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.