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Hesse’s Siddhartha: Towards a Shadowless Present

Dan Meloche revisits a hundred-year-old classic by Herman Hesse that is based on Buddhist lore

He who binds to himself a joy 
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies 
Lives in eternity's sunrise. 
– Eternity, William Blake(1757-1827)

Blake challenges his readers to move beyond everyday existence and delve “out of time” into the eternal presence of a moment. In Hermann Hesse’s novel published a hundred years ago, Siddhartha (1922), the titular character embarks on a similar quest to break the bonds of temporality and move towards eternity and spiritual awakening. The bonds that tie him to the temporal include relations with family, friends, a lover, a business associate, and holy men. The latter include Brahmins, Samanas, and the Buddha: all of whom provide unsatisfactory direction with knowledge that, ultimately, becomes useless and distorted by time’s passage. For Siddhartha, relying on temporally bound advice, from temporally bound humans serves no advantage when aspiring to the eternal.

Early in the novel, a dream suggests Siddhartha’s aspiration. Whereas Blake symbolises the eternal with a sunrise, Hesse uses the vast, ever-flowing permanency of a river: “Dreams and restless thoughts came flowing to him from the river.” Called by the river to the eternal, Siddhartha begins to detach from all relationships that bind him to history and time. To experience the eternal present, Siddhartha must unbind from both his father and son, suggestive, respectively, of past and future.  With these, and other detachments, Siddhartha untethers from the temporal attachments to produce the “readiness of soul” necessary to experience the eternal present.

In the opening chapter, Siddhartha’s spiritual restlessness evokes its most profound exhortation in his defiance of his father, a holy Brahmin. By leaving home, Siddhartha separates himself from his past and rejects a life pledged to holy books and learning. More than youthful rebellion, Siddhartha’s defiance represents a repudiation of book learning and the Brahmins as “they did not know the one important thing.”  As they anchor knowledge in the past, books and learning have no use to Siddhartha, who seeks to transcend the time continuum.  Unbound from the twin anchors of his past, his father and the Brahmins, Siddhartha joins a group of ascetics, the Samanas, with his friend Govinda.

Continuing his journey to the eternal, Siddhartha pores himself into the experiential exercises associated with asceticism: thinking, waiting, and fasting. With seeming ease, Siddhartha perfects his practice. Yet, he rejects practices that serve only as a “temporary palliative” that could be learned “more quickly and easily in every inn in a prostitute’s quarter, amongst the carriers and dice players.”

Produced and subsequently distorted in the temporal realm, the Samanas knowledge is insufficient to produce the awakening Siddhartha craves. Further, were he to heed the wisdom of holy men and ascetics, he would only further bind himself to the temporal realm from which he seeks escape.

Leaving the Samanas, Siddhartha fortifies his belief in the uselessness of knowledge. Not even Govinda’s enthusiasm to see a charismatic spiritual leader can dissuade Siddhartha from his well-formed belief. When the Buddha’s popularity grows, Govinda’s interest to hear the Illustrious One is met with Siddhartha’s resignation. Uninterested in learning from holy men, Siddhartha confronts the Buddha by stating that “nobody finds salvation through teachings.”  That is, the Buddha’s awakening is an incommunicable event experienced outside of time which cannot be taught or duplicated. Therefore, trying to explain “in time” that which occurred “out of time” is futile. In addition to rejecting the Buddha’s teachings, Siddhartha further unbinds himself from his past by leaving his friend, Govinda, as he bids him well: “May you travel this path to the end.”

Limited by temporal bonds, Govinda’s path to wisdom and knowledge has a reachable end. However, for Siddhartha, such confinements represent obstacles to moving outside of time. Parting from Govinda, Siddhartha further detaches from his personal history and associations to time. Only by releasing himself from the temporal can he prepare himself for communion with the eternal. Continuing alone, Siddhartha avails himself of a spiritual moment and is transfixed by the permanency of nature. This meditative glimpse of the eternal anticipates his goal: communion with the unity of all things.

However, the path to enlightenment is rarely straight as sexual desire stalls Siddhartha’s journey towards timelessness.  Powerless to the charms of the beautiful courtesan Kamala, Siddhartha loses all yearnings for spiritual ascendancy and returns to temporality and the material world. To pay for his tutelage in the sexual arts, Siddhartha masters commercial trade to generate income. Disdainful of the mastery and accrual of money, Siddhartha attaches no value to his gains as he squanders his wealth gambling. Burdened by temporality, Siddhartha wears a discontent wrought by unhealthy attachments: “the soul sickness of the rich crept over him.”

