks the meaning of life, and he embarks on a quest to find enlightenment. Brahmins are members of the highest of the four interdependent groups, called castes, that make up Hindu society. Members of the Brahmin caste were originally priests with the primary duty of mediating with and praying to gods, and they were respected for their intellect and their knowledge of the Vedas, the sacred Hindu religious texts. In “The Brahmin’s Son,” Siddhartha meditates on the syllable Om, which represents perfection and unity. Om suggests the holy power that animates everything within and around us. This power does not have form or substance, but it is the source of everything that was, is, and will be. For Siddhartha, finding perfect fulfillment on earth requires understanding Om and gaining unity with it. Siddhartha understands what Om means, but he has not yet merged with it, and has therefore not reached enlightenment. Siddhartha’s quest is a quest for true understanding of Om, and his quest will lead him far from home and through several paths of wisdom before he can reach his spiritual goal.

Hesse modeled Siddhartha on the Buddha, and the lives of the two figures are similar in many ways. Siddhartha’s name itself is the first suggestion of the link between Siddhartha and the Buddha, for the historical Buddha, Gotama Sakyamuni, also bore the given name Siddhartha. In Siddhartha, Siddhartha’s life parallels the little that is known of the Buddha’s history. Buddha’s life was formed around three seminal events: the departure from his father’s house, the wasted and frustrating years torn between the pursuit of worldly desires and a life of extreme asceticism, and, finally, the determination of the Middle Path as the only road to enlightenment. Siddhartha also follows this course throughout the novel. He leaves his father, explores several kinds of spiritual teachings, and eventually achieves enlightenment. In this way, Siddhartha resembles the original Buddha, both seeker and sage.

The divisions of Siddhartha correspond to the Buddha’s doctrine. The first four chapters evoke the Four Noble Truths, which are the Buddha’s basic teachings and concern the necessity of suffering in life, and the next eight chapters evoke the Eightfold Path, which details how to end the suffering described in the Four Noble Truths. Buddha’s First Noble Truth, that life means suffering, is revealed to Siddhartha while he is still a son of the Brahmins, living in his father’s house. Ritual and formula govern Siddhartha’s father’s world. Life in this world revolves around sacrifices and offerings made at certain times and the performance of established duties that everyone, even Siddhartha’s father, must take part in. The father’s world, then, is fixed in the moment and regulated according to certain accepted guidelines. Nothing will change from one day to the next. Siddhartha’s father’s request at the end of this chapter that Siddhartha return home to teach his father if he is successful is an admission that Siddhartha is right, that the gods are only objects of veneration and not living companions. The people in this world suffer from a way of life that was forced on them, and their strict rituals and schedules stand between them and the reality they seek.

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.

(See Important Quotations Explained)

Summary: With the Samanas

Siddhartha and Govinda begin wandering with the Samanas. They quickly adopt the ways of their new teachers, dressing in rags and taking only the barest sustenance necessary to preserve life. Soon, Siddhartha and Govinda adopt the starved and beaten appearance shared by the other Samanas. The philosophy behind the Samanas’ way of life is the belief that true enlightenment comes when the Self is destroyed or completely negated. They direct their ascetic practices towards this central goal. Once Siddhartha has joined the Samanas, his only goal is to become empty of everything, including wishes, dreams, joy, and passion. Siddhartha reasons that after he has destroyed every impulse in his heart, his innermost being will surely awaken.

Siddhartha embraces these new practices and teachings and quickly adjusts to the way of the Samanas because of the patience and discipline he had learned while studying Hinduism with his father. He soon learns how to be free of the traditional trappings of life, losing his desire for property, clothing, sexuality, and all sustenance except that required to live. His goal is to find enlightenment by eliminating his Self, and he is able to successfully renounce the pleasures of the world and the desires of the Self. He becomes a protégé of the eldest Samana, but the deepest secret remains hidden, and Siddhartha eventually realizes that destroying the will is not the answer. While both Siddhartha and Govinda enjoy substantial spiritual advancement during their time with the Samanas, Siddhartha doubts that this way of life will provide him with the ultimate spiritual Nirvana he seeks. The path of self-denial does not provide a permanent solution for him. He shares his misgivings with Govinda, arguing that the eldest of the Samanas is sixty years old and still has not attained enlightenment, and that the Samanas have been no more successful than the Brahmins Siddhartha and Govinda left behind. Govinda disagrees and points out the considerable spiritual progress they have both made. Though Govinda’s counterarguments do not sway Siddhartha, they both remain with the Samanas.

