Categories
Hesse's Siddhartha

Who Are You Calling Siddhartha?

This can’t be the Siddhartha I read nearly thirty years ago. If it is, I am not the same Loren I was then.

Since the book has been sitting on my shelf all that time, I’m afraid I’m no longer me. I’m finding it’s often hazardous to long-held opinions and beliefs to try to retrace old steps, and not just because I don’t have the strength I used to have.

I’m uncomfortable with Hesse’s use of the name Siddhartha and the comparison he draws between the Buddha and his central character, something that obviously didn’t bother me thirty years ago. Of course, I knew virtually nothing about Buddhism then except what I’d observed in Vietnam — not much — and in Thailand while on R&R — probably even less considering the amount of beer I drank that week.

I’m uncomfortable with an author inventing a character, a bodhisattva as it were, equal to, nay, even superior to, the original Siddhartha as shown in at the end of the novel when Govinda, who had once been Siddhartha’s best friend but had spent the greatest part of his adult life as a disciple of Gotama, sees the two as equals:

And Govinda saw that this mask-like smile, this smile of unity over the flowing forms, this smile of simultaneousness over the thousands of births and deaths-this smile of Siddhartha- was exactly the same as the calm, delicate, impenetrable, perhaps gracious, perhaps mock – big, wise, thousand-fold smile of Gotama, the Buddha, as he perceived it with awe a hundred times. It was in such a manner, Govinda knew, that the Perfect One smiled.

Siddhartha, unllke Gotama, seems able to bring Govinda enlightenment at the end of the novel.

I’m equally uncomfortable that Hesse’s Buddha seems like little more than a one-sided foil to the novels hero. Here’s Gotama’s reply to Siddhartha’s criticism in their first meeting:

Let me warn you, you who are thirsty for knowledge, against the thicket of opinions and the conflict of words. Opinions mean nothing; they may be beautiful or ugly, clever or foolish, anyone can embrace or reject them. The teaching which you have heard, however, is not my opinion, and its goal is not to explain the world to those who are thirsty for knowledge. Its goal is quite different; its goal is salvation from suffering. That is what Gotama teaches, nothing else.”

That’s certainly a major precept of Buddhism, but it’s hardly the only thing Gotama taught.

Surprised by this discomfort, I went searching on the net and found that it is not an uncommon concern. This Symposium on Siddhartha
does a fairly good job of examining the pros and cons of using Siddhartha as an introduction to Asian culture, i.e. how accurate is his portrayal of Hinduism and early Buddhism.

I found myself particularly agreeing with Marc MacWilliams”
assessment of Hesse’s view of India, “While the India of his own time remained an uninspiring enigma for him, Hesse constructed his own mysterious Orient out of his literary imagination. This imaginary India, which forms the timeless mytho-poetic world of Siddhartha, owes its genesis in part to Hesse’s study of the sacred books of the East—the Vedas, Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Theravada Buddhist Suttas. Passages from The Upanishads, in particular, are quoted in the novel.”

Considering its status as a classic, all of the writers went out of their way to state that they weren’t challenging the value of the novel per se but rather its value as an introduction to Hinduism and Buddhism. If the novel has value, and I still think it does, it has value despite its poor representation of Buddhism.