Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

This is a short novel by Nobel Laureate Hermann Hesse. You can easily finish it in one evening or while waiting at the airport. This has been one of the most influential books on my thinking over the last few years.

The book is insightful as it contains many reflections of real life. First is the discontent with life from the inexperienced. Siddhartha runs away from his family and later his own son flees from him. They always look for the meaning of life and have a deep belief that there is something out there that will make them more fulfilled. The more they seek, the more confused they are.

It is not that the inexperienced are not taught about the principles of inner peace. But teaching only gives knowledge and not wisdom. Wisdom cannot be taught, it can only be learnt through experience. The image of Siddhartha’s futile effort to teach his own son reminds him of the pain of his father. Life has karma.

The desire in humans is infinite and getting what we crave only gives us temporary gratification. Siddhartha thinks that getting rich and having an abundant sexual life entitles him to fulfillment of life. Instead, he only finds emptiness and hollowness. Getting what you want would not make you happier. The sooner you realize that in your life, the sooner you find peace.

This is not just the story of Siddhartha. It seems to be the nature of human beings. I have seen this pattern happen again and again. The book allows me to reflect on myself and the world in different ways and invoke some of the deepest thoughts on human desire. It is not a cliché that as you get old, you become wiser and the experience suddenly makes all the old books become new again.

Some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.”

"Wisdom is not communicable. The wisdom which a wise man tries to communicate always sounds foolish."

“Siddhartha has one single goal-to become empty, to become empty of thirst, desire, dreams, pleasure and sorrow-to let the Self die. No longer to be Self, to experience the peace of an emptied heart, to experience pure thought-that was his goal.”

“My real self wanders elsewhere, far away, wanders on and on invisibly and has nothing to do with my life.”

“The opposite of every truth is just as true”.

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Book summary

The book is a story of a man named Siddhartha from his early young age till his hair is gray. He was born and raised by a respected Brahmin family in his village. He practices meditations and religious rituals in the path to find inner peace. However, his mind is always full of discontent.

He leaves his village to join a wandering group Samanas, quickly leaves them and joins Gotama the Buddha who is known to have mastered spiritual enlightenment. Siddhartha does not stay there for long and this time decides to drop all meditation and spiritual quests to allow himself to learn from the material world.

He meets a courtesan named Kamala who encourages him to become a merchant if he wants to be with her. With his talents, he quickly becomes one of the wealthiest men but drowns in the cycle of gambling, drinking and sex.

Once again he is sick of his current life and finds it empty. He runs away till he meets a ferryman Vasudeva who is content with his simple life. Vasudeva accepts Siddhartha to live with him and lets him learn spiritual enlightenment from the river. For the first time, Siddhartha can find the inner peace with the voice from the river.

One day Kamala meets Siddhartha on her pilgrimage to visit Gotama with a boy that Siddhartha knows to be his own son. Kamala dies from a snakebite leaving her son with his father. Siddhartha’s son is not satisfied with his father’s life and runs away with all Siddhartha and Vasudeva’s money. Siddhartha chases after him but soon gives up.

Siddhartha learns all the lessons from the river, the interconnectedness of everything in life. Vasudeva later announces that he wants to retire in the forest and leaves Siddhartha to be the ferryman.

Siddhartha later meets his old friend Govinda who is also seeking spiritual enlightenment. Siddhartha explains that the opposite of the truth also contains something true. That’s the completeness of the world. When Govinda kisses Siddhartha’s forehead, he sees not just one face but a continuous stream of faces that change and renew themselves. Both of them then smile in enlightenment.

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