Passion, Compassion, Values and Beliefs: Siddhartha
Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha is a classic by the virtue of portraying the author’s own intense efforts to understand life and its experiences through his protagonist, whose name means ‘one who has found the meaning of his existence’.
As the seminal work of Hesse, published in 1922, its lucidity is in complete contrast with the depths it comes from. It is the opinion of most commentators that this allegorical tale is a moral one, and not a philosophical treatise, but I beg to differ. I see the protagonist at the head of philosophical musings in terms of both ‘logic and reasoning’ and ‘metaphysics’. And, at the same time, going beyond the realms of Western philosophy, it possibly alludes to transcendence in the following assertion ‘One must find the source within one’s own Self, one must possess it’.
The story offers a mesmerising interplay of four key concepts: passion, compassion, beliefs and values.
The dictionary defines passion as any powerful or compelling emotion or feeling, as love or hate; a strong affection or enthusiasm for an object, concept. Philosophically it is defined as any state of mind in which it is affected by something external, such as perception, desire etc, as contrasted with action; feelings desires or emotions, as contrasted with reason. It is passion when Siddhartha decides to leave his home and family to become a Samana, which revisits him in his urge to leave that course to join the other side of the world. It’s his passion for learning that takes him to Kamala, the courtesan and to Kamaswami, so he can obtain the means to survive in that world.
Compassion is defined as a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering. The word for compassion in Hindi is Samvedana, the key being ‘Sam’, which means ‘same’. Thus, the compassionate feels the pain quite similarly as his sufferer out of his sympathy for the latter.
It is compassion when Siddhartha understands his friend Govinda’s quest for Nirvana and lets him trace his own path leaving his side. Much later in his life when his own son leaves him for the life of comfort he is used to, Siddhartha feels compassion for his father, whom he had left too. It’s the same quality guised as respect for the businessman Kamaswami, as he helps him out in his work. He refuses to discipline and punish his spoilt son when faced with disrespect, all out of compassion.
Beliefs refer to our confidence in something, irrespective of the potential susceptibility to rigorous proof. It is thus a psychological state in which one holds a premise to be true.
The strength of Siddhartha’s beliefs is reflected in his rejection of teachings in the form of ideas, words, thoughts and concepts. He says, ‘Knowledge is communicable. Wisdom is not.’ He straddles the world of logic and metaphysics drawn from eastern philosophy thus, ‘Everything that is thought and is expressed in words is one-sided, only half the truth’. He elaborates, ‘When the illustrious Buddha taught about the world, he had to divide it into Sansara and Nirvana. Suffering and Salvation.’ And finally, even challenges Gautam Buddha, whom he had met, with words: One cannot do otherwise, there is no other method for those who teach.
True to his beliefs, he renounces everything to become an ascetic, goes out into the world when he feels disillusioned, and again rejects everything he had achieved in search for answers to his growing discontentment. Again, he lets himself feel the anguish and pain of love for his son, drawing lessons from the flowing river a symbol of eternal change and continuity, as taught by his friend Vasudeva, who ferries his boat across it.
Values refer to the sum total of desired end states that individuals aspire for and the instrumentalities through which they aim to achieve them. Thus, they are related to the appropriate courses of both actions and outcomes.
Ultimately, his leadership qualities shine through from inside out, with his unparalleled stewardship of the mind, body and spirit. Holding a senior ascetic spell-bound, to mastering rigours of life in a forest, to acquiring worldly possessions and conquering a beautiful courtesan without becoming attached, to not compromising his beliefs and values, to humbly respecting Vasudeva’s teachings and his advice over his own son, to loving Govinda, the Hero is masterful in dealing with his own passions, shortcomings and feelings.
In his own words, when he concludes that ‘love is the most important thing in the world. I think it is only important to love the world, not to despise it the reader is overcome with a flicker of transcendence and peace.
Perhaps, one of the most powerful lessons comes from Siddhartha’s response to Kamaswami when he asks him what he has learnt and was capable of doing: I can think. I can wait. I can fast. The ability to think gives one the power of passion, of reflective listening, of reason, of analysis, and of considered judgment. The ability to wait gives one the power of patience, of persistence, of persuasion, and of comprehension. Finally, the ability to fast gives one the power of compassion, of equanimity, of looking at pleasure and pain as transitory, and of detachment.