Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Search for Spiritual Enlightenment
In Siddhartha, an unrelenting search for truth is essential for achieving a harmonious relationship with the world. The truth for which Siddhartha and Govinda search is a universal understanding of life, or Nirvana. Siddhartha and Govinda both have a fundamental desire to understand their lives through spirituality, seek to do this by reaching Nirvana, and start with the conviction that finding Nirvana is possible. Although Nirvana leads to a perfect relationship with the world and is thus an end goal that each man aspires to reach, Siddhartha and Govinda differ in what they’re willing to do in search for this truth. In Siddhartha’s case, when he becomes suspicious that one path may lead to a dead end, he quickly alters his course. He is willing to abandon the path of the Brahmins for the path of the Samanas, to leave the Samanas for Gotama, and then to make a radical departure from spiritual teachers and search in the material world with Kamala and Kamaswami. He does not relent in his search and instead continues to follow whatever path becomes available if he has clearly not yet reached Nirvana.
Govinda is much less flexible in his quest for spiritual enlightenment. In his quest, he restricts himself to the spiritual and religious world and persists in his need for teachers. Although Siddhartha is willing to break with religion itself and to abandon all his training, Govinda is willing to seek truth only as long as it appears within the narrow confines of Hinduism or Buddhism and is transmitted by a respected teacher. As a result, Govinda is unable to see the truth around him, since he is limited by his belief that truth will appear in the way he has been taught by his teachers. This distinction between Siddhartha’s unrelenting search and Govinda’s limited search is the reason why Govinda can attain enlightenment only through an act of grace on Siddhartha’s part, whereas Siddhartha is able to find truth through his own powers.
Inner vs. Exterior Guidance
In Siddhartha, Siddhartha learns that enlightenment cannot be reached through teachers because it cannot be taught—enlightenment comes from within. Siddhartha begins looking for enlightenment initially by looking for external guidance from organized religion in the form of Brahmins, Samanas, and Buddhists. When these external spiritual sources fail to bring him the knowledge and guidance he needs, he discards them for Kamala and Kamaswami in the material world, again using an external source in his quest. These sources also fail to teach him wisdom, and he knows he must now find wisdom on his own. This realization itself comes from within. Siddhartha leaves the Brahmins, the Samanas, Gotama, and the material world because he feels dissatisfied, not because an external source tells him to go. His eventual attainment of Nirvana does not come from someone imparting the wisdom to him but instead through an internal connection to the river, which he finds contains the entire universe.
Vasudeva is a teacher of sorts for Siddhartha, and thus an external guide, but Vasudeva never attempts to tell Siddhartha what the meaning of life is. Instead, Vasudeva directs Siddhartha to listen to the river and search within himself for an understanding of what the river says. Vasudeva does not tell Siddhartha what the river will say, but when Siddhartha reveals what the river has told him, Vasudeva simply acknowledges that he too has received the same wisdom. The river itself never actually tells Siddhartha what its revelations mean. Instead, the river reveals the complexity of existence through sound and image, and Siddhartha meditates on these revelations in order to gain an understanding of them. Govinda, on the other hand, persists in looking to teachers for his wisdom, and in the end, asks Siddhartha to teach him the path to enlightenment. Because of this reliance on an external explanation, Govinda continuously fails to find Nirvana. His final success, however, does not come as explicit directions from Siddhartha on how to achieve enlightenment. Instead, Siddhartha acts as a conduit for Govinda, as the river did for him. He asks Govinda to kiss his forehead, an act that enables Govinda to see the nature of existence in an instant. Govinda’s final revelation thus comes through his own interpretation of what Siddhartha shows him in the kiss. Though interior and exterior paths to enlightenment are both explored in Siddhartha, the exterior path is roundly rejected. Nirvana comes from within.
The Wisdom of Indirection
Throughout the novel, Siddhartha pursues Nirvana differently, and though at first his tactics are aggressive and deliberate, he eventually finds that a more indirect approach yields greater rewards. Both Siddhartha and Govinda initially seek Nirvana aggressively and directly. Govinda remains dedicated to the relentless practice of Buddhist devotions that are specifically intended to bring about enlightenment, but Siddhartha eventually rejects these methods and instead relies on intuition for guidance. Siddhartha points out that by focusing only on the goal of Nirvana, Govinda failed to notice the tiny clues along the way that would have pointed him in the right direction. In effect, Govinda tries too hard. Siddhartha ultimately understands that because the essence of enlightenment already exists within us and is present in the world at every moment, prescriptive paths simply lead us further from ourselves and from the wisdom we seek. An indirect approach is more likely to take into account all elements of the world and is therefore better able to provide the necessary distance from which to see the unity of the world.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The role of love in Siddhartha’s life changes throughout his search for enlightenment. The many ways love appears and the difficulties love poses are vital to the eventual success of Siddhartha’s quest. Love first appears between Siddhartha and his father, a love Siddhartha rejects when he leaves his father to follow the Samanas. Love, at this stage, restricts Siddhartha’s ability to realize spiritual wisdom, and he must abandon it. In the Buddha, Siddhartha sees love in action, primarily in the form of compassion, but Siddhartha rejects this love because it is part of teachings that do not lead him to enlightenment. Kamala teaches Siddhartha the physical aspects of love, as well as the importance of love itself. However, Siddhartha is incapable of giving and receiving genuine love at this stage. He has removed himself from the world so thoroughly that he is not motivated by what the world has to offer him.
