Instead of reading the latest Harry Potter book, I spent last night reading Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. I have intended to read the book since junior year of high school, when one of my friends noted similarities between an English essay I had written entitled "Under the Tire" with Hesse's novel Beneath the Wheel.
Siddhartha was far more interesting from an intellectual point of view and relevant to my life than the Harry Potter book would have been. The book's setting in India at the time of the Buddha. Like the Buddha, Siddhartha is a Indian Brahmin dissatisfied with his way of life. In hopes of finding enlightenment, he and his friend Govinda leave home to become ascetics, or Samanas. Siddhartha means "he who succeeds," so it is no surprise that Siddhartha is as successful in his life as a Samana as he was as a Brahmin. However, he is still not happy. Siddhartha and Govinda leave the Samanas and see the charismatic figure Gotama, the Buddha. While Govinda decides to become a disciple, Siddhartha continues on his travels, eventually become a wealthy merchant and ferryman.
Had I read the book during high school, I am certain that I would have seen it as a confirmation of existentialism. My primary goal in life in a period extending from senior year of high school through the entirety of freshman year of college was to become an existentialist - confident, unemotional, and completely unbeholden to anyone else. Siddhartha is estranged from mankind, living a life that is emotionally separate from the rest of mankind. He is happiest when he listens to his conscience, represented as an inner voice, accepting it as the final judge of right and wrong:
To obey like this, not to an external command, only to the voice, to be ready like this, this was good, this was necessary, nothing else was necessary.
But Siddhartha's eventual enlightenment, which is attained during his tenure as a ferryman when he recognizes that everyone contains all things and time does not truly exist, is much harder to understand than the clear beliefs of existentialism. Hesse seems to recognize this, having Govinda express this confusion:
But secretly he thought to himself: This Siddhartha is a bizarre
person, he expresses bizarre thoughts, his teachings sound foolish.
So differently sound the exalted one's [Buddha's] pure teachings, clearer, purer,
more comprehensible, nothing strange, foolish, or silly is contained in