Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Search for Spiritual Enlightenment
In Siddhartha, an unrelenting search for truth is essential for achieving a harmonious relationship with the world. The truth for which Siddhartha and Govinda search is a universal understanding of life, or Nirvana. Siddhartha and Govinda both have a fundamental desire to understand their lives through spirituality, seek to do this by reaching Nirvana, and start with the conviction that finding Nirvana is possible. Although Nirvana leads to a perfect relationship with the world and is thus an end goal that each man aspires to reach, Siddhartha and Govinda differ in what they’re willing to do in search for this truth. In Siddhartha’s case, when he becomes suspicious that one path may lead to a dead end, he quickly alters his course. He is willing to abandon the path of the Brahmins for the path of the Samanas, to leave the Samanas for Gotama, and then to make a radical departure from spiritual teachers and search in the material world with Kamala and Kamaswami. He does not relent in his search and instead continues to follow whatever path becomes available if he has clearly not yet reached Nirvana.
Govinda is much less flexible in his quest for spiritual enlightenment. In his quest, he restricts himself to the spiritual and religious world and persists in his need for teachers. Although Siddhartha is willing to break with religion itself and to abandon all his training, Govinda is willing to seek truth only as long as it appears within the narrow confines of Hinduism or Buddhism and is transmitted by a respected teacher. As a result, Govinda is unable to see the truth around him, since he is limited by his belief that truth will appear in the way he has been taught by his teachers. This distinction between Siddhartha’s unrelenting search and Govinda’s limited search is the reason why Govinda can attain enlightenment only through an act of grace on Siddhartha’s part, whereas Siddhartha is able to find truth through his own powers.
Inner vs. Exterior Guidance
In Siddhartha, Siddhartha learns that enlightenment cannot be reached through teachers because it cannot be taught—enlightenment comes from within. Siddhartha begins looking for enlightenment initially by looking for external guidance from organized religion in the form of Brahmins, Samanas, and Buddhists. When these external spiritual sources fail to bring him the knowledge and guidance he needs, he discards them for Kamala and Kamaswami in the material world, again using an external source in his quest. These sources also fail to teach him wisdom, and he knows he must now find wisdom on his own. This realization itself comes from within. Siddhartha leaves the Brahmins, the Samanas, Gotama, and the material world because he feels dissatisfied, not because an external source tells him to go. His eventual attainment of Nirvana does not come from someone imparting the wisdom to him but instead through an internal connection to the river, which he finds contains the entire universe.
Vasudeva is a teacher of sorts for Siddhartha, and thus an external guide, but Vasudeva never attempts to tell Siddhartha what the meaning of life is. Instead, Vasudeva directs Siddhartha to listen to the river and search within himself for an understanding of what the river says. Vasudeva does not tell Siddhartha what the river will say, but when Siddhartha reveals what the river has told him, Vasudeva simply acknowledges that he too has received the same wisdom. The river itself never actually tells Siddhartha what its revelations mean. Instead, the river reveals the complexity of existence through sound and image, and Siddhartha meditates on these revelations in order to gain an understanding of them. Govinda, on the other hand, persists in looking to teachers for his wisdom, and in the end, asks Siddhartha to teach him the path to enlightenment. Because of this reliance on an external explanation, Govinda continuously fails to find Nirvana. His final success, however, does not come as explicit directions from Siddhartha on how to achieve enlightenment. Instead, Siddhartha acts as a conduit for Govinda, as the river did for him. He asks Govinda to kiss his forehead, an act that enables Govinda to see the nature of existence in an instant. Govinda’s final revelation thus comes through his own interpretation of what Siddhartha shows him in the kiss. Though interior and exterior paths to enlightenment are both explored in Siddhartha, the exterior path is roundly rejected. Nirvana comes from within.
The Wisdom of Indirection
Throughout the novel, Siddhartha pursues Nirvana differently, and though at first his tactics are aggressive and deliberate, he eventually finds that a more indirect approach yields greater rewards. Both Siddhartha and Govinda initially seek Nirvana aggressively and directly. Govinda remains dedicated to the relentless practice of Buddhist devotions that are specifically intended to bring about enlightenment, but Siddhartha eventually rejects these methods and instead relies on intuition for guidance. Siddhartha points out that by focusing only on the goal of Nirvana, Govinda failed to notice the tiny clues along the way that would have pointed him in the right direction. In effect, Govinda tries too hard. Siddhartha ultimately understands that because the essence of enlightenment already exists within us and is present in the world at every moment, prescriptive paths simply lead us further from ourselves and from the wisdom we seek. An indirect approach is more likely to take into account all elements of the world and is therefore better able to provide the necessary distance from which to see the unity of the world.
More main ideas from Siddhartha
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The theme of spiritual quest permeates the novel. All the major characters, with the exception of Kamaswami, have spiritual desires and seek enlightenment. This applies even to the courtesan, Kamala. Various routes to spiritual fulfillment are explored. Siddhartha's Brahmin father relies on the traditional sacrificial rites prescribed in the Vedas. Siddhartha rejects these rites, and he and Govinda experiment by leading the lives of wandering ascetics. Govinda becomes a follower of the Buddha, as does Kamala. Siddhartha is the most determined seeker of them all, and he is determined to pursue his quest in his own way, based on his own experience, rather than accept guidance from a teacher. Siddhartha gets sidetracked for many years when his involvement with the courtesan Kamala and his accumulation of riches as a merchant dulls his spiritual sense. But in middle age he rediscovers the fervent desire for enlightenment that he had known in his youth. He is fortunate in meeting a humble ferryman named Vasudeva who quietly lives the reality of enlightenment rather than preaching about it. He learns much from Vasudeva. In the end, all those who seek enlightenment find it. It is significant that Govinda and Kamala become enlightened through Siddhartha's help; it is he who communicates to them the profound peace and all-embracing knowledge that they seek.
Siddhartha as the Buddha
In the novel, Siddhartha and Gotama the Buddha are two separate characters. But the historical Buddha was also known as Siddhartha, and the character Siddhartha in the novel is also meant to be an exploration of the life of the Buddha, as imagined by Hesse. There are many similarities between Siddhartha and the historical Buddha. Both catch sight of Samanas (ascetics) when they are young and decide to leave their families. They both become wandering ascetics. Both are dissatisfied with the teachers they encounter; both give up their ascetic practices, both become enlightened by the river. In the end, as Govinda discovers, Siddhartha and the Buddha are indistinguishable from each other.
The basic premise of the book is that life is not merely material. It is not merely what we perceive with our senses or think with our minds or experience with our emotions. There is another dimension of life that is ordinarily hidden from view, but which can be experienced in a state of meditation. During meditation, the mind and senses withdraw from the outer world and perceive the innermost truth. This inner truth is described as Brahman. It is infinite, silent, and boundless. It is also blissful. Brahman is said to be identical with the innermost essence of every human. When the individual experiences Brahman, he knows that the material world is not the reality; it is maya, the play of illusion. This knowledge makes a person free; he or she no longer identifies with all the joys, sorrows, pleasures, griefs and fears of the small individual ego. Unaffected by such transient things, the enlightened person knows that the true reality of life is indestructible and eternal.
This is the doctrine elaborated in the Indian scriptures known as the Upanishads, with which Siddhartha is intimately acquainted. Although the ideas may seem remote from most people's normal experience, mystics throughout the ages, and in every religious tradition, have spoken of experiencing a similar, if not identical, state of being. They emphasize, as Hesse does through Siddhartha in the novel, that enlightenment is a state that must be experienced directly. It cannot be described in words.