One of my favorite authors was the German Nobel Prize winner, Hermann Hesse, who died in 1962 at the age of 85. Although born in Germany, Hesse was a life-long pacifist and in protest against German militarism in the First World War he settled in Switzerland and remained there for the rest of his life.
My favorite Hesse novel is the slim volume, SIDDHARTHA, written in an almost Biblical style prose. In spite of its brevity, Siddhartha is full of wisdom and rich in imagery and has wide appeal, particularly among the younger generation who identify with inner self-conflicts and with the noble sense of idealism expressed in Hesse’s work.
Siddhartha is the story of one man’s search for the answer to the meaning of life. The hero is a Brahmin prince in India who abandons all riches and luxury when he meets the Buddha.
Not merely content to be a disciple of the Buddha, Prince Siddhartha needs to discover his own personal path to salvation. In the novel he began the journey for the search, the search in quest of life’s purpose and meaning.
Centuries earlier, Adam and Eve were tempted by the serpent to make the very same quest by eating the fruit of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge.
If man were to know the future and the rewards and punishments of rights and wrongs he would be equal in power to God and would therefore have no need for God.
So primeval man had to be banished from paradise and had to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow.
God intended man to understand that too much knowledge is a dangerous thing. Because God needs man. Without man, God could not be God. The two are partners in the completion of the universe.
But sometimes, dissatisfied man needs to put down the plow and begin to till his spiritual soil, to plant within himself, to water, weed and tend lovingly the roots of the quest which grow in his soul of souls.
And when he does that, he, like young Siddhartha, is off on the journey for the search.
Likewise, I too have sought the road which leads to the beginning of the journey for the search. I have climbed the highest mountains, traveled on camel through the desert along the Nile, visited the tombs of Jewish holy men in all places of their final rest, bathed in sacred rivers and streams in an effort to be purified, and offered personal prayers before walls and stones and in temples.
But though the search has been constant and endless over many past decades, I have found nothing but a searching after wind. For the true quest leads only to the temple of the heart, to the cathedral within our individual selves.
Saints and gurus and pious zealots can serve as guides but none of them can unlock the doors hidden within ourselves to reveal the secrets of splendor and wondrous things. Only man, imperfect man, can discover the purpose of his life for himself. For one man’s purpose may not be that of another.
Hermann Hesses’s SIDDHARTHA is a truly inspiring tale made all the more meaningful because it is set in the land where Buddha lived and taught.
I used to wonder why the cream of our Jewish youth would abandon the Jewish faith of our fathers to adopt the Buddhist lifestyle, to shave their heads, to don saffron colored robes, to fast, to chant incoherent sounds. Then, after long years I concluded that they were impoverished youth who did not know the great truths of their own Jewish spiritual heritage. Because deep within the riches of the Jewish tradition lie the answers and the truth.
One need not drink the waters of alien streams in order to quench a thirst. I’ve been on the journey for the search all the years of my life and I know that only when I stop the journey and look deep within my Jewish soul will I find the answer to life’s meaning and purpose.
Even Siddhartha finally rested and found true peace.