Siddhartha | Study Guide

Hermann Hesse

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Siddhartha | Part 1, Gotama | Summary



Govinda and Siddhartha seek Gotama in the town of Savathi, in the Jetavana garden, a retreat gifted to the Buddha by the wealthy merchant Anathapindika. A huge crowd is gathered there, and monks begging for food circulate. Siddhartha recognizes one of these as the unassuming Buddha, "lost in thought" and wearing "a secret smile." The two friends follow this quiet, peaceful man, whom Siddhartha recognizes as "truly a holy man to his fingertips." Despite this, Siddhartha does not think he will learn anything new from Gotama. They listen to the Buddha preach wonderfully on how to end suffering in life. Govinda asks to join the community of worshippers and is accepted. Siddhartha does not do the same, but he offers his blessing to his dear friend. When Govinda weeps at their impending separation, Siddhartha reminds him of his oath to Gotama. "You have renounced home and parents ... origin and property ... your own will ... friendship. That is what the teachings preach," he says, and that Govinda has chosen it for himself.

After Govinda departs to join his new order, Siddhartha encounters the Buddha and asks permission to speak with him. He praises Gotama's clear teachings that show "the world as a complete, unbroken chain ... linked together by cause and effect." However, he gently criticizes the fact that Gotama cannot in words explain his "doctrine of rising above the world, of salvation." The Buddha acknowledges Siddhartha's deep thought, but points out that his own goal is not "to explain the world to those who are thirsty for knowledge," but rather to teach "salvation from suffering" and nothing more. Siddhartha then points out that Gotama learned his wisdom "by [his] own seeking, in [his] own way," not through the teachings of others, and that he intends to follow the same path himself. Siddhartha's goal remains the "release from the Self," rather than forming the Self into a disciple of the Buddha. Gotama departs, offering Siddhartha a friendly warning to "[b]e on his guard against too much cleverness" within himself. Siddhartha admires the Buddha's demeanor, "so free, so worthy, so restrained, so candid, so childlike and mysterious," and hopes to someday become the same by conquering the Self. He reflects after their conversation: "The Buddha has robbed me of my friend ... but he has given to me Siddhartha, myself."


Siddhartha's sharp mind can be both a help and a hindrance in his quest for enlightenment. Once he gets an idea into his head, he clings to it stubbornly and sets his course accordingly. For example, even before meeting Gotama, it seems Siddhartha's mind is already made up about the man. Siddhartha doesn't think he will learn anything new from the Buddha's teachings, a stance that could seem rather arrogant or perhaps cynical. Siddhartha must admit, though, that Gotama is "truly a holy man," and he finds much to admire in his bearing and teachings. It's noticeable that all of the disciplines Siddhartha rejects have their own merits and admirable practitioners—they simply are not enough to convince Siddhartha. Even Gotama still falls short for the younger man, who picks apart his teachings, looking for flaws in reasoning.

Gotama, though, has "been there, done that," having already trod the path Siddhartha now walks. Hesse's use of two separate characters that essentially represent the same person is particularly effective here. Siddhartha is the young Buddha yet-to-be, while Gotama represents what he will become later in life after achieving enlightenment. Gotama's friendly warning not to overthink things ("be on your guard against too much cleverness") is like a message delivered back in time to his younger self, Siddhartha. No doubt, in Gotama's mind, he is thinking, "If I only knew then what I know now." It seems inevitable, though, that Siddhartha will carry on in his own way, just as Gotama came to wisdom "by [his] own seeking, in [his] own way."

Siddhartha misses the point of the teachings entirely, which is "salvation from suffering," rather than a clear explanation of how the world works. Siddhartha seems to believe he can think himself to enlightenment, but Gotama's warning implies otherwise. Gotama's teachings include the Four Noble Truths, one of which states that people cause their own suffering through desire (craving) or aversion (the wish to avoid something). Siddhartha's own relentless search for nirvana is precisely the kind of suffering Gotama means. It is possible that had Siddhartha embraced these teachings, he could have avoided much of the suffering that was yet to come for him. On the other hand, perhaps this future suffering is his destiny so that can finally learn what it means to be fully human and embrace it.

Govinda begins to forge more of his own path now, rather than following in the footsteps of others. He takes the lead in joining Gotama's followers, even before asking if Siddhartha will do so. It doesn't occur to him that Siddhartha might do otherwise, but even after his friend opts out, Govinda sticks to his pledge to follow the Buddha. After years of companionship, the childhood friends separate finally. Siddhartha feels Gotama has robbed him of a friend, but he recognizes he is now freer to be himself than ever. "He has given to me Siddhartha, myself," alone and independent, able to go where he will and do as he pleases, unfettered—even from his best friend.

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