Siddhartha is a Buddhist philosophy novel, written by a German guy in 1922. I’m not much of a philosophy guy myself, but I was interested in Eastern philosophy to see how it was different from the philosophy I was used to. In addition, Westerners tend to “fetishize” Eastern philosophy; a lot of hippies in the 60’s heralded it as this perfect wonderful truth that would solve all our problems. I assume that one of the earlier pieces will be less distorted because it won’t have that echo chamber effect; in addition, my English teacher swore up and down that this was totally legit Buddhism.
If it is, though, this book convinced me to not touch it with a ten-foot pole.
The philosophy espoused by the book seems to be that you shouldn’t care about anything or help anyone. The only way to be happy is to completely detach yourself from everything, including other people’s suffering.
To start with, the main character, Siddhartha, is a Brahmin. If you’re unfamiliar with the Indian caste system, that means he is at the very top of the social ladder. He spends his childhood trying to achieve spiritual enlightenment, but he’s not satisfied with the establishment teachings, so he goes off to join a group of ascetics, the Samana. He stays there for a while, but he still feels like there’s something missing, so he leaves the ascetics and strikes out on his own. This introduction is fine; it’s a little dull to someone as uninterested in spirituality as me, but I can sort of understand Siddhartha’s thought process, and an important component of Buddhism is a rejection of both hedonism and asceticism, so this is a necessary step.
But then things get…weird. When he enters the nearby town Siddhartha has no money or food, of course; ascetics make their living by begging. The people still assume he is one, and someone gives him a rice cake. How does he react?
He was suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling of pride. He was a Samana no longer; it was no longer fitting that he should beg. He gave the rice cake to a dog
This is ~500 BC India. Farmers worked hard and expended resources to make that rice cake. Someone gave it to him with the belief that he was a holy man who deserved it. There are people starving on the streets, non-Brahmin and non-Samana beggars who cannot receive this gift as easily as him.
And he gives it to a dog.
I doubt we’re supposed to be completely on his side here – this is during the chapter where he becomes a hedonist, which is the closest thing to a sin Buddhism has – but I think the flaw is more that he’s considering himself important enough to not beg, not that he’s wasting food. The people who surround Siddhartha do not matter; all that matters is his grandstanding about how great and enlightened he feels. This is an incredibly self-centered and individualistic view of reality, where the rest of the world matters only as a backdrop for your own high-minded philosophizing.
Later Siddhartha becomes a businessman, and is hugely successful of course. He grows dissatisfied with his pleasures and hedonism, however, and forgets the spiritual teachings of his youth. He feels empty and purposeless.
I can understand this, to a point. Yes, even if you have a wealth of material goods, if you have no purpose in life you will be miserable. But, the thing is, it’s not hard to find purpose. There are so many awful things in the world and so many worthy causes you could pledge yourself to. If you have money and influence, there’s a lot you can do to help people and improve the world. You want purpose, Siddhartha? Feed beggars. Help the oppressed. Fight the corruption in the business world. Make the world a better place.
Of course, he doesn’t do that. You want to know what he does?
Siddhartha began to play dice for money and jewels with increasing fervor […] He derived a passionate pleasure through the gambling away and squandering of wretched money. In no other way could he show more clearly and mockingly his contempt for riches, the false deity of businessmen. […] He won thousands, he threw thousands away […] He loved that anxiety, that terrible and oppressive anxiety which he experienced during the game of dice
He wastes all his money on cheap thrills, because that’s apparently the only way he can feel like he’s rejecting the “soul sickness” of his empty pleasures: more empty pleasures.
If he really wanted to show his contempt for riches, he could give that money to the poor, something, anything productive. Instead he gambles it away on nothing. This, ironically, makes him even more obsessed with money; he becomes a harsher businessman who stops being nice to his customers. Oh wait –
Siddhartha became impatient at losses, he lost his patience with slow-paying debtors, he was no longer kindhearted to beggars, he no longer had the desire to give gifts and loans to the poor.
