I did not think that I would be writing a book review anytime. But some books are special, and deserve to be ‘shared’. I recently finished reading Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse and loved it. Sharing a few thoughts!
“A heron flew over the bamboo forest—and Siddhartha accepted the heron into his soul, flew over forest and mountains, was a heron, ate fish, felt the pangs of a heron’s hunger, spoke the heron’s croak, died a heron’s death. A dead jackal was lying on the sandy bank, and Siddhartha’s soul slipped inside the body, was the dead jackal, lay on the banks, got bloated, stank, decayed, was dismembered by hyenas, was skinned by vultures, turned into a skeleton, turned to dust, was blown across the fields. And Siddhartha’s soul returned, had died, had decayed, was scattered as dust, had tasted the gloomy intoxication of the cycle, awaited in new thirst like a hunter in the gap, where he could escape from the cycle, where the end of the causes, where an eternity without suffering began. He killed his senses, he killed his memory, he slipped out of his self into thousands of other forms, was an animal, was carrion, was stone, was wood, was water, and awoke every time to find his old self again, sun shone or moon, was his self again, turned round in the cycle, felt thirst, overcame the thirst, felt new thirst.”
The first time I read these words, I could not connect with them at all. I thought it was exaggerated. I thought Siddhartha was mad. At times, I thought I was foolish in not being able to comprehend what was being said through these words.
But, a few years later, a few months ago, I had an experience. After two months of a hot, intense, unrelenting Indian summer, I went to the forest, and saw the burnt, dried grass. I saw the droopy leaves. I saw the lake drying up. At night, I saw elephants drinking water, herds of deer drinking water. The next morning, I touched the soil – hard, hot, dry. Imagine a day in this weather, outdoors. Imagine an entire season filled with days like this.
I became the elephant, I felt thirsty, I showered dust and mud on my back, I twirled my trunk around clumps of grass and uprooted them searching for moisture below the top layer, I dug my tusks and turned the soil over, I looked upwards towards the blinding sun, I waited, I waited for night to arrive, I waited, I saw clouds roll in, I smelt the rain, saw the lightning, felt the fat raindrops. I experienced and imagined the relief elephants may be experiencing.
It was time to re-read the book.
I loved the book this time.
Beginning at a young age, Siddhartha seems to realise that the sum of his knowledge, the teachings of the holy books and the debates and daily rituals do not add up to something that satisfies him. The whole seems to be something different than the sum of several individual things (nirvana or moksha or enlightenment seems not to be a formulaic combination of operations), but something other than that. The whole is something other than the sum of the individual parts – something that only he can seek, only he can find and experience for himself. No other definition will do. I had recently read about Gestalt Psychology and this connection rang true in my head. I was also reminded of this quote by Jiddu Krishnamurti – “The description is not the described; I can describe the mountain, but the description is not the mountain, and if you are caught up in the description, as most people are, then you will never see the mountain”. Having been in the mountains, and having experienced the magic, the power, the energy in them, I could empathise. The same went for what Siddhartha says in the book.
Emotions and events are captured beautifully in the book, even in the translation; for example, just before setting off on his path, after his father has not agreed with his view, there is a line which says – “Then the father realised that Siddhartha could no longer remain with him – that he had already left him.” This happens at day break, when “the first light of day entered the room”. Beautiful. I could visualise the entire scene and could feel the tension, the resolve and the emotions in that room. I am waiting to read the original German text now, just to see how it reads out.
His subsequent journey into ‘Sansara’ was tumultuous, with both ups and downs, and yet necessary. It was his nature, I think, to immerse himself completely in whatever he did, and see the connection and the separation it had from his previous life. Seeing the illusions of life firsthand, he nevertheless learns some very important lessons about love – how you cannot completely isolate loving someone and hating someone. He went into the opposite extreme of his Samana state and went deep into the lifestyle of the town-dwellers. Ultimately tired of it, he cycles out of it, after almost being driven to the point of killing himself, but realises that having experienced it first hand, he has an understanding about the life of greed, power, the pleasures of the world and the riches, and that with this understanding he has the clarity to continue again on his path..Siddhartha ”the pleasure-monger” and Siddhartha ”the man of property” had to die if he wanted to kill the old Self in him and start anew.
A critical difference between seeking and finding is highlighted, with seeking shown as being limiting, since it is a conscious thing. You have a goal, you get obsessed with achieving it, and you see nothing but the goal. On the other hand, finding is ”to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal”. I find it very difficult to untwine my understanding from that of the book’s philosophy – you can’t have just goals, and you can’t just be seekers. There seems to be the need for a balance between the two. Sometimes, things have to be seeked and found, including your own self.
At the end of the book, it is mentioned that the Buddha is there everywhere, inside the sinner, just like there exists a robber who is present inside the Brahmin. The world is not black and white, atleast not always, it is also cyclical, and connected – “The stone is just a stone, but perhaps because within the cycle of change, it can also become man and spirit, it is also of importance”.
This book has many more layers to it, many of which will take a long time to be reached. Till the next reading…