The Rejection of Asceticism in Hermann Hesse's "Siddhartha"
G. Stolyarov II
Note from the Author: This essay was originally written in 2002 and published on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007, where it received over 1,100 page views. To preserve a record of my writings following the shutdown of Yahoo! Voices in 2014, I have given this article a permanent presence on this page.
Siddhartha and his comrade, Govinda, after departing from the home of their youth and the ways of the Brahmins, have become members of an order the primary purpose of which was self-rejection through the infliction of pain and deprivation upon oneself. A common practice for these starving, forest-dwelling, wilderness-embracing Samanas was fasting. Siddhartha, having joined the order in attempts to attain knowledge of the objective truth, the one reality, eagerly embraced this discipline, practicing it at times for over a month without reprieve, becoming one of the most proficient Samanas. He frequently engaged in meditation, in exposure to pain and suffering of various sorts, often losing consciousness due to the draining of his energies and, in comatose hallucination, "drifting away into other life forms."
Siddhartha was a willing student at first, absorbing hungrily what his mentors had to disclose to him. Yet, following three years, he realized that he had already reached the extent of the Samanas' knowledge, and, similar to his experience with the Brahmins, that they had nothing more of import to teach him. He informed Govinda of this, that the Samanas' various arts of hypnotism, water-walking, and other "fineries" of asceticism did not carry them anywhere near Nirvana and a state of absolute comprehension of "the truth." He mentioned to him that the eldest, most respected Samanas, have not reached Nirvana, and, in greatest probability, never will, since they have merely been practicing for half a century what Siddhartha had already mastered.
Siddhartha perceived that his membership with the Samanas had merely carried him in circles, and, responding to Govinda's claim that the path was a "spiral", that he was nevertheless as remote from Nirvana as a child in a mother's womb. Furthermore, he realized that the path of asceticism itself, in addressing the goals that it proclaimed as its own, was futile. "What I have so far learned from the Samanas, I could have learned more easily in every inn, in a prostitute's quarter, amongst the carriers and dice players," Siddhartha informed Govinda. Indeed, all these, like the Samanas, performed what dreadful, injurious actions they had committed in order to escape from their own Selves temporarily, to mask the "grim" reality of their own lives with a transitory sensation, just as Siddhartha did in his comatose meditations, where the experience was as fleeting as those of the lowliest of men. Always was a return to the Self inevitable, and thus the ideal of the Samanas could not be reached through their practices. Even during his departure, Siddhartha demonstrated that he had become the foremost of their kind through his hypnotism of their spiritual leader, thus proving once and for all that, even in surpassing them, he required experiences outside of asceticism to acquire true enlightenment.
The trigger to Siddhartha's departure was a stream of rumors flowing to his ears of a wise man, Gotama, who had traveled the land and preached his wisdom to numerous eager followers. Although Siddhartha was beginning to become distrustful of teachers and doctrines, he suspected that this new wise man would be a source of learning and guidance, at least a more promising one than were the Samanas, for he, too, had at one time undertaken asceticism and rejected it.
The reports of Gotama described him as divine, enlightened, and superhuman, having reached Nirvana and now attempting to disclose his secret. Govinda, after hearing the testimony of a nearby Brahmin's son who had witnessed the Buddha speak, became uplifted and intrigued by this new philosophy to an even greater degree than did Siddhartha. Govinda's former attachment to the Samanas had been broken, and his mind was intent on journeying to seek Gotama. Siddhartha himself now saw no reason to attach himself to the ascetics. He feared no loss of a friend, and there was no perception of the necessity to "content" the order by remaining within it. Even then he conceded the impressive power possessed by Gotama, one that impelled both himself and his friend to depart and seek him without ever obtaining an impression of him that was greater than vague. "Whether there are still better fruits," stated Siddhartha, "let us patiently wait and see." His mind was prepared for a new experience, a change from his past, and it was in the condition of being open and receptive to what Gotama had to offer.