Never mind, he apparently was doing all the stuff I talked about, but it wasn’t good enough for him. “Oh no, my life is so meaningless and empty, I’m only feeding beggars and handing out money to the poor, let me screw them over so I can pursue my own happiness!” At this point, I ran out of sympathy for Siddhartha. I could no longer care about his whining that it’s so hard being a wealthy and intelligent Brahmin who gets everything handed to him, it’s hard and nobody understands. This man is a monster.
I had a similar feeling when I watched Citizen Kane. There were similarities there: a wealthy man who had everything but just wanted people to love him. The story wants me to feel sympathy for him and I just can’t, because he has so many opportunities to help people in real ways that would make them love him, but he just doesn’t take them. The only explanation I’m left with is that he’s an elitist jerk who only wants love from the upper class and believes the lower class isn’t worthy of his appreciation, in which case, why should I care? He’s an elitist jerk. Siddhartha is even worse, because apparently he did do things to help others, it just wasn’t good enough for him because he’s some kind of sociopath.
And I think this is something that’s toxic about Buddhism in general. People can be happy as wealthy philanthropists. You don’t have to give up everything to be happy, and more importantly, it is possible to be happy by helping other people. Siddhartha doesn’t achieve happiness by finding a purpose in his purposeless life, he just accepts that he doesn’t have a purpose and learns to not care. That is certainly one way to achieve personal happiness, but it’s not the only way – yet this book seems to be claiming it is, by showing Siddhartha trying and failing to achieve happiness as a man of the world.
Like one who has eaten and drunk too much and vomits painfully and then feels better, so did [Siddhartha] wish he could rid himself with one terrific heave of these pleasures, of these habits of this entirely senseless life.
You could have at any point, Siddhartha. You just chose not to.
Eventually he realizes the life of a businessman isn’t working for him, so he departs into the wilderness and leaves all his worldly possessions behind.
Without knowing it, [Siddhartha] had endeavored and longed all these years to be like all these other people, like these children. And yet his life had been much more wretched and poorer than theirs, for their aims were not his, nor their sorrows his.
You see, the rich and privileged have just as hard a life as poor people, maybe even harder! It’s so hard being rich and powerful, it’s hard and only Buddhists understand.
Siddhartha goes to live and philosophize with a ferryman. He learns from the river that time is an illusion because the river is everywhere at once.
“That is it […] my life […] was also a river, and Siddhartha the boy, Siddhartha the mature man and Siddhartha the old man, were only separated by shadows, not through reality. Siddhartha’s previous lives were also not in the past, and his death and his return to Brahma are not in the future. Nothing was, nothing will be, everything has reality and presence.”
Siddhartha spoke with delight. This discovery had made [Siddhartha] very happy. Was then not all sorrow in time, all self-torment in fear of time? Were not all difficulties and evil in the world conquered as soon as one conquered time, as soon as one dispelled time?
This is nonsense. Just because you can hack your brain through logical paradoxes does not mean they have any bearing on reality. Believing that all states of time exist simultaneously (and therefore that everything is inevitable) does not conquer evil and sorrow. It will not stop you from being hurt by natural or manmade disasters, and it will not stop anyone else from being hurt either. All difficulties and evil in the world come from society and nature, not time. This complacency, this belief that evil stems from some kind of abstract metaphysical ignorance, is dangerous because it denies people the capacity to fight against real evil in the world. If people are suffering, do you say “Their suffering is because they don’t understand reality like I do, they just need to get over themselves,” or do you try to help them? If you picked the former, congratulations, you’re enlightened!
I’m not exaggerating the inevitability and nihilism aspect here. Later in the story, Siddhartha meets his son, who is a bratty noble’s kid. Siddhartha fears that his son will flee to the city and fall into the same empty hedonism he did, so he tries to keep his son with the ferryman. The ferryman tells him he’s misguided for feeling this way and should give up.