After Siddhartha and Govinda have been with the Samanas for three years, a rumor reaches them that an enlightened one, Gotama the Buddha, has appeared, someone who has overcome the suffering of the world and has brought his chain of karma, or rebirth, to an end. Some are skeptical of these reports, including the senior Samanas, but the news excites Siddhartha and Govinda. Govinda yearns to follow this new master, and Siddhartha agrees they should seek him out, although he has lost faith in teachers. Siddhartha uses Gotama as a means of finally extricating Govinda from the sway of the Samanas. The two friends resolve to find Gotama and follow him. The Samana elder is angry when Siddhartha announces their departure, but Siddhartha hypnotizes the Samana with his gaze, utterly silencing him. The old man silently backs away and blesses him. As Siddhartha and Govinda leave together for Gotama’s camp, Govinda observes that Siddhartha’s mesmerizing gaze proves he has attained a spirituality higher than that of the highest Samana.

Analysis: With the Samanas

Siddhartha hopes the Samanas’ asceticism will help him break free of the cycle of time that was so binding in his father’s world, but asceticism succeeds only in revealing the second of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths: The cause of suffering is the craving for something that can never be satisfied. The Samanas believe that enlightenment can be found only through the denial of flesh and worldly desires. Siddhartha tries to escape from time, to become a void, and in so doing create an empty space that only the unified power of the universe will be able to fill. Hard as Siddhartha tries to escape from himself and his reality, however, he always returns to a Self that is restricted by time, and he realizes that asceticism will not bring salvation. He cannot escape the problem of time just because he wills himself to. His attempts to escape from suffering lead only to further suffering, and the denial of time roots him even more firmly in the cycle of time. He has learned that timelessness cannot be found apart from the Self, rendering the Samanas’ teaching useless for him.

The Samanas’ teachings aim to enable the seeker of knowledge to escape the physical world, but Siddhartha discovers that true enlightenment cannot come from ignoring the world around him. He explains to Govinda that what the Samanas do is no different from what a drunkard does: They escape the Self temporarily. Just as the drunkard continues to suffer and does not find enlightenment even though he continually escapes the body, the Samanas are trapped on a path that offers temporary escape from suffering but does not lead to enlightenment. As soon as the Samanas cease their spiritual practices, the real world comes rushing back, and whatever enlightenment has been achieved dissipates. Since Siddhartha is searching for a permanent answer, he cannot follow the Samanas. He understands that true enlightenment can come only when the approach used to reach it takes into account the world itself.

The confrontation between Siddhartha and the elder Samana suggests that enlightenment cannot come from teachers but must be realized within, a fact Siddhartha will discover repeatedly on his quest. Siddhartha leaves the Hinduism of his father because of its flaws, just as he leaves the teachings of the Samanas because they do not lead him to enlightenment. Siddhartha encounters resistance when he tries to leave both his father and the Samanas, but in both cases he leaves with their blessings, which suggests that these elders are in error and that Siddhartha’s path is justified. Teachers may not be able to give Siddhartha enlightenment, but they do, in their own ways, set him on a path that will help him find enlightenment for himself. Although Siddhartha looked to both instructors for knowledge of enlightenment, both fail to give him what he needs, and Siddhartha realizes that these paths will not lead him to the enlightenment he seeks.

Despite the flaws Siddhartha finds with the Samanas’ teachings, his interaction with them is essential to his quest for enlightenment, since through them he realizes that enlightenment must not discount the physical world. Siddhartha’s Brahmin upbringing led him to search for an enlightenment based purely in spiritual knowledge, specifically the idea of a universal force, Om. With the Samanas, Siddhartha experiences his most purely spiritual existence to date, but his failure to achieve enlightenment suggests to him that enlightenment cannot be a purely spiritual. The material world consistently intrudes, and Siddhartha must take it into account as he continues his search. Though the Samanas’ path does not lead to the enlightenment Siddhartha seeks, it does lead to an essential revelation that enables him to eventually find enlightenment. Without the Samanas, Siddhartha may have continued in his purely spiritual pursuits, perpetually removing himself from the physical world and failing to reach his goal. Though the Samanas don’t lead him to enlightenment, they help him eliminate the purely spiritual path, thereby leading him closer to finding a path to success.

