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Twists and turns: insights from a great novel, Siddharta by Hermann Hesse

March 2013

Siddharta  - Hermann Hesse

siddharta(Original German edition, 1922 ; first English edition : 1951, New Directions (USA))

 

This novel tells the story of a Brahman’s son named Siddharta. It is also the story of a quest which is far from being a straight line. 

When he was a young boy, he was likely to become a very wise and learned priest; however, at the end of his teenage years,  he decided to follow a few Samanas, ermits and beggars who submit themselves to very severe asceticism. A few years later, he decided to leave this life too as he felt this would not lead him to the supreme illumination, to the unity with God, which he was seeking. He then met the Buddah and his disciples; though he acknowledged that the Buddah was a fully accomplished person, he felt that neither he nor any other master or doctrin could enable him to reach his goal; they could even well have the reverse effect. So, he started to walk alone, living a pilgrim’s life.

 

As he was crossing a big city, he once got attracted by a woman and, as a consequence,  dragged into human society. Little by little, he took his place in it and became a rich merchant. He first went on with his ascetic habits but he gradually lost them and eventually became addicted to money, alcohol, sex and gaming. One day, after more than fifteen years of this life, he felt a shock and realized he was on the wrong path. He left all his wealth within an hour and started walking again.

On his way, he met with an old and wise boatman who was living by a big river; they became friends. He lived with him, helping him in his work and living his simple life. He went through some new events and ordeals; with the help of his friend, he therefore explored still some other human weaknesses that were living in him. At the end of his life, he reached this unity with the divine which he was no longer seeking to reach  but for which he had made himself available. 

Here is a beautiful example of a quest with some meanders and moments when it seems to vanish. One can see the “solve et coagula” process which is mentioned in another text in this site’s section (Bernard F.'s testimony). The quest seems to dissolve then to rebuild itself on more solid ground. Looking back, Siddharta sees that his quest in the first part of his life was mainly motivated by his ego desire of being the best; however it took him time to become aware of it. In other words, he was seeking too hard; he needed to no longer seek and, thanks to it, to feel he was missing something . He could then start again on his path with more purity and less ego motivations.

In the dissolution phase, it is striking to see that what took Siddharta away from his spiritual life was his concern to be like anybody else. Following our own path makes us unique and this uniqueness can sometimes be felt as a heavy burden. On the other hand, becoming “like anyone else”, if this has any real meaning, is losing oneself.

Then, the paradox is that he reaches his goal when he has stopped actively seeking it (see more on what he says about it in "the goal's paradox"). In fact, he had kept his orientation towards this goal;  he had more than ever kept listening  the inner voice that was guiding him but he had lost all anxiety, all willingness to control the outcome of this quest.

Of course, this quest is a purely spiritual one ; illumination, unity with the divine, are not necessarily what speaks to those who to-day feel they are following a quest. At least, they may not use these words. However, there is a commonality between Siddharta’s quest and the other ones. In all of them, by trying to reach our goals, we are looking for a feeling of well-being with ourselves, for something we long for, about which we have some hint but that we do not know, that we cannot fully describe because we have not experienced it. This story tells us that this inner feeling is given to us at some point in time, we receive it, we do not take it. However, we have to do things, to overcome difficulties, in order to be ready for it. This can be seen as the story of a whole life but also as the story of any important transition, of any transformation, even if the outcome is more modest.


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