SIDDHARTHA: A Tribute to the Beautiful Novel by Herman Hesse

Siddhartha is a novel by Hermann Hesse that deals with the spiritual journey of a boy known as Siddhartha from the Indian subcontinent during the time of the Buddha. The book, Hesse’s ninth novel, was written in German, in a simple yet powerful and lyrical style. It was published in the U.S. in 1951 and became influential during the 1960s. Hesse dedicated Siddhartha to Ninon Hesse, his wife. The word Siddhartha is made up of two words in the Sanskrit language, siddha (achieved) + artha (meaning or wealth). The two words together mean “he who has found meaning (of existence)” or “he who has attained his goals”.The Buddha’s name, before his renunciation, was Prince Siddhartha Gautama. In this book, the Buddha is referred to as “Gotama”. The story begins as Siddhartha, the son of a Brahmin, leaves his home to join the ascetics with his companion Govinda. The two set out in the search of enlightenment. Siddhartha goes from asceticism, to a very worldly life as a trader with a lover, and back to asceticism as he attempts to achieve this goal.The story takes place in ancient India around the time of Gautama Buddha (likely between the fourth and seventh centuries BC). Experience is the aggregate of conscious events experienced by a human in life – it connotes participation, learning and knowledge.

Understanding is comprehension and internalization. In Hesse’s novel Siddhartha, experience is shown as the best way to approach understanding of reality and attain enlightenment – Hesse’s crafting of Siddhartha’s journey shows that understanding is attained not through scholastic, mind-dependent methods, nor through immersing oneself in the carnal pleasures of the world and the accompanying pain of samsara; however, it is the totality of these experiences that allow Siddhartha to attain understanding.Thus, the individual events are meaningless when considered by themselves—Siddhartha’s stay with the samanas and his immersion in the worlds of love and business do not lead to nirvana, yet they cannot be considered distractions, for every action and event that is undertaken and happens to Siddhartha helps him to achieve understanding. The sum of these events is thus experience.A major preoccupation of Hesse in writing Siddhartha was to cure his ‘sickness with life’ (Lebenskrankheit) by immersing himself in Indian philosophy such as that expounded in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. The reason the second half of the book took so long to write was

that Hesse “had not experienced that transcendental state of unity to which Siddhartha aspires. In an attempt to do so, Hesse lived as a virtual semi-recluse and became totally immersed in the sacred teachings of both Hindu and Buddhist scriptures. His intention was to attain to that ‘completeness’ which, in the novel, is the Buddha’s badge of distinction.”The novel is structured on three of the traditional stages of life for Hindu males (student (brahmacarin), householder (grihastha) and recluse/renunciate (vanaprastha)) as well as the Buddha’s four noble truths (Part One) and eight-fold path (Part Two) which form twelve chapters, the number in the novel. Ralph Freedman mentions how Hesse commented in a letter “[m]y Siddhartha does not, in the end, learn true wisdom from any teacher, but from a river that roars in a funny way and from a kindly old fool who always smiles and is secretly a saint.” In a lecture about Siddhartha, Hesse claimed “Buddha’s way to salvation has often been criticized and doubted, because it is thought to be wholly grounded in cognition. True, but it’s not just intellectual cognition, not just learning and knowing, but spiritual experience that can be earned only through strict discipline in a selfless life.” Freedman also points out how Siddhartha

described Hesse’s interior dialectic: “All of the contrasting poles of his life were sharply etched: the restless departures and the search for stillness at home; the diversity of experience and the harmony of a unifying spirit; the security of religious dogma and the anxiety of freedom.”  –  The film; Siddhartha (1972) is a film based on the novel of the same name by Herman Hesse, directed by Conrad Rooks. It was shot on location in Northern India, and features work by noted cinematographer Sven Nykvist.The locations used for the film were the holy city of Rishikesh and the private estates and palaces of the Maharajah of Bharatpur. The film tells the story of the young Siddhartha (played by Shashi Kapoor), born in a rich family, and his search for a meaningful way of life. This search takes him through periods of harsh asceticism, sensual pleasures, material wealth, then self-revulsion and eventually to the oneness and harmony with himself that he had been seeking. Siddhartha learns that the secret of life cannot be passed on from one person to another, but must be achieved through inner experience.

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