Siddhartha

SiddharthaThis week my evening book group in Arlington will be discussing this book. Since I can’t be with them, I am writing my response. It was in high school German class that I first encountered Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, probably because it was written in simple sentences, relatively easy for second year students to translate. I’m sure I missed a lot, but Hesse’s description of Buddhism, new to me, made an indelible impression. When asked to express my ambition for the senior section of the school yearbook, I wrote “to attain Nirvana.” I’ve kept that goal all my life.  Siddhartha is made up of two words in the Sanskrit language, siddha (achieved) and artha (what was searched for), which together means “he who has found meaning (of existence)” or “he who has attained his goals.” Buddha’s own name, before his renunciation, was Siddhartha Gautama, Prince of Kapilvastu, Nepal. Besides, Siddhartha rhymes with Martha!

At a recent high school reunion, a classmate asked if I had attained Nirvana. That is the basic question, isn’t it? I replied that I hoped I was on the right path. I feel calmer and more peaceful than at any time of my life. My five grandchildren provide confirmation. Being with them is transcendent joy. It was such relationships that I found so tragically lacking in Siddhartha’s life. He never visited his father, he deserted his friend Govinda, he never committed himself to marriage, and he never bonded with his son. He eventually found his path, but I feel more fortunate, to be enveloped in the love of family and friends.

In the summer of 2004 we hosted a Rice exchange student from Singapore, P. J. Ting, who taught me about Buddhism. We concluded that I was better off keeping my Protestant faith. In the summer of 2012 I visited a Buddhist Retreat center on the Holy Isle off the coast of Scotland, reachable only by boat. I was there to walk with a friend, not to chant Om, but I saw peace flags, prayers for peace and eight markers for the eight stages of enlightenment. Part Two of Siddhartha has eight chapters, corresponding to these stages.
As a 20th century German writer, Hesse portrays life in India 2500 years ago amazingly well. I found it plausible that so few people could read or write, and that the worlds of business and contemplation were such separate spheres. But sometimes I found myself thinking he must be writing about his own contemporaries and their searches for meaning. The novel roughly spans the lifetime of Buddha, so it helped me to devise a historical timeline. Buddha lived roughly 1400 years after Abraham and 500 years before Christ.
The plot of the novel reminded me of two favorite songs, one about finding your dream, the other about the eternal quality of a river:

1.  Climb every mountain, Search high and low,
Follow every byway, Every path you know.

Climb every mountain, Ford every stream,
Follow every rainbow, ‘Till you find your dream.

A dream that will need All the love you can give,
Every day of your life For as long as you live.

2.  Dere’s an ol’ man called de Mississippi
Dat’s de ol’ man dat I’d like to be!
What does he care if de world’s got troubles?
What does he care if de land ain’t free?

2.  Ol’ man river, Dat ol’ man river
He mus’know sumpin’ But don’t say nuthin’,
He jes’keeps rollin’ He keeps on rollin’ along.

He don’ plant taters, He don’t plant cotton,
An’ dem dat plants’em is soon forgotten,
But ol’man river, He jes keeps rollin’along.

You an’me, we sweat an’ strain,
Body all achin’ an’ rack’d wid pain,
Tote dat barge! Lif’ dat bale!
Git a little drunk An’ you land in jail.

Ah gits weary An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’ An’ skeered of dyin’,
But ol’ man river, He jes’keeps rolling’ along.

Colored folks work on de Mississippi,
Colored folks work while de white folks play,
Pullin’ dose boats from de dawn to sunset,
Gittin’ no rest till de judgement day.

Let me go ‘way from the Mississippi,
Let me go ‘way from de white man boss;
Show me dat stream called de river Jordan,
Dat’s de ol’ stream dat I long to cross.

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