Irrespective of whether an author desires it or not, a small part of him seeps into his books. There’s also a larger force (some call it inspiration) that uses him as a channel to manifest itself. This is why great books have a life of their own; their knowledge can surpass their creators. But only if the author has the wisdom to allow the flow uninterrupted.
This brings me to Herman Hesse, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature – we will discuss his extraordinary book Siddhartha today.
Who was Hesse?
Hesse was a rebellious, intelligent, unique personality who had knowledge of both the east and the west. He indeed was the perfect man to author this masterful book. Here’s a lovely sketch of how these qualities exhibited themselves in him even as a child.
I was a good learner, good at Latin though only fair at Greek, but I was not a very manageable boy, and it was only with difficulty that I fitted into the framework of a pietist education that aimed at subduing and breaking the individual personality.Herman Hesse, The Nobel Prize in Literature 19461
Why do I love this book?
Siddhartha is a book that makes you question your assumptions of life. Every reading reveals new truths and takes root in your soul. We cannot determine if these truths were what the author intended, but they are true for you. Remember, books are ideas that seize people – first the authors’ and then our minds – they are very personal in that sense.
I have found this book to be a friend that grows with me. Depending on where I am in life and what I need, it reveals a little bit more of itself. In a sense, reading the book is like talking to your grandmother – she listens to everything you say and then points out what is most essential for your life – very gently.
In this essay, I’ll discuss my takeaways from my many re-reads of this book. The book may reveal a different set of truths for you – I hope this review will spur you on to give it a try. The book is a slim volume, about 100 pages long, and a pleasure to read.
I’ll start with a book summary to set the story in context. Beware – this does have spoilers!
Siddhartha – The Beginning
The story itself is simple. A pious couple is blessed with a baby boy. They name him Siddhartha. This Siddhartha is not the Buddha, though the latter makes his appearance in the story.
Siddhartha grows to be a brilliant boy and is admired by everyone in his community. We are introduced to his best friend, Govinda, who comes from a similar background. Govinda adores Siddhartha and realizes his friend is a man of destiny, even at that young age.
But Siddhartha is unhappy. He has mastered the study of the scriptures and Vedic rituals but feels his study is incomplete. He decides to leave home and seek this truth. His dad is pained – what will his young son do in the wilderness? But seeing Siddhartha’s heart is set on leaving, he reluctantly gives him his approval.
Siddhartha – Samana Days
And so begins Siddhartha’s next phase of life. He and Govinda go to the forests and join the Samanas. The Samanas are truth-seekers who teach focus by restraining the mind and the body. Siddhartha undergoes severe austerities, staying without food, and human contact. He quickly learns the secrets of the Samanas, but to his dismay, he finds that his thirst for the ultimate truth remains unquenched.
He and Govinda hear that an enlightened master, the Buddha, is coming nearby to deliver a sermon. Govinda is eager to meet the Buddha, Siddhartha has started questioning the value of books and teaching. Still, he goes with Govinda all the same. The Buddha delivers a beautiful sermon, and Govinda decides to stay on with the Buddha as a monk. Siddhartha realizes the Buddha’s attainment and stature but doesn’t want to join the tribe. He tells the Buddha about his belief that wisdom cannot be attained from books and teachers.
The Buddha smiles and says:
You know how to talk wisely, my friend. Be aware of too much wisdom!Hesse, Herman. Siddhartha (p. 29). Start Classics. Kindle Edition
Siddhartha then takes his leave and has an “oneness” experience with the world. He realizes he belongs nowhere – no family, no institutions, no society – and enjoys the sense of total freedom. And as he drops the conventional ways of seeing, he sees the world for the first time devoid of filters. He is enchanted – everything seems fresh and new. And decides that he will live in Society – for what more has he to prove?
Siddhartha – in the city
To reach the city, he has to cross a river. A friendly boatman ferries him across even though he has nothing to give. The ferryman is ok with this. He says:
I have learned from the river: everything is coming back! You too, Samana, will come back. Now farewell! Let your friendship be my reward.Hesse, Herman. Siddhartha (p. 37). Start Classics. Kindle Edition.
On reaching the nearby city gates, Siddhartha lays eyes on a gorgeous woman, Kamala. Kamala is a famous courtesan with her own grove. He is besotted with her and approaches her to teach him the art of love. Amused, she asks him what he knows – and he replies he knows “how to think, wait and fast,” and these will give him everything he wants. She’s impressed with this Samana and refers him to a wealthy merchant, Kamaswamy. Siddhartha joins the merchant’s entourage.
Siddhartha views society and his profession as a game. He can take on risks with a lot less emotion than anyone else. He’s super- successful and ends up owning his own gardens, houses, and servants. He continues his lessons with Kamala. He feels that both of them have this in common – they are in the world, but the world cannot touch or harm them. Everyone else is like a child – buffeted by every little storm in their lives.
