|Good old Shambhala*|
I always had this vague impression that Siddhartha was a book about Buddhism that deep people read in college. I never had any particular desire to read it myself, but eventually I figured that I don't know anything about Hermann Hesse and maybe I ought to find out. For one thing, The Glass Bead Game sounds like something I do want to read, but it's on the scary side, so maybe I should start slow with Siddhartha and Steppenwolf, huh?
Hesse was an intellectual, philosopher kind of guy with severe health problems that prevented him from doing the things that were normal for people his age, like university and war. He wound up in Switzerland and did join the military during World War I, but was unfit for front duty. Anyway, he was totally uninterested in the nationalistic trends around him and instead read a lot about Theosophy, Buddhism, and pacifism, and all that led to the writing of Siddhartha in 1922.
Siddhartha reads like a cross between a fable and a hagiography. Siddhartha is a young Brahmin brought up in strictest piety, and he's very gifted, so that everybody is impressed with his abilities. He decides to become a wandering holy beggar, a shramana, and his best friend/sidekick Govinda joins him in essentially running away from home. Together they wander around and work on attaining enlightenment, and then they go to see the famous sage and saint, Gotama Buddha. Both are hugely impressed by Gotama, but while Govinda decides to become a follower, Siddhartha leaves to continue his wanderings. Almost immediately, he meets a beautiful courtesan, and decides that he should learn about all this worldly stuff like business and money even though he's totally above it all. (His thought process is pretty muddled here, heh). For years, Siddhartha indulges himself in a worldly lifestyle, while still cherishing the belief that he is more enlightened and detached than everybody else--despite his severe gambling problem. Eventually he comes to a realization and leaves it all behind to become a boatman on the river as a disciple-apprentice to Vasudeva, a simple and saintly boatman. Through all these phases of life, Siddhartha learns to love all of creation and becomes a saint himself.
So it's not exactly about Buddhism, but it sort of is. Although Siddhartha declines to follow Gotama and has differing opinions by the end, he knows that in reality they agree. It all gets very oneness-of-the-universy. On the whole, it's a very nice story, and I liked it a whole lot better than the Brecht play I also read this week (ugh) or the Faulkner book I got in the Spin (double ugh), so I appreciated the chance to read something pleasant.
*When I was in college, the original Shambhala Publications shop was down the street. It closed about 10 years ago and the company is now based in Colorado.