Friday, August 22, 2008
As part of the classics reading challenge, the second book that I decided to read was “Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse.
The first thing that I noticed about the book was its conciseness. This was in start contrast to the classic that I had just finished before this – Crime and Punishment. In Crime and Punishment, I enjoyed the fact that I was witnessing practically every waking moment of Raskolnikov. The huge book spanned just a period of about 2 weeks. But it included not just the events that happened over the two weeks but also a detailed insight into each and every thought that ran through Raskolnikov’s head over the period of two weeks. As I have already mentioned in one of my previous posts, I totally enjoyed C&P in spite of it being a very heavy read. But Siddhartha was very concise. It spanned nearly the entire lifetime of Siddhartha, the protagonist, in less than quarter the number of pages of C&P. It jumped over years in a single line. Though the writing was concise, the content was vast and extensive.
Siddhartha was completely different from C&P when it came to the mood of the book. Talking about the difference between these books, the first image that comes to mind is of rivers. C&P resembled a slow moving sluggish river, something like the braided rivers in Alaska – heavily laden with silt that it carries from the glaciers. The river twists and turns and struggles throughout its journey burdened by the weight of the silt. It branches out and then the branches join again in an attempt to deposit the silt along its way. It is not turbulent, doesn’t have sudden surprises, no gorgeous waterfalls in the middle of its journey. It is silent, yet beautiful, in its effort. C&P was like this - heavily bogged down with the emotional turmoil of the characters.
In contrast, we have Siddhartha which resembles a free flowing river - rich in content but not heavily laden with silt. It flows easily through flat lands, silently again, and if you are not really conscious, it flows right by you! If you notice it however, there’s so much that you can derive from it. Cool, refreshing water and so much pleasure. Siddhartha flows like the river I just mentioned. It is not a complicated read, not a twisted plot; A simple story that you can glance at, see it but not really experience it. In that, it resembles The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. At first glance, it looks like there’s not much to the book- not much to the story. But the more you look at it, the more you can get from it; the more pleasure you derive. And after reading this book once, I don’t think it is possible to form a strong opinion about the book after reading it just once. You need to read it multiple times, toss the ideas back and forth and then eventually grow into the book.
Having said this, I have a disclaimer. I am not too much into spirituality. I need to put in a lot of effort to read books like these. It takes me a while to get into the mood of the book. And I have to change my whole reading style. I am used to reading fast, consuming many many pages and sometimes whole books at one sitting. But books like Siddhartha and The Alchemist just do not allow me to do that. They force me to go slow, go back and re-read the chapters I just did, pause, think, etc. and that’s tough for me. But I am glad I read Siddhartha. I really am. Thanks to the Classics Challenge for that. So my disclaimer is this: I don’t understand spirituality. It makes me cynical and sometimes I just can’t see the point in what I am reading. So my views of the themes of the book may be way off where I am supposed to me. Feel free to argue with me and put some “spiritual-sense” into my head.
The plot of the book doesn’t require too much discussion. Contrary to my initial opinion, the book doesn’t deal with the life of The Buddha whose name was Siddhartha Gautama. I had assumed that the book dealt with his life. But the book actually deals with another Siddhartha who lives in the same age as The Buddha. Though he leads a sheltered blissful life of a Brahman boy, his mind is filled with discontent. He wanted to discover “inner peace” and he wanted to find the knowledge that every ascetic is in search for. His search for the knowledge takes him away from home, and leads him to a group of ascetics, to the Illustrious One (“Gotama” himself), through a period of material pleasures with Kamala the courtesan and Kamaswami the businessman, and eventually to the riverside where he meets Vasudeva the ferryman. At each step Siddhartha is disappointed that he hasn’t been able to achieve his goal. But eventually, when he does achieve it, he realizes that it not a particular incident/experience that helps you attain enlightenment. “Experience” is the best way to understand reality and attain enlightenment. You cannot understand reality by attending talks and lectures, by mind dependant methods, by immersing yourself in carnal pleasures of the world, etc. Experience is a totality of all these events. You need to live every stage of life if you want to attain enlightenment. (At least, this is what I got from the book). This idea is in sync with the basic tenets of Hinduism.
According to our scriptures, man goes through four stages in life. The first stage (Brahmacharya) is the student phase. This is followed by (Grihastha) which is the stage where he gets married and has a family. Once his household responsibilities are over (his children are grown up, etc) he gives up material pleasures and spends times in prayers (Vanaprastha) and in the fourth and final stage, he totally devotes all his time to the thought of God and breaks all ties with the world. His aim in this stage is to attain Moksha and break free of the material cycle of birth and death.
As you can see, Hinduism believes in the fact that you can attain moksha only after going through all the stages of life.
Though this is the main theme of the book, there are many other concepts discussed in the book, which of course I am not going discuss in this blog.
But I would totally recommend this book to everyone. It is a must read. It really makes you think in a different way. It makes you want to look at bigger picture of life. I am sure that I would read this book again, later in life. Books like these always have something new to tell you no matter how many times you read them. I am experiencing the feeling with The Alchemist as well.
Also reviewed by:
If you have already read this book and reviewed it, please leave me a comment with the link and I’ll tag you in this post so that others can read your views as well.