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The Quest for Nirvana in Siddhartha


In Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha and his friend, Govinda, leave their sheltered lives as Brahmins, Hindu priests, to be Samanas, ascetics who deny themselves all pleasure. Some years after, they meet the Buddha, whom Govinda stays with to be a monk while Siddhartha leaves to continue on his own adventures. Toward the end of their lives, they meet again at a river bank and discover if they have truly achieved inner peace. Hesse uses Govinda as a contrast to Siddhartha. As displayed in excursions with the Samanas, with the Buddha, and on other adventures, Siddhartha is a character who is more independent and must learn on his own while Govinda is more dependent and feels he must be taught.


Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 


According to Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia, Hesse was born in Germany in 1877. After rebelling from traditional education and being expelled from the seminary in which he was enrolled, he educated himself mostly through books. In his earlier years, he became a bookseller and journalist, which may have inspired his first book, Peter Carmenzind. Being a pacifist, Hesse moved to Switzerland during World War I. He came in contact there with renowned psychologist Carl Jung who inspired some of his better-known works.


Frank McLynn  Edwin F. Casebeer  Joseph Mileck  New Standard Encyclopedia  Ernst Pawel  Felix Anselm 


Frank McLynn, a biographer of Carl Jung, states that Hermann Hesse, following a breakdown, began psychoanalysis with one of Jung's pupils. It was through this pupil that Hesse eventually came in contact with Jung in 1916. According to noted Hesse critic Edwin F. Casebeer, it was Jung's concept of uniting the conscious and unconscious that influenced many of his later works involving self-realization, such as Siddhartha. Joseph Mileck, another critic, even cites that Hesse acknowledged Demian (1919) was derived from Jung's philosophies. According to the New Standard Encyclopedia, Hesse produced better works following the encounter with Carl Jung in 1916. Among his more noted books are Demian (1919), Siddhartha (1922), Steppenwolf (1927), and The Glass Bead Game (1943). There are several common threads which run through Hesse's works. Book reviewer Ernst Pawel suggests that in each of these novels, the idea of the character struggling with his own conflicting forces is a result of Hesse's own inner conflict and consequent breakdown which led to his contact with Carl Jung. Felix Anselm agrees and cites the universal theme of the struggle for self-realization, seeking a purpose, through conflict. He notes that Hesse's works are particularly good for their ability to mix the real and "phantastic" (q.v.) traits of both realism and symbolism.


Critic Eva. J. Engel  Rudolf Koester  Oscar Seidlein 


The idea of two forces within a character struggling instead of the usual protagonist and antagonist conflict of literature is frequently used in Hesse's novels. Critic Eva. J. Engel supports the idea that these opposites are "complementary": one is necessary for the other to exist. Although opposite, they work with each other to make up human characteristics. Several critics agree, but differ as to what these opposing forces should be. Rudolf Koester, for example, believes that the extremes are used more to describe youth, where the force to yield to conformity conflicts with the force to be absorbed by ego. Warning that the extremes are dangerous, Koester supports the idea that the forces work concurrently in order to create a balance unique to each person. Essayist Oscar Seidlein likens these forces which are inseparable yet unique to a "double focus." This polarity, similar to that of a schizophrenic's multiple personalities, causes conflict within the character, who has to find a balance between the extremes in order to prevent being pulled too much by one force or the other.


Rudolf Koester  Esther Gropper 


Another topic Hesse seems to enjoy addressing is that of the mental development of character, particularly as a youth. In his article, Koester describes Hesse's approach to youthfulness as no more than the "tortured development of individuality," wondering if this is derived from Hesse's own rebellious childhood. Esther Gropper talks of the typical mental development as a three-stage process, which Hesse uses frequently. The first, typically young childhood, is characterized by respect and happiness. The second, after the person is introduced to good and evil, is characterized by despair and loneliness. The third is encountered when the person is able to separate himself or herself from the pain of reality to realize "pure thought." Gropper also notes that Siddhartha is so popular among the young because the characters suffer loneliness and despair before realizing their place in the world by discovering more about themselves.


