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Faith in Siddhartha

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Whether one defines faith as trust in a system of religious beliefs, dogma, or trust in enlightened beings, it is a fundamental and universally studied concept explored in literature around the world. Herman Hesse and Eugene O’Neill are two authors and laureates similar in their affinities for exploring the theme of faith in their works. Through the narratives in both Long Day’s Journey Into Night by O’Neill and Siddhartha by Hesse, man’s journey to cultivate their faith through self-discovery is explored. However, Hesse’s interpretation of the pursuit of faith is much more literal than O’Neill’s. While O’Neill was a American Catholic dramatist, Hesse was a German novelist whose work reflects his perspective on morality, the search for identity and spirituality, and the unity of the universe.

In Siddhartha, the title character’s journey to attain enlightenment begins by being raised in a monastic community. He and his companion since childhood, Govinda, leave their respectable Brahmin families in search of a perfect unity with the world, Nirvana. Siddhartha and Govinda both have the conviction to attain this apotheosis of spirituality, however, their paths diverge concerning how they are willing to go about achieving this truth. Govinda is inclined to gain wisdom through guidance and instruction from spiritual leadership who have already achieved enlightenment, such as Gotama Buddha. Govinda restricts himself and persists in his need for teachers while Siddhartha quickly grows chary of following an exclusive path and is willing to alter his course. For example, during their time with the wandering ascetics, the Samanas, they practice extreme self-negation but are ultimately dissatisfied and agree to seek out the exalted Gotama Buddha. Gotama teaches his followers Buddhist principles such as “the four main points” (Hesse 29) and “the Eightfold path;” (29) which fascinates Govinda but fails to pique Siddhartha’s interest. Although Siddhartha believes “that nobody finds salvation through teachings,” (34) he adopts a principle of Gotama’s teaching that the world is “a complete, unbroken chain, an eternal chain, linked together by cause and effect.” (32).

After departing from Govinda, Siddhartha’s journey leads him to trade his path of selflessness for a path of selfishness, ultimately severing the discipline, faith, and piousness he had been working to advance for years. Living a life of materialism and indulgence turns him anguished, hedonistic, rapacious, and even suicidal. “He was full of ennui, full of misery, full of death;” (Hesse 87), until he is delivered by a mantra from his past, the “ending of all Brahmin prayers, the holy Om,” (89). The miracle he searched for his entire life came in the form of Vasudeva, an enlightened and “friendly ferryman,” (101). Never attempting to instruct Siddhartha of what the meaning of life is, Vasudeva directs him to listen to the river and search within himself to reach an understanding. His attainment of Nirvana comes through an internal connection to the river, which he finds universal truths such as there being “no such thing as time” (106) and “nothing was, nothing will be, everything has reality and presence.” (107). Through Vasudeva, Siddhartha finds his faith not through degradation or hedonism, but through the appreciation of the universe.

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