“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.”
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.
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 syllableOm, 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 understandingOm and gaining unity with it. Siddhartha understands whatOm means, but he has not yet merged with it, and has therefore not reached enlightenment. Siddhartha’s quest is a quest for true understanding ofOm, 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.