The Idea of Self in Siddhartha

A major focus in Siddhartha is on the concept of “self,? particularly the suppression of self to attain enlightenment. Considering the complexity of the subject, perhaps it’s not surprising that Hesse’s attitude toward Self never seems entirely clear. Even Buddhist scholars debate over the Buddha’s view of self, as in “myself,? and Self, as in Atman, and whether or not there is any such thing as an enduring Self. Considering that Romanticism is “noted for its elevation of the achievements of what it perceived as heroic individuals and artists? and Hesse’s Neo-romantic leaning, it’s not surprising that self plays such a large part in his novel.

The story begins with a statement of Siddhartha’s desire to rid himself of the Self:

Siddhartha had one single goal — to become empty, to become empty of thirst, desire, dreams, pleasure and sorrow — to let the Self die. No longer to be Self, to experience the peace of an emptied heart, to experience pure thought-that was his goal. When all the Self was conquered and dead, when all passions and desires were silent, then the last must awaken, the innermost of Being that is no longer Self — the great secret!

While such a goal would seem to be anathema to a European Romantic or to a Christian whose religious goal is to gain entrance to heaven, it might seem perfectly normal to an adherent of an Eastern religion, if, and this is a big if, Hesse means the elimination of “self,? as in ego, not “Self,? as in Atman, Highest Self.

Strangely, it seems to be this very egotism that makes it difficult for Siddhartha to follow anyone other than himself:

It is not for me to judge another life. I must judge for myself. I must choose and reject. We Samanas seek release from the Self, 0 Illustrious One. If I were one of your followers, I fear that it would only be on the surface, that I would deceive myself that I was at peace and had attained salvation, while in truth the Self would continue to live and grow, for it would have been transformed into your teachings, into my allegiance and love for you and for the community of the monks.

This is probably a very real danger, whether it’s in a Christian monastic order or an Eastern one, but I vaguely remember studying the steps to enlightenment and one of the most dangerous stages is the feeling of being “godlike,? a stage where the individual is so overwhelmed with his own worth that he never goes beyond that stage. In fact, more than one critic has suggested that Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself was a celebration of that stage of enlightenment rather than true enlightenment.

For someone who wants to suppress Self, Siddhartha seems to view those who fail to discover enlightenment as “leaves? that drift and fall to ground, while those who are truly enlightened:

… are like stars which travel one defined path: no wind reaches them, they have within themselves their guide and path. Among all the wise men, of whom I knew many, there was one who was perfect in this respect I can never forget him. He is Gotama, the Illustrious One, who preaches this gospel. Thousands of young men hear his teachings every day and follow his instructions every hour, but they are all falling leaves; they have not the wisdom and guide within themselves.

Within themSelves? What is it that guides the traveler if not Self? What is it that contains the wisdom and guide, if not Self? Are all those who follow another necessarily “falling leaves??

Perhaps strangest of all, at least seen from the perspective of Eastern religion, is the argument that it was necessary to go into the world and “sin,? for a lack of a better word, in order to lose that Self:

He had been full of arrogance; he had always been the cleverest, the most eager-always a step ahead of the others, always the learned and intellectual one, always the priest or the sage. His Self had crawled into this priesthood, into this arrogance, into this intellectuality. It sat there tightly and grew, while he thought he was destroying it by fasting and penitence. Now he understood it and realized that the inward voice had been right, that no teacher could have brought him salvation. That was why he had to go into the world, to lose himself in power, women and money; that was why he had to be a merchant, a dice player, a drinker and a man of property, until the priest and Samana in him were dead. That was why he had to undergo those horrible years, suffer nausea, learn the lesson of the madness of the empty, futile life till the end, till he reached bitter despair, so that Siddhartha the pleasure-monger and Siddhartha the man of property could die. He had died and a new Siddhartha had awakened from his sleep.

I’m not sure what doctrine this concept of despair comes from. Though it could derive from the Christian concept of the Dark Night of the Soul, it seems to derive more from existentialist theory than any Eastern doctrine that I’m aware of. It certainly doesn’t sound like Buddha’s Middle Way.

Siddhartha, and Hesse, seem convinced that a “true seeker? and that’s what Siddhartha is portrayed as, cannot accept anyone else’s teachings — they have to be his own:

For a long time he knew that he was not separated from Gotama, although he could not accept his teachings. No, a true seeker could not accept any teachings, not if he sincerely wished to find something. But he who had found, could give his approval to every path, every goal; nothing separated him from all the other thousands who lived in eternity, who breathed the Divine.

This is nothing more or less than the Romantic Ideal grafted on to a Hindu landscape. There would be no Buddhism, no Christianity, if a true seeker could not accept any teachings. God forbid that any of us should have to reach enlightenment purely on our own without any guidance.

According to Hesse, even Self-indulgence is good because in the long run it allows us to learn for ourSelves that these things are bad:

It is a good thing to experience everything oneself, he thought. As a child I learned that pleasures of the world and riches were not good. I have known it for a long time, but I have only just experienced it. Now I know it not only with my intellect, but with my eyes, with my heart, with my stomach. It is a good thing that I know this.

Does anyone really believe that we have to experience everything ourselves in order to attain enlightenment? Does that suggest that a drug addict is more likely to attain enlightenment because their despair is greater than one who chooses an ascetic life? Does any religion advocate such an approach to life?

With such a philosophy it’s no wonder that Hesse’s next book was Steppenwolf, “the account of a man torn between his individualism and his attraction to bourgeois respectability.? It would not be too far fetched to argue that Siddhartha is the account of a man torn between his individualism and his aspiration for enlightenment.

I must admit that I was shocked many years ago when I learned that Hesse wrote Siddhartha before he wrote Steppenwolf. It always seemed to me that the logical step was the other way around. Siddhartha was the answer to Steppenwolf. If the author really felt that he had found the key to enlightenment, how could he end up writing a novel as convincingly tragic as Steppenwolf?

2 thoughts on “The Idea of Self in Siddhartha

  1. I think the key to understanding Hesse lies in ‘The Glass Bead Game’. I’m not certain, but I imagine it was the book that earned him the Nobel Prize, and in a way it is a synthesis of everything that went before – Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, Narziss and Goldmund, Journey to the East, etc.. I can’t say I enjoyed reading it as much as some of the others, however – although it was many years ago.

    But I have to say that I agree with the notion that enlightenment cannot be taught or expressed in words – that, in some very real sense, we have to ‘experience everything ourselves’. I don’t think that means we need to become drug addicts or ascetics first. Perhaps a twirling flower or a smile would suffice to open our eyes?

    And although Gotama’s teachings were extensive, at their very heart was the notion of suffering, and how to overcome it. The first Noble Truth – loosely translated as ‘all is suffering’ or ‘life means suffering’ – is the foundation stone of Buddhism. So I think Hesse was right to put these words in Gotama’s mouth when replying to Siddhartha.

What do you think?