by Neriman Kuyucu
In his novel Siddhartha, the German Swiss writer Herman Hesse (1877-1962) tells the story of Siddhartha and his close friend Govinda who are on a quest towards spiritual awakening and self-realization. Hesse’s ninth novel, published in German in 1922, is directly inspired by Indian philosophy.
It’s been a while since I read the novel, but my thoughts about seeking new beginnings the past weekend reminded me of a particular scene that takes place towards the end of the novel. As I was having coffee this morning, I decided to look up and re-read Siddhartha and Govinda’s reunion as old men. Revisiting the end of the story has only led to more questions. So, here I am.
In the first half of the novel, the two friends travel in the ancient Indian city Kapilavastu to find and speak with Gautama, “the Enlightened One.” If you’ve read the novel, you’ll remember that after they do, Govinda joins the Buddhist order, and Siddhartha decides to become a ferryman. He thus spends the rest of his life around the river, his spiritual anchor. Towards the end, Siddhartha and Govinda reunite and the following scene takes place:
“[Govinda] arrived at the river and asked the old man [Siddhartha] to take him across. When they climbed out of the boat on the other side, he said to the old man: “You show much kindness to the monks and pilgrims; you have taken many of us across. Are you not also a seeker of the right path?”
There was a smile in Siddhartha’s old eyes as he said: ‘Do you call yourself a seeker, O venerable one, you who are already advanced in years and wear the robe of Gotama’s monks?’
‘I am indeed old,’ said Govinda, ‘but I have never ceased seeking. I will never cease seeking. That seems to be my destiny. It seems to me that you also have sought. Will you talk to me a little about it, my friend?’
Siddhartha said: ‘What could I say to you that would be of value, except that perhaps you seek too much, that as a result of your seeking you cannot find.’
Most of us spend our time “seeking”; seeking happiness, seeking the Truth -whatever that may be–, seeking love, seeking validation, seeking comfort and security, and more. But it doesn’t necessarily occur to us that we may be “seeking too much.”
In fact, we rarely ask: What is it that we are seeking? What does it even mean to “seek” and “find”?
In the novel, Govinda asks the same question. Siddhartha explains:
“When someone is seeking, it happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he is only thinking of the thing he is seeking, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed with his goal.
Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal. You, O worthy one, are perhaps indeed a seeker, for in striving towards your goal, you do not see many things that are under your nose.”
There are various ways in which Siddartha’s words can be perceived. One way I read his reflection centers on restraints and limitations that we put on ourselves while “seeking.”
Siddhartha highlights the limitations of the concept of time, truth, faith, love, happiness, self — and whatever else we are seeking– as a monolithic construct. In other words, when we “seek,” we may have a fixed notion of what we’re seeking, which paradoxically may set us back.
Siddhartha’s meditation also leads to another question, a crucial one:
What happens after we seek and find?
The paradox of seeking and finding itself is difficult to grasp; as I continue to think about it, I’m interested in what you think.