Honors English/ Period 4
11th February 2018
Words from the Wise Waters
Historically, all great civilizations were built upon the foundation of rivers because they provide the necessities of life and sustenance, Siddhartha found his! Hermann Hesse’s novel, Siddhartha, follows the story of a young, wealthy, handsome, and learned Brahmin Siddhartha who sets out to achieve Nirvana, a state of enlightenment. From the start of Siddhartha’s journey, he seeks personal transformation by challenging himself with diverse experiences from living Samanas self-depreciative life, to listening Gotama Buddha’s teaching, and indulges himself to worldly pleasure. He tried everything but does not find the inner peace he is looking for. Siddhartha finally communes with the river to attain Nirvana. Hermann Hesse uses the river as a symbol of life and its complexities. The river represents how life should be lived in moderation, and how one must accept that opposites can co-exist and that life is filled with repetition and patterns. All these realities help one find a higher meaning in life.
The river is present throughout Siddhartha’s journey, yet he is too blind to see it. It changes purpose frequently throughout the book, going from background detail, to an obstacle and finally becoming the key to enlightenment. The very first sentence of the book paints a serene picture “in the sunshine on the river bank by the boats… the handsome Brahmin’s son grew up.” (p1)In the beginning, river acts only as a background detail revolving around the young Siddhartha, Brahmin’s son bathes and performs his religious ritual in the river. However, the river begins to play a more pivotal role at transitory moments in his life. When he left the Samanas, “the river had been nothing but an obstacle on his travels”(P46). When he crossed this river he left behind his life of spirituality for a materialistic life full of greed and lust. The river separates the two sides of Siddhartha’s life. On one side his life with the Samanas, and Gotama Buddha, and another side his city life full of greed and lust. After living 20 years in the city, Siddhartha realizes how he had allowed himself to be swallowed in a life of greed, losing all his moral values. Siddhartha “had even intended to throw his life away, but that by a river, under a coconut-tree, he has come to his senses, the holy word Om on his lips.”(P82). When Siddhartha attempts to drown himself, he stands on neither side of the river, but symbolically in the middle. This signifies the “OM” of perfect harmony that Siddhartha hears. He attains the unity of both worlds, and balance between self- deprivation and a life of riches. Furthermore, Siddhartha learns to understand every aspect of life through his contemplation of the river.
The river also teaches Siddhartha, how life follows a pattern by continuously going through a cycle yet always looking the same. Vasudeva (Ferryman) tells Siddhartha on his first trip across the river that “‘I have learned from the river that everything comes back'” (P46). However, Siddhartha did not completely understand what Vasudeva meant. But, when his son leaves him to live the city life, then he understands its meaning. He sees his reflection in the river and feels his past surge through him; “as a youth, he had compelled his father to let him go and join the ascetic, how he had taken leave of him, how he had gone and never returned.” (p119) Siddhartha sees how life comes to a full circle. He left his father in the exact same manner as his son left him. These series of events made patterns in life obvious to Siddhartha. This is arguably the most important lesson he has learned on his path to Nirvana. To “let go” is an invitation to relinquish attachments to events, ideas, and possessions. By allowing his son to follow his path and learn from his own experiences, Siddhartha provides a great example of how we should let go for the greater good.
He learns from the river that time does not exist, everything is united, and the way to peace is through love. Siddhartha notices how “the river is everywhere at once, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea, in the mountains, everywhere at once, and that there is only the present time for it, not the shadow of the past, not the shadow of the future.”( pg. 96)
Understanding to not dwell in the past or be anxious about the future is a key aspect to finding the meaning of life. He realizes that all knowledge is attainable in the present and not worry about the fleeting of time or feeling guilty about the past.
The river only speaks to those who are willing to listen, so when Siddhartha is willing to do so, the river communicates to him in many voices. “And all of it together, all voices, all goals, all yearnings, all sufferings, all pleasures, all good and evil-the world was everything together.” (pg 122)All these voices together consist of a single word; Om, “perfection.” By these voices being polar opposites, yet seemingly indistinguishable, Siddhartha realizes that there are two sides to everything and that within Nirvana there is Samsara. This draws an allusion to the yin and yang symbol, both sides being complete opposite forming a beautiful whole. Learning that opposites can co-exist helps him in developing a higher and un-opinionated understanding of any situation. The river acts as a symbol of the totality of life, the unity and the diversity together.
The river symbolizes the source of knowledge. Siddhartha eventually attains Nirvana through learning more about the essence of life. The river acts as a spiritual guide through which Siddhartha discovers the balance between the spiritual and materialistic, idea that life is presently unconstrained by time. When he takes over as the new ferryman, Siddhartha goes back and forth between being part of the universe and being human. Unlike before, Siddhartha empathizes with and understands the struggles of people. However, he also understands the grander spectrum of life. Siddhartha’s journey consists of recurring cycles present during three dominant stages of his search for enlightenment; including suffering and indulgence and final stage Enlightenment.