Over time, rich food, wine, and sensory overload get to him. He loses his composure, and his inner spirit no longer speaks to him. He’s lost his capacity to think, wait and fast. He is revolted by what he has become, and he walks away, leaving everything behind.
Exhausted with hunger, he collapses near a river. The sound “OM” reverberates nearby, and this sacred syllable drains all the poison out of him. He drifts off into a deep sleep and wakes to see Govinda sitting beside him. Govinda happens to see him sleeping and stays back to play guard. The friends rejoice in seeing each other.
Siddhartha meets Vasudeva
Siddhartha requests the ferryman, Vasudeva (the same guy who had offered him a trip earlier), to take him under his wing. He learns to ferry and help the ferryman at home. And importantly, the Vasudeva teaches him to listen to the river. The river is his highest source of wisdom. Vasudeva explains:
I have transported many, thousands; and to all of them, my river has been nothing but an obstacle on their travels. They travelled to seek money and business, and for weddings, and on pilgrimages, and the river was obstructing their path, and the ferryman’s job was to get them quickly across that obstacle. But for some among thousands, a few, four or five, the river has stopped being an obstacle, they have heard its voice, they have listened to it, and the river has become sacred to them, as it has become sacred to me. Let’s rest now, Siddhartha.Hesse, Herman. Siddhartha (p. 75). Start Classics. Kindle Edition.
Kamala meanwhile gives birth to a son – her son with Siddhartha. She gives up her old life, gifts her groves to the Buddha, and starts spending time in seclusion. News reaches her that the Buddha is headed for the great Nirvana, and she sets out with her son to see the Buddha one last time. She is bitten by a snake in the forest and dies – but not before seeing Siddhartha.
Siddhartha – How do you win your son’s love?
Thus begins the 4th stage – of Siddhartha trying to win over his son’s love. The son is young and used to the city, and Siddhartha’s benign presence and austere life do not excite the young lad. Vasudeva advises Siddhartha to let his son go back to the city. Still, Siddhartha hesitates – he wants to win his son’s love. How will his son live in the world by himself? Vasudeva points out the irony of this – Siddhartha left his dad the same way. Life is a cycle. As he explains (para edited):
Had his father not also suffered the same pain for him, which he now suffered for his son?
The river laughed. Yes, so it was, everything came back, which had not been suffered and solved up to its end, the same pain was suffered over and over again.Hesse, Herman. Siddhartha (pp. 92-93). Start Classics. Kindle Edition.
But Siddhartha hesitates.
Unable to bear the situation, the son runs away. Siddhartha tries to find him but fails. He finally accepts the inevitable and returns. The pain of losing his son makes him despair, and he opens his heart out to Vasudeva, the expert listener. Healing starts. Finally, he gets a “Viswarupa” Darshana from the river. He sees everyone’s desires, including his father’s, his own, and his son’s merging into the river. He understands the unity of the world and slips into peace. Vasudeva’s job is done now, and he departs into the forest to spend his remaining days.
Siddhartha meets Govinda – again
Siddhartha starts living as Vasudeva did – at peace with himself and a friend to the world. His oldest friend, Govinda, now an old man himself, learns of a great sage living in the forest and comes to take his blessings. He is overjoyed to see Siddhartha and asks him for guidance.
Siddhartha advises him on the difference between searching and finding.
Perhaps that you’re searching far too much? That in all that searching, you don’t find the time for finding?”
Searching means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal. You, oh venerable one, are perhaps indeed a searcher, because, striving for your goal, there are many things you don’t see, which are directly in front of your eyes.”Hesse, Herman. Siddhartha (pp. 97-98). Start Classics. Kindle Edition.
Siddhartha helps him realize the ultimate truth, and Govinda realizes the ultimate unity of all things. And peace reigns.
This summary doesn’t do full justice to the book’s inspirational moments and eloquent knowledge. But it’s necessary for the next section.
1st read: Follow Siddhartha, the rebel who would not stop until he achieved his goals
On my first read as a young man, Siddhartha seemed to be an ideal to follow. He is a spiritual seeker, but he could have been a modern-day startup entrepreneur. Siddhartha tried things no matter the cost and was happy to” pivot “his strategy when things didn’t work. Siddhartha had a deep-seated suspicion of book knowledge and tradition and wanted to discover the world for himself. He backed himself to win all the time and worked himself to excess – whether in practices or living a worldly life. He believed he was special (along with a very few others) and that the common man “didn’t get it.” Strong opinions, a can-do attitude, and inexhaustible energy toward a big picture defined him. The goal was worth any sacrifice.
If you are still not convinced about Siddhartha being like a modern-day entrepreneur – think about his mantra – think, wait, fast. Bezos plays the long game until the market responds (Wait), he thinks a lot about the business (just check his annual reports). Bezos has an incredible capacity to fast – his ability to go without profits for a long, long time gives him an edge over his competitors. Agree with me now?
