Summary: With the Samanas

Siddhartha and Govinda begin wandering with the Samanas. They quickly adopt the ways of their new teachers, dressing in rags and taking only the barest sustenance necessary to preserve life. Soon, Siddhartha and Govinda adopt the starved and beaten appearance shared by the other Samanas. The philosophy behind the Samanas’ way of life is the belief that true enlightenment comes when the Self is destroyed or completely negated. They direct their ascetic practices towards this central goal. Once Siddhartha has joined the Samanas, his only goal is to become empty of everything, including wishes, dreams, joy, and passion. Siddhartha reasons that after he has destroyed every impulse in his heart, his innermost being will surely awaken.

Siddhartha embraces these new practices and teachings and quickly adjusts to the way of the Samanas because of the patience and discipline he had learned while studying Hinduism with his father. He soon learns how to be free of the traditional trappings of life, losing his desire for property, clothing, sexuality, and all sustenance except that required to live. His goal is to find enlightenment by eliminating his Self, and he is able to successfully renounce the pleasures of the world and the desires of the Self. He becomes a protégé of the eldest Samana, but the deepest secret remains hidden, and Siddhartha eventually realizes that destroying the will is not the answer. While both Siddhartha and Govinda enjoy substantial spiritual advancement during their time with the Samanas, Siddhartha doubts that this way of life will provide him with the ultimate spiritual Nirvana he seeks. The path of self-denial does not provide a permanent solution for him. He shares his misgivings with Govinda, arguing that the eldest of the Samanas is sixty years old and still has not attained enlightenment, and that the Samanas have been no more successful than the Brahmins Siddhartha and Govinda left behind. Govinda disagrees and points out the considerable spiritual progress they have both made. Though Govinda’s counterarguments do not sway Siddhartha, they both remain with the Samanas.

After Siddhartha and Govinda have been with the Samanas for three years, a rumor reaches them that an enlightened one, Gotama the Buddha, has appeared, someone who has overcome the suffering of the world and has brought his chain of karma, or rebirth, to an end. Some are skeptical of these reports, including the senior Samanas, but the news excites Siddhartha and Govinda. Govinda yearns to follow this new master, and Siddhartha agrees they should seek him out, although he has lost faith in teachers. Siddhartha uses Gotama as a means of finally extricating Govinda from the sway of the Samanas. The two friends resolve to find Gotama and follow him. The Samana elder is angry when Siddhartha announces their departure, but Siddhartha hypnotizes the Samana with his gaze, utterly silencing him. The old man silently backs away and blesses him. As Siddhartha and Govinda leave together for Gotama’s camp, Govinda observes that Siddhartha’s mesmerizing gaze proves he has attained a spirituality higher than that of the highest Samana.

Analysis: With the Samanas

Siddhartha hopes the Samanas’ asceticism will help him break free of the cycle of time that was so binding in his father’s world, but asceticism succeeds only in revealing the second of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths: The cause of suffering is the craving for something that can never be satisfied. The Samanas believe that enlightenment can be found only through the denial of flesh and worldly desires. Siddhartha tries to escape from time, to become a void, and in so doing create an empty space that only the unified power of the universe will be able to fill. Hard as Siddhartha tries to escape from himself and his reality, however, he always returns to a Self that is restricted by time, and he realizes that asceticism will not bring salvation. He cannot escape the problem of time just because he wills himself to. His attempts to escape from suffering lead only to further suffering, and the denial of time roots him even more firmly in the cycle of time. He has learned that timelessness cannot be found apart from the Self, rendering the Samanas’ teaching useless for him.

The Samanas’ teachings aim to enable the seeker of knowledge to escape the physical world, but Siddhartha discovers that true enlightenment cannot come from ignoring the world around him. He explains to Govinda that what the Samanas do is no different from what a drunkard does: They escape the Self temporarily. Just as the drunkard continues to suffer and does not find enlightenment even though he continually escapes the body, the Samanas are trapped on a path that offers temporary escape from suffering but does not lead to enlightenment. As soon as the Samanas cease their spiritual practices, the real world comes rushing back, and whatever enlightenment has been achieved dissipates. Since Siddhartha is searching for a permanent answer, he cannot follow the Samanas. He understands that true enlightenment can come only when the approach used to reach it takes into account the world itself.

The confrontation between Siddhartha and the elder Samana suggests that enlightenment cannot come from teachers but must be realized within, a fact Siddhartha will discover repeatedly on his quest. Siddhartha leaves the Hinduism of his father because of its flaws, just as he leaves the teachings of the Samanas because they do not lead him to enlightenment. Siddhartha encounters resistance when he tries to leave both his father and the Samanas, but in both cases he leaves with their blessings, which suggests that these elders are in error and that Siddhartha’s path is justified. Teachers may not be able to give Siddhartha enlightenment, but they do, in their own ways, set him on a path that will help him find enlightenment for himself. Although Siddhartha looked to both instructors for knowledge of enlightenment, both fail to give him what he needs, and Siddhartha realizes that these paths will not lead him to the enlightenment he seeks.

Despite the flaws Siddhartha finds with the Samanas’ teachings, his interaction with them is essential to his quest for enlightenment, since through them he realizes that enlightenment must not discount the physical world. Siddhartha’s Brahmin upbringing led him to search for an enlightenment based purely in spiritual knowledge, specifically the idea of a universal force, Om. With the Samanas, Siddhartha experiences his most purely spiritual existence to date, but his failure to achieve enlightenment suggests to him that enlightenment cannot be a purely spiritual. The material world consistently intrudes, and Siddhartha must take it into account as he continues his search. Though the Samanas’ path does not lead to the enlightenment Siddhartha seeks, it does lead to an essential revelation that enables him to eventually find enlightenment. Without the Samanas, Siddhartha may have continued in his purely spiritual pursuits, perpetually removing himself from the physical world and failing to reach his goal. Though the Samanas don’t lead him to enlightenment, they help him eliminate the purely spiritual path, thereby leading him closer to finding a path to success.

The mesmerizing gaze Siddhartha gives the Samana elder is never explained in the text, but the fact that Siddhartha apparently has a certain power over the Samana suggests that he is already spiritually superior. Not only did the Samanas not lead Siddhartha to enlightenment, but Siddhartha is closer to it than they are, even if neither he nor the Samanas realize it yet. Siddhartha’s gaze renders the Samana speechless, which facilitates Siddhartha’s departure. Just as he steadfastly waited in his father’s room when he wanted to leave the Brahmins, he gazes steadily here to obtain his goal. This gaze seems magical, but it also suggests something very real and human: Siddhartha’s astonishing strength of will and unwavering determination to reach enlightenment.

[T]here is one thing that this clear, worthy instruction does not contain; it does not contain the secret of what the Illustrious One himself experienced—he alone among hundreds of thousands.

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