One of the best books I’ve read recently is Siddhartha. It’s a novel by the German writer Hermann Hesse that deals with the spiritual journey of the titular character.
The book is set during the time of Gautama Buddha, the spiritual leader of Buddhism. It’s a short but thought-provoking book that caused me to think deeply about several issues.
At the start of the novel, Siddhartha is accompanied by his friend Govinda. They leave their home and join the ascetic wandering beggars of the Śamaṇa, longing to gain spiritual illumination. But the longer Siddhartha spends with the Śamaṇa, the more he realizes that he will not find what he’s looking for.
It’s at this time Siddhartha encounters the Buddha and has a brief conversation with him. While Siddhartha acknowledges the wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings, unlike his friend Govinda, he declines to join the Buddha’s order and sets out to find illumination on his own.
Throughout his subsequent journey, Siddhartha encounters Kamala, whom he considers to be the most beautiful woman he has ever seen and from whom he learns the art of love. Despite renouncing materialistic pursuits as a Śamaṇa, Siddhartha works for a local businessman, Kamaswami, and becomes a wealthy merchant.
After a while, he becomes disenchanted with his life, realizing it lacks spiritual fulfillment despite the riches he has obtained. He returns to the river he had crossed to reach the village where he met Kamala and Kamaswami. Here, he works with the ferryman who helped him cross the river earlier.
Siddhartha learns the ways of the ferryman and begins to appreciate the river for the spiritual guidance it has imparted on the ferryman, and as the book progresses, himself.
Towards the end of the book, after the ferryman has retreated into the woods to die, Govinda still seeks enlightenment. He hears of a wise ferryman whom he desires to learn from — not realizing that this ferryman is in fact his old friend, Siddhartha.
Govinda asks his friend to impart his wisdom and Siddhartha replies that for every true statement, there is an opposite one that is also true; that language and the confines of time lead people to adhere to one fixed belief that does not account for the fullness of the truth.
The book ends with Govinda finding enlightenment with the help of his childhood friend. It’s a clever analogy for life, one where there are many paths you can follow and no one set way. The book contains a lot of other lessons that we can apply to our own lives, and here are a few of them.
Takeaway 1 – Follow Your Own Path
Many of us are like Govinda and Siddhartha as we progress through life. Some of us are attracted to teachings which we wish to learn from, others recoil from what they are taught, while some of us prefer to go our own way.
Although Govinda finds enlightenment due to Siddhartha, they both found it through different means. Govinda followed the teachings of the Buddha, yet was still restless after many years of devoted adherence.
Meanwhile, Siddhartha disagreed with the Śamaṇa, declined to follow the Buddha, and decided to find his own path. Neither Govinda nor Siddhartha are right or wrong. They went down different paths but ended up at the same place.
In essence, the lesson here is that it doesn’t matter how you get to where you want to go — as long as you get there. Life has become much more complicated since the days of the Buddha. It can be even harder to know what path to follow today.
So, like Govinda, we should not be afraid to admit we are restless and unsatisfied if a path we go down does not work out. Above all, we must realize that just because something worked for us, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for everyone.
Takeaway 2 – Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment
A common theme in the book is Siddhartha’s lack of contentment with the ideologies he follows. He quickly becomes disillusioned with the teachings of the Śamaṇa. While he acknowledges the wisdom of the Buddha, he decides against following him.
Later on, he turns against the teachings of the Śamaṇa and becomes a businessman until he becomes disillusioned and gives up his wealth. The book is essentially a tale of how one man is discontent with the various ideologies that he encounters on his travels.
It may sound like Siddhartha is being picky and unable to commit to one thing, but I prefer to look at it in a different way. I see a man who is experimenting with different ways of looking at life and finding which one works for him.
Siddhartha has no issues with rowing back on his beliefs if they do not fulfill him. He has no trouble changing his mind if he is not content. The search for enlightenment is what he seeks and if that requires some experimentation, so be it.
This is a philosophy that we should seek to adopt in our own lives. The plethora of religions and philosophies is a testament to the fact that there is no one true way of living your life. What works for one person might not work for someone else.
This is exemplified by Siddhartha’s friend Govinda. He becomes a disciple of the Buddha early on in the book, while Siddhartha forges his own way. At the end of the book, we find Govinda again. Despite his years of following the Buddha, he is still not content. He is still seeking enlightenment and knowledge despite his years of devotion to the Buddha.
