Literature Study GuidesSiddharthaPart 1 With The Samanas Summary

Siddhartha | Study Guide

Hermann Hesse

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Siddhartha | Part 1, With the Samanas | Summary



Govinda and Siddhartha are accepted into the Samanas, and Siddhartha embraces the ascetic lifestyle completely. He gives away most of his clothes and fasts for weeks until "the flesh disappear[s] from his legs and cheeks." He observes the ordinary people around him with disdain, seeing them as "lies ... all illusions of sense, happiness, and beauty. All ... doomed to decay." His one goal becomes to "let the Self die ... to experience the peace of an emptied heart, to experience pure thought." When all his sorrows and desires are gone, he thinks, he will at last know the "innermost of Being that is no longer Self—the great secret!" Siddhartha practices self-denial to the extreme, standing in the freezing rain and the scorching sun to master pain and suffering. He is taught to project himself into other living creatures, from a flying heron to a dead jackal on the shore. He loses his Self thousands of times, "and for days on end he [dwells] in non-being," but he always comes back to himself.

Unhappy with his progress, he asks Govinda's opinion on how their work is going. Govinda responds that they are both still learning, but he expects Siddhartha will become a great Samana. Siddhartha isn't so sure, and claims he could have learned the same lessons a lot more easily "in a prostitute's quarter, amongst the carriers and dice players." After all, he explains, practices such as meditation and fasting are techniques for losing the Self. The average person achieves this same "temporary escape" from the pain of life when they drink, "falling asleep over [their] bowl of rice wine." Still dissatisfied, Siddhartha notes that the oldest Samana among them "is sixty years old and has not attained Nirvana." Siddhartha doubts any Samana will ever achieve Nirvana. Moreover, his "thirst for knowledge" remains unquenched. He now thinks, "one can learn nothing. There is ... only a knowledge—that is everywhere, that is Atman." In fact, he says, devotion to learning probably gets in the way of this inner knowing. Govinda is stumped, unable to imagine a world without learning.

After about three years with the Samanas, they hear a rumor that "Gotama, the Illustrious, the Buddha" has appeared nearby. Govinda urges Siddhartha to go with him to hear the Buddha speak, and Siddhartha agrees to do so. He makes it clear, though, that he has "little faith in words that come to us from teachers." The eldest Samana, who looks down on Gotama, objects to their departure, but Siddhartha hypnotizes him into giving his blessing. Amazed, Govinda speculates that if they had stayed with the Samanas, Siddhartha would have learned how to walk on water. "I have no desire to walk on water," his friend quips.


Whatever Siddhartha does, he is determined to do it better or more intensely than anyone else. His background as a spiritual prodigy may be partly responsible for this; he has been raised for greatness, and greatness is what he seeks, no matter the situation. When he becomes a Samana, he doesn't just fast. He fasts until the flesh drops off his body. He doesn't just stand outside in the rain. He stands outside in the freezing rain wearing almost no clothing. He seems to have a sense of one-upmanship or spiritual superiority, and he becomes disdainful of ordinary people who do not follow a similar path. Siddhartha does not yet realize it, but in part, it is his sense of separateness from others that prevents him from attaining enlightenment. He sometimes seems like a know-it-all, claiming he could have more easily learned to lose himself through drinking or other vices—vices he looks down on and associates with ordinary people. He does not yet comprehend that his own Atman is connected to the Atman of all others on earth. By disdaining ordinary people rather than embracing and loving them (with all their faults), he moves further away from his goal of enlightenment rather than closer.

Govinda is more modest about his spiritual endeavors, though perhaps he is too self-effacing in such matters. When questioned, he says Siddhartha will probably become a great Samana, but he says no such thing about himself. He seems to expect greater achievements from his friend than from himself. His modesty may perhaps be self-doubt, which contrasts with Siddhartha's utter confidence and decisive choices on his own path. Govinda does begin to forge his own path, though, in suggesting that they go to hear Gotama preach. Siddhartha is relatively uninterested in hearing the teachings, and perhaps agrees simply to humor his friend. He already has an inkling of the truth: that the knowledge he seeks, the experience of Atman, can't be transmitted through the teachings of another.

One technique of note that Siddhartha masters is that of shapeshifting, a traditional shamanic technique of "becoming" another creature (usually an animal). While mythology holds that a person (or oftentimes, a deity) can literally transform into the creature, in shamanic lore the shift is generally viewed as an internal one. The person visualizes becoming the creature, using all of the senses to make the experience as real as possible. Especially during a trance state, it is quite possible for a person to forget their human existence and merge into the experience of living as another creature in their own mind. Another method of shape-shifting is that of sending out the soul to "ride" another creature as it moves through the world. This is the experience Siddhartha has when he explains that he has flown as a heron and or laid on the shore as a dead jackal. Such shape-shifting does fulfill his goal of losing the Self, but as he discovers, it is only a temporary escape and he returns to his human consciousness after each journey.

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