Skip to main content

Life Lessons From the Novel "Siddhartha"

There is nothing I hold quite as dear to me as good old fashion information. I am an artist, history buff, and a map junky.

"Siddhartha" by Hermann Hesse

"Siddhartha" by Hermann Hesse

It is human nature to not only function on, but also to thrive off of the approval of others. So often, our population plans their whole lives around what others have planned out for them to do. Functioning in this way is neither right nor wrong but simply can hinder you from achieving a life that has been lived to its fullest capacity. This is because to achieve personal satisfaction, we must go after our own personal dreams and not ones that others have put in front of us; at the end of our life, we will only be filled with regret rather than joy if we set our standards to the expectation of others.

In the novel Siddartha by Herman Hesse, the path of life and road to self-discovery of the major character, Siddhartha, are explored. Siddhartha was born into the Brahmin level of the Indian caste system. The Brahmin is the religious caste composed of intellectuals with the highest social standing within their network of people. The caste system is something that an individual is born into and cannot change of his or her own accord. Even though not every society holds a structured unit like the caste system, the idea of the system holds strong in most societies. For example, there are many different “classes” of people within America. We have under-privileged citizens that live on the streets or are close to it, we have families that barely scrape by, we have middle-class who can live comfortably but not extravagantly, and we have an upper-middle class that can live a bit more extravagant but not nearly as much as upper class, there are wealthy or upper-class citizens, and there is our own form of royalty known as celebrities. So often, the caste system is looked down upon, but if we examine our society, we are very much the same. How often do you see a celebrity interacting with a homeless person when charity work is not involved? Or even a middle-class family being invited over to a rich person’s home for dinner? Even though we do not have laws against “class interaction,” we still function like there are. There are people that are born with money or better fortune, and then there are some that never seem to catch a break for some reason. However, every once in a while, a true leader for change rises from one of these separated groups and tries to reform the segregated mindset humans tend to fall into. Siddhartha attempted just that. He denied himself comfort, ignored the opinions of his family and peers, and always kept a clear vision of what he was looking to achieve. What exactly did Siddhartha try to reform within his society? How did changing his mode of living affect the rest of the caste system? Siddhartha went out to achieve a personal dream so that he would be full of joy at the end of his life rather than regret. His display of independence was an example for the rest of the system that being who you want to be a living the way you want to live was the only way to live a fulfilled life.

The only time that an individual may move up or down in the caste is after each individual lifetime that they have. This is only possible through the Eastern religious belief in reincarnation. Reincarnation, as defined in the dictionary, is “the continuation of the soul after death in a new body.” Also, there is the belief in the Wheel of Samsara. The Wheel of Samsara is an idea that incorporates reincarnation. Samsara is thought to be a continuous cycle that involves birth and death, and the only way to “escape” this suffering of the mundane is through enlightenment. Siddhartha is chasing after just that. If he achieves enlightenment, he will be released from this cycle. Siddhartha has been lucky, whether by his own strengths because of the good he has done in past lives or through sheer luck in being a new creation. Good things will come to you if you do good first is the idea of Karma. Through good karma or luck, Siddhartha has been able to be a member of his Brahmin society. Everything about Siddhartha’s life was optimal, from personal circumstances to finances. He is a fine example of an individual who could easily coast through life on his good fortune, but he is also a fine example of one of those true leaders that rise up to change the ways of his society. However, Siddhartha did not start off looking to reform his society. Teaching is the main proponent of changing or reforming society, and Siddhartha found that teaching was inherently flawed and needed to find enlightenment through personal experience. On page 80 of the novel, it states, "It is a good thing to experience everything oneself . . . As a child I learned that pleasures of the world and riches were not good. I have known it for a long time, but I have only just experienced it. Now I know it not only with my intellect, but with my ears, heart, and stomach. It is a good thing that I know this." Through these personal experiences, he was able to gain the tools to be able to teach later. He was after more than his good fortune could give him. It states in the novel:

“Siddhartha had begun to feel that the love of his father and mother, and also the love of his friend Govinda, would not always make him happy, give him peace, satisfy and suffice him. He had begun to suspect that his worthy father and his other teachers, the wise Brahmins, had already passed on to him the bulk and best of their wisdom, but his soul was not at peace.”