2nd read: Learning a leader secret – Treating work as a game
On my second read, I led a team, and the book whispered two leadership secrets to me.
The first was about the power of focus in achieving goals.
When you throw a rock into the water, it will speed on the fastest course to the bottom of the water. This is how it is when Siddhartha has a goal, a resolution. Siddhartha does nothing, he waits, he thinks, he fasts, but he passes through the things of the world like a rock through water, without doing anything, without stirring; he is drawn, he lets himself fall. His goal attracts him, because he doesn’t let anything enter his soul which might oppose the goal. This is what Siddhartha has learned among the Samanas.Hesse, Herman. Siddhartha (p. 46). Start Classics. Kindle Edition.
He also teaches us the power of working hard but not being influenced by the results. His hack is to treat his job as a game – he’s intensely focussed but not emotionally attached. Here he is on how he finds his job to be akin to a game:
Kamaswami conducted his business with care and often with passion, but Siddhartha looked upon all of this as if it was a game, the rules of which he tried hard to learn precisely, but the contents of which did not touch his heart.Hesse, Herman. Siddhartha (p. 49). Start Classics. Kindle Edition.
Kamasami sums it even better:
But he (Siddhartha) has that mysterious quality of those people to whom success comes all by itself… He always seems to be merely playing without business-affairs, they never fully become a part of him, they never rule over him, he is never afraid of failure, he is never upset by a loss.”Hesse, Herman. Siddhartha (p. 50). Start Classics. Kindle Edition.
These continue to be my favorite guideposts at work. Try them; they are incredible.
3rd read: Is there another hero?
I read the book for the third time on a long-distance flight. In my thirties and leading a large portfolio. I had started questioning assumptions w.r.t leadership. Most of my successful projects were run by happy teams going about their work without creating a fuss. They were led by effective yet non-obtrusive leaders. I also found professors living more content, well-rounded lives than the hard-chugging entrepreneur.
The book posed a question.
Have you considered the possibility of Govinda and not Siddhartha being the star?
After all, Govinda came from the same background as Siddhartha. And yet we don’t hear of any challenges he faced while leaving home – possibly there was no drama? Govinda pegged Siddhartha as an exceptional talent very early. He always looked up to his teachers and was open to learning stuff from everyone. Govinda didn’t judge anyone and made the best of his limitations. More importantly, he wasn’t too clever for his own good. Recall the Buddha’s caution of too much wisdom talk!
He also proved to be a great friend and even saved Siddhartha’s life. And he achieved transcendence just a few years behind Siddhartha – an acceptable trade-off for having lived a more predictable, comfortable life?
Taking refuge in institutions (universities, religion, government bureaucracy) may not make the headlines. However, if you are focused on where you want to go, it may get you to your destination with the least amount of turbulence.
4th read: The art of the “invisible” Master
A decade later, I revisit the book, and one sentence stands out. Here is Siddhartha talking about Vasudeva:
While he was still speaking, still admitting and confessing, Siddhartha felt more and more that this was no longer Vasudeva, no longer a human being, who was listening to him, that this motionless listener was absorbing his confession into himself like a tree the rain, that this motionless man was the river itself, that he was God himself, that he was the eternal itself.Hesse, Herman. Siddhartha (p. 93). Start Classics. Kindle Edition.
If Siddhartha knew how to think, wait and fast, Vasudeva epitomized listening and teaching by example. Vasudeva listened to people, he listened to the river, he listened to himself. In a world where everyone talks at the same time, listening is an incredible skill. And Vasudeva was a master at it.
The Greatest people are not the skyscraper builders but the ones who don’t leave footprints. They leave nature undisturbed for future generations. And through their life, they teach the unity of mankind. But stay out of the limelight.
As the Tao Te Ching says:
The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.
When his work is done,
The people say, “Amazing:
We did it, all by ourselves!”.Stephen Mitchell – Tao Te Ching: A New English Version
Vasudeva understood that life repeated. This allows you to stay rooted – bad things will pass someday, and so will good things. You learn to honor those who are with you today – in other words, you learn the gift of attention.
Invisible Leadership, Listening, and the ability to see life in cycles – aren’t these what we need the most today?
The book has many other nuances – take the names, for instance. Kamala means lotus in Sanksrit. The lotus flower can grow in mud and yet stay clean – Kamala similarly lived in the world but wasn’t soiled by it. Kamaswami stands for the King of pleasures – and that he indeed was. Interestingly, even as Siddhartha disdained him for his sense attachments, it was the pleasures that had the last laugh!
Perhaps, I will revisit the book in the future – maybe multiple times. I may learn more things – or end up changing these. After all, the book is like the river – it reveals the secrets you are ready to hear.
I’ll stop here and wish you an enjoyable time reading the book with this thought:
Stay alert and open to viewpoints: tiny things can reveal the most profound secrets.