Hans Beerman 


Siddhartha feels he must discover this purpose to life on his own, whereas Govinda feels he can learn it by listening to and following the doctrines of others. It is noted in the beginning of the story that Govinda and Siddhartha are two young Brahmins who are quite intelligent and already debate the aspects of their religion with adults. However, Siddhartha already begins his questioning of the traditional beliefs. He begins to wonder about some of the established principles of religion and wish that he could hear better answers than those which the Brahmins give. Siddhartha even refers to himself as "distrustful of teachings" which, according to his religion, are true. When the Samanas come through the town, Siddhartha goes with them to quench his thirst for answers, and Govinda goes with Siddhartha because he feels Siddhartha will help him learn. Although the ascetic Samanas prove satisfying at first, Siddhartha questions whether he will reach Nirvana and if the Samanas are helping him get there wh ile Govinda insists that they are still learning much from them and their goal will take more time. Hans Beerman acknowledges that Siddhartha is right in his assumption. The two cannot reach Nirvana from asceticism. Such a lack of pleasures and an excess of pain is only a temporary flight from human suffering. Only self-realization will separate them completely from it and bring them to Nirvana. The fact that Siddhartha can realize this indicates his ability to make connections without being taught, instead of clinging to the ideas that are given to him, as Govinda does. In the meeting with Gautama Buddha, the same idea is seen. Govinda goes forward and swears to follow the Buddha while Siddhartha is still adamant that he cannot learn by being taught and decides not to stay. However, Siddhartha cannot leave before he confronts the Buddha in order to find out how the one who has reached enlightenment would answer his questions. What Govinda follows immediately, Siddhartha rejects and questions. He points out that Buddha has reached Nirvana without being taught "the way" by anyone. This fact proves to Siddhartha that it is possible for him to do the same. He leaves the Buddha, determined to do just that. Alfred Werner indicates that Siddhartha has another reason for leaving at this point. He must indulge in the secular pleasures of life, including the joys of love with Kamala and wealth with Kamaswami, so that he might understand more about the lives of others.


Charles I. Glicksberg 


After Siddhartha has renounced his rich life and returned to the river to be a ferryman, he learns more from observing the river than he ever did from the Brahmins or the Buddha. With Vasudeva, the original ferryman as a guide, Siddhartha learns to listen to the river and hear the holy "Om" come from it. He asserts his own belief in time and unity that brings him much closer to inner peace. After Vasudeva has left for the woods, Govinda arrives at the ferry to hear the rumored wise man who lives there, demonstrating that he is still searching for someone to teach him how to be at peace. Siddhartha greets Govinda and responds to his inquiries that "wisdom is not communicable" (p. 115), and that only loving all things in the world can bring peace. Literary critic Charles I. Glicksberg observes that there is no formula for nirvana. It is unique to every man who is searching for it. This singularity is why it cannot be taught: every person who is searching for it finds it differently, but it always comes from the inside of that person. As Govinda looks into Siddhartha's face and sees that Siddhartha has discovered unity and finally understands the importance of the holy "Om," he begins to cry. He has learned from Siddhartha how to find that which no man can ever teach: how to look inside oneself and be at peace.


Edwin Casebeer  


These events also demonstrates Govinda's more dependent nature, while Siddhartha's is more independent and strong willed. Even in the beginning of the story, Siddhartha was making his own decisions, such as to go join the Samanas. Govinda, however, goes only because Siddhartha, the person he is currently attached to, will go. With the Samanas, Siddhartha questions all the theories and denies that they are getting closer to Nirvana by being dependent on the doctrines of the ascetics whereas Govinda simply listens and follows. Siddhartha even alludes to his own self-reliant nature in questioning the Vedas, the holy Hindu texts. Edwin Casebeer restates that the theme of a character's rebellion against what is commonly accepted to achieve self-realization is frequent in Hesse's works due to its closeness to his personal life. However, Siddhartha recognizes that he and Govinda cannot live with the Samanas forever. When the two finally decide to depart, they are initially denied permission to leave by the elder Samana. Although the refusal causes the more quiet Govinda to be taken aback, Siddhartha demonstrates his knowledge of the ascetic skill of hypnotism and convinces the Samana to let them leave. Siddhartha proves his ability to exist independently in the world, while Govinda would have been helpless against the will of the elder Samana without Siddhartha there.


