Hermann Hesse’s Pilgrimage

“Your soul is the whole world.”― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

This saying best sums up the message of Hesse’s famous novel of ancient India. Set in the fifth century B.C., when the aged Gautama Buddha is nearing the end of his spiritual career,  the main character, Siddhartha, journeys from Hindu asceticism to worldly sensuality and finally achieves a Buddhist-inspired “enlightenment.” Hesse’s prose is flawless. The characters are sympathetic and the story is compelling. That said, the novel’s ultimate philosophical trajectory is disappointing.

Siddhartha contains much aphoristic wisdom. For instance, I find myself repeatedly pondering this insight tendered by Siddhartha to his friend Govinda:

“When someone is seeking… it happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he is only thinking of the thing he is seeking, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed with his goal… You, O worthy one, are perhaps indeed a seeker, for in striving towards your goal, you do not see many things that are under your nose.”

The ascetic practices that Siddhartha acquires from the Samanas are admirable. When faced with difficulty he often says, “I can think. I can wait. I can fast.” Unfortunately, in the end the protagonist’s pantheism extends even to the moral realm.

And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life.

The great river, where Siddhartha eventually makes his home when he befriends Vasudeva, the aged and kindly ferryman, is Hesse’s metaphor for life. The flowing water represents the continual flux of existence, in which everything merges into everything else. In a similar way, the main character rejects the notion that anyone can be our teacher, whether Hindu Brahmans or Buddha himself: “I must judge, I must choose, I must spurn, purely for myself. For myself, alone.” Wisdom apparently stems from a passive satisfaction with existence as it comes to us.

“I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices, so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment and sorrow, just in order to become a child again and begin anew.”

Such things are true to a point. Our spiritual judgments must mature in the course of our own experience; they cannot be acquired second-hand from books or gurus. But neither can we do without authority. Those who renounce the latter merely set themselves up as a new “god” to be worshiped. Likewise we can draw good from evil only if we acknowledge a clear distinction between the two. Hesse’s hazy sense of the numinous is enchantingly narrated, yet provides little motive to live differently other than perhaps from a sense of emotional weariness and intellectual novelty.

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