Mastery of the sexual arts leads to a comparable weariness as the limitation of his passion with Kamala is mutually understood: “People like us cannot love.” In their loveless union, Siddhartha and Kamala desperately try “to extract the last sweet drop of fleeting pleasure.” As pleasure evaporates, so does Siddhartha’s desire to remain committed to the temporally bound pursuit of love. Feeling spiritually deprived by the pursuits of sex, money, and possessions, Siddhartha clearly sees the absurdity of time-bound relationships. Just as his loveless romance withers, his possessions of a mango tree and a garden are also deflating. To Siddhartha, how can nature, the image of eternity, be possessed?

Spurred by a dream of a dead bird, Siddhartha leaves everything to sit by a river and evaluate his life’s worth and considers a permanent unbinding from the suffering associated with temporal existence: “He looked down and was completely filled with a desire to let himself go and be submerged in the water.” Unfulfilled by all temporal desires, Siddhartha gambles with higher stakes: the desire for death. Having tried, and even mastered, engagement in the temporal domain, Siddhartha found it to be “a troubled spring of deep water”. In his moment of crisis, Siddhartha finds no solace in holy words, but is restored by the wordless, echoed distillation of the eternal, the universe’s vibration, the Om. The troubled waters of temporality then become the life-giving force of an eternally flowing river. Siddhartha recognises the river as his portal to the eternal: a place he “would not leave it again so quickly”.

On his way to the permanent harbour by the river, Siddhartha finds the ferryman, Vasudeva. The humble, taciturn ferryman becomes Siddhartha’s spiritual guide. Although Siddhartha claimed after meeting the Buddha, “no other teachings will attract me,” he finds in Vasudeva a teacher who directs rather than preaches. Vasudeva’s singular precept: “Love this river, stay by it, learn from it.” Sharing ferrying duties, Siddhartha permanently settles at the river’s edge to receive Vasudeva’s help with unbinding from one final temporal link.

After the Kamala’s death, Vasudeva returns to the ferrymen’s hut with Siddhartha’s son, who reacts with tantrums and runs away. Unnaturally loquacious, Vasudeva recounts Siddhartha’s life and experience and points out that to find home, one must leave home. Unpursued, the boy leaves Siddhartha with a “burning wound”. To extinguish this fiery pain, Siddhartha needs direction from Vasudeva, who becomes less man and more deity: “that this motionless man was the river itself, that he was God himself, that he was the eternal itself.” Carrying on with his ferrying duties, Siddhartha witnesses the love between others and feels jealous. This vanity compels him “one day, when the wound burned violently”, to follow his desire to find and make up with his son. Before binding himself again to temporality, Vasudeva instructs Siddhartha to seek counsel with the river. Standing before the river, ready to be relieved of his suffering, Siddhartha receives the river’s unequivocal response: “It laughed! It laughed clearly.” From the river’s eternal perspective, individual desire and suffering have little consequence to the limitless expanse of experience that comprises the unity of all things.

Further instructed to look into the river, Siddhartha not only sees images of his father, his lover, and his friend, but hears the multitude of sorrows, yearning, and suffering of humankind that coalesce into the “song of a thousand voices.” This song, representing “all things” beyond the temporal blends into the eternal perfection that is Om. With the extinguishing of Siddhartha’s “burning wound,” his final bind to the temporal is broken. Emptying all his pain and history into the river, Siddhartha is fully unbound from temporal existence thereby liberating his soul to the eternal.

In the novel’s final chapter, Siddhartha reunites with his friend, the still questing Govinda, who has sought out the mysterious wise man by the river. Siddhartha convinces his old friend that time is not real. Inspired by Siddhartha’s peacefulness, Govinda solicits inspirational advice. Unwilling to limit explanation with mere words, Siddhartha offers to share with Govinda a glimpse into the eternal. As Govinda bows to kiss Siddhartha’s forehead, he witnesses the parade of humankind (babies, murderers, and lovers) in the thousand-fold permutations of love, hate, birth, and death.

Authenticated by the experience of sharing the eternal present with Govinda, Siddhartha represents a fully awakened being. Whereas Govinda had been confounded by seeking a specific end goal, Siddhartha focused on the readiness of soul that comes with unbinding from temporal relationships, riches, and knowledge. Released from the time-bound continuum, Siddhartha releases his suffering into the channel of eternity that the river represents. Only by experiencing the suffering associated with temporal existence can Siddhartha then unbind to move outside the shadows of both the past and future into the eternal shadowless present.

Dan Meloche is a full-time professor at Algonquin College in Ottawa. When he isn’t teaching English, social psychology, and economics, he reads widely and writes reviews and personal account essays

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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