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Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha attempts to tell the story of one man’s journey to enlightenment. Siddhartha, a young Brahmin, leaves his comfortable home and family in order to learn more about himself. Throughout his journey, he overcomes many obstacles, meets many people, and has many experiences that contribute to his becoming the individual he wants to be. At the end, Siddhartha thinks that he has found himself, but really he has lost so many parts of himself during this process. Despite the many unrealistic things Siddhartha does, his commitment to finding himself and bettering himself, in his mind, is praiseworthy. He is repeatedly in situations in which he feels like giving up because he has not reached his goal yet, but then again he never does. Unfortunately, the ways in which Siddhartha attempts to find himself are unreasonable and cause him to lose beneficial qualities that he possessed before his journey. If this is a story about finding yourself, it is in many ways problematic.
In order to find himself, Siddhartha made it his goal to eliminate all contact with reality and to purge every desire for people, things, and even basic needs such as food, shelter, and sleep. He became aware of a group, the samanas, that had similar beliefs and goals to his, so he decided to join them. To join the samanas, Siddhartha was required to give away all of his clothes, to fast for extremely long periods, and, when not fasting, to eat only once a day. Siddhartha deprived himself of everything “through pain, through the voluntary suffering and overcoming of pain, of hunger, of thirst, of fatigue” (15) in the hope of feeling enlightened. By depriving himself of all essentials, Siddhartha aims to empty himself of all human qualities; in his mind, doing so will allow him to find his true self.
Throughout his journey to attain enlightenment, Siddhartha loses many human relationships that were very important to him prior to leaving, such as his bonds with family and friends. Human relationships help to shape you as a person and the people with whom you have relationships influence how you live. In order to reach enlightenment, one should not have to give up loving and caring for others. Enlightenment, as a higher form of consciousness and humanism, should not require anyone to drop everything and everyone that is integral to his or her life. Siddhartha was fully aware that by leaving the Brahmins he was also leaving his family and friends. These relationships are a key aspect of who a person is, but, ironically, Siddhartha sacrifices these parts of himself to find other parts of himself that he finds more meaningful. When Govinda and Siddhartha go their separate ways, Govinda “embrace[s] the friend of his youth one last time” (30), but Siddhartha does not seem sad or have any regret about leaving his best friend behind. In some respects, Siddhartha’s lack of need for people is inhuman and rather disturbing. He believes he can achieve enlightenment on his own, without any help from family and friends. He drops all of his significant relationships in order to go his own way.
Ironically, Siddhartha loses his humanity while trying to find himself. Along with sacrificing his human relationships, Siddhartha also sacrifices emotional experiences to find enlightenment. Emotional experiences influence and shape people to become better, but Siddhartha leaves all of that behind when he leaves the Brahmins. When Kamala dies, he does not mourn, revealing his loss of emotion. Siddhartha’s excuse for not mourning is that he has now “become even richer and happier” (101). Siddhartha has lost every emotion so that even when his lover dies, he does not feel anything. Instead of grieving, he tries to achieve a state of unfeeling, which he believes is a step toward enlightenment. He forces himself to forget about his relationship with Kamala and how much it previously meant to him. Despite his awareness of how the world operates, he becomes little better than an inanimate object, a piece of wood, unaffected by normal human impulses.
Hesse’s novel thus cannot be considered an inspirational book about finding yourself. Siddhartha wants to eliminate his “human self,” becoming indifferent to his friends, his family, and his lover. Without basic needs, loving relationships, and emotions, one cannot be considered human. When Siddhartha does reach enlightenment, he is not even human anymore. Readers in search of finding enlightenment would be better off by balancing sacrifices, such as fasting and giving up clothes, and making sure to reflect. If Siddhartha had achieved a better balance between letting go and keeping human qualities, he would have had better results. Likewise, Siddhartha should have reflected to see how far he had come since being a Brahmin. Just as Huck Finn in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn needed to isolate himself and then reflect upon the problems with society, Siddhartha should have reflected more to find more clarity within his life. If he had done that in contexts other than his final river retreat, he might not have sacrificed all human qualities during his journey to enlightenment and would have secured loving relationships and emotions.
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