Even though this bright young man has a very promising future due to his placement in the caste system, he still chooses a life of discomfort and pursues something greater than himself. He chooses to move out into the forest and learn the ways of the Samanas. The Samanas deny themselves all possible comforts and pleasures. Although, at first his quest runs his patience a little dry, he perseveres through this tribulation and continues on his quest. Even though his patience is fickle his perseverance is an admirable trait. He keeps hitting road blocks, because nothing seems quite good enough or at the same caliber of the level of satisfaction he was looking to achieve. As mentioned above, Siddhartha had a dear friend named, Govinda. Govinda is a side role but nonetheless an important role in the life of Siddhartha. When Siddhartha feels that he has learned all he could from the Samanas he is then convinced to follow the Gotama and attempt to reach Nirvana or enlightenment through the eight-fold path. Govinda accompanies Siddhartha and acts a great moral support to our knowledge-thirsty main character. Govinda was also from the Brahmin level so his past and experiences were much like that of Siddhartha. Siddhartha’s next step in his journey was into the eight-fold path. The eight-fold path is not only an understanding of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths but an attempt to rid oneself of greed and hatred. Through this Buddha-designed path, one can find complete peace and enlightenment. The Four Noble Truths, in short, are suffering, its cause, ceasing the suffering, and how to accomplish that. It states on page 27 of the novel, "The teaching which you have not my opinion, and its goal is not to explain the world to those who are thirsty for knowledge. Its goal is quite different; its goal is salvation from suffering. That is what Gotama teaches, nothing else." If we believe in the teachings of Gotama or not, we can pull a simple truth from it. It is not about information that can lead to a “self-help” path to salvation, but about the offering of salvation itself. People get too wrapped up in how to do it themselves through the knowledge they have obtained and rarely focus on letting others help them. This usually makes someone feel diminished, which I feel the Gotama was trying to do. You must lose all pride to gain true enlightenment and meaningful knowledge.

Siddhartha’s journey mirrors our journey as humans in many ways. In describing the novel, my English professor Dr. Forrester stated, “Siddhartha is meant to be a mythological tale about Buddhist enlightenment that can be understood by a western audience.” Much like this, humans are constantly seeking something higher. If we believe in the Christian God, Buddha, the Virgin Mary, or even Science itself, we as humans always cling to something greater than ourselves looking for identification and enlightenment through it. Sometimes we have to go through many different fields or ideas to find a circumstance or belief that satisfies our own personal journey. We all start off wanting a certain outcome in life, whether we have a clear depiction of it or a vague idea, and we have to look down several different avenues to find it sometimes. Siddhartha does just that. He sets a goal for himself, and even though it is vague, it is still a goal and he models his life around finding an absolute truth that satisfies this goal. He did not find it with the Samanas, but that was just one stepping stone in his journey. His story sticks out among the typical stories about independence because most “success” stories you hear are about people beating the odds to achieve success, and in doing this, they are still sticking within the frame of what is socially acceptable and encouraged. Siddhartha did not start with many “odds” and did not reach for a goal within society's normal boundaries or expectations. In general, obstacles are placed in everyone’s life; however, the higher up in the classes that you look at, the fewer obstacles you will see. To reach Nirvana or total enlightenment, everyone must go through obstacles. Siddhartha came from a place where he had not faced many tribulations, so his perseverance characteristic sure came in handy during this stage in life.

