Siddhartha
Hermann Hesse
Contributed by Sharen Felty
The Brahmins Son
Summary

The setting of the novel is ancient India 600 years before the birth of Christ. This is the time of Gotama the Buddha. His Eightfold Path provides guidance to the faithful in leading them towards Nirvana. Siddhartha is a learned and handsome young Brahmin. If he wanted to do so, he could be a prince among the members of his caste. He is known to be destined for greatness. This is because he has successfully mastered all the wisdom and rituals of his religion when he was still very young. He lives in an idyllic village and appears to live an enviable life. He is the son of a Brahmin, a religious leader and highly respected community member. It seems that Siddhartha will certainly follow in his father’s footsteps.

Siddhartha occupies his time studying his elders’ Hindu wisdom alongside his best friend, Govinda. He finds himself dissatisfied. He believes that erudite Brahmins such as his father have succeeded in perfectly learning all the contents of holy books, but he does not think that they have reached enlightenment. The mantras and rituals he has been taught appear more of a matter of custom than a true path that could result in enlightenment. In order to transform themselves into religious men by their own community’s standards, Siddhartha believes that he and Govinda would need to be like mere sheep in a herd, merely following predetermined patterns and rituals without having the chance to question them.  This prospect makes Siddhartha terribly unhappy. While he respects the people of his village and loves his father, he does not want to exist in the way that they do. Up until now, Siddhartha has followed the example of his father with a sense of belief and conviction, but he now wants to achieve something more.

After meditating one evening, Siddhartha tells Govinda that he plans to join a group of Samanas. Samanas are wandering mendicant priests. A group of them have just made their way through the city. The Samanas are half-naked and starved. They must beg others for food. They believe that the only way to reach enlightenment is through asceticism. Asceticism is the rejection of the body, including physical desire. The Samanas appear entirely different from Siddhartha’s own community’s religious elders. As he has not been able to find the wisdom he has been looking for in his own community, he resolves that he will follow the path of the Samanas and find out what wisdom he can glean from them.  Govinda is frightened when Siddhartha tells him that he is going to join the Samanas. He sees that Siddhartha is embarking on his first step into the larger world and that he will need to follow him.

Siddhartha is a dutiful son and so he seeks his father’s permission before departing with the Samanas. His father is upset about his plans and declares he does not want to hear the subject mentioned again. Siddhartha, however, will not change his mind. The father has trouble sleeping. When he gets up each hour he sees Siddhartha in the darkness, standing with his arms crossed across his body. His father reluctantly provides his permission the next morning. He realizes that his son is immovable on this issue. He requests that Siddhartha come home to teach him the secret of bliss if he is able to find it elsewhere. As Siddhartha departs to join the Samanas, he is pleased to find that Govinda is going to join him.

Analysis

While Siddhartha had a strong spiritual upbringing in the Brahmin community, he is still looking for the meaning of life. This is why he sets off on his quest to find enlightenment. The Brahmins are the highest of the four castes that comprise Hindu society. Originally, members of the Brahmin caste were priests and their most important duties were praying and meditating. They were always respected for their intellectual capabilities and understanding of the Vedas. The Vedas are the sacred texts of the Hindu religion. Siddhartha makes the syllable Om the focus of his meditation in “The Brahmin’s Son.” Om is representative of unity and perfection. It suggests the holy power that is the source of life within and around us. While this power is the source of all things that are, have ever been, or ever will be, it does not have a substance or form. Siddhartha finds that discovering true fulfillment on earth requires a strong understanding of Om and achieving unity with it. He comprehends the meaning of Om but he has not yet been able to merge with it. This means that he has not achieved enlightenment. His quest is one for perfect understanding of Om and his determination to accomplish this will cause him to go far from home and through numerous paths of wisdom before he is able to accomplish his spiritual goal.

Hesse modeled the character of Siddhartha on the figure of the Buddha. There are many similarities between the lives of the two figures. The name Siddhartha itself is a suggestion of a connection. The historical Buddha’s name was Gotama Sakyamuni but he also bore the given name of Siddhartha. In this novel, we see the main character’s life parallel the small amount that is known of the history of the Buddha. The life of the Buddha formed around three important events: his leaving his father’ house, the wasted and demoralizing years spend torn between the desire for worldly desires and the way of asceticism, and the realization that the Middle Path is the road to enlightenment. In this novel, we see Siddhartha following this course. He departs from his father’s house, examines a variety of spiritual teachings, and one day finds enlightenment. It is in this way that Siddhartha bears a strong resemblance to the original Buddha. He is both a seeker and a sage.

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