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The name means "he who attains his goal" or "he who is on the right road." It was the given name of the historical Gotama (or Gautama) Buddha of the sixth century B.C., who founded Buddhism. Although the hero of Hesse's novel has the same name and follows a somewhat parallel course, he is a fictional character. (Hesse never explained why he chose the Buddha's name for his hero.)
Like the historical Buddha, Hesse's Siddhartha is a young prince who leaves home and family to seek enlightenment. Although surrounded by love and luxury, and instilled with Hindu learning, he is already certain that he cannot achieve his goal by this route. The trait that drives him along his course is his independence of mind. He is convinced that no teacher, not even the illustrious Gotama Buddha, can communicate the ultimate wisdom-that it cannot be taught but must be experienced.
Siddhartha displays qualities of self-discipline and self-reliance. He is even so bold and self-assured as to argue about the logic of the Buddha's teaching with the Buddha himself. Siddhartha feels himself superior to the "child-people," the ordinary folk around him; humility is not part of his character at the beginning of his quest. Some readers interpret this as the self-confidence of youth; others see it as arrogance, a character defect. What's your opinion?
As it turns out, Siddhartha is not superior to ordinary folk in at least one respect. Although he enters the world of business and sensual pleasure as a game, he becomes trapped in it like the people he scorns.
Kamala, the beautiful courtesan, tells him that, like herself, he is incapable of love. He does finally experience love as an old man. Yet it is through love and its pain, which he overcomes, that he at last achieves wisdom.
This princely Brahmin, a member of the highest Hindu caste, is an example to Siddhartha of learning and devoutness. In a test of wills, the father is forced to bow to his son's powerful determination to leave home. As they part, he asks his son to tell him the secret of bliss when he finds it. This is a poignant confession for so devout a Brahmin to make: even after a lifetime of sacrifice, prayer, and cleansing ablutions, he has not found peace.
Siddhartha's boyhood friend and companion is also a seeker after wisdom, but he is content to learn from teachers and remain a follower. His name means "keeper of cows," and because cows are sacred in Hinduism, this suggests a religious calling. Govinda leaves Siddhartha to become a Buddhist monk, but like Siddhartha's father he fails to find peace by his chosen path.
These wandering ascetics are members of a sect that believes in achieving liberation from the self through extreme self-denial. They live as wandering beggars without shelter, all but naked indifferent to rain, cold, or hunger, and given to long periods of sitting immobile in meditation.
The founder of Buddhism has a radiant, smiling face that Siddhartha recognizes at once as holy, although he has never before seen the celebrated teacher. The Buddha's teaching calls for freeing oneself from all attachments and desires in order to escape from the sufferings of life. In his brief appearance in the novel he is a perfect example of blissful detachment. But perhaps he isn't all that detached. Is there a hint that although he listens courteously, young Siddhartha's argument that there is a crack in the Buddha's logic may have stung him? Otherwise, why would he warn this youth, a complete stranger, not to be too clever?
The kama of this courtesan's name means physical love, an aspect of the material and sensual world. When written with a capital, as Kama, it is the Hindu god of desire. On the surface Kamala is a worldly woman who will accept Siddhartha only when he comes well dressed and bringing gifts. On a deeper level, she too is a seeker. She gives her pleasure garden to the Buddha and his monks, and at the end she undertakes her final journey to pay him honor on his deathbed. She admits that she is unable to feel love, and she observes this same deficiency in Siddhartha.
The merchant who takes Siddhartha into his business has a name that means master (swami) of the material world (again, kama). But it soon becomes clear that although he is successful and wealthy, he is not in fact the master but the slave of his business, driven by the need to succeed and the fear of failure. What could this forecast for Siddhartha? Do you see similarities with the typical American dream of success?
The kindly ferryman turns out to be the teacher who, simply by listening, points the way to wisdom for Siddhartha. He speaks little but when he does he utters wise counsel. When he leaves Siddhartha, he goes in godlike fashion, not dying but simply disappearing into the woods. He is in fact a god: his name means "one who abides in all things and in whom all things abide." His name is one of the names of Krishna, an earthly incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu the Preserver.
Siddhartha's son has been brought up in Kamala's house in wealth and luxury. He is a spoiled child, angry and rebellious. He is impatient with his father, a stranger to him, and contemptuous of the simple life on the riverbank. He finally runs away to the city. Do you see any of Siddhartha's character traits in this boy? What might redirect the son to a search for enlightenment?