The main themes in Siddhartha include self-discovery, individuality, and timelessness.
- Self-discovery: Siddhartha's relationship with nature opens him up to new spiritual experiences, allowing him to feel that he is one with the world.
- Individuality: In his youth, Siddhartha decides to leave home to forge a new identity for himself, realizing that he must discover truth for himself rather than relying on his father’s wisdom.
- Timelessness: When Siddhartha reaches enlightenment, he recognizes that time is an illusion and can experience past, present, and future at once.
The single theme of the novel is Siddhartha’s search for unity, which is identical with his search for the true nature of the self. He cannot find either by rejecting the world, but neither can he take the opposite route and indulge the senses. He must indeed embrace the world, but only when he is able to experience it sub specie aeternitatis, in its essential form. He must come to know that the individual self, the Atman, is identical to the universal self, the Brahman, although by the end of the novel the terms have shifted. He has, even while remaining an individual, become indistinguishable from the universal nature of the Buddha.
To attain this enlightenment, the most important lesson he learns is the ability to be passive, to wait and listen. If he can cease his own small willing and striving, he can learn to embrace the great contradictory harmonies of the world. He can, in his own person, reconcile all the strife of opposites; he can overcome the illusion of time and thus experience the myriad, diverse forms and events—past, present, and future—as a simultaneous present, and hold them in a quiet serenity which accepts and loves everything, seeing no fault.
Hesse’s great image, in which the whole meaning of the novel is contained, is the river. Siddhartha is reborn as he sleeps by the river’s edge, and he resolves to stay there and learn from it. Vasudeva has spent a lifetime ferrying travelers across the river (in Buddhist thought, enlightenment is said to be the knowledge which goes “to the other shore,” and the sage is the one who steers the boat). The river symbolizes life. It is from the river that Siddhartha learns that time has no existence. The river is everywhere at the same time; it flows on forever and has neither past nor future. Siddhartha realizes that this quality is also true of human life and that suffering takes place only within that false mental construct which is called time, yet which has no reality.
Siddhartha hears all the different voices of the river and discerns all the forms it contains. He sees his own past and all the people he has known. He also sees the insatiable desire which drives all life toward its goal. Yet he also knows that every act is necessary and good; every thing and every creature contains the Buddha-nature within it, and that all goals are reached, after which life changes its form and continues. When he hears the ten thousand voices of the river together at the same time, he realizes that none is separate from any of the others, and when he does not try to attach himself to any one particular voice, the sound of the river becomes a great song, the music of life in its eternal perfection. Armed with this knowledge, he can love and respect all creatures.
Siddhartha contains four prominent themes, all of which are related to a discovery of Self. The first of these, the father-son theme, would strike most the readers as familiar — perhaps even in their own personal lives. Although Siddhartha admires and loves his father, an orthodox Brahmin, he knows he cannot rely on his father's wisdom but must seek his own way to truth. Siddhartha is, therefore, a conventional rebel within his family. He knows that no one — not even his learned father — can lead him to find his true Self. He calls into question the effectiveness of his father's attempts at cleansing away guilt by frequent ablutions...
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in the river and leaves home in his search for Aiman, that individual spirit within each human being. For Siddhartha it is a search which is based on personal experience, not on secondhand knowledge. The father-son theme reappears at the end of the novel when Siddhartha's son leaves him for many of the same reasons.
The river is mentioned in the very first sentence of the novel and provides the setting for the beginning chapter. At this sacred stream gather family and friends for the rite of purification. At its simplest level, the river represents tradition and permanence. But rivers flow and thus contain an element of movement and change. For this reason the symbolic effect of the river is strong, for in his search for Self, Siddhartha underwent much change, yet clung to traditional values of permanence. Siddhartha is not always aware of the significance of the river, as, for example, when the ferryman Vasudeva takes him across and tells him all that the river can teach him. Later, as ferryman himself, Siddhartha sees the river as a symbol of the commingling of all things.
Govinda, Siddhartha's childhood companion and closest friend is often described as his shadow, his most ardent follower. But he symbolizes more than that as the embodiment of the struggle in Siddhartha's soul. Govinda completes the picture of Siddhartha; he is, as it were, his exterior. At the same time he exemplifies the series of "opposites" that permeates the work and demonstrates the theme of unity that binds all persons and things.
On top of all the foregoing themes rests the theme of timelessness, that state achieved when true enlightenment is reached. Hesse has combined artistically all aspects of nature, their physical substance and their mind and soul, under the umbrella of arrested time. Each individual thing or person is archetypal — Siddhartha's father, his mother, the eternal river, the wisdom of Buddha, Siddhartha's own iconoclastic side — and delineated in a set, formalized way down to the oversimplified language of the book, prayer-like, almost a ritual.
