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Excerpted from "Siddhartha"
Copyright © 2013 Hermann Hesse.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: The Brahmin's Son
Chapter 2: With the Samanas
Chapter 3: Gotama
Chapter 4: Awakening
Chapter 1: Kamala
Chapter 2: With the Child-People
Chapter 3: Sansara
Chapter 4: By the River
Chapter 5: The Ferryman
Chapter 6: The Son
Chapter 7: Om
Chapter 8: Govinda
What People are Saying About This
"James Langton, offers a measured, unhurried reading that's an effective rendering of the spare, lyrical prose Hesse crafted for this quiet novel." -AudioFile
Reading Group Guide
Hermann Hesse’s short novel Siddhartha has sometimes been called a work of reverse missionary activity, bringing to the West the lessons of a typically Eastern story of spiritual searching and fulfillment. However, this deceptively simple and episodic tale of the title character’s progress through life provides no conventional resolutions to the questions it poses. In emphasizing Siddhartha’s self-assertive individuality, Hesse makes plain that his book is as much a product of Western as well as Eastern intellectual traditions.
The story of the Brahmin’s son who leaves home to seek deep and lasting satisfaction appears to end where it began: beside a river with Siddhartha and Govinda united in friendship. But the first words of the novel are a hint that it will proceed and find its momentum through a series of opposites: “In the shade of the house, in the sunshine near the boats on the riverbank” (p. 3). Immediately, light is contrasted with shade, and the stability of home is contrasted with the vehicles that ply the river’s flow, foreshadowing Siddhartha’s future life with the ferryman Vasudeva. Each of the novel’s twelve chapters, divided into two parts, finds Siddhartha simultaneously facing a crisis and a new beginning in his search.
One of the important questions to consider is whether Siddhartha’s search is driven more by discontent with his current state or by a vision of where he is going. In succession, he rejects the intellectual and ritualistic teachings of his father and the other Brahmins; the self-abnegating rigors of the ascetic samanas; the opportunity to become a disciple of Gautama, the Buddha; the world-weary existence of material success; and even the futile role of protective father to his son. As Siddhartha reflects early on, the stages of his life are like “the old skin that leaves the serpent” (p. 35). The image of the rejuvenated snake sharpens the contrast between his deliberate intentions and the natural course of things through the stages of life. If we believe that Siddhartha achieves progress and not merely a change of circumstances in his lifelong search, it can be asked what part his own will plays in achieving the enlightenment that he finally comes to by the end of the story. To an observer, the scene of Govinda gazing raptly at the face of his old friend beside the river might appear to be simply their reunion after many years of separation. However, we are told that what Govinda sees reminds him of the smile of Gautama, the universally acknowledged “Sublime One,” the Buddha, whose lifelong disciple Govinda had been.
In finally identifying Siddhartha with the Buddha, Hesse suggests that the story he is telling is both more and less than an original work of fiction. It is important to keep in mind that Siddhartha is the given name of the person who came to be known as the Buddha. The early events in the life of the novel’s protagonist closely parallel the traditional story of the Buddha’s life. In the third chapter of the book, the fictional character, Siddhartha, meets Gautama, a portrayal of the historical Buddha and, during their dialogue, rejects the idea of following him as a disciple among all the other disciples, including his friend Govinda. In having Siddhartha set off on his own, Hesse raises searching questions about the nature of the relationship between a teacher and a disciple, about how a teaching that reflects the experience of a teacher can instill that experience in a follower.
This is one of a series of encounters with individuals who profess to have something to teach Siddhartha, and whose teachings he comes to find inadequate in various ways—the scholarship of the Brahmins that leads to intellectual prowess but not happiness, the asceticism of the samanas that creates a stoic perseverance but nothing more, the art of love from Kamala that never results in a loving spirit, and the mercantile expertise of the merchant Kamaswami that leads only to unsatisfying entanglement in possessions. Through a movement from extreme to extreme, Siddhartha finally comes to the silent, listening Vasudeva, the ferryman. Vasudeva’s expert ability to navigate the opposite banks of the river and all they represent becomes an emblem of the unity of spirit that Siddhartha has sought, and the almost wordless communion between the two leads to the culmination of Siddhartha’s search. As Hesse has told the story, the apparent resolution of opposites that occurs at the end seems to embody a teaching, though perhaps not one that can be easily verbalized apart from the telling of the incidents of the story itself. At the same time, and in the spirit of Siddhartha’s own search, Hesse has raised questions for us about whether words can communicate the deepest truths or can only prepare us to experience them.
1. What does Siddhartha mean when he refers to the “path of paths” that must be found (p. 17)? Why is he so certain that neither the Brahmins nor the samanas have found it?
2. Does Gautama adequately answer Siddhartha’s contention that “no one is granted deliverance through a teaching” (p. 32)? Why doesn’t Siddhartha become one of Gautama’s followers?
3. What is the connection between Siddhartha losing his friend Govinda to Gautama and Siddhartha’s “awakening”? What does it mean that “the awakening man was on the way to himself” (p. 37)?
4. What is the meaning of Siddhartha’s dream in which Govinda becomes a woman?
5. Why does Siddhartha both love and despise the “child people”? How is it that having been a samana separates him from them?
6. After waking up by the river, why does Siddhartha say, “I have nothing, I know nothing, I can do nothing, I have learned nothing. How wondrous this is!” (p. 84)?
7. How is Vasudeva’s ability to listen so deeply related to his being “no friend of words” (p. 94)?
8. Why is seeing Siddhartha just as good for Kamala as seeing Gautama?
9. When Siddhartha can no longer distinguish the many voices he hears in the river, why does he feel that “he had now learned all there was to know about listening” (p. 118)?
10. Why does Vasudeva leave Siddhartha?
11. Why does Govinda think Siddhartha’s teaching sounds foolish?
12. Why does the story end with Govinda thinking about “everything that he had ever loved in his life,” when he had previously reminded Siddhartha that Gautama had “forbade us to fetter our hearts in love for anything earthly” (p. 132; p. 128)?
13. How can we know who is the right teacher for us?
14. Can wisdom be taught?
15. What is the relation of words to wisdom? Do words tend to enhance or limit wisdom?
Word count: 35,200 (tbc).