A couple of years ago my nephew encouraged me to read Siddhartha.
I kept putting it off until last week when I finally read the book, given to me as a gift. I now know why it's considered a classic in the genre of books about spiritual discovery.
I expected it to be daunting for some reason -- as though it would be too Buddhisty for me. But it ended up being very accessible, and written in a simple, straightforward way. It's the story of the young Nepalese boy Siddhartha, who decides to leave his family and home to become a "samana" or wandering ascetic. He sets out with his best friend Govinda into this life of renunciation and contemplation, and when they meet the actual Buddha guy, Govinda's zeal is strengthened, while Siddhartha begins to have second thoughts about it all. He questions some of the finer points of the Buddha's teachings -- primarily the seeming contradiction of how the alleged unity of all things is coupled with the need to renounce most of these things in order to reach inner wholeness or "nirvana".
So the boys part ways at this juncture, and Siddhartha sets out on his quest, freestyle. Soon he meets the perfect-10 courtesan Kamala, the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Need I say more? This radically adjusts some of his former thoughts about sexual abstinence, among other things. Like wealth. Success. Fine clothes, booze, etc. Mostly to pay for his dealings with Kamala, he acquires wealth, discovering a special avarice for gambling. But again, disillusionment sets in. Satiated with his experience of worldliness, [or "samsara"] he decides to leave once again on a deeper quest, but by now he loves Kamala, and in the final sentence of one chapter the author drops this little nugget of info:
After a time she realized that she was pregnant from her last meeting with Siddhartha.
Oh, oh! He slipped one past the goalie there!
But he's gone now, and unaware of his impending progeny.
These latter portions of the book have Siddhartha meeting the ferryman Vesudeva -- a man who has never set off on any specific personal pilgrimage per se, yet seems much wiser regarding deeply spiritual matters, than Siddhartha is.
Sid learns a lot from Vesudeva. Meanwhile, Kamala has undergone a transformation of sorts, as well. Together with her son, she sets off to see the Buddha, but on the way, tragedy strikes. A venomous snake bites her just as she is re-united with the father of her child, and Siddhartha takes custody of the near-orphaned boy. What follows is true genius in story-telling, really, because Siddhartha finds that he cannot force the spiritual values he has learned throughout his life, onto this young boy. The very lesson it has taken him a lifetime to learn, namely that wisdom cannot be imparted through teachings of any kind, is worked out in a practical way with his son. The boy himself flees, and Siddhartha is heart-broken.
For me, the message of the book came through loud and clear -- and I would phrase it thus, in the following extremely long sentence:
Whatever depth of spirituality we ever achieve in this life, whatever spiritual connection we ever attain between ourselves and the world we live in, must be arrived at on a profoundly individual and experiential level, and will suffer deficiencies if merely the result of adherence to second-hand teachings or blind devotion to imparted doctrine.
Far be it from me to presume upon the intentions of a great author, but If this is what Hermann Hesse set out to say back in 1922 when he wrote Siddhartha, he succeeded in the case of this reader.