The Search for the Meaning of Life Hesse's works are largely confessional and autobiographical and deal with questions of "Weltanschauung," of a philosophy of life. Typically, as in Siddhartha, the individual's search for truth and identity through what Hesse called the "inward journey" is draped around the plot. Siddhartha, the obedient son of a rich Brahman, awakens one day to the realization that his life is empty and that his soul is not satisfied by his devotion to duty and strict observances of religious ordinances. He leaves home with his friend Govinda to begin his journey. First, he becomes an ascetic mendicant, but fasting and physical deprivation do not bring him closer to peace. Subsequently, he speaks with Gotama Buddha, who has attained the blissful state of Nirvana. Siddhartha realizes that he cannot accept the Buddhist doctrine of salvation from suffering or learn through the Buddha's teaching. He must proceed on his own path. Turning from asceticism, he lives a life of desire and sensual excitement but years later again finds himself disgusted and empty. Suicidal, Siddhartha finds his way back to a river he had once crossed. He stays there, learning from the ferryman to listen to the river. It is here that he finally achieves peace.
In Siddhartha's final conversation with Govinda, he tries to enumerate the insights he has gained. These include the idea that for each truth the opposite is equally true; that excessive searching—as practised by Govinda—is self-defeating; and that to "find" is, paradoxically, "to be free, to be open, to have no goal." One must simply love and enjoy the world in all its aspects. Although Siddhartha may have reached the highest state of wisdom, he is unable to communicate its essence to Govinda. For another of his realizations is that although knowledge may be communicable, wisdom cannot be. He tells Govinda, "These are things and one can love things. But one cannot love words…. Perhaps that is what prevents you from finding peace, perhaps there are too many words, for even salvation and virtue. Samsara and Nirvana are only words, Govinda." It is only in an act of love, when Govinda kisses Siddhartha, that he too sees the "continuous stream of faces—hundreds, thousands, which all came and disappeared and yet all seemed to be there at the same time, which all continually changed and renewed themselves and which were yet all Siddhartha."
Although Siddhartha is set in India and engages with Buddhist thought, it would be naive to read the book as an embodiment or explanation of Indian philosophy. Written after World War I, Siddhartha is Hesse's attempt to restore his faith in mankind, to regain his lost peace of mind, and to find again a harmonious relationship with his world. Siddhartha's way is his own, not Govinda's nor Buddha's nor even Hesse's, whose next major work, Steppenwolf, offers a complete contrast, replacing serenity with stridency, placing the individual problem in a social context, and stressing the contrast between the "inner" and "outer" worlds for grotesque and humorous effect.
Polarities and Synthesis Hesse is fascinated by the dualistic nature of existence, particularly the world of the mind, which he calls "Geist," and the world of the body and physical action, which he calls "Natur." Siddhartha experiments with and exhausts both possibilities. In his father's house, he exercises his mind. With the Samanas, he seeks truth again through thinking and the extreme denial of the body. When these efforts fail to bring him peace, he tries another extreme. He immerses himself in material and carnal pursuits, but this life of the body brings him no closer to his goal. When he takes up his life by the river, he learns to transcend both the mind and the body by finding a third way, that of the soul. This synthesis, in fact, is what distinguishes Hesse's Siddhartha from Buddha. For Hesse, the river has part in both realms; it is not an obstacle to be crossed, as in Buddhist symbolism. Rather, Siddhartha is a ferryman who joins both sides of the river, which is the natural synthesis of extremes.
Love and Passion The importance of love also distinguishes Hesse's Siddhartha from Buddhism. In 1931, Hesse commented, "The fact that my Siddhartha stresses not cognition but love, that it rejects dogma and makes experience of oneness the central point, may be felt as a tendency to return to Christianity even to a truly Protestant faith." In many ways, the novel is about Siddhartha's learning to love the world in its particulars so that he can transcend them. The reader sees him in town with Kamala as they indulge their pleasures. "I am like you," he laments to her. "You cannot love either, otherwise how could you practice love as an art. Perhaps people like us cannot love." But in the end, Kamala gives up her life and follows the ways of the Buddha. On her pilgrimage, she is reunited with Siddhartha and, looking into his eyes before she dies, finds peace. Siddhartha feels keenly the loss of Kamala, but it is not sadness that is in his heart; he knows now that all life is indestructible and that, in a wider sense, Kamala has entered a new life that is in every blossom and in every breeze about him. Kamala also leaves Siddhartha with their son to love. "He felt indeed that this love, this blind love for his son, was a very human passion, that it was Samsara, a troubled spring of deep water. At the same time he felt that it was not worthless, that it was necessary, that it came from his own nature. This emotion, this pain, these follies also had to be experienced." Through Kamala and his son, Siddhartha learns to love the world. He tells Govinda, "I learned through my body and soul that it was necessary for me to sin, that I needed lust, that I had to strive for property and experience nausea and the depths of despair in order to learn not to resist them, in order to learn to love the world, and no longer compare it with some kind of desired imaginary world, some imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and be glad to belong to it."
Om—Oneness, Totality, Unity When Siddhartha despairs of ever finding peace, he contemplates suicide at the river. When the word "Om" comes to mind, he realizes the folly of his attempt to end his sufferings by extinguishing his physical being. Life is indestructible. Creation is an indivisible whole. He sees his great mistake in trying always to do something instead of just to be. Siddhartha comes to believe that all possible transformations or potentialities of the human soul are possible not only consecutively, but simultaneously. He explains this idea to Govinda by using the example of the stone: "This stone is stone; it is also animal, God, Buddha. I do not respect and love it because it was one thing and will become something else, but because it has already long been everything and always is everything. I love it just because it is a stone, because today and now it appears to me a stone." Siddhartha's Nirvana is the recognition that all being exists simultaneously in unity and totality.