Siddhartha features substantial activity and narrative action. At the same time, it is about one man’s largely internal spiritual quest. What is the relationship between the internal and exterior worlds of Siddhartha? How does Siddhartha negotiate these worlds?
Siddhartha is driven to extremes by his desire for spiritual enlightenment and understanding. While he embraces the extremes of physicality in this novel, the initial spark of desire comes from within him. Siddhartha’s initial project is to negate the Self. The Samanas, and to some extent Gotama the Buddha, preach this negation as the catalyst for enlightenment. They claim that one can negate the Self through the mollification of the senses and the elimination of desire. While desire can be mental and physical, the senses are decidedly rooted in physicality. When people describe Siddhartha as looking “like a Samana,” the effects of this sensual negation are what they see.
Siddhartha pursues the opposite sensual extreme during his life with Kamala. He enjoys sex with Kamala, as well as food, dancing, and drinking. Siddhartha does not attempt to find a balance between this new world and the ascetic world he left behind. Though sex and drinking are new to him, he does not attempt to negotiate a level of comfort or moderation. His goal is to attain Nirvana through excess. However, excess, like fasting, fails to provide the desired effect. When Siddhartha eventually does attain Nirvana, he does not do so through a sensual extreme. Rather, he has learned to find a balance in his life by the river. His physicality reflects his sense of peace, but he does not radiate the effects of a physical extreme. Instead, he exudes the peace he initially noticed in Vasudeva’s eyes many years ago.
Discuss the ways Siddhartha attempts to attain spiritual enlightenment. Which approaches are successful? Which ones are not successful, and which ones have limited effectiveness? How does Siddhartha progress from one approach to the other?
When Siddhartha leaves his boyhood village, he is armed only with the desire to understand himself and reach enlightenment. He has no concrete, long-term plan for himself other than to seek spiritual fulfillment, and he follows many different paths to reach his goal. Siddhartha employs a kind of process of elimination as he tries one tactic after another. Although his journey is a spiritual one, in many cases Siddhartha uses an almost mathematical calculation to decide how to proceed. When he decides to move from one way of life to another, his choice is always decidedly analytical.
Siddhartha initially leaves his father the Brahmin for a life among the Samanas. Although his father is a religious leader, Nirvana has never been his stated goal. The Samanas, in contrast, explicitly seek the spiritually transcendent. Soon, Gotama the Buddha tempts Siddhartha to leave the Samanas because Gotama has attained Nirvana. Siddhartha reasons that the Samanas cannot be as effective as Gotama if they have never found enlightenment. Siddhartha eventually leaves Gotama as well. He concludes that although Gotama has attained Nirvana, his teachings will not necessarily lead others to it. Siddhartha’s subsequent indulgences in the city may seem haphazard, but they are prompted by a meticulous application of the process of elimination. Siddhartha does not want to deny himself any physical experience. When he lies in the pleasure garden and resolves to leave the city, he is prompted to do so by his dream of Kamala’s bird. This dream allows him to understand the emptiness of city life. When Siddhartha begins to live alongside Vasudeva, he realizes that Nirvana cannot be taught. Rather, Siddhartha intends to follow in the steps of the ferryman and learn to read the river for himself.
Consider Siddhartha’s relationship with Govinda. How are they similar, and how are they different? What are the narrative functions of Govinda’s reappearance throughout the novel? How does their relationship impact the novel’s ending?
Govinda is Siddhartha’s childhood friend and becomes his partner as a spiritual pilgrim. He serves a variety of functions in the novel, both to further the plot and to reveal aspects of Siddhartha we might not otherwise see. Govinda often provides a sounding board for Siddhartha’s ideas. The dialogue between the two friends allows Hesse to show instead of simply tell what Siddhartha is thinking. Govinda often disagrees with Siddhartha, which allows Siddhartha to expound specifically on why he believes he must act. Govinda differs with Siddhartha on the efficacy of the spiritual approach offered by the Samanas, and almost does not accompany Siddhartha when he leaves. Likewise, Siddhartha remains skeptical about Gotama’s approach, but Govinda holds fast to his beliefs. When Siddhartha ultimately leaves Gotama’s camp, Govinda’s decision to stay helps to cushion the indictment of the Buddha.
Govinda’s reappearance after he and Siddhartha initially part ways highlights how different Siddhartha is now from the man he could have remained had he stayed with Govinda. Govinda functions almost as an alternate-reality version of Siddhartha. Govinda stays true to the teachings of Gotama, a path Siddhartha might well have followed himself. Thus, the first contrast between the two friends is a physical one. Siddhartha changes, while Govinda remains an ascetic. However, Siddhartha ultimately succeeds in attaining Nirvana while Govinda does not. The final meeting of the two friends drives home this point. Siddhartha is able to give Govinda a glimpse of his enlightenment. The friends’ high regard for one another lasts throughout the novel, and both men are respectful of the choices the other has made. This respect persists even as Siddhartha is undeniably acknowledged as the more successful of the two.
1. Discuss the role of the mystic utterance Om in Siddhartha. In what ways does it foreshadow Siddhartha’s spiritual progression? Is his relationship with it proactive, or reactive?
2. Herman Hesse’s novels before Siddhartha focused on alienated young men who rejected the cultures of their upbringings. However, these other novels did not feature the spiritual elements of Siddhartha. How do the spiritual elements of Siddhartha make it different from any other story of an alienated youth?
3 . Siddhartha is a love story in addition to the story of a spiritual quest. How do Siddhartha’s romantic love for Kamala and his love for his son impact his spirituality? How does Siddhartha’s spirituality, in turn, impact Kamala and his son?
4. Most literary scholars agree that Siddhartha was prompted by Herman Hesse’s fixation on Eastern spirituality. Is there a case to be made that Siddhartha is designed to celebrate Eastern religion? Is Hesse’s treatment of spirituality as relevant today as it was when he wrote the novel?
5. Siddhartha concerns the quest for spiritual enlightenment, and by the end of it four characters have achieved this goal: Govinda, Gotama, Vasudeva, and Siddhartha. Is the enlightenment achieved by each of these characters the same? Why or why not? What distinctions and similarities exist between the paths these characters use to reach their final goal?
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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