Finally, and of greatest import, Siddhartha's revelation of asceticism's follies extended not only to its means, but to its ends as well. The entirety of the Samanas' lifestyle was devoted to stifling oneself (the same expression, in truth as "one's Self", for to state that self does not equal self is contrary to the Law of Identity, A=A) in order to discover the "eternal life force", which was thought to dwell in the Atman. Not only was this mentality paradoxical (if one considers that the Atman was believed to be the "indestructible" portion of one's Self), but it was also misleading and inhibitive to comprehension. Siddhartha, in a deliberation over his experiences, resolved, "The reason why I do not know anything about myself; the reason why Siddhartha has remained alien and unknown to myself is due to one thing, to one single thing-- I was afraid of myself, I was fleeing from myself. I was seeking Brahman, Atman, I wished to destroy myself, to get away from myself, in order to find in the unknown innermost, the nucleus of all things, Atman, Life, the Divine, the Absolute. But by doing so, I lost myself along the way."
Indeed, Siddhartha has found himself disoriented and stagnated by the very doctrines and formal teachings which he had even during his stay with the Samanas perceived to be incommunicable. If he was not to follow any teachings, yet also to attempt to destroy his own self, what remained? Absolutely nothing, not Nirvana, not any manner of comprehension, but rather despair and confusion. Therefore, he resolved, since formal teachings, themselves imperfect or, if created by already enlightened persons, incomprehensible in the format of words, had not advanced him toward his goal, he would need to seek the truth within himself, within Siddhartha, from Siddhartha's experiences, his observations, his thought process, that he would, instead of stifling the voice within himself, obey it, the sum total of his life and findings, in order to ascend where no other means would bring him. In recognizing the fundamental flaw of asceticism and self-rejection, Siddhartha resolved to diverge from the Samanas and attain his own wisdom.
Therefore, the motives behind Siddhartha's rejection of asceticism seem evident. The explorer, his advance halted as a result of his having misplaced himself, now resolved to once again take his Self firmly into his own hands, to seek new knowledge, to introduce himself to wisdom, and to utilize his internal learning instead of suffocating it. His journey continued, and, toward its end, whether or not one believes that he had attained the apex of knowledge (which I personally do not), this was certain: his path was not one of a Samana.
Gennady Stolyarov II (G. Stolyarov II) is an actuary, science-fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress.
In December 2013, Mr. Stolyarov published Death is Wrong, an ambitious children’s book on life extension illustrated by his wife Wendy. Death is Wrong can be found on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.
Mr. Stolyarov has contributed articles to the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), The Wave Chronicle, Le Quebecois Libre, Brighter Brains Institute, Immortal Life, Enter Stage Right, Rebirth of Reason, The Liberal Institute, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
In an effort to assist the spread of rational ideas,
Mr. Stolyarov published his articles on Associated Content (subsequently
the Yahoo! Contributor Network and Yahoo! Voices) from 2007 until
Yahoo! closed this venue in 2014. Mr. Stolyarov held the highest Clout
Level (10) possible on the Yahoo! Contributor Network and was one of its
Page View Millionaires, with over 3,175,000 views. Mr. Stolyarov’s
selected writings from that era have been preserved on this page.
Mr. Stolyarov holds the professional insurance designations of Associate of the Society of Actuaries (ASA), Associate of the Casualty Actuarial Society (ACAS), Member of the American Academy of Actuaries (MAAA), Chartered Property Casualty Underwriter (CPCU), Associate in Reinsurance (ARe), Associate in Regulation and Compliance (ARC), Associate in Personal Insurance (API), Associate in Insurance Services (AIS), Accredited Insurance Examiner (AIE), and Associate in Insurance Accounting and Finance (AIAF).
Mr. Stolyarov has written a science fiction novel, Eden against the Colossus, a philosophical treatise, A Rational Cosmology, a play, Implied Consent, and a free self-help treatise, The Best Self-Help is Free. You can watch his YouTube Videos.Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.Statement of Policy.
Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.