 Colin Butler 


When Siddhartha and Govinda meet the Buddha, both listen to his teachings. Govinda swears to follow him, expecting Siddhartha to do so as well. He is shocked when Siddhartha will not. Although he now has the Buddha to be dependent on, there is still a connection to Siddhartha, a connection without which Govinda feels deeply sad. Siddhartha is too independent to be tied down by such an allegiance to one philosophy, however. Colin Butler concludes that Siddhartha's meeting and discussion with the Buddha profoundly affects his future journeys because Siddhartha sees in Buddha a man who has found Nirvana independently. With this information, Siddhartha is confident that he can do the same and reach Nirvana while maintaining the independence that is one of his stronger characteristics. Siddhartha is also somewhat upset about the separation from his friend. He states that the Buddha has stolen from him Govinda, his "shadow" (p. 29), but he is pleased to have received something more important to him: that idea which Butler describes. Having left the one who had depended on him so much, Siddhartha's inner guilt later surfaces when he dreams of Govinda's asking why Siddhartha had to leave him. As Siddhartha ventures out in the real world, he even thinks All whom I meet on the way are like Govinda. All are grateful, although they themselves deserve thanks. All are subservient, all wish to be my friend, to obey and to think little. People are children. (p. 41)


Edwin Casebeer


This expression shows the independent Siddhartha feeling superior to the rest of the world. He feels as though everyone will follow him as Govinda had. It is this independence that leads Siddhartha to believe that he is near infallible. His experiences in the town where he falls in love and becomes a greedy miser are all consequences of his excessive pride in his own abilities and independence. Siddhartha even refers to himself as a falling "stone through the water" where the bottom is his goal. Everything around him moves so that he may reach that goal; all he has to do is "think, wait and fast" (p. 50). It is Siddhartha's independence that makes it so easy for him to leave all that he has gathered in the town to start fresh once more. After Siddhartha has spent years at the river, he witnesses the death of Kamala, his former lover, without feeling the pain of loss. He is so detached from others that he does not even experience natural human grief. When Govinda returns to the river and meets Siddhartha for the last time, Edwin Casebeer observes that although Siddhartha has reached peace independently, Govinda has to be guided by Siddhartha in order to see the unity of objects, Om, that Siddhartha has found. When Govinda leans over and kisses Siddhartha, he finally realizes that his friend has found "the way" to peace whereas he is only now understanding that he must look inside himself to find it.


William Barrett  Theodore Ziolkowski 


However, William Barrett theorizes that although for characteristics that are human there exist two extremes, it is impossible for anyone to live at the extremes. The cause of human suffering is being forced to live in between two conflicting ideals, such as the force of spontaneity against the force of order. To this point, Siddhartha and Govinda have been observed as the extremes of several human traits. However, the real Siddhartha and Govinda just have a balance point which lies closer to those opposite extremes mentioned before. For example, in spite of the apparent independence of Siddhartha, he loves his son blindly and is very disappointed that the child is spoiled and will not live happily with him, while the dependent Govinda lives without a family. Theodore Ziolkowski notes that narcissism is quite common in works of Hesse. Perhaps the excess of pride in Siddhartha led to his narcissistic episode in the town, where he became dependent on his rich food, his money, and the love of Kamala.


Colin Butler  Theodore Ziolkowski


 According to Colin Butler, this experience is needed to show Siddhartha that failure is sometimes necessary to reach a goal. However, he also observes that being in the town has sent Siddhartha backwards in his quest. Some of the abilities that he needs, such as thinking and fasting, are out of practice or no longer there. In order to achieve inner peace, one should not have the excessive pride of Siddhartha. That is why he could not reach Nirvana earlier. In order for him to remove this hindrance, he had to destroy himself by becoming a man full of greed, only to be rescued by the river and the sound of "Om." Similarly, Govinda is not wholly dependent. He makes the final decision of when to leave the Samanas. He decides that the two should seek the Buddha. Furthermore, he swears loyalty to the Buddha before Siddhartha does because he believes that the "eightfold path" is the right way to Nirvana (pp. 23-24). Siddhartha, although "distrustful of teachings" (p. 18), still asks Vasudeva, the ferryman, to show him how he has come to listen to the river and hear "Om," while Govinda, although frequently dependent on spoken doctrines and ideas, in the end can observe Siddhartha and learn from what he sees without being taught. Theodore Ziolkowski notes that characters of Hesse have transformed from trying to escape their problems more toward trying to resolve their inner vision. Siddhartha and Govinda are both. The two characters try to escape their suffering by trying to learn how to deal with pain by exposing themselves to immense amounts of it while they are with the Samanas. However, they realize that this approach will not help the problem: human suffering exists as emotional as well as physical pain. They must learn how to separate themselves from this suffering, not hide from it; that is Nirvana. Their paths separate because Siddhartha's adventures are based on those of an independent man who will try to teach himself, whereas Govinda's are based on those of a dependent man who prefers to learn by example.


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