With his son, Siddhartha finally feels love, but since love is an attachment to the world, it threatens to divert Siddhartha from his course. Until now, Siddhartha has gained wisdom in the absence of love, and the love he feels for his son becomes a test of this wisdom. Enlightenment cannot exist without love, and Siddhartha must accept love, painful as it might be, if he is to achieve Nirvana. Through Kamala and his son he has learned to love the world and accept it, not resist it, in its entirety.. Siddhartha is a part of the world, yet at the same time he can transcend it.
The concept of Om, which signifies the oneness and unity of all things, marks key moments of awakening for Siddhartha. Siddhartha’s ability to finally comprehend Om is his entrance into enlightenment, but along the way he encounters the idea a number of times, each time sparking a change within him. He first encounters Om in his training as a Brahmin. He realizes that though he has been taught what Om should mean, none of those around him have fully achieved an understanding of it in their own lives. People who chant the word and understand the concept intellectually surround him, but their lives do not reflect the enlightenment that comes from fully embracing the energy of Om. He hears Om again when he stands near the river contemplating suicide. Realizing that life itself is indestructible, he must learn to just “be,” not try to force his life along specific paths. Essentially, he is trying to merge with Om, which he recognizes as being all around him, rather than continuously search for a philosophy that accesses it on an intellectual basis. At the end of the novel, the more he listens to the river, the more aware he becomes of the complexity of Om and how it involves not only the physical and spiritual world but also time itself. When he finally comprehends the word in its entirety and understands that all things exist at the same moment, all possibilities are real and valid, and time itself is meaningless, he finally achieves enlightenment.
In Siddhartha, Siddhartha finds that enlightenment does not come from mastering either the material or spiritual world but from finding the common ground between these polarities of existence. In the first third of the book, Siddhartha rejects the material world. The Brahmins, Samanas, and Buddhists all maintain that the material world is illusion, or Maya, that distracts a seeker from the spiritual truth. Adopting this belief, Siddhartha completely denies his body and, instead, focuses his efforts on refining his mind and memorizing the knowledge his teachers pass along to him. In the second third of the book, Siddhartha rejects the spiritual world and enters the material world, but relentlessly pursuing carnal desire does not lead him to wisdom either. Siddhartha battles with other polar opposites as well, such as time/timelessness and attachment/detachment, but in these, too, he finds that embracing one and rejecting the other does not lead to enlightenment. The river suggests this battle visually: the opposing banks represent the polarities, and the river itself represents the ideal union of them. Siddhartha finds enlightenment only when he understands Om, the unity of polarities. He achieves transcendence when he can accept that all is false and true at the same time, that all is living and dead at the same moment, and that all possibilities are united in the spirit of the universe.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The river in Siddhartha represents life itself, time, and the path to enlightenment. As a representation of life, it provides knowledge without words, and Siddhartha’s reward for studying it is an intuitive understanding of its divine essence. The river’s many sounds suggest the sounds of all living things, and the flow of the river, as well as the fact that its water perpetually returns, suggests the nature of time. The ferryman points Siddhartha in the right direction, but the river itself is Siddhartha’s final instructor.
In Siddhartha, the ferryman is a guide for both the river and the path to enlightenment. The ferryman is positioned between ordinary world and enlightenment, and those who seek enlightenment and are open to guidance will find what they need within the ferryman. Many teachers of wisdom appear during Siddhartha’s search, but each fails to lead Siddhartha to enlightenment. The ferryman, however, shows Siddhartha how to find enlightenment within himself. The first time Vasudeva meets Siddhartha, Siddhartha wants only to cross the river, and that is all Vasudeva helps him do. Vasudeva is not a teacher who will simply tell Siddhartha what he should know, but a guide who will lead him where he wishes to go. Years later, Siddhartha searches for knowledge from the river itself, and Vasudeva guides him in his attempts to hear what the river has to say. Siddhartha himself becomes a ferryman after he reaches enlightenment. He guides people back and forth across the river and eventually helps Govinda find enlightenment. In Siddhartha, only the ferrymen are able to help others find enlightenment.
The only characters in Siddhartha who smile are those who have achieved enlightenment, and the smile evokes their spiritual perfection and harmony. Smiles are scarce among the Hindus and Samanas and in the material world, since enlightenment cannot be faked or forced. Only after going through the requisite stages leading to enlightenment can one express the beatific smile. Siddhartha first sees the smile in Gotama. The smile evokes Gotama’s saintliness and peace, and it impresses Siddhartha. Even when Siddhartha argues with him, Gotama responds with a smile, indicating the balance of an enlightened soul. Similarly, the smile marks Vasudeva as an enlightened soul, and he too impresses Siddhartha with his peaceful state. Vasudeva often smiles rather than talks, suggesting that enlightenment is communicated without words. Siddhartha himself does not exhibit a smile until he has achieved his own enlightenment, and this smile, in part, enables Govinda to realize that Siddhartha is like Gotama.
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