What is the meaning of Siddhartha?
Why is it such an important, and meaningful, book, informing and shaping the lives of generations of readers?
Day by day, each of us toil—in our psyche or in our calling or profession—and, by our nature, are unable to grasp the truth of why.
Why we are here, why anything matters, why we bother.
Usually we find no answers. It is a truth out of reach, and even Buddhism, the acknowledging of suffering, even in the deepest meditation, does not offer real respite from either uncertainty or suffering.
“Siddhartha”, whether it reaches a real truth beyond this or not, is an acknowledgement of this limitation, combined with the joy for life that we should still strive for even in embracing our suffering.
It is small solace, if we have deep pain and anxiety, to simply say that we should embrace suffering as much as we embrace love, but there is a deeper truth in it than in listening to the passed down wisdom of old religions and looking at suffering as something to perceive only.
“Siddhartha” is very simple in that respect, and it contains truths that are important to think about every day of our lives and from as early as possible a time in our lives. The longer we avoid hard truths—truth being the truth after all—the more we will feel we need to catch-up or, wrongly, that we have somehow missed out along our journey because we came too late to our realisations.
In the novel, Siddhartha becomes a wandering monk-like beggar, accompanied by his (much moreso than he) rules-following friend Govinda. He does this due to his unhappiness with the falseness of society and life as we are generally taught to see or live it, even though his father is a holy man and he has immersed himself in the teachings of all the wisest holy teachers.
As I wrote in the introduction to our illustrated edition of “Siddhartha” (abridged for younger readers aged eight years and up), in his wanderings, the central message that Siddhartha learns is that experience, rather than avoiding certain things in the “real world”, leads to understanding; rather than desires and belongings being a distraction, they are as important to our perception of the world as all other actions and thought.
Losing ourselves in our desires and greed won’t lead to Nirvana, but these experiences will inform our future choices and knowledge. Nirvana, or universal understanding, is seen in the story (or “An Indian Tale”—or another translation would be “An Indian Poem”) as a search worthy of endless effort, and casting off needless things will help us along on this search, rather than material possessions leading us to a lasting joy or final truth.
Siddhartha learns that enlightenment only comes from within—it cannot come to us through our teachers or worldly possessions. It is available at all understanding ages and in all manners of life. It comes from calmness, compassion, and regarding all things as being of value in and of themselves.
Life matters simply because it matters, and the natural world we are a part of and compassion are at the heart of why we are here and how we comprehend it. Hermann Hesse concludes that, when time is an illusion and the meaning of thoughts and words are often unclear, there is no choice but to regard all forms and stages of life with wonder and to look therein for our happiness.
Fear of loss—even though growth and decay must be seen as equally natural processes—shows that attachment is necessary in this world, and therefore we gain wisdom by accepting the pain of our feelings and love. Nirvana, as a result, is as much an embracing of the pain of reality as it is a love of the world and of being part of it.