The mesmerizing gaze Siddhartha gives the Samana elder is never explained in the text, but the fact that Siddhartha apparently has a certain power over the Samana suggests that he is already spiritually superior. Not only did the Samanas not lead Siddhartha to enlightenment, but Siddhartha is closer to it than they are, even if neither he nor the Samanas realize it yet. Siddhartha’s gaze renders the Samana speechless, which facilitates Siddhartha’s departure. Just as he steadfastly waited in his father’s room when he wanted to leave the Brahmins, he gazes steadily here to obtain his goal. This gaze seems magical, but it also suggests something very real and human: Siddhartha’s astonishing strength of will and unwavering determination to reach enlightenment.

[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.

(See Important Quotations Explained)

Summary: Gotama

Siddhartha and Govinda journey to the camp of Gotama’s followers, and the followers welcome them as spiritual pilgrims. Gotama makes a deep impression on Siddhartha and Govinda. He seems to radiate pure enlightenment. His teachings include Buddhism’s Eightfold Path, the Fourfold Way, and other aspects of Buddhism, as well as many practices similar to those of the Samanas. Siddhartha and Govinda dedicate themselves to these teachings. Govinda quickly resolves to give himself over completely to the lifestyle Gotama prescribes. However, while Govinda is completely swayed by Gotama and decides to join his followers permanently, Siddhartha has doubts and finds he has trouble completely accepting some of Gotama’s teachings.

The next morning, when Siddhartha unexpectedly meets Gotama in the grove, he boldly speaks to him about his doctrine, praising his victory in finding the unbroken chain of being, of cause and effect. For Siddhartha, however, the unity is imperfect. The message cannot contain for Siddhartha, or for others, the secret of what Gotama himself has experienced. Siddhartha also points out a contradiction to Gotama: How can one embrace the unity of all things, as Gotama asks, if they are also told to overcome the physical world?

Gotama responds that his goal is not to give a perfect mathematical understanding of the universe, but to achieve freedom from suffering. Siddhartha responds that while Gotama himself has achieved Nirvana, he did it on his own, without a teacher. Siddhartha implicitly questions the efficacy of the approach prescribed by Gotama to his followers. Gotama admits that Siddhartha may technically have a point but also notes that Siddhartha can put forward no spiritual guidance superior to his own. Gotama asks if, according to Siddhartha’s reasoning, his legions of followers would not be better off pursuing a life of pleasure in the city. Siddhartha leaves his meeting with Gotama unconvinced that Gotama’s way of life is right for him. Sadly, he also leaves Govinda behind and begins a search for a way to find the meaning of life that is not dependent on religious instruction.

Analysis: Gotama

Although Siddhartha has been looking for someone to show him the path to enlightenment, his meeting with Gotama convinces him that no formula for salvation or enlightenment can exist. Just as the Hindus and Samanas that Siddhartha left behind preached a specific route to enlightenment, Gotama similarly teaches a set of rules. His rules, like those of the Hindus and Samanas, speak of renunciation as a means of escaping suffering. However, Siddhartha has already realized during his time with the Samanas that he cannot reach enlightenment by rejecting the world of the Self and the world of the body. He cannot believe in Nirvana if it means separation from life’s suffering. By leaving Gotama, Siddhartha rejects the prescribed formula for reaching enlightenment that this religion offers. Siddhartha realizes that all religions offer specific formulas for reaching enlightenment, just as all teachers offer knowledge couched in terms of their own experiences, and so he cannot rely on any individual religion or teacher in his search for enlightenment.

Neither Gotama nor any other guide can teach enlightenment because wisdom must be learned through experience, and it cannot be communicated through words. Gotama’s lectures communicate knowledge about enlightenment and what causes suffering, but the listener cannot translate this knowledge into actual enlightenment. The knowledge leads to greater understanding, but words themselves cannot substitute for experience, and their meaning depends on usage and interpretation. Though Gotama speaks of enlightenment, his efforts can enable a follower only to realize that the possibility of enlightenment exists—he cannot provide enlightenment itself. The follower must experience the revelation for himself or herself, which in a way renders a teacher useless: the process of reaching enlightenment is internal. Siddhartha knows this already, so he cannot become one of Gotama’s followers.

