Thursday, May 04, 2006

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

I read the English translation of this book. Superlative. Simply brilliant. If you are a person interested in Sanskrit literature and are used to reading English translation still retaining the Sanskrit’s poetic style, then you will simply love this book irrespective of whether you appreciate the content or not. I believe some essence of any book is lost when it is translated. That will surely be the case here also. But I hope I have not missed too much.

The book is extremely well paced. Just right. You can not call it fast… neither is it slow. Again, Anand had told me that it is the best written English book on Advaita. I expected this to be a well thought through (idea) translation from some of the already well known and famous interpretation of the original Bhagavatgita / Shankaracharya doctrine. The book started of giving me the same feeling... Siddhartha was taking full interest in the path shown by his father – the path of strict daily rituals, ablutions and sacrifices. Siddhartha would one day become the best priest the world had ever known – all he had to do was to follow his father’s instructions. But, like the reader, Siddhartha was also feeling that something was missing. This was not what he wanted to be... this was not what I expected from the book too ;-)

Then, one fine day Siddhartha decides to explore alternate path to the same goal (of eternal salvation) by living with learning from the Samanas – the mendicants. The closest present day cult is of the Naga-Sadhus who visit the Prayags (confluence of rivers) during the Kumbh Mela. Siddhartha spends many years with them. [This is another aspect of the book that I liked... that which is not important is not elaborated. The whole samana story is hardly 3-4 pages ;-)] Again, Siddhartha is unhappy the way things are going. By now, he has already realized that any sublime realization can not come through teachings. No matter who preaches it. Yet, for Govinda’s sake he listens to Goutama Buddha.

In any other story, Siddhartha would have become a Buddhist monk – just like Govinda. How could any other doctrine be better than that of the Buddha himself? Hindus now consider Buddha so perfect that he is hailed as one of the incarnations of Vishnu himself. So, teachings of Vishnu as Buddha should be held with same respect/reverence/belief as we hold his teachings as Krishna (which is immortalized as Bhagavadgita). That would have been a perfect book about Advaita. Wouldn’t it? Siddhartha having numerous dialogues with none other than Goutama and the world would understand the Gita though their conversations.

But Hesse gives lot of importance to self-learning. May be Richard Bach took a cue from here for his Illusions. What good would it be if Goutama taught Siddhartha every thing he knew? Would the book remain timeless? People would not believe in Goutama once he is no more. So Siddhartha had to learn from something or someone who is timeless. If Vishnu (or anybody else equally credible) came down and taught him, it would be mythology and would not appeal to the rest of the world. So, Hesse invented the river – River as a teaching prop. Although, towards the end, Siddhartha reveals that any object in this world (air, leaves, pebbles, people) could have taught him exactly what he learnt from the river. Hesse’s choice is excellent. It satisfies all qualities to be universally accepted – timeless, does not have boundaries of state or religion, beautiful, determined. But not every one who sees the river knows that some thing is there to be learnt. So Vasudeva comes into the picture. He shows Siddhartha how to let the river teach you. He shows Siddhartha the art of listening... listening to what the river says... what a mountain, a flower, the leaves have to say.

I have yet to understand the reason behind introducing Kamala... was it only to have the son later in the book? To show that a man as detached as Siddhartha can also fall for that affection towards a son? Or was it just a cue to let go of a strict samana like Siddhartha down the slippery track of the Laukika and get caught in the endless misery of the Samsara? If so, then what better character could have been chosen than Kamala to lure him to the Samsara? But still, I am not too clear on her role in the novel.

I have one difference of opinion with Hesse. Siddhartha says he loves every material object because each one of them is the Brahman (or on its way to the Brahman... or something like that). But he says words, ideas, thoughts are outside this concept and hence not interested in them. I wonder how any thing can be outside the Universal. Just like the pebble, the flowers, the mountain and the wind even thoughts, words and ideas should be part of the Brahman. Isn’t it? Hesse seems to have taken E=mc2 to be the eternal truth and matter (and matter alone) can change forms and some time temporarily be formless in the form of energy. It is only then, we can not account for ideas and thoughts... Words can even then be seen as some form of sound energy. But, ideas and thoughts need something more than just E=mc2.

Best one liner of the book was: “I can think, I can wait and I can fast” – Siddhartha

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