Twelfth graders often moan at the start of “Siddhartha”. Written 100 years ago by Herman Hesse, the eponymous novel follows a young man – Siddhartha – from youth to old age as he seeks spiritual enlightenment.
The Common Core teaching standards place a heavy emphasis on students grappling with complex texts, and “Siddhartha” is loaded with complexity. I read it myself in high school – and it just went over my head.
Because the novel is set in ancient India, the customs, religious beliefs, and ways of life of the characters are generally unknown to my Baltimore students. Hessian style also tends towards ornament.
So why ask students who grew up in sometimes battered neighborhoods of Baltimore to read an imposing century-old novel by a German author set long ago on the other side of the world?
In part, the answer lies in the words of literary critic Mark Schorer: “As we learn to read novels, we slowly learn to read ourselves.
This is one of the virtues of “Siddhartha”: the book pushes us to look within.
From the first pages, we learn that Siddhartha is a high-caste Brahmin – the most respected group in Indian society. Just by luck of birth, Siddhartha has it all: money, privilege, looks, education.
But he suffers from “restless thoughts” and “restlessness of the soul”.
Siddhartha does not seek money or status. And he does not want power over others. He is looking for something greater: nirvana and the absence of suffering that it promises.
As the novel unfolds, the students begin to identify with Siddhartha’s aspirations. “He kind of opens your eyes because he really wonders how he lives,” said a senior named Jazmen.
At the beginning of his quest, Siddhartha leaves home and joins a group of wandering ascetics. As an ascetic, Siddhartha fasts for weeks at a stretch, refuses to take shelter, puts an end to his sexual desires and lets his shoulders blister and ooze under the Indian sun while seeking ever deeper states of meditation.
Buddhism holds that the root of all suffering is desire. By giving up his desires, Siddhartha hopes to find nirvana.
Students have lively debates as they test this idea against their own experiences and discover how our desires – for status, approval, comfort, ego-boosting – sometimes take us out of our true selves and mislead. A student thought Siddhartha was “a dummy” for giving up the comforts of his privileged upbringing. Another student, Trey, a reliable and insightful reader, understood Siddhartha’s motives: “I don’t disagree with Siddhartha’s decision. Many people would enjoy life more if they knew what it’s like to have nothing.
In a nearby village, Siddhartha meets Gotoma the Buddha. Here is the ultimate spiritual guru, “the enlightened one”, a figure who has attained the nirvana that Siddhartha desires. Despite his faithful worshippers, the Buddha is indifferent to fame. He has no vanities that need to be appeased. He does not imitate anyone, he does not stand above or apart from others.
The Buddha offers another counterpoint to our Instagram culture. One student – a young man who generally prefers music to books – summed up the Buddha’s particular inner peace as follows: “Some people get caught up in trying to be something they are not. When you don’t worry about impressing others, you calm down and you can gain more knowledge.
Soon Siddhartha leaves again, alone and lonely, but determined to learn through his own experiences.
A student who plans to join the army is bound to Siddhartha’s sense of purpose. He admired the way Siddhartha could change course and adapt. “Not everyone can do that. You might have people who say they want to change, but they keep doing the same thing.
Does Siddhartha find nirvana? Does he regain the self-knowledge he left his mother and father to pursue all those years ago?
A century after “Siddhartha” was published, many twelfth graders in my Baltimore class find they are eager to follow Siddhartha on his journey, driven by this character’s desire for something deeper and more significant.
by Adam Schwartz (adamschwartzwriter.org) debut collection of stories, “The Rest of the World,” won the 2020 Washington Writers’ Publishing House Award for Fiction. His nonfiction has appeared in Sewanee Review, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Forward, The Baltimore Sun, New York Daily News, Bethesda Magazine, Washington Independent Review of Books, and other publications. For 23 years he taught high school in Baltimore.