Also, many humans never seek the absolute fulfillment that they desire because they are tied down to the easy path in life. They end up shaping their goals into what an easy path in life can uncover for them. For instance, if my goal in life was to move to a third-world country and live primitively while teaching the village population how to speak another language, there would be many different avenues to get there. It might be through trial and error figuring out which country exactly I want to reside in; I might have to learn several different languages myself to figure out which one I have the biggest passion for teaching. Above all, there is still the issue of wanting to be comfortable and taking the easy path in life. Siddhartha must stand up to his father when his father starts pointing out dangers in his idea of living with the Samanas. He says, “You will fall asleep Siddhartha, You will die, Siddhartha, and would you rather die, than obey your father?” Siddhartha simply replies back, “I will not fall asleep, I will die, and Siddhartha has always obeyed his father.” Even if you have to put yourself out on a limb, you will probably choose the limb closest to the ground. Siddhartha, in a sense, climbed up the tallest tree and camped out on the very top on the most unsteady limb while he smiled and waved at the comfortable people resting on the low branches beneath him.

Say I was willing to go through all of those different obstacles I just spoke of to reach my dream; it all starts with stepping out of your comfort zone and getting used to the idea of camping out on a high unsteady limb. I would have to leave my family, home, friends, job, and routine. Even if you had the strength to do all that, you would still have to face the judgment and possible disapproval of your peers and family. Siddhartha overcame all of that, which is more than most people can say. He left the highest level in the caste system to pursue a dream, and although he respected his father enough to ask him for his blessing he was going to push on with his plan anyway jeopardizing his relationship with his society, family, and peers and now, especially his father. What can we learn from that? Humans, especially Americans, thrive off the approval of others and fear breaking the social norm. We can take this story one of two ways. We can either realize that some sort of rejection will occur in your life due to your decisions or find it encouraging that if Siddhartha can do it, you can do it. Also, we often feel that we must succeed the first time to prove ourselves when we go out on a limb. This is not the case at all. Here is another example: A child goes off to college far away from where his or her parents would have preferred, but they do it anyway because they are looking to achieve personal happiness. After a year, the child decides that this school is not completely fulfilling what they had set out to find, so they transfer to another college even farther away from home. This does not please their parents either. Was it wrong for the child to transfer schools? Of course not! This child was simply finding where he or she fits in through trial and error. Siddhartha did a very similar thing; he started off studying from the Samanas and did not pull complete satisfaction from this experience, so he decided to move on to Gotama and the eight-fold path. Just because you do not achieve happiness or “Nirvana,” your first attempt by no means indicates that you are doing anything wrong.

I think the greatest thing that we can learn from such a character like Siddhartha is not to let anything stand in the way of you and what you truly want to achieve in this life, no matter how many sacrifices that may require. We can learn a little from Govinda, too, how to be a faithful friend who sticks by your mate no matter what kind of decisions or endeavors they embark on. Siddhartha left behind comforts and negative opinions and never took his eye off of the achievement he had originally set out to conquer. He did not just camp out on the high unsteady limb; he built a new home up there, full of new expectations and possibilities.


ideasinked from Mumbai, India. on February 03, 2016:

This is a wonderful book. Your Hub encourages me to go and grab the book to read it once more. :)

Harry Lancaster from The Moment on February 14, 2013:

Siddhartha states that he can only find what he doesn't know he's looking for, by not looking. Sort of shows how not investing to much focus on physically achieving Nirvana, but on the path that it takes to get there. Excellent hub.

Pamela-anne from Miller Lake on February 14, 2013:

Enjoyed reading your hub we must all try to keep our dreams and not give them up; well written look forward to reading more of your hubs in the future.

Mohan Kumar from UK on February 25, 2012:

Great hub.Insightful treatise on Hesse's book. It clearly illustrates one doesn't have to be a Buddhist to understand the fundamental concept of self actualisation. Sometimes it's hard to let go of the umbilical cord of support,love,comfort and safety that our loved ones offer in order to pursue true fulfillment. However it is still possible to pursue one's dreams and ideals by letting go of the safety rail. The concept of 'safe' and 'sensible' that is offered by our parents can be both nurturing and limiting as Siddhartha's story illustrates. Well written,voted up!