In Siddhartha, we follow a spiritual seeker through his wandering, Enlightenment, and finally, through his entrance back into the world. The seeker, Siddhartha, is placed in the time of The Buddha and actually meets The Master himself, hearing his teachings first hand. Surprisingly, Siddhartha chooses not to become a disciple of The Buddha, but instead attempts to attain the Ultimate Goal on his own. Siddhartha finds what he seeks and then returns to civilian life, living among ordinary people as an "enlightened one." Throughout, the reader finds themselves immersed in the world of Hindu and Buddhist thought.
Overview: The book is divided into two sections. In Part One, Siddhartha seeks and attains Enlightenment, and in Part Two, he re-enters the world.
Part One: Siddhartha begins his journey as part of his society's upper class, a Brahmin. Echoing the life of The Buddha, Siddhartha seemingly has everything he could want – wealth, beauty, and power – but finds himself discontent with the best life has to offer:
"Within himself Siddhartha had begun to nourish discontent. He had begun to feel that the love of his father and the love of his mother and even the love of his friend Govinda would not forever after delight him, soothe him, satisfy and suffice him. He had begun to surmise that his venerable father and his other teachers, that these wise Brahmins had already conveyed the majority and the best part of their wisdom, that they had already poured out their plenty into his waiting vessel, and the vessel was not full, the mind was not satisfied, the soul was not calm, the heart was not stilled. Ablutions were good, but they were water, they did not wash away sin, they did not quench spiritual thirst, they did not dissolve fear in the heart. Sacrificing to the gods and invoking them was excellent – but was this all? Did sacrifices bring happiness? And what was the nature of the gods? Was it really Prajapati who had created the world? Was it not the Atman, He, the Sole One, the All-One? Were not the gods representations, created as you and I, subject to time, transitory? Was it therefore good, was it right, was it a meaningful and supreme act to sacrifice to the gods? To whom else was one to sacrifice, whom else was one to venerate, besides Him, the Only One, the Atman? And where was Atman to be found, where did He abide, where did His eternal heart beat, where else but within one's own I, deep inside, in what is indestructible, borne within every individual?"
With a spiritual desire that can't be quenched by the things of the world, or even his traditional religion, Siddhartha, again echoing the life of The Buddha, leaves his security behind to become an ascetic religious seeker – a shramana.
As Siddhartha develops as a shramana, mortifying his passions and harshly disciplining his body, he eventually finds his way to The Buddha himself and encounters his teachings. Although Siddhartha finds little wrong with The Buddha's teachings, he realizes that the teachings themselves are not what he is looking for. No body of teachings can ever encompass what the Buddha experienced – Enlightenment.
"To no one, o most Venerable One, will you be able to speak and convey in words what happened in the hour of your enlightenment! The teachings of the enlightened Buddha encompass a great deal, they teach much, how to live righteously, how to avoid evil. But one thing the teachings, so clear and so venerable, do not contain: they do not contain the secret of what the Exalted One himself experienced, he alone among the hundreds of thousands."
Siddhartha thus leaves The Buddha and his community to seek Enlightenment on his own. The Enlightenment eventually comes, seemingly from nowhere, and the experience is described in a manner similar to Satori.
Part Two: In Part Two of the novel, Siddhartha returns to civilian life, working for a simple merchant and falling in love with a beautiful woman, Kamala. As he begins his re-entry into normal living, Siddhartha "plays with life." He has the ability to engage in relationships, in business, in pleasure, without gaining his life from these things:
"'He always seems only to play at business, it never gets into his blood, it never rules him, he never fears failure, losses never bother him'...If he had profits, he pocketed them with equanimity; if he met with loss, he laughed and said: 'Oh, my goodness, this has gone very badly!'"
But after some time, Siddhartha is again overcome by the world, becoming attached to the things he had once freed himself of:
"Belongings, assets, and wealth in the end had captured him, this was no longer play, these were no longer frills, rather they had become a burden, and he was chained to them."
Siddhartha has re-entered Samsara, and is unable to keep himself from being overtaken by it.
The remainder of the book narrates Siddhartha's continued relationship with Kamala, his reunion with Govinda (his friend as a youth), and his ongoing spiritual struggle.
Reflections: Siddhartha was kind of an odd book for me. I thought Part One was brilliant and immediately immerses the reader in Hindu (and to an extent, Buddhist) thought. I would have loved it if Hesse expanded more on the "Enlightenment experience" of Siddhartha. He seems to be describing what is often spoken of as "Satori," a kind of transfiguring of reality in which everything is "as it should be," or everything is "as One":
"Blue was blue, river was river, and if the one and the divine also lay concealed in the blue and in the river and in Siddhartha, it was just the nature and meaning of the divine to be yellow here, blue here, there sky, there forest and here Siddhartha. Meaning and essence were not somewhere behind things, they were inside things, in everything."
Part Two, in which Siddartha re-enters the world, eventually becoming engrossed in what he had once left behind, was kind of confusing to me. When he initially comes back, I thought it was a good picture of how one who has become "unattached" can then live a regular life, but from a different view – engaging in the things of the world, but remaining inwardly detached from them. But Siddhartha seems to alter between states of "re-finding" his enlightenment, and then losing it again, and I am unsure how to interpret the ending of the book.
Personal Takeaways: I think my biggest takeaway from Siddhartha is a question: Can someone who experiences Enlightenment, or perhaps a monk who believes they have reached the Unitive Stage (say St. John of the Cross), be again captured by the things of this world? I'm not even sure that it makes sense to speak of a person who has reached this stage and would make that claim (I tend to think that Enlightenment or the Unitive Stage are best thought of as archetypes – ideals to strive for), but this is the question that stays with me after this book. I feel like my experience is very back and forth. At times I have felt tastes of what I feel are the fruits of contemplative practice, more peace with life as it is, less attachment, less striving. But then I'll get caught up again. This is what I see from the character Siddhartha, and in the novel, he has already achieved Enlightenment. It just makes me wonder...
Overall, I think the main value of Siddhartha is gaining an understanding of some of the major themes of Hinduism and Buddhism in narrative form. It's a short, engrossing read, but one you'll want to take your time with.