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Written in response to a few prompts including the symbolism of the river in Herman Hesse's novel, Siddhartha. For me, this was a particularly difficult essay to write. The concepts dealt with in the novel span Buddhism and Hindu, to more philosophical ideas such as timlessness. The primary character, Siddhartha, explores various types of life and religion in the novel. Through such exploration he comes upon his personal beliefs.

Forming A Balance

In Siddhartha's quest for enlightenment, Herman Hesse makes the river the final focal point of the novel. Siddhartha is set on his journey to the river by listening to his inner voice and questioning authority. The river comes to represent the ideas through which Siddhartha reaches enlightenment. The essential concepts of time and how it relates to life are discovered by Siddhartha through listening to the river. He comes to realize that his previous conclusion is correct, wisdom cannot be taught. When he reaches nirvana, he also sees how spiritualism and materialism both have a place in the cycle of life. Acting as Siddhartha's inspiration to his ultimate goal, the river operates as a significant element in Hesse's novel, Siddhartha.

Early in the novel, Siddhartha sets his life pattern by questioning the authority of Hinduism. With his friend Govinda, he begins life amongst the samanas. With the samanas, Siddhartha begins to master their teachings. Feeling unfulfilled, Siddhartha concludes as an ascetic he will not reach bliss as the eldest samana has yet to obtain enlightenment. Leaving the forest, Siddhartha and Govinda go to hear the teachings of the illustrious Buddha. After listening to Gotama's preaching, Siddhartha realizes that he will not reach enlightenment through teachings but along a path which he must contrive. Once again lead by his inner voice, Siddhartha begins to explore life in the material world. Over the ensuing twenty years, he becomes deeply entangled with samsara. In forgetting the past teachings, Siddhartha is able to start his journey anew. Disgusted with his life, Siddhartha leaves again and discovers the river. By listening to his inner voice and questioning authority, Siddhartha is guided to the river where he learns the concepts of time.

With Vasudeva, Siddhartha begins spiritually as a child. By destroying his old Self, Siddhartha is no longer hindered by "too much knowledge...too much doing and striving." (99) Thus, as a child Siddhartha begins to hear the river, and learn from it. In his education, the concept of time repeatedly arises. The river is seen as always flowing and changing, just as the world does. Siddhartha comes to understand that life is transitory, a cycle that is eternally repeating. Looking at the river, it is made of water, water from the rains. Before that, the water was in the clouds, the air, evaporated from the river. Travelling from sky to earth, brook to river, the river is always present. The only change is how it is reflected in the ephemeral life. The continual flow from one to another illustrates the principle of timelessness.

The Buddhist concept of timelessness is based on the wheel of life. Because of future reincarnation, Buddhists to not perceive time as a fixed linear progression and therefore time is irrelevant. The river signifies time in that "the river is everywhere at the same time...the present only exists for it...not the past...nor the future." (107) Time is the idea of passing events, just as the river comes to illustrate the same when Siddhartha sees his life has been a river of events. However, because a river is ever present and always in motion, time is also dynamic. Being perpetual, the river and time are symbolically the same; therefore, the world of events is timeless. The idea of timelessness is again expressed when Govinda has a vision during his last visit with Siddhartha. He saw faces of different people, continually flowing from one to another, "yet none of them died...only changed." (150) Because the faces are continually changing, Govinda understands that everything exists in one form or another. Again, he reaches the same conclusion that time is irrelevant.

Through his experiences in life, Siddhartha comes to the conclusion that wisdom cannot be taught. He attempts to explain to Govinda that wisdom cannot be put into words for others to acquire. For once it is done so, it becomes knowledge rather than wisdom. Insight is gained through one's personal experiences, living a life unclouded by doctrines and other knowledge. Vasudeva reaches enlightenment not through teachers, but by listening and understanding the world around him. Gotama sought his own path before becoming enlightened by denouncing his heritage and religion to seek his way in life. Buddha fell to the same "foolishness" (143) by trying to spread his teachings as the way to Nirvana. He divided the world into a none sided existence because "words [are] one sided...only half the truth..." (143) Gotama failed to see that the opposites of each truth have the same credibility, the difference arises when a particular point of view is chosen. With a unilateral system of contradictions such as having no desires, yet seeking Nirvana, in the truths illustrate how wisdom cannot be properly communicated without misinterpreting some meanings.

During the various significant stages in his life, Siddhartha goes through varying differing balances between spirituality and materialism. As a youth, a Brahmin's son, he concentrated on knowledge of the scriptures and rituals. Knowledge is another part of the martial world and the excessive materialism prevented Siddhartha from being satisfied. As a samana, he was completely enveloped in the spiritual world: meditating, fasting and attempting to escape from his Self. As discontent grew within his heart, he left the forest and eventually became fully engrossed in the material world as a merchant. As a samana and merchant, a severe imbalance between physical and spiritual ideas is created. With this extreme lack of balance, one cannot reach Brahma because one is denying his Self instead of embracing it. Living along the river as a ferryman, Siddhartha begins to balance these opposing forces. In equilibrium, he is no longer lacking basic material needs of food and shelter nor neglecting intrinsic spiritual demands. With this harmony between mind and soul, he is at peace with his Self and nature. The synergy between the two ideas led him to seeing the river and its place in the world.

Siddhartha achieves enlightenment though listening to the river. On his long journey to tranquility, he grows to question authority. Freethinking that leads him to the river where he learns the concepts of time and timelessness. From seeing many disciples of varying religions, Siddhartha decides that wisdom is incommunicable. His last revelation comes has he reaches nirvana. The two worlds of spiritualism and materialism do not exist as forces to side with but powers to be in harmony with. The ideas discovered come through his life experiences and most significantly at the river and the nature of it.

Copyright, © Greg Wittel 1996-2000. All Rights Reserved.

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