Govinda remains behind in order to follow Gotama, and although Siddhartha is saddened by his departure, he also understands that he must seek enlightenment alone. Because formulas for enlightenment do not exist, and teachers cannot pass enlightenment on to their students, Siddhartha must seek enlightenment by searching his own soul alone. Gotama has followers, but he has already achieved enlightenment and can endure distractions. Siddhartha, however, has not yet achieved enlightenment and is distracted by Govinda’s presence. He will be unable to achieve enlightenment as long as Govinda remains with him, so he lets Govinda go. Only when Govinda leaves is Siddhartha free to truly test himself in the manner necessary to bring about enlightenment.

Summary: Awakening

When Siddhartha leaves the grove, he is done with teachers and teaching. He wants to know himself, learn from himself, and understand himself. He feels as though he is seeing the world, puzzling and magical, for the first time. He realizes he is in the middle of the world and that he is not enlightened, but that he can awaken while learning more about himself. Siddhartha is suddenly infused with a powerful certainty in his own powers of self-realization. He feels he has truly become a man. He believes his path to Nirvana will not come from following another person’s prescriptive lifestyle. Instead, Siddhartha feels sure that his path to enlightenment will come from within himself. Thus resolved, his new task will be to discover how to find this enlightenment. His first impulse is to return home to his father, but then he realizes that his home is part of the past. He suddenly knows he is completely alone, and a shudder runs through him.

Analysis: Awakening

In “Awakening,” Siddhartha fully understands that discovery and enlightenment must come through the world of the here and now. Siddhartha suddenly sees the world’s beauty and realizes that meaning is everywhere. Here, in the midst of what exists within him and around him, Siddhartha must discover who and what he is. He calls this discovery a rebirth, one of several rebirths he will undergo during his quest. This rebirth signifies the death of what he was and his ignorance of what he will become. He knows he cannot return to his father because he will not gain any more wisdom from the past. He is also aware that he does not know where he’ll end up. In a way, this moment exists independently of the rest of time: briefly, Siddhartha has no remembered past and no discernible future. This moment in the present marks more than a transition, however, because it offers Siddhartha a glimpse of the sum of all individual instants in time. Although Siddhartha barely realizes it, this supreme awareness brings him close to the unity he seeks.

“Awakening” encapsulates the revelation Siddhartha has learned from his experiences in the preceding chapters: Enlightenment cannot be reached by relying on teachers or by ignoring the world. This chapter marks the end of one phase of Siddhartha’s quest. The next part of his quest must take him away from the spiritual world and into the material world. Although Siddhartha had considered the freedoms and limitations of the spiritual and material worlds in earlier chapters, he contemplates them more fully here. Since these thoughts end Part One, and since Siddhartha has an actual moment of enlightenment in the middle of the chapter, we can assume that these considerations prompt Siddhartha’s greater understanding of self. “Awakening” gathers the import of the first few chapters, crystallizes them within Siddhartha’s mind, and shows how they act as catalyst for revelation, prompting Siddhartha to move forward into the material world. He can no longer ignore the material world. His imminent investigation of the material world, and the knowledge he’ll gain from this investigation, will be just as important as the knowledge he has gained thus far from his association with teachers and religion.

The conclusion to “Awakening” suggests that Siddhartha’s upcoming investigation into the material world is a continuation of a correct path toward enlightenment. Siddhartha knows what he seeks and is aware of when he moves toward it or remains static in one stage of development. Although he feels a moment of despair about his solitude, he continues with renewed vigor. The lessons he has learned are clear in his mind, he sees the world in its beauty, and he is energized to move forward. Although he does not have a clear sense of how he’ll achieve his enlightenment, he is confident that he will find his way through his own direction. The heightened moment of lyricism in the middle of the chapter seemingly bolsters Siddhartha’s confidence. Through this lyrical writing, Hesse conveys to the reader that Siddhartha’s optimism is correct, and that the next steps will bring him closer to his goal.

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The bird in the cage

by rccarlson, September 03, 2013

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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