No matter your age, your beliefs, or your commitment to them, there’s nothing wrong with stepping over to the other side of the tracks from time to time. You might learn more than you realize.
Takeaway 3 – All the Riches in the World Won’t Make You Happy
Partway through his journey, Siddhartha discards the ascetic teachings of the Śamaṇa and chooses to work for the businessman Kamaswami. We see that Siddhartha is adept at building relationships with customers and closing deals.
Slowly but surely, Siddhartha becomes enraptured by the riches he can earn working for Kamaswami. He gambles frequently and visits Kamala in elegant clothes, a sharp contrast from when he first met her wearing rags.
Things are not as they seem, however. On the outside, Siddhartha might appear content with the money he has earned from his business dealings, but inside he feels empty. He views the luxurious lifestyle as a game that detracts from spiritual fulfillment.
Despite the money and favor he has earned, Siddhartha chooses to renounce his riches, leave his job and return to the river he crossed earlier in the book.
What Siddhartha realized is an age-old concept, that money won’t make you happy. We tend to equate money with happiness and think if only we had more money how much happier we’d be. While there’s nothing wrong with wishing to earn more money or to become rich, if you’re using this desire as a path to happiness, you might be disappointed.
Money itself will not make you happy. If you’re discontent with your life, then earning more money won’t automatically solve those problems. You are who you are regardless of whether you’re rich or poor. It can be argued that wealth exacerbates those characteristics rather than change them.
What Siddhartha realized was that the pursuit of wealth for the sake of wealth is an empty pursuit. We shouldn’t chase wealth just to be wealthy, instead, we should see money as a tool that we can use to push ourselves in the right direction.
As Siddhartha realized, money does not equate to happiness. True fulfillment comes from within, not the balance of your bank account.
- “How deaf and stupid I have been, he thought, walking on quickly. When anyone reads anything which he wishes to study, he does not despise the letters and punctuation marks, and call them illusion, chance and worthless shells, but he reads them, he studies them, he loves them, letter by letter. But I, who wished to read the book of the world and the book of my own nature, did presume to despise the letters and signs. I called the world of appearances, illusion. I called my eyes and tongue, chance.”
- “Everyone can perform magic, everyone can reach his goal, if he can think, wait and fast.”
- “Like one who has eaten and drunk too much and vomits painfully, and then feels better, so did the restless man wish he could rid himself with one terrific heave of these pleasures, of these habits of this entirely senseless life. … It seemed to him that he had spent his life in an entirely worthless and senseless manner; he retained nothing vital, nothing in any way precious or worthwhile. He stood alone, like a shipwrecked man on the shore.”
- “Wisdom is not communicable. The wisdom which a wise man tries to communicate always sounds foolish.”
- “A truth can only be expressed and enveloped in words it if is one-sided. Everything that is thought and expressed in words is one-sided, only half the truth; it all lacks totality, completeness, unity.”
My Siddhartha summary has looked at this intriguing book that takes you on man’s journey to find spiritual fulfilment. The titular character joins various sects, treks across a country, and works in a variety of jobs to satisfy his soul’s desire for understanding.
What we can learn from the book is simple: There are many paths that we can take. Some will lead to dead ends, others will lead us to fulfilment. Even as we progress in age, there is still much that we can learn and we should remain humble as the years advance.
Secondly, life is about experimentation. As Nassim Taleb makes clear in The Black Swan, we live in a complicated and vast world. No one correct path exists for all of us. The choices of Govinda and Siddhartha early in the book highlight this. If you feel something isn’t right, don’t be afraid to go it alone.
Finally, while money makes your life easier, it will not necessarily make you happier. All the riches in the world cannot please someone with an empty heart. Money should be used to improve your life, not accumulated to make you feel better.
It’s the simple pleasures in life that make our lives rich. Even something as simple as sitting by the river listening to the flow of the water is worth its weight in gold.
Who should read Siddhartha?
Anyone that is interested in the philosophy of the Buddha, or spirituality in general, will find Siddhartha appealing. Complement with the Bghavad Gita for a deeper dive.
If you’re looking for a short story that will enlighten you, this is a fantastic book to read! You’ll find a lot of useful life advice as I’ve mentioned above.
Siddhartha isn’t the most well-known book, but it’s an excellent read. One you might find yourself coming back to again and again.