Book Review – Siddhartha

Over the last decade or so, I’ve come across Siddhartha on many people’s lists of favorite books. Despite its short length, it sat unread on my shelf for many years. I even carried it around in my bag for a while, but never seemed to be in the right place to pick it up. Last summer I finally read it and began this post, only to have my draft succumb to the same dust-collecting fate.

The story follows the titular main character, who leaves home with his best friend, Govinda, in search of enlightenment. They reject material possessions, as taught by the Samanas, and one day they hear of a character named Gotama who has achieved enlightenment and journey to meet him. Gotama, the Buddha, has gained quite a following, and Govinda quickly joins his ranks; however, Siddhartha believes that one cannot attain enlightenment solely from the guidance of another, and so he leaves on his own, taking some of Gotama’s teachings in tow. (The character’s name Siddhartha being a nod to the birth name of the Buddha himself.) His journey’s take him from gaining riches to learn the art of love from a courtesan and to a simple life as a river ferryman, obtaining enlightenment from nature and the river itself.

I thought I would use this post to just talk about some of the quotes that resonated with me during the read.

“Dear Kamala, where can I go in order to obtain these three things as quickly as possible?”
“My friend, many people want to know that. You must do what you have learned and obtain money, clothes and shoes for it. A poor man cannot obtain money otherwise.”
“I can think, I can wait, I can fast.”
—-
“Listen, Kamala, when you throw a stone into the water, it finds the quickest way to the bottom of the water. It is the same when Siddhartha has an aim, a goal. Siddhartha does nothing; he waits, he thinks, he fasts, but he goes through the affairs of the world like the stone through the water, without doing anything, without bestirring himself; he is drawn and lets himself fall. He is drawn by his goal, for he does not allow anything to enter his mind which opposes his goal. That is what Siddhartha learned from the Samanas. It is what fools call magic and what they think is caused by demons. Nothing is caused by demons; there are no demons. Everyone can perform magic, everyone can reach his goal, if he can think, wait and fast.”

Siddhartha’s response to the courtesan Kamala that he can think, wait, and fast is probably the quote I have seen most often. While I have myself played around with intermittent fasting, I think the main lesson is that of patience and non-reactivity. Increasingly in our fast paced world, everything is viewed as a house fire for which immediate action is required. But often, the best plan is to sit back (wait), ignore our bodies raging fire alarms (fast), and take time to reflect upon the best course of action (think).

At times he heard within him a soft, gentle voice, which reminded him quietly, complained quietly, so that he could hardly hear it. Then he suddenly saw clearly that he was leading a strange life, that he was doing many things that were only a game, that he was quite cheerful and sometimes experienced pleasure, but that real life was flowing past him and did not touch him. Like a player who plays with his ball, he played with his business, with the people around him, watched them, derived amusement from them; but with his heart, with his real nature, he was not there. His real self wandered elsewhere, far away, wandered on and on invisibly and had nothing to do with his life. He was sometimes afraid of these thoughts and wished that he could also share their childish daily affairs with intensity, truly take part in them, to enjoy and live their lives instead of only being there as an onlooker.

This passage talks about the importance of presence. Much of the time I find myself trying to plan for future events and to get through the present in order to get there. It is tricky to figure out a good balance, for if we don’t plan at all, then there are many goals that become logistically unobtainable. But not all of life needs to be a strugglefest to the top, and I would do well to remind myself of that more often.

I have far from covered all of my highlights, and I’m sure I’ll come back and gain new insights once I have learned and had more life experiences myself. But for now, whenever I’m struggling through a crisis, I can whisper to myself to think, wait, and fast.

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