“Do you really think that you have committed your follies in order to spare your son them? Can you then protect your son from [fate]? How? Through instruction, through prayers, through exhortation? My dear friend, have you forgotten that instructive story about Siddhartha, the Brahmin’s son, which you once told me here? Who protected Siddhartha the Samana from [fate], from sin, greed, and folly? Could his father’s piety, his teacher’s exhortations, his own knowledge, his own seeking, protect him? Which father, which teacher, could prevent him from living his own life, from soiling himself with life, from loading himself with sin, from swallowing the bitter drink himself, from finding his own path? Do you think, my dear friend, that anybody is spared this path? Perhaps your little son, because you would like to see him spared sorrow and pain and disillusionment? But if you were to die ten times for him, you would not alter his destiny in the slightest.”
And later, after the son does run away:
“I must follow him,” said Siddhartha, […] “A child cannot go through the forest alone; he will come to some harm. […]”
“[…] [Let] him go, my friend, he is not a child anymore, he knows how to look after himself. He is seeking the way to the town and he is right. Do not forget that. He is doing what you yourself have neglected to do. He is looking after himself; he is going his own way. Oh, Siddhartha, I can see you are suffering, suffering pain over which one should laugh, over which you will soon laugh yourself.”
If you see someone going down an obviously self-destructive path, don’t try to stop them. If you see someone making the same mistakes you did, don’t say anything. To think you can change anything, to think that you can make the world even a slightly better place, is childishly naïve, absurd even. Suffering is inevitable, so don’t try to help people. Just give up.
So after he, in his wisdom, lets his son go, Siddhartha continues being a ferryman. Listen to how he describes the people he sees:
When he now took the usual kind of travelers across […] they no longer seemed alien to him as they once had. He did not understand or share their thoughts and views, but he shared with them life’s urges and desires. Although he had reached a high state of self-discipline […] he now felt as though these people were his brothers. Their vanities, desires and trivialties no longer seemed absurd to him; they had become understandable, lovable and even worthy of respect. There was the blind love of a mother for her child, the blind foolish pride of a fond father for his only son, the blind eager strivings of a young vain woman for ornament and the adoration of men. […] For their sake he saw people live and do great things, travel, conduct wars, suffer and endure immensely, and he loved them for it. […] These people were worthy of love and admiration in their blind loyalty, in their blind strength and tenacity. With the exception of one small thing, one tiny little thing, they lacked nothing that the sage and thinker had, and that was the consciousness of the unity of all life. And many a time Siddhartha even doubted whether this knowledge, this thought, was of such great value, whether it was not also perhaps the childish self-flattery of thinkers, who were perhaps only thinking children. The men of the world were equal to the thinkers in every other respect and were often superior to them, just as animals in their tenacious undeviating actions in cases of necessity may often seem superior to human beings.
These are the thoughts of an enlightened Siddhartha, who is almost at the end of his spiritual journey of becoming a Buddha. They sound like a sociopath trying to describe people. It’s so blatantly condescending and patronizing: “Oh, these ordinary people are so like me and so not, they love their children, isn’t it quaint? Of course they don’t understand the one great truth like I do, but I won’t judge them for it, I’ll just wait for them to see it.” And then he compares them to animals while trying to put them on a pedestal at the same time. It’s just… creepy. Siddhartha describes humanity like it’s some quaint novelty he appreciates on an academic level but can’t manage an emotional connection with. He’s horrifically detached.
The story ends with Siddhartha becoming a Buddha and telling his childhood friend Govinda about his enlightened views on the world. It is terrifying.
The world, Govinda, is not imperfect or slowly evolving along a long path to perfection. No, it is perfect at every moment; every sin already carries grace within it, all small children are potential old men[…] During deep meditation it is possible to dispel time, to see simultaneously all the past, present and future, and then everything is good, everything is perfect, everything is Brahman. Therefore, it seems to me that everything that exists is good–death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly. Everything is necessary, everything needs only my agreement, my assent, my loving understanding; then all is well with me and nothing can harm me. […] [I have learned] to love the world, and no longer compare it with some kind of desired imaginary world, some imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and be glad to belong to it.
You heard him: the world is perfect just the way it is. Any suffering you see is meant to be there and to teach us some kind of lesson. When a man beats your child to death with a dead kitten, don’t do anything about it, just sit there and smile radiantly because it’s inevitable and there’s no point in stopping it. When people are systematically oppressed and forced to eke out a horrible, miserable existence for completely preventable reasons, don’t do anything to change that. When people are dying of preventable diseases, just let nature take its course. Don’t try to stop genocidal maniacs, just lie down and die. The true sin is judging the world as somehow wrong, as not matching up to your expectations. Your vision of a better world can never come to pass, so don’t even try. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Karl Marx – such silly people, thinking they could change the status quo! They were just childish, angsty rebels who didn’t realize the wonderful truth. We don’t judge, though! It’s okay because they’ll become a Buddha in another life, when they’re ready.
And you know what? If you believe in Samsara, fate, that this life and this world are just transitory, then that’s absolutely correct. The state of the world isn’t really important if we’re all immortal and destined to live countless different lives. Trying to change the world is misguided, because it’s not real, just a morality play meant to teach us something. To trash the set and rewrite the script to be the way you want it is indeed childish and absurd.
But if you don’t think that way – if you believe that there is no greater order to anything and this life is all we’ve got – then that worldview is terrifying.
From a cynical perspective, karma really is the ultimate way to enforce the status quo, isn’t it? The Christian version – the best-of-all-possible-worlds theory – broke down because people just couldn’t rationalize it. Everyone who suffers did something to deserve it, really, even newborn babies? People see the holes, and it makes them uncomfortable. But say those babies were Hitler in a past life, and, well, carry on! There’s always a way to rationalize suffering: people can be guilty of crimes they’ve never committed.
I won’t deny that, on a personal level, Buddhism is certainly an effective route to happiness. If you don’t care about anything, you can no longer be disappointed, and thus will always be content. If seeing people suffer makes you sad and uncomfortable (and by whatever powers you believe in, I dearly hope that’s true for you), then being told you don’t have to worry about it will definitely make you happier. This is all true.
But personal happiness isn’t everything, because your life is intimately tied to everyone else’s. You can ruin the lives of everyone around you while still being perfectly happy, and that’s the logical conclusion of this philosophy, because giving up all attachments also means giving up caring about the happiness of others. It’s just as I said earlier – if you see someone being beaten to death in front of you, you can’t try to help them, because then you’d have to care about them and have expectations about their survival, and that means you could be disappointed if those expectations aren’t met. So, the only thing a Buddha can do in that situation is smile serenely and say it’s okay, their suffering has meaning, maybe they did a bad thing in a past life, better luck next time. If you care about that person and try to help them, you’re not a Buddha.
It’s especially toxic when applied so widely, to entire cultures. There is no room for social justice in a Buddhist world. There can be no improvement, no critiques, no change. Sit down and learn to accept what you have because the world is perfect, period. It enables suffering and oppression that could be stopped if people just had the willpower to stand up and fight.
I don’t know. Maybe this book got it completely wrong, and Buddhism is a perfectly valid philosophy that’s just been twisted through a Western, individualist lens. But I’ve heard some pretty similar Buddhist stuff before, so it’s not so easy for me to dismiss the book like that. I’m sure people would say that my Western upbringing is preventing me from “getting it”. They’re probably right. But I’m not sure I want to “get it”. I understand why Herman Hesse wrote this book, and I understand why people believe in Buddhism, but I can’t agree with it. I just can’t.
My English teacher would probably tell me that I’m “passing judgment” and that’s wrong. Well, yeah. I am passing judgment, just like I pass the judgment that murder and thievery and racism are wrong. Passing judgment is how we make sense of the world, and I’m founding my judgment on the evidence presented in front of me. On the most fundamental level, I just cannot believe there is no progress or improvement in the world. I cannot believe that there is nothing people can do to make it better; I cannot believe people hold no blame for thoughtless or cruel actions on the basis nothing can make it worse either.