Siddhartha

by: Hermann Hesse

Language

Quotes Language
He lived in friendship beside Vasudeva, and sometimes they would exchange words with each other, few and well-considered words. Vasudeva was no friend of words, Siddhartha seldom succeeded in inducing him to speak.

The narrator reveals what makes Vasudeva unique among all of Siddhartha’s teachers: his lack of didactic direction. Vasudeva serves as Siddhartha’s greatest spiritual guide, but not through speeches or textual instruction. Vasudeva’s reticence and gentle guidance allows Siddhartha’s enlightenment to unfold the way it should, according to divine timing. In Vasudeva, Siddhartha found the fulfillment of his desire for a mentor who does not teach but only guides him to sense Atman within himself.

Siddhartha spoke after a long pause, “What other thing, Vasudeva?” Vasudeva rose. “It has gotten late,” he said, “let us go to sleep. I cannot say what ‘other thing,’ o Friend. You will learn it, perhaps you already know it.”

Vasudeva tells Siddhartha that among the many things the river will teach him, one “other thing” stands apart from the others. Siddhartha asks Vasudeva to name this other thing, but Vasudeva says he cannot. Siddhartha becomes confused, not realizing that Vasudeva cannot name the experience of enlightenment, which Siddhartha has already proclaimed cannot be spoken or put into words. Vasudeva withholds language in favor of prompting Siddhartha towards his own self-directed actions.

Govinda spoke: “Nirvana, Friend, is not only a word. It is a thought.”

At their final meeting, Govinda asks Siddhartha to describe how he reached enlightenment. A discussion ensues, which quickly devolves into a series of semantic arguments over words. Siddhartha insists that nirvana is only a word, which makes Govinda uncomfortable. Govinda’s life has been led by words, and he has put his faith in them. Govinda counters that nirvana exists not only as a word, but as a thought. Siddhartha sees no distinction between the word and the thought. Siddhartha views both words and thoughts as limited in their ability to express enlightenment.

“I know,” said Siddhartha, his smile radiating golden. “I know that, Govinda. And see, we are in the midst of the thicket of opinion, in the battle over words. For I cannot lie, my words about love stand in opposition, in apparent opposition to Gautama’s words. That is precisely why I distrust words so much, for I know this contradiction is an illusion.”

As Gautama warned Siddhartha previously, Siddhartha warns Govinda not to get lost in language. Words possess a deceiving quality of categorizing and creating distinctions where in reality none exists. In this way, language can lead away from the path towards enlightenment. Govinda and Siddhartha’s argument over language represents a larger problem between their divergent needs: Govinda needs instruction with a set of precepts to follow, while Siddhartha needs indirect guidance without a code of conduct.

Even in him, even in your great teacher, I prefer the thing to the words, his actions and his life are more important than his speech, the gestures of his hand more important than his opinions.

Siddhartha makes an important distinction to Govinda about language and action as they argue during their last meeting. Siddhartha explains that the reason he could tell Gautama had achieved enlightenment was not because of his brilliant teachings, but because of his graceful actions and beaming face. To Siddhartha, language has limited value to convey a person’s perceptions. As both Siddhartha’s and Govinda’s experiences demonstrate, words cannot express enlightenment.