Siddhartha is an allegorical novel by Hermann Hesse written in 1922. It deals with the story of a restless Indian boy named Siddhartha, who leaves the comfort of his home and embarks upon a spiritual journey in search of peace and wisdom.
On his quest, he first spends time with the Samanas, who encourage him to live a life of deprivation. He practices fasting, meditation, and self-denial, but all his efforts are in vain. He feels no closer to enlightenment. He tells his friend Govinda, who also accompanied him on the journey, of his doubts.
“I find only a short numbing of the senses in my exercises and meditations and that I am just as far removed from wisdom, from salvation, as a child in the mother’s womb.”
His unrelenting search for a universal understanding of life takes him to Gautama, Buddha himself. He had heard that he was a man of bliss, and that Brahmans and princes would bow down before him and become his students. He decides to walk over to the town of Savathi to meet the exalted one.
“He looked at Gautama’s head, his shoulders, his feet, his quietly dangling hand, and it seemed to him as if every joint of every finger of this hand was of these teachings, spoke of, breathed of, exhaled the fragrant of, glistened of truth. This man, this Buddha was truthful down to the gesture of his last finger. This man was holy.”
Never before, Siddhartha had venerated a person so much, never before he had loved a person as much as this one. But Siddhartha felt little curiosity for his teachings, he did not believe that they would teach him anything new. He felt strongly that true wisdom can only come from within. So while Govinda chose to stay and sought refuge with the monks, Siddhartha moved on.
He ventures into the city where he meets Kamala, a courtesan, who sends him in the direction of material pursuits. Even as a rich man, however, Siddhartha realizes that the luxurious lifestyle he has chosen is merely an illusion, empty of spiritual fulfillment.
“He had been captured by the world, by lust, covetousness, sloth, and finally also by that vice which he had used to despise and mock the most as the most foolish one of all vices: greed. Property, possessions, and riches also had finally captured him; they had become a shackle and a burden.”
With a gloomy mind, Siddhartha leaves everything behind, and decides to live the rest of his life by the presence of a river, where he had earlier met Vasudeva, an enlightened ferry man. He becomes an observer of Nature, and the river teaches him many lessons, with Vasudeva as his guide. He learns from it continually. Above all, he learns from it how to listen. The quieter he becomes, the more he is able to hear. Siddhartha also realizes that he had learned something new from everyone he met on his path. There is Truth all around. From that moment, Siddhartha ceases to fight against his destiny and thinks only of the Oneness of all life.
“There shone in his face the serenity of knowledge, of one who is no longer confronted with conflict of desires, who has found salvation, who is in harmony with the stream of events, with the stream of life, full of sympathy and compassion, surrendering himself to the stream, belonging to the unity of all things. He was an inspired man.”
Years later Govinda, still restless in his heart, comes to the river after hearing talk of an old ferryman who is regarded as wise. He asks Siddhartha to ferry him over, not recognizing him at first as the friend of his youth. As the two old friends begin their trip across the river, Govinda asks Siddhartha to share some of the things he learned on his journey.
“What could I say to you that would be of value, except that perhaps you seek too much, that as a result of your seeking you cannot find… 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. Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no 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.”
Don’t we all spend our life searching for something? We write our goals, design our path, and then chase after it with everything that we have. We pursue our objectives aggressively and directly, ignoring all other possibilities, and try our best not to deviate from the plan.
In place of hurrying on the path with our hands stretched out, reaching for the goal—which always seems farther out in the distance, fleeing from our grasp even as we get closer—perhaps we should walk through life, with our arms wide open, and our palms tilted toward the sky. In this manner, we would be open to receiving everything that comes our way, and living in the present, as opposed to in some uncertain future. Rather than feeling tired of life and the long road we still have to travel ahead; we would be free of worry, and slowly discover the joy of surprising ourself instead. Maybe we learn something new on every step along the way. When Siddhartha glanced at the river, he realized something: “This water ran and ran, incessantly it ran, and was nevertheless always there, was always at all times the same, and yet, new in every moment!”
I’ve grown up to believe there are no coincidences in life. We are always in the right place, and everything happens at exactly the right time. Instead of obsessing about our goals or destination, maybe we should remain in the present moment, and just let the universe move about. Like the river, life has its own flow, we cannot impose our own structure upon it. We can’t control it—all we can do is listen to its current. Sometimes, when the outside noise dulls down, the quietness within reveals a lot, but only if you listen, intently.