What’s it about?
This book follows the life of Siddhartha, a young man living in rural, possibly ancient India, who struggles to find his place in the world. Born into a religious family, he is soon dissatisfied, believing that asceticism, or the renuncuation of his phyiscial needs, will grant him true happiness and answer soem of his philosophical questions. Eventually, he decided that a life of pleasure and sensory indulgence might give him more happiness and more answers, so he forsakes the life of a monk for it.
Siddhartha continues to wander and search for meaning in his life, never afraid to make a radical change when he feels stuck. Eventually he finds peace by accepting the totality of existence, understanding the paradox that pain and happiness are two sides of the same coin.
This book sort of gets pegged as a coming-of-age book, like The Catcher in the Rye or The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but that characterization misses the mark. Siddhartha is different because his self-discovery was not a quick one-off experience. It wasn’t even restricted to his youth; he was trying to find peace and understanding well into old age. Coming-of-age books always seem to carry the implication that while it may be hard to find your purpose and meaning in the world, once you gain some crucial piece of knowledge, you’re set. Ta-da, enlightenment! Of course, that’s not how life works, and this book understands that it’s an ongoing, iterative process.
Siddhartha learns eventually that the key to happiness is to accept the unity of all things, and accept the world as it is. Strong opinions are an obstacle to this understanding, especially dogmatic ones. He learns to realize that every opinion has an opposite, and that to gain true wisdom, you need to listen to both voices with a certain detachment, committing to neither.
Another thing I like about this book is that it promotes a playful approach to life. Siddhartha makes his decisions after much deliberation, but everything he end up doing seems to reflect a light touch. His understanding of the transience of life manifests itself in everything he does.
But despite all the good things about this book, I can’t say that I recommend it. For me, there is nothing new. All of the most powerful ideas can be explored more deeply in other books. It’s not quite a coming-of-age book, but in some ways it reads like one. I realize that it’s written as a parable, similar to Coehlo’s The Alchemist, but still I wanted more depth that never came. It’s just vague and New Age-y enough to be a little bit shallow, and although it’s a classic, most people are safe to skip it.
“He always seems to be playing at business, it never makes much impression on him, it never masters him, he bever fears failure, he is never worried about a loss.”
“[G]entleness is stronger than severity… water is stronger than rock…love is stronger than force.”
“Both thought and the senses were fine things, behind both of them lay hidden the last meaning; it was worth while listening to them both, to play with both, neither to despise nor overrate either of them, but to listen intently to both voices.”