Siddhartha’s Journey toward Enlightenment
By Philip Devitt
Over the course of our lives, we encounter many unique people. Some of them we interact with on a regular basis. They are our friends, our neighbors, and our spouses. Then there are those who are in our lives fleetingly. They are the determined doctors who save our lives at hospitals, and the remarkable strangers whose simple smiles have the power to make us feel good about ourselves. We may be in contact with them for a few short moments, but those moments can alter the rest of our lives. In Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, we see how the life of one man changes radically because of the various people who influence him throughout his journey toward enlightenment.
Siddhartha’s quest for nirvana is propelled early in the text by a group of wanderers who are dedicated to resisting the material world. The Samanas open a world to Siddhartha that enthralls him and makes him believe their lifestyle is the way to ultimate peace and salvation. However, after a while, we see that living as a Samana leaves him just as dissatisfied as he was when he was preparing to become a Brahmin like his father. Because Siddhartha has a passionate longing for enlightenment, he is willing to take his body and soul to dangerous lengths. His rapid weight loss and deterioration demonstrate this. However, he is still aware enough of the world around him to realize that even the elders of the group have not attained the enlightenment he hungers for. If they have not found it, he knows he will not find it, and he knows it is in the best interest of his soul to depart from the group. This does not necessarily mean that Siddhartha thinks the Samanas are wrong, or even that his participation was a waste of time. Rather, being a part of the Samanas is not right for him because it does not give him the inner peace he wants. Even though he is back to being the discontented, spiritually hungry man he was at the beginning of his journey, the time he spends with the Samanas contributes to his long term growth.
Siddhartha’s life changes drastically when he meets Kamala and discovers love in the physical world. Siddhartha is easily tempted by Kamala’s beauty, and seems eager to win her approval by altering his physical appearance and lifestyle. Her refusal to show him true love unless he becomes a merchant suggests that she is flawed. Siddhartha, who was once a very focused, meditative man, is suddenly more concerned with love and riches. However, Kamala ultimately benefits Siddhartha’s journey more than she hinders it. Although much of his material greed is motivated by a need to grow closer to Kamala, we cannot place total blame on her. Siddhartha made the decision to discard his contemplative life for a materialistic life before he even met Kamala-- she only propels his lust for wealth. When Siddhartha grows restless with this lifestyle just as he did with the lifestyle of the Samanas, he is able to discard it and move on. Kamala ultimately shows him that intemperance and sex cannot give him true happiness, and this helps him to continue his journey. He is aware that to reach nirvana, he has to experience not only indulgence in the spiritual world, but in the physical world. His time with Kamala gives him that experience, and allows him to continue his quest.
One of the people who has the largest impact on Siddhartha’s search for enlightenment is the ferryman, Vasudeva. Siddhartha meets Vasudeva later in life, years after he first crossed paths with him during his scramble to find enlightenment somewhere else. As a young man, Siddhartha believes that if he is supposed to learn anything about reaching nirvana, it will be from someone who is wise and esteemed. He never assumes that a simple, humble ferryman can guide him in the right direction. What strikes Siddhartha about Vasudeva the second time he meets him is that he does not try to teach or preach-- he makes it clear that he is “not a man of words”-- but he still manages to show Siddhartha so much about the world. He lives a life of inner peace, and just by being in his presence, Siddhartha begins to live the same life.
Throughout his journey, Siddhartha meets many people he believes can lead him to enlightenment. Even though his encounter with Vasudeva toward the end of the novel is what finally leads to his fulfillment, his earlier encounters are not in vain. They are just as important, or even more important. Had he not left the Samanas, he would have never met Kamala, and had he not left Kamala, he would have never run into Vasudeva again. Every decision he makes and every person he meets lead him to his ultimate contentment.
© Philip Devitt