July 28, 2022

This post was not planned to turn out like this. The plan was to take a few excerpts and publish the audio snippets.

But, to remember my favorite parts I read it again. When I started writing the first draft of this post (months ago) my rating for the book on Goodreads was 4 stars. When I finished, it was down to 2.

What changed?

Well, what didn’t change was that I started choking up the instant there is the father-son tension at the beginning of the book and the son breaks his father’s heart. At the end the son becomes a father himself and gets his heart broken by his son and realizes the cyclic nature of things with a sad smile. That realization may ease his pain, but it doesn’t detract from the pain he had let his father go through. I cry my eyes out.

What changed was that this time I could not ignore Siddhartha’s arrogance throughout the book. How could I miss it before? I guess I was racing through the book to find out if he would go back to his father one day.

I know Siddhartha is a fictional character, but I treat him like a real one here. I didn’t want to do the character or the book injustice, so I read it one more time. And then I read it once more, this time in English. (The English version has a softer tone somehow? I would love to know if someone who read both versions has had a similar experience.)

The main point that Siddhartha makes throughout the book – his teaching if you will – is that wisdom cannot be learned from teachings or by following teachers; that it can only be attained through personal experience. He uses the words wisdom and knowledge interchangeably sometimes, which bothers me.

“It is good,” he thought, “to get a taste of everything for oneself, which one needs to know. That lust for the world and riches do not belong to the good things, I have already learned as a child. I have known it for a long time, but I have experienced only now. And now I know it, don’t just know it in my memory, but in my eyes, in my heart, in my stomach. Good for me, to know this!

“Es ist gut,” dachte er, “alles selber zu kosten, was man zu wissen nötig hat. Dass Weltlust und Reichtum nicht gut sind, habe ich schon als Kind gelernt. Gewusst habe ich es lange, erlebt habe ich es erst jetzt. Und nun weiss ich es, weiss es nicht nur mit dem Gedächtnis, sondern mit meinen Augen, mit meinem Herzen, mit meinem Magen. Wohl mir, dass ich es weiss.”

Thankfully this is not all true1 and we do learn things from teachings, from the experience of others, from fictional stories even, or from mistakes of our own; extrapolating what could and would happen if we made bigger ones. Where would we, as humans, be without that ability?

If the aim of knowledge is to gain certainty, then of course, some kinds of learning will lead to higher degrees of certainty, such as learning by experience. The question then becomes, in which areas do we need high degrees of certainty and which areas are fine with the level we attain through second-hand knowledge.

In the end, Siddhartha is the story of a man who can think more deeply than others and has knowledge and/or tools that most people don’t bother acquiring. However, he needs to guard himself … feeling different can lead to feeling superior very fast. And it does. When reading about his thoughts I shout in loud: “that is arrogance you ignorant person!” and hear it echoing right back at me.

Even when thanking Govinda for a kindness, he shows this haughtiness:

It also gives me joy, to see you again. You’ve been the guard of my sleep, again I thank you for this, though I wouldn’t have required any guard.

Auch mich erfreut es, dich wiederzusehen. Du bist der Wächter meines Schlafes gewesen, nochmals danke ich dir dafür, obwohl ich keines Wächters bedurft hätte.

Reluctant to ask for help, not wanting to admit he might need help, saying it was not necessary when someone does help, … “If you cannot thank sincerely, don’t bother!” I shout. And again it echoes right back… 

Too much knowledge had held him back, too many holy verses, too many sacrificial rules, too much self-castigation, so much doing and striving for that goal! Full of arrogance, he had been, always the smartest, always working the most, always one step ahead of all others, always the knowing and spiritual one, always the priest or wise one. Into being a priest, into this arrogance, into this spirituality, his self had retreated, there it sat firmly and grew, while he thought he would kill it by fasting and penance.

Zu viel Wissen hatte ihn gehindert, zu viel heilige Verse, zu viel Opferregeln, zu viel Kasteiung, zu viel Tun und Streben! Voll Hochmut war er gewesen, immer der Klügste, immer der Eifrigste, immer allen um einen Schritt voran, immer der Wissende und Geistige, immer der Priester oder Weise. In dies Priestertum, in diesen Hochmut, in diese Geistigkeit hinein hatte sein Ich sich verkrochen, dort saß es fest und wuchs, während er es mit Fasten und Buße zu töten meinte. 

He convolutes the point, as he frequently does. The problem was not that he knew too much, that he disciplined himself too much, that he worked too much. The problem was that he felt superior because of those things. No true teaching could benefit him, as long as he felt superiority in his heart.

I think that arrogance was there till the end. That is why he couldn’t learn from another human being. Not even from Vasudeva. Luckily for him, the river was not human and he allowed himself to learn Vasudeva’s teachings through the river. With considerable delay.

Another issue I have is how he treats Govinda at the end. What he tries to convey is not that complicated, but trying to sound profound, he confuses Govinda more and more and enjoys it. Basically: time is not a real thing; the sinning, non-enlightened, and enlightened versions of a person from different life times exist simultaneously; if you can internalize this enough you will understand many things and suffering will become meaningless. Simple.

That is why the ending of the book is not believable to me. Govinda with his humility had more chances of turning into light. Or whatever happened. But Govinda was not willing to let himself go further in his journey. He was probably afraid of not being able to differentiate between real experiences and hallucinations without the guidance of a teacher who went through it before. So he was content with being a follower of someone he recognized as truthful. And good for him. Being a follower of someone on a right path is better than some alternatives.

Ironically, the skills that benefit Siddhartha the most throughout his life are the things he learned through “zu viel Kasteiung, zu viel Tun und Streben!” … the skills that result in the probably most famous part of the book:

“I can think. I can wait. I can fast. …, everyone can reach his goals, if he is able to think, if he is able to wait, if he is able to fast.”

“Ich kann denken. Ich kann warten. Ich kann fasten. … , jeder kann seine Ziele erreichen, wenn er denken kann, wenn er warten kann, wenn er fasten kann.

In conclusion, all that haughtiness led to my low rating after reading the book FOUR times. Leaving only this part I can fully agree with.

So let’s think, let’s wait, let’s fast 🙂

You can find the carefully, produced English version in different formats on Standard Ebooks. And the German version on the Gutenberg website.

(1) Hat tip to J.D. Salinger.

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