I don’t get symbolism. Rather, I do get it, but I’m always skeptical that I may be getting something the author never intended. I think and analyze too much instead of just lightening up and enjoying what’s right in front of me. When it comes to reading, I’m a bit like those tourists (Japanese ones, if I may allow myself to stereotype) who keep clicking away at their digital cameras often missing the beauty and serenity of whatever it is that they are recording for posterity.
But, unlike the tourist, I can read the book again and again. Although I click as much the second time around and ponder as hard, some things do get through.
When I read Siddhartha, I asked myself if the names like Kamala and Kamaswami were random choices or signified something. After all, the first part “Kama” means something akin to worldliness or desire (greed or lust really, but not with so much negative connotation) in Sanskrit. Are Vasudeva and Givinda really gods as the name suggests?
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Siddhartha is the life-story of a contemporary of Buddha — about 2500 years ago in India. Even as a young child, Siddhartha has urges to pursue a path that would eventually take him to salvation. As a Brahmin, he had already mastered the prayers and rituals. Leaving this path of piety (Bhaktiyoga), he joins a bunch of ascetics who see the way to salvation in austerity and penances (probably Hatayoga and Rajayoga). But Siddhartha soon tires of this path. He learns almost everything the ascetics had to teach him and realizes that even the oldest and wisest of them is no closer to salvation than he himself is. He then meets with the Buddha, but doesn’t think that he could “learn” the wisdom of the illustrious one. His path then undergoes a metamorphosis and takes a worldly turn (which is perhaps a rendition of Grahasthashrama or Karmayoga). He seeks to experience life through Kamala, the beautiful courtesan, and Kamaswamy the merchant. When at last he is fully immersed in the toxic excesses of the world, his drowning spirit calls out for liberation from it. He finally finds enlightenment and wisdom from the river that he had to cross back and forth in his journeys between the worlds of riches and wisdom.
For one who seeks symbolism, Siddhartha provides it aplenty.
- Why is there a Vaishnava temple when Siddhartha decides to forgo the spiritual path for a world one? Is it a coincidence or is it an indication of the philosophical change from an Advaita line to a patently Dwaita line?
- Is the name Siddhartha (same as that of the Buddha) a coincidence?
- Does the bird in the cage represent a soul imprisoned in Samsara? If so, is its death a sad ending or a happy liberation?
- The River of life that has to be crossed — is it Samsara itself? If so, is the ferryman a god who will help you cross it and reach the ultimate salvation? Why is it that Siddhartha has to cross it to reach the world of Kamala and Kamaswamy, and cross it back to his eventual enlightenment? Kamala also crosses the river to his side before passing on.
- The affection for and the disillusionment in the little Siddhartha is the last chain of bondage (Mohamaya) that follows Siddhartha across the river. It is only after breaking that chain that Siddhartha is finally able to experience Nirvana — enlightenment and liberation. Is there a small moral hiding there?
One thing I noticed while reading many of these great works is that I can readily identify myself with the protagonist. I fancy that I have the simple greatness of Larry Darrell, and fear that I secretly possess the abominable baseness of Charles Strickland. I feel the indignant torture of Philip Carey or Jay Gatsby. And, sure, I experience the divine urges of Siddhartha. No matter how much of a stretch each of these comparisons may be. Admittedly, this self-identification may have its roots more in my vanity than any verisimilitude. Or is it the genius of these great writers who create characters so vivid and real that they talk directly to the naked primordial soul within us, stripped of our many layers of ego? In them, we see the distorted visions of our troubled souls, and in their words, we hear the echoes of our own unspoken impulses. Perhaps we are all the same deep within, part of the same shared consciousness.
One thing I re-learned from this book is that you cannot learn wisdom from someone else. (How is that for an oxymoron?) You can learn knowledge, information, data — yes. But wisdom — no. Wisdom is the assimilation of knowledge; it is the end product of your mind and soul working on whatever you find around you, be it the sensory data, cognitive constructs, knowledge and commonsense handed down from previous generations, or the concepts you create for yourself. It is so much a part of you that it is you yourself, which is why the word Buddha means Wisdom. The person Buddha and his wisdom are not two. How can you then communicate your wisdom? No wonder Siddhartha did not seek it from the Buddha.
Wisdom, according to Hermann Hesse, can come only from your own experiences, both sublime and prosaic.