In A Nutshell
Hey! Did you get the new iPhone yet? If you did, are you going to get the next one? You know, they always make a next one. And one after that. And one after that.
Let us ask you, Shmoopers: when will you ever be happy with what you have? “Woah, woah!” you might say. “I thought we were talking about iPhones, here.” Well, we are, in a way, which is where Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha comes in. Allow us explain. You see, this novel—published in Germany in 1922, but not in America until 1951—is about the quest for enlightenment. What’s there to be enlightened about? Who needs understanding when you have the latest version of Angry Birds?
Think about it for a minute, gang. Our lives are conditioned to dissatisfaction. There will always be something new to want, some shiny new bauble that makes us feel bad about what we don’t have. But wouldn’t it be nice to just, you know, be completely and utterly at peace with where you are in the world?
Siddhartha sure thinks so. And, as the protagonist of this novel, he’s on a quest for spiritual enlightenment. Luckily, we as readers also get to tag along. While his travels through ancient India might not seem too relevant to you today, what he’s after is the very essence of what we are all after: happiness. In the case of this book, true happiness can only come from a deep understanding of our place on this planet, which is a question that’s pretty fundamental to everyone’s existence.
So, it shouldn’t surprise you then that this book caught on with readers during the ‘60s in America, a time where people were really questioning… well, pretty much everything. They were looking for certainty in a world gone mad. Guess what? So are you. We’re all, in some way or another, on a quest to make sense of the world around us, which is what makes this book so important. Even more important than the next iPhone.
Why Should I Care?
Frankly, we’re still scratching our heads. The million dollar question is how enlightenment relates to knowledge. Siddhartha rejects teacher after teacher, saying that they can’t teach him anything about enlightenment. In Chapter Three, he says to the Buddha:
"You have found salvation from death. It has come to you in the course of your own search, on your own path, through thoughts, through meditation, through realizations, through enlightenment. It has not come to you by means of teachings! And – thus is my thought, oh exalted one, – nobody will obtain salvation by means of teachings! You will not be able to convey and say to anybody, oh venerable one, in words and through teachings what has happened to you in the hour of enlightenment!"
So that’s cool. Siddhartha knows that essential truths cannot be taught; they must be learned through life experience. We empathize. You can sit in lecture hall all you want and study your calculus, philosophy, psychology, etc., but halfway into your third leg cramp, you’ll likely come to the conclusion that all this knowledge is useless without wisdom.
So there – studying and learning is useless.
Argh! Wait – that’s not where we were going with this. Are you ready for the big "but"? Even Tom Brady, the quarterback for the New England Patriots, studies. He studies the game, he studies his opponents, and he connects his studies to his throw – and that’s what makes him Tom Brady. In other words, surgeons who studied in medical school are more likely to heal sick people than surgeons who didn’t. And Siddhartha studies. He studies with the Brahmans, he studies with the Samanas, he studies with Kamaswami and Kamala, and he studies with Vasudeva.
So while you can’t just sit in a lecture hall and learn about philosophy, you also can’t just go out into the world and live without the build-up of knowledge. It’s about a balance between learning and living. And when you think about Siddhartha that